Friday, November 03, 2006

Lekh Lekha (Rashi)

NOTE:For more teachings on this portion, see the archives for November 2005.

Blessings Begin with Abraham

In one of his first comments on this week’s portion, Rashi discusses the rather enigmatic and seemingly superfluous phrase, “And you shall be a blessing”:

“And I shall make you a great nation, and bless you, and magnify your name, and you shall be a blessing.” (Gen 12:2) Rashi: “And you shall be a blessing.” Until now the blessing to Adam and Noah was in My hands; from now on you may bless whom you will.” (Gen Rab 39.11)

Earlier in the same verse Abraham is assured the gifts of Divine blessing in his new path with the words “and [I shall] bless you”; the phrase “you shall be a blessing” thus seems redundant. Hence it must mean something else: that not only shall he himself (and his family and descendants) be blessed, but that he shall also serve as a source of blessing to others. This is stated more explicitly in the midrashic source used by Rashi: “Until now I needed to bless My world; from now on, the blessings are conveyed to you.” We thus find the function of dispensing blessings, heretofore Divine, somehow transferred to Abraham—or, more broadly, to human beings.

Exactly what does this mean? After all, the halakhah is quite insistent, at least in the case of the Priestly blessing, that when the kohanim ascend the dukhan to bless the people they are merely channels for the Divine blessing: they lift up their hands and recite the words, but God is still the source of the plentiful fullness of blessing.

The idea of a person “giving a brakha” to another is highly developed in Hasidic circles: certainly on the part pf the Rebbe, who is seen as a channel for the flow of Divine energy and abundance (Tzaddik = Yesod), but also, to a lesser degree, among ordinary people as well. In the circles of Reb Shlomo Carlebach, whose Yahrzeit falls this coming week, it is very common for people to give one another blessings: Shlomo taught people to bless one another, not only at weddings and other joyous occasions, but even on an ordinary Shabbat—and not only to recite the standard blessings, but to give extemporaneous blessings from the heart. Such a blessing is more than simply wishing well to the other person. It reflects the power of the word, the importance of giving expression to feelings of love and caring towards others, and in a mysterious sense as somehow opening the Divine channels of abundance and positive life-energy.

Although seen here as established by Abraham himself, this type of blessing is not exactly a halakhic institution. Hence, some rationalists were wont to make fun of it. The story is told of a noted Rav who was once asked by someone to give him a blessing, his rather sardonic retort being, ”Why? Are you an apple?”

Another thing: “And I shall make you a great nation”—this is what we say, “God of Abraham.” “And I shall bless you”—this is “God of Isaac.” “And I shall magnify your name”—this is “God of Jacob.” Might it be that we close with all of them? He said to him, “and you shall be a blessing.” With you we close, and not with them [as is said, “the Shield of Abraham”].

Here a schematic connection is drawn between this verse and the familiar words of the Jewish liturgy. In the opening benediction of the Amidah God is addressed as “God of our fathers: God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,” and the benediction concludes with the words Magen Avraham, “Shield of Abraham.” Rashi sees the three phrases of blessing used in this verse as alluding anticipatorily to all three patriarchs, while the concluding phrase, “and you shall be a blessing,” alludes to its conclusion with Abraham alone.

It is interesting that God’s name is connected with the names of specific individuals in the genitive form (“God of so-and-so”) in only a handful of cases: the patriarchs, both collectively and individually; Israel, in the sense of the nation; Elijah (2 Kgs 2:14); David; and, rather unexpectedly, Shem in Gen 9:26 and Hezekiah in 2 Chr 32:17; and, in a few medieval prayers, the tanna Rabbi Meir “Baal ha-Nes.” Not even Moses: though known as “the man of God,” nowhere is God called the “God of Moses.” It is thus a very special distinction.

Indeed, why does the blessing conclude with Abraham? From whence this priority of place? One could argue that Jacob is our unique patriarch, in the sense that we are specifically “the children of Israel”: whereas Abraham also had a son Ishmael, and Isaac sired an Esau, all of Jacob’s children remained within the fold, so to speak. Or that Isaac, who never left the Land of Israel, and who only had one wife, and was arguably a theocentric mystic, deserves this distinction. The answer, I think, is that Abraham represents hesed: hospitality, warmth, generosity, giving to others, spreading knowledge of the one God together with simple human kindness and caring to all comers—and that this is ultimately most important. Particularly when we stand before God asking Him for favors, so to speak, the idea that we are of the seed of the archetypal “giver” is most important.

