October 30th-31st, 1998
11 Cheshvan, 5759
We note with great sadness the passing of an outstanding friend, spirit, citizen and Jew:
Mr. Ben Portman, may he rest in peace. Our deepest condolences to the whole Portman
More than once in my life I have been stopped in public by Christians who--of all
things--wanted to bless me! (I think it's happened twice, and both times since I've
lived here in the South).
"Those who bless you are blessed!" they explained with great warmth and
excitement...leaving me, each time, both pleased and a bit puzzled, and (naturally,
always) a tad apprehensive that this was just the opener for an attempt to save my soul.
Having been approached, one Saturday night, by a pamphlet-toting missionary in the
bathroom (!) of our kosher ice cream parlor, Rainbow Row, I feel justified in a
degree of wariness.
In any case, I have to hand it to many Christians: they take their Bible seriously.
(First off, they actually read it...which is a good start.) The ones who
stopped me were quoting, and taking to heart, a possuk in this week's parsha.
Lech Lecha opens with Hashem's call to Avram to leave the familiar surroundings of
homeland, birthplace and father's household and journey to an unknown land. He was
75 years old, and from the Talmud and Midrash we learn that this was not the beginning of
Avram's devotion to G-d, but
merely the start of a new and grander phase of his career, the culmination of decades of
dedication to pursuing--and then spreading to mankind--the truth of His rule. Lech
Lecha marks the opening of G-d's prophetic revelations to Avram.
Interestingly, Avram's original conclusion that the world was controlled by One Supreme
Being was arrived at through independent intellectual inquiry; lacking any teacher (or
rebbie) in his early years, and surrounded by idol - worshippers in the great city of Ur
of the Chaldees, Avram examined the processes of nature and traced them back to an
original Cause. (Perhaps we'd dub him the first Jewish physicist, in quest of a
Unified Theory!) As Rambam writes in a famous passage from Mishnah Torah
("Hilchos Yeshodei HaTorah"),
"...his mind was busily working and reflecting
until he had attained the way of truth, apprehended the correct line of thought, and knew
that there is one G-d, that He guides the celestial sphere and created everything, and
that among all that exist, there is no god besides Him. He realized that men
everywhere were in error, and that what had occasioned their error was that they worshiped
the stars and the images, so that the truth perished from their minds...Having attained
this knowledge, [at the age of 40, according to Rambam, though the Midrash offers
alternative opinions of his age as well] he began to refute the inhabitants of Ur of the
Chaldees..." (Yesodei HaTorah: 1, 2; translation by Twersky, A Maimonidies Reader).
Hashem's command to Avram to break with his past
represents, obviously, a great and grueling test of faith. At the same time, Hashem
promises him many blessings in return, chiefly the privelege of fathering a great nation
dedicated to his own ideals; this is why the Torah does not just say, "lech,"
which would be a simple command of, "go," but adds the word, lechah (for
yourself, literally or as Rashi comments: "for your own benefit, for your
good.") Hashem says:
"And I will make of you a great nation; I will
bless you, and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those
who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and all the families of the earth
shall bless themselves by [or, through] you." (12, 2-3)
Here we have the verse that prompted those people to
stop me and bless me: a divine promise that those who "bless" the Jewish people
will themselves be blessed. And vice versa. Plus a statement that all the
families of the earth will bless themselves by the Jewish people--or, alternatively, be
blessed through the Jewish people.
Rashi goes with the first of those two readings as the simple and straightforward meaning
(p'shat) of the verse: parents of the other nations will bless their children that they
should be like Avram. The Talmud and Midrash propound the second reading as a
deeper-level understanding (d'rash): the world enjoys blessings--physical blessings of
rain, health, prosperity and the like--through the Jewish people, i.e., in their merit.
To some people, this may sound rather strange. But, as the Midrash also states, it's
for the sake of the Torah and the nation that carries it (Israel) that the whole world
exists in the first place! So it makes sense that the blessings the whole world
enjoys are bestowed because of the Jewish people.
After stating that rain comes to the world in the merit of the Jewish people, the Midrash
Rabbah adds another interesting blessing the Jews provide:
"R. Nehemiah said: The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Abraham: AND IN THEE SHALL
ALL THE FAMILIES OF THE EARTH BE BLESSED. Now if that is meant in respect of wealth, they
are surely wealthier than we! But it was meant in respect of counsel: when they get into
trouble they ask our advice, and we give it to them. (Genesis Rabbah: 39, 12;
Through our prophets and the holy spirit that animated our greatest sages, the
commentaries on the Midrash explain, we dispensed advice and godly insight to the nations
of the world! The Midrash mentions Yosef, who interpreted Pharaoh's dreams and
masterminded the world economy
in the time of the Egyptian famine. I couldn't help thinking that it's probably not
a coincidence that it's a Jew today at the head of the Federal Reserve Board who, perhaps
than any other single individual (or, at least, so say the radio shows I've listened to)
will determine how we deal with the current economic crisis.
We shouldn't feel conceited in the least by this news that we bring blessing to mankind,
for the concept of am nivchar, a Chosen People, is not some divine license to look down on
the rest of mankind (all of whom were created in the image of G-d); on the contrary, it's
awfully sobering: we have the responsibility, on behalf of G-d and the rest of the
families of mankind, to carry out the Torah...for the benefit of the whole universe.
As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch decribes the election of Israel:
"G-d's will was to be revealed to this people, and
upon its fulfillment was to depend what the other nations would consider its weal or woe.
Thus, by its fate and its way of life, this people was meant to provide an object lesson
about G-d and about man's task...Recognition of G-d and of man's calling found a refuge in
this nation and would be taught to all through its fate and its way of life, which were to
serve as a manifest example, a warning, a model, an education." (Nineteen Letters, p.
And, as our verse says, and my Christian friend
believed, the nations of the world stand to gain by paying heed. The more the
nations of the world further the principles of the Torah, Hirsch writes, the more they are
"...the more they acknowledge you [the Jewish
people], the more brachah they will receive. But G-d asserts that finally all the
peoples of the world...will participate in this blessing inasmuch as they will found
their lives on the same foundation on which you are to found yours."
(Commentary on the Torah: I, 228-29)
May we Jewish people take to heart our responsibility
to be a blessing to this world...whether or not we're ever stopped on the street by a
friendly Christian who wants to be blessed through blessing us. And may we
soon see the day when all mankind, united in His service, can enjoy the
full measure of blessings the Almighty wants to bestow.
Insights Into Genesis
Insights Into Exodus
Edelstein is Director of the Savannah Kollel/ Savannah Torah Education Project. Phone:
fax: 354-9923; e-mail address: Yosef18@aol.com
Please be in
touch with us.
Our new website thanks to the good graces of the O.U. is: WWW.OU.ORG/TORAH/SAVANNAH.
distributed by the Ben Portman Computer facilites
of the Savannah Kollel.
Is the universe 5700 years old...or 57 billion?
Is evolution contrary to Jewish teachings?
What does the Torah say about life on other planets?
Should cloning humans be permissible?
Can Science and Torah co-exist AT ALL?!
Come explore these topics in a special four-part lecture series:
"Judaism and Modern Science"
Taught by Rabbi Yosef Edelstein,
Director of Savannah Torah Education Project (STEP)
Tuesday, November 10th, 7:45 AT THE J.E.A. "The Origin and Age of the
CRASH COURSE IN HEBREW--THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 12TH, 7;30, AT THE J.E.A. 5 THURSDAY
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