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And You Shall Be a Blessing

  • And You Shall Be a Blessing

    Lech L'cha, Genesis 12:1−17:27
D'var Torah By: 

Focal Point

  • I will make of you a great nation,/And I will bless you;/I will make your name great,/And you shall be a blessing./I will bless those who bless you/And curse him that curses you;/And all the families of the earth/Shall bless themselves by you. (Genesis 12:2-3)

  • And Melchizedek, king of Salem…was a priest of God Most High. He blessed him, saying, "Blessed be Abram of God Most High,/Creator of heaven and earth./And blessed be God Most High,/Who has delivered your foes into your hand." (Genesis 14:18-20)

  • And God said to Abraham, "As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah. I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she shall give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her." (Genesis 17:15-16)

  • "As for Ishmael, I have heeded you. I hereby bless him. I will make him fertile and exceedingly numerous,…and I will make of him a great nation." (Genesis 17:20)

D'var Torah

A visitor peeking into the classrooms of our religious school might see students who have just studied Lech L'cha huddled over a tremendous mural they created that depicts this parashah. The variety of materials used in the mural―crayons, markers, glued-on glitter, tissue paper, and even feathers―reflects the collage of ideas and stories that, cobbled together, make this portion both fascinating and difficult to penetrate. And of all the themes inherent in the chapters of Lech L'cha, the concept of blessing is a constant.

The Jews are a people familiar with blessings. In the Talmud, Rabbi Meir instructs us to say at least one hundred blessings each day. On Shabbat evening, it is traditional for parents to offer blessings to their children. To a daughter, a parent prefaces the Priestly Benediction with the traditional liturgical formula "May God make you like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah." And what is the parallel blessing for a son? Is it to be like Abraham, our forefather? Oddly, boys are not encouraged to be like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: "May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh" is our prayer for our sons.

Perhaps the tradition invoking the names of Joseph's children, Ephraim and Manasseh, arose in order to remind us of the reunion between Joseph and Jacob and Jacob's blessing of his grandsons (Genesis 48). But what about Abraham? Doesn't Nachmanides tell us that we should aspire to be blessed in Abraham's name? Isn't Abraham himself considered to be "a blessing"? But the people whose lives were touched directly by Abraham may not have felt so blessed. Sarah struggled during her life with Abraham. Hagar (who midrash tells us was formerly an Egyptian princess) was shunned by her mistress and exiled to the wilderness, then mistreated upon her uncelebrated return. Isaac was almost sacrificed by his own father. So was Abraham really such a blessing to those around him in his own generation?

Perhaps the blessings Abraham brings are his gifts to future generations. Abraham's legacy is evident in the promise of his descendants Ephraim and Manasseh, two boys he never met. Their existence ensures the continuation of the covenant between Abraham and his God and the prayer that "all the families of the earth/Shall bless themselves by you" (Genesis 12:3).

When we bless our own children, we recall the merit of our ancestors. But by asking God to make our children like Ephraim and Manasseh, we express the hope that our children will be allowed to grow into their own blessings. We realize that being a blessing involves raising the mundane fact of our biological existence into something more sacred and meaningful. Like Abraham, we, too, must take a journey from the accident of who and where we are to who we wish to become. We can become blessings through the work we do, our relationships with others, and our connection with the Divine: Ve'h'yeih b'rachah, "And you shall be a blessing" (Genesis 12:2).

By the Way

  • "And you shall be a blessing." You will be the blessing by whom people will be blessed, saying, "God make thee like Abraham." (Nachmanides on Genesis 12:2)

  • The promise/demand of God is, "I will make of you a great nation," which the Tanchuma translates, "I shall create you anew." In this reading, the call of lech l'cha is an urging to self-transformation: at base, that is the meaning of a change of name or a change of place. (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis, Image Books, Doubleday, New York, 1995)

  • The life of men with whom new histories begin can seldom or never be a sheer unclouded blessing; not this it is which their consciousness of self whispers in their ears. "And thou shalt be a destiny": Such is the purer and more precise meaning of the promise…. (Thomas Mann, quoted in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by Gunther W. Plaut, UAHC Press, New York, 1981, p. 95)

Your Guide

  1. According to the Ramban, what does "being a blessing" mean? If a person "is a blessing," does he or she necessarily bring comfort or joy to those around him or her?

  2. Do you think Zornberg would say that Abraham is created or re-created in this Torah portion?

  3. The Tanchuma's translation/interpretation is intriguing in that it equates becoming great with being created anew. How do we have the opportunity to re-create ourselves and become blessings even without changing our name or place?

  4. Why does Mann characterize the "life of men with whom new histories begin" as never being a "sheer unclouded blessing"?

At the time of this writing in 2002, Rabbi Sharon G. Forman was the principal of Temple Shaaray Tefila Religious School: The Rabbi Harvey M. Tattelbaum School of Judaism, New York, NY.

Reference Materials: 

Lech L’cha, Genesis 12:1-17:27 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 91-117; Revised Edition, pp. 88-117; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 59-84

When do we read Lech L'cha

2020, October 31
13 Heshvan, 5781
2021, October 16
10 Heshvan, 5782
2022, November 5
11 Heshvan, 5783
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