In this week's Torah portion, Parashat Lech L'cha, we begin to read the stories of our patriarchs and matriarchs. Almost without any introduction, this chapter of our history begins when God tells Abram to take his entire family and to go to a foreign, unspecified land. In return, God will make Abram into a great nation, will bless Abram, and will make him famous ("make your name great"). God tells Abram, Veh'yei b'rachah, "And you shall be a blessing." (Genesis 12:1-3) What we don't really know is why Abram was "chosen."
In our tradition, we view Abraham as a hero. We learn and teach our children that he was the first Jew, the founder of our faith. We teach that he was the first monotheist or, at the very least, the first great monotheist. Abram was an iconoclast and pioneer, the trailblazer par excellence. And because the Torah really doesn't explain why Abr(ah)am was chosen for this monumental role, we are left to speculate about what made him so special (and up to the task).
Indeed, there are some who have called Abraham a sort of flower child, a free spirit. He gave up everything―a life of comfort, position, status―to wander off on a fertile crescent of imagination, to go off on a wild-goose chase, as it were. But this, in fact, is why Abram merits his special connection to God. He is willing to give up his good life for something greater. Abram somehow realizes that there must be something more meaningful than material possessions, and he is able to rise above the things he has amassed to seek a loftier goal.
One key to this interpretation lies in Rashi's comments on some of the verses in Genesis, chapter 13. Verse 2 tells us that Abram was "very rich, kaved, in cattle, silver, and gold." Rashi tells us that the word kaved that is used here to convey Abram's wealth usually means "heavy" or "honored" (think of the Yiddish word kovod,"respect"). Here it is used to mean that Abram was weighted down with many possessions because he was wealthy. But in the next verse, we learn that Abram went from the Negeb to Bethel "by stages," l'ma-asav. Rashi tells us that the use of this word means that upon Abram's return from Egypt, he took the same route back and stayed in the same places in which he had lodged on his way down to Egypt. Rashi points out that even though Abram is wealthier now than when he went down to Egypt, he has retained his humility and doesn't change the places in which he lodges. Hence we know that Abram has not been altered by his accumulation of greater wealth.
And then, just a few verses later in this chapter, we gain a further sense of Abram's unique quality. We read in verse 10 that Lot "raises up his eyes" and sees how lush (well watered) the plain of Jordan is. But when Abramlooks up, he sees stars. What finally distinguishes Abram from so many others that came before him is that while others (e.g., Lot) see only material things, Abram has visions of spiritual matters, namely, stars.
Abram is a dreamer in the best sense of the word: He looks beyond the world of things and possessions to a force greater than himself. That is why he is able to enter into a covenant with God. He senses the existence of something greater than himself, and he works to enter into a relationship with it. Abram wants to be involved in something greater than this world: He wants to commit himself to a connection that points to something beyond. This is why Abraham ends up becoming a "blessing"―because he looks beyond himself. The story of Abraham, like Judaism, constantly challenges us to do the same-to look beyond ourselves toward others and, ultimately, toward God.
Questions for Discussion
In today's world, there are many things that can "get in the way" of our "seeing the stars." What can we do to enable us to "see the stars"―to transcend ourselves, and look for something greater than ourselves?
What do you think "being a blessing" means? How can we "be a blessing"?
Abram took a major risk by doing what God told him to do and leaving his homeland. Are there risks that you might take in order to find God or something beyond yourself?
Could Abram have "left it all" without his belief in something greater than himself?
At the time of this writing in 2000, Rabbi Stanley T. Schickler, RJE, was the executive director of the National Association of Temple Educators in New York.