Rabbi David Walk
It’s always so comforting to return to warm spaces and pleasant places. That’s the way I feel every year when we begin the stories of the Patriarchs, and especially Avraham. I’m embarrassed to mention that I’m sometimes uncomfortable with Yitchak’s misanthropy and Ya’akov’s business dealings, but Avraham is just a prince amongst men. These are, overall, feel good stories of a great man revered in his own time and venerated for the ages. Everyone is very eager to be counted as a spiritual heir of Avraham; Jew, Christian, Moslem. There’s more to being an heir to Avraham than just warm fuzzies. There seem to be concrete blessings which accrue to those who are numbered amongst his
beneficiaries. Even before Avraham has
done anything, God makes a list of promises to him, which far outpaces the pedestrian pledges offered to his righteous predecessor, Noach. This week I’d like to take a look at those assurances and try to understand in what way they continue to affect us.
Immediately after God has instructed Avraham to depart from his homeland to an unspecified destination, he is told: And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and you shall be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you (Genesis 12:2 & 3)." The great commentary Rashi (1040-1105) based on the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 39:11), points out that these blessings are an assurance that the normal difficulties encountered by travel to a new locale will not afflict Avraham, because he is heeding God’s word, which never causes loss. Specifically, moving to a new place diminishes children, wealth and fame. So, Avraham receives assurances connected to those three issues; he will be great in number, blessed with wealth and his name will be increased. This is the most popular approach to understanding this verse.
Reb Zadok Hacohen of Lublin (1823-1900) in his Pri Zadok eschews the Midrash and presents the position of the Zohar. There are (count ‘em) seven blessings in these verses: 1. to be a great nation, 2. be blessed, 3. have a great name, 4. you will be the source of blessing, 5. those who bless you will be blessed, 6. those who curse you will be cursed, and 7. the whole world will be blessed through you.
These seven blessings correspond to the seven traits which make up the seven lower sefirot or mystical levels which connect our realm to the heavenly spheres. These seven concepts in turn match up with the seven shepherds (known to many of us as the Ushpizin, or guests, who visit our Sukkot every autumn).
These are the seven great leaders of the Jewish nation, Avraham, Yitzchak, Ya’akov, Moshe, Aharon, Yosef, and King David. This mystical version of the list ignores chronology in favor of compatibility with the seven sefirotic traits, which are chesed (kindness), gevurah (courage), tiferet (splendor), netzach (eternity), hod (majesty), yesod (foundation), and malchut (royalty). Phew!
What’s so significant about connecting our impression of Avraham with all this future stuff? To Reb Zadok it’s extremely significant. The greatness of Avraham derives from the fact that all of these traits are embedded in him. No one else, before or since had the potential for all these levels of spiritual attainment. Even though Avraham mastered in chesed or kindness all of the other characteristics found their source in him. This phenomenon could be explained that all the other traits were an offshoot or extension of chesed, the first of the sefirot. However, I believe the real point is about Avraham, not about the sefirot. Avraham was by nature the epitome of compassion and benevolence, but, according to this viewpoint, his true prominence resulted from his passion in spreading the word. When the Rambam (Maimonides 1135-1204) describes the enormity of Avraham’s contribution to world spirituality, he declares: Once he achieved his belief in God, he began to reason with the inhabitants of Ur Casdim and to argue with them, saying that by serving idols they were not following the way of truth. He broke their images, and began to proclaim that it is not fitting to serve anyone other than God, and to Him it is fitting to bow down and to offer drink sacrifices and sacrifices to, so that all creation will recognize Him… He went and gathered people together from cities and kingdoms, until he reached the land of Canaan, where he continued his proclamations, as it is written, "...and called there on the name of the Lord, the everlasting God". Since agnostics were coming to him with questions about this matter, he would answer each person in a way so that he would return to the way of truth, until thousands and tens of thousands came to him (Laws of Idolatry 1:3). All this passion, all this success, and without television, take that Billy Graham!
I’m trying to root some aravot (willow) cuttings, so that next year together with my students we can shake our lulav it will be with our own aravot. The growth of these shoots depends on two factors. First the cuttings must contain the necessary components to blossom, and I have to put in the proper effort to
grow them well. The same is true of our children. We learn this from Avraham. His trait of chesed may be the basic characteristic from which others develop, but he had to nourish this growth with passion, effort and love.
When we have a beloved legacy from a dear departed, it’s cherished because of what that ancestor put into the item. Avraham got all these beautiful blessings from God, because he had constructed vessels for containing this bounty, namely his disciples, converts and, ultimately, descendants. We honor him by not only graciously accepted this awesome heritage, but by emulating his zeal in passing it on. Pssst, I’ve got a holy message for you…pass it on!
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