As Abraham reached the twilight of his years, our Torah portion informs us that "the Eternal had blessed Abraham in every way" (Genesis 24:1).
The Rabbis were perplexed by such an assertion. No surprise! Do you know anyone on earth who is blessed with everything? Some people may give the impression that they "have everything." But when you scratch the surface you will find that we all carry burdens-physical, emotional, and financial. We live with disappointment, with pain, with hopes not realized and goals never achieved.
So what about Abraham? As Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (known as Ramban or Nachmanides) suggests, Abraham was blessed with riches, possessions, honor, and longevity (Ramban on Genesis 24:1). What was notable was that he was beyond the need for worldly gain. What do you think that might mean?
Jewish tradition offers many opinions about who is truly blessed. One of the most striking observations comes from Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avot, ( Ethics of the Fathers), who asks: "Who is rich?" He responds: "one who is happy with what he has" (4.1). Is it possible that Abraham had reached the point in life where he was not only blessed, but also knew that he was blessed?
There's a big difference between being blessed and knowing that we are blessed.
I'm acquainted with people who can be seated at their dinner table surrounded by children and grandchildren, and be aggravated because a family member arrived late or didn't remember his last birthday. And there are those whose perspective is quite different: who take in the scene and praise God for their abundant blessings. The latter are the ones who truly cherish what we have: we human beings are the only creatures on earth who are not only blessed, but also capable of knowing we are blessed.
That's why I find reciting the HaMotzi prayer before every meal such a significant act. Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, hamotzi lechem min haaretz, "Our praise to You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth." By that simple ritual, my meal becomes a spiritual event. That extraordinary blessing connects me to a remarkable universe that sustains me every day, to those who labor in the food chain on my behalf, and to the Power that makes it all possible. All of that comes from ten Hebrew words that enable my nefesh, my "soul," to touch the Eternal.
Can I say, like Abraham, that I am "blessed in all things?" Literally speaking, certainly not. But spiritually, yes.
Of course, Abraham may not have lacked worldly goods, honor, or longevity. But he was, like the rest of us, flawed and incomplete, having several important family matters that weighed heavily on his mind: a burial place for Sarah and a wife for Isaac.
He approaches these two challenges with three qualities that I admire:
- clear vision of what needs to be done
- precision and meticulous care for detail
Abraham understands that Sarah should be buried in the Machpelah, near Hebron, "a visible sign of the future . . . a token title to the Promised Land and a symbol of possession when the people are far from the land-whether in Egyptian slavery or European exile"1 As for Isaac, Abraham is keenly aware that his son's bride must not be chosen from the Canaanites, but rather from his tribal homeland. He assigns this task to Eliezer, the elder servant of his household, and makes it clear to him that the couple must settle in Canaan in order to fulfill the covenantal commitment to God to settle in the Land. In other words, Abraham keeps his eye on the prize.
In his dealing with the Hittites, Abraham is respectful, referring to himself as a stranger, bowing down to the elders, and insisting on paying full-market price for the gravesite, despite the owners' offer to make it a gift. Later, as he dispatches Eliezer on his journey, Abraham treats the servant with consummate respect, offering to release him from his oath if the woman he selects for Isaac is unwilling to relocate to Canaan.
Vision and humility are not enough. In both transactions, he takes meticulous care to plan ahead and follow through on each step necessary to turn his vision into reality. Purchasing the gravesite, he weighed out 400 shekels of silver (using weights) standard among traders (Genesis 23:16). Long after he has departed from the scene, Abraham wants there to be assurance that the transaction is undeniably valid. Similarly, with Eliezer, Abraham extracts an oath that the servant will carry out his mandate to the detail. He insists that the servant take no chances: this matter is critical (Genesis 24:2-4).
How important are these qualities in your life?
How critical are they for the future of Judaism and the Jewish people?
What other values does Abraham's life reflect that we might want to emulate?
1. The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. edition, W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed. (New York: Union for Reform Judaism, 2005), p. 164
Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff , past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and of ARZA, is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanu-El, Westfield, New Jersey. He is vice-president for special projects at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and author of When Elijah Knocks, A Religious Response to Homelessness, (Behrman House) and Reform Judaism, A Jewish Way of Life, (Ktav).