I have always found something pregnant with meaning in the fact that Reb Shlomo Carlebach died during the week between the two Torah portions that relate the life of Abraham: Lekh Lekha and Vayera (on 16 Heshvan, 5755—the evening of October 20, 1994). I see him as an Abrahamic personality: marked by hesed, kindness, total lack of interest (bordering on impracticality) in money or property, and constantly traveling to spread the message of Yahadut through kindness and love and acceptance of all people. Indeed, he saw the principle of love as so central in his teaching that he called his beit-midrash cum commune in San Francisco “The House of Love and Prayer.” (Our annual Yahrzeit essay on his life will follow next week.)

NOAH: Two Postscripts

1. Reading last weeks’ parshah more closely, I noticed several interesting points in God’s blessing to Noah following the Flood (Gen 8:21-9:7). We find here assurance that a catastrophic event such as the Flood would never recur, but that the natural sequence of summer and winter, heat and cold, will henceforth continue forever; blessings of fecundity to Noah and his sons; permission to eat the flesh of animals, replacing mankind’s earlier vegetarian diet, provided only that they spill out the animals’ life blood; and the basic law that “he who sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” But the central thrust seems to be the motif of man’s rule over the rest of the ecosphere, highly reminiscent of the blessing from the sixth day of Creation (“fill the world and conquer it; rule over the fish of the sea and birds of the sky and the beast that crawls over the earth”; Gen 1:26), but phrased here in much more emphatic terms: “Your fear and dread (מוראכם וחתכם) shall be over all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the sky… all are given into your hands” (9:2). The reiteration of these ideas (the “blessings to Adam and Noah” mentioned in the Rashi discussed above) can perhaps be understood by the fact that the period after the Flood was a new beginning for mankind as a whole. But why the fear and dread of the animals? There seems to be a suggestion here that, whereas in the original Creation, in the Garden, peace and harmony reigned between man and beast, now the law of the jungle, of power relations, will perforce prevail—and man will need a special blessing, a psychological hold over the animals, to counter his physical weakness, his lack of claws and fangs and so on. A point for sober reflection. In today’s world, with our awareness of the vital necessity of ecological balance and the grave dangers facing our planet from the most dangerous animal of all—Man—is of course read rather differently.

2. In addition to the Carlebach essay, I plan soon to send out a Supplement to Noah on the subject of aggression and violence in the Jewish tradition. But at present I wish to express my own pain and anguish over the fact that segments of religious Jewry so often seem to be the main purveyors of violence in our society. Even if one accepts the argument that a Gay Pride parade, celebrating an abomination forbidden by the Torah, is unacceptable, certainly in the Holy City, would it not be a far greater Kiddush Hashem to demonstrate against it in a dignified, non-violent, respectful way, rather than by threatening bloodshed? One would thereby recognize the innate human dignity and Divine image of the gay paraders themselves, against whom one wishes to register a specific, focused protest. Have the Haredim, including their rabbis and “Torah giants,” forgotten the simple Torah prohibition against lifting ones’ hands against a fellow-Jew? That capital punishment is restricted to the Sanhedrin, which hasn’t existed for 1700 years or so, and even then only after explicit testimony from direct eye-witnesses to the act itself? Not to mention the extenuating fact that many if not most “gay” people act out of what they perceive as an inborn, unchangeable orientation. Whence the right to threaten violence against people participating in a peaceful parade? Or the recent “warm-up” demonstrations, at which Haredim attacked police and innocent by-passers? Where are the rabbis? Are there darker motivations, perhaps internal political struggles, underlying this display of “holy zeal”? Will there never be an end to this shameful muddying of the name of our Holy Torah by its supposed champions?


Blogger Rachel said...

Thanks for this post, which is thoughtful & informative.

In the Jewish Renewal circles where I travel, which are connected both with R' Carlebach and with the Hasidic world, much currency is given to the idea of "giving a brakha," and to the notion that even we ordinary folks -- though not channels for shefa in the way that a great Rebbe would be -- can bless one another, and can be blessings for one another.

I laughed out loud at your story about the Rav's sardonic retort ("Why? Are you an apple?") -- his response is recognizable to me, and he has a fair point. I know that the first time one of my teachers challenged me to offer a blessing to someone, I was discomfited and not entirely sure how to proceed. But I'm glad to have been taught in that way. Last year when I was doing hospital chaplaincy work, and was often called-upon to offer spontaneous prayer or spontaneous blessing, I was glad to have teachings to draw on which would allow me to do that wisely and well.

6:36 AM  

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