This week’s Torah portion contains another approach to blessing. In the opening words of Lech L’cha, God tells Avram, “Lech l’cha — go forth, take yourself from your native land and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 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.” (Gen 12:1 – 2) According to Samson Rafael Hirsch, Avram is given this not as a promise but as a command. “To merit the promised reward, you must live as to be a blessing to the world.”
Being blessed is not the same as being a blessing. While our tradition tells us exactly how and when to make blessings, it is less clear on how to be a blessing. Some of our ancient rabbinic sages offered their understandings, including Rabbi Moses ben Nechaman (Ramban) who teaches that “you shall be a blessing” means that You (Avram) will be the blessing by whom people will be blessed, saying, “God make you as Avraham.” Hezekiah ben Manoah (often referred to as “Chizkuni” after the title of his commentary) links this phrase with Isaiah 19:24: “on that day I will set up Israel as a blessing in the midst of the earth.” And Rabbi David Kimhi (Radak) suggests that with “you shall be a blessing” God is telling Avram that his blessings and his fame will be so great that they will spill over to benefit those around him.
We get the idea from these interpretations, and from the Torah text itself, that to be a blessing is a good thing, a thing that will benefit both Avram’s descendants and the entire world … although exactly what being a blessing means is unclear. A midrash about Avram’s backstory, that is, how he was chosen to receive God’s blessing and to be a source of blessing to others, provides some insight into what it might mean.
“There was a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a Birah Doleket — a palace in Doleket.” (Let’s leave the word “doleket” untranslated for now).
He wondered: ‘Is it possible that the palace has no owner?’ The owner of the palace looked out and said, ‘I am the owner of the palace.’ So Abraham, our father said, ‘Is it possible that the world lacks a ruler?’ God looked out and said to him, ‘I am the ruler, the Sovereign of the universe.’” (Genesis Rabbah 39:1)
In this parable Avram’s noticing creates an opening for God to enter his life.
The phrase “Birah Doleket” is often understood to mean a “palace in flames.” Avram sees a structure on fire and wonders who is in charge, who will put out the fire. But “Birah Doleket” can also be read as “an illuminated palace.” In this case, Avram notices the palace of the world aglow, a world shining with light, and he wonders about the source of all the beauty.
In the illuminated palace, the world in all of its glory, it’s easy to see blessing. And, it’s easy to be a blessing. When things are right and good, we can be generous and openhearted, compassionate. But when things are hard, when the world feels like it’s on fire — what then?
Do we wait for someone else to put out the fire? Do our hearts harden?
In the last two weeks since the massacre of Jews in Israel by Hamas, I have held onto a line in Debbie Friedman’s Misheberach. In the first paragraph of that prayer we pray, “May the Source of strength, Who blessed the ones before us, help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing.” I have found that I need courage to keep my broken heart soft, to safeguard my soul from hatred and fear, and to hold tight to my humanity and compassion.
And finally, I pray for, and strive to work for, the day when there will be only one palace, an illuminated palace aglow with beauty, that we will all be blessings to humanity, and the world will be at peace. PJC
Rabbi Sharyn Henry is rabbi of Rodef Shalom Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.