Rabbi David Walk
It's always a relief to return to the stories of our beloved Patriarchs and Matriarchs. The early stories in Breishit and Noach are both disturbing and confusing, but reading about Avraham and Sarah is almost like going back to pleasant childhood memories. I feel comfortable and inspired by these personalities. It's sort of like remembering a visit to a grandparent when I was young, a little vague, very sweet and somehow satisfying. Unlike the tales of Adam and Noach, these stories give us unambiguous warm fuzzies. It's almost a shame that we grow up and feel the need to analyze these narratives in a mature and intellectual way, but that's the way it is. Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys. We grow up, like Jackie Paper, and our toys are ideas and concepts. So, let's look at this story of our Zeidie Avraham again. It's a chronicle of courage and commitment, love and loyalty, and we must find new personal messages and ourselves in the narrative every year.
Our Sages divided up the weekly readings in deliberate and clever ways. Just like Noach was introduced at the end of the previous parsha, so, too, Avraham is first mentioned at the end of parshat Noach. It could be viewed, I guess, as a preview of coming attractions, or like the end of a weekly TV show's message 'and now some scenes from next week's episode.' But I don't think so. With Noach the continuity is clear. Noach is the antidote for God's toxic plans for humanity, which begin at the end of parshat Breishit. With Avraham the situation is less clear. He is not shown as the tikun (repair) for any specific issue. However, I believe that he is the alternative to what went on before. He proves that Humanity can do better than floods and towers. His true greatness is discerned from God's instructions at the beginning of this week's parsha: And the Lord said to Abram, "Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you (Genesis 12:1). There is great clarity about whence he should depart, but little info about where he must be going. Isn't life often like that? We're confident about where we are, but unsure, vague about where we're going.
What do we do under those circumstances? We can stay put, but that's not always an option, and life does move along whether we want it to or not. We could do research and plan very carefully for every contingency which we can possibly anticipate, and then hope for the best, or we could plan our lives along lines, the broad outlines of which are laid out by Jewish Law and tradition. Like in the case of Avraham, it doesn't relate exactly where we are going, but its guidelines about life, goals and aspirations do help us to see a general direction. Where should I move? Where my spiritual needs will be met. What career should I enter? The one that best fits my unique talents but also gives me the opportunity for being good and doing good. God is telling Avraham to follow a sacred path and certain promises will follow, even though the pathway is murky and elusive.
After telling Avraham to go wherever, God informs him that there are certain blessings for this endeavor. Here's the promise: 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 in you (verses 2-3)." This list of blessings is famously explained by Rashi: Since traveling causes three things: 1) it diminishes procreation, 2) it diminishes money, and 3) it diminishes fame, therefore, he required these three blessings, namely that He blessed him concerning children, concerning money, and concerning reputation (from Midrash Genesis Raba, 39:11). Very nice, the blessings will offset any physical downside from following the instructions to hit the road wither it will take him. But what do these blessings teach us?
By following Avraham's path, we are the heirs to Avraham's legacy which includes these blessings. But what do these blessings mean to me? The initial blessings are pretty self evident. We'll have progeny, livelihood and respect. That's fine as far as it goes, but is that all there is? Emphatically, no! Both verses end with the enigmatic announcement that Avraham will be a blessing and that all humanity will be blessed through him. But what are these blessings? The Midrash explains that the blessing will be rain and dew. For people in the ancient Middle East, access to sufficient water resources was of prime concern. However, the Zohar gives another answer. Avraham began the earth's constant connection to spiritual realms through the merit of his character.
That makes sense to me. When we consider why we want to be heir to Avraham's legacy, I think that we want our lives to be significant, our existence validated. And what better way of feeling that sense of value and worth than by confirming and spreading the importance of ethical monotheism? Noach saved lives; Avraham produced souls (Genesis 12:5). We want to be part of that crusade, that dream. Both the Midrash and the Zohar are correct. The dual blessing described in God's instructions to Avraham contains both physical and spiritual aspects. We impart to the rest of humanity a connection to God, which carries both concrete and intangible benefits.
As kids we played at being our heroes from movies and TV. So, if Avraham and Sarah are really our heroes, what better way to venerate them than by emulating their outstanding character traits. Then we won't just save our world, we'll make it a better one.
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