Be Thou A blessing
About ten years ago, when I was here as the student rabbi, I had the very original idea to seek input for a sermon from various congregants. I had gotten to know Rabbi Everett Gendler of blessed memory and his amazing wife Mary— so I thought it would be very clever to ask his input on a question I thought might help me write a sermon.
“Rabbi Gendler”, I asked. “What’s do you think is the most important verse of Torah?”
Without missing a beat, he replied in that booming baritone voice: “Genesis 12:2— Be thou a blessing!”
This week’s Torah portion is iconic: foundational to the story of the Jewish people. God tells Avram that it’s time to get going; to leave his birthplace, his father’s house— and to go to a land that God will show to him.
This divine call to go forth is one of promise. God says to Avram
I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
In the more modern translations: and you shall be a blessing.
And in the booming voice of my teacher Rabbi Everett Gendler: Be thou a blessing. Ve’heyey bracha.
Two Hebrew words, containing within them multitudes.
But what does it really mean to “be a blessing”?
We know how to say blessings—
So often, in the context of Jewish communal life, a blessing is something we say.
We begin Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam: our opening address. Blessed are YOU, Adonai, Our God– Ruler of the Universe.
And then, we offer words as an attempt to convey our awe and gratitude at all that which God has created.
Asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.
Who has made us holy by commanding us to light the Shabbat candles.
Borei p’ri hagafen.
Creator of the Fruit of the VIne
Hamotzi lechem min ha’aaretz
The one who brings forth wheat from the earth.
Embedded in our tradition is a practice of attributing all that is holy,
all that is life-sustaining and life affirming, to God.
It’s not the candles themselves we bless; it’s God who made us holy with this obligation to light them.
It’s not the wine we bless; it’s God, who created the grapes.
It’s not the challah we bless; it’s God, who brought forth wheat from the earth.
But here in the story of Lech Lecha, just three parshiot into Torah; just 12 chapters into the story of earth and humanity as imagined by Genesis: God turns to Avram, and with those two words, changes the narrative:
V’heyey bracha. Be thou a blessing.
It’s a subtle, but crucial shift. As one beautiful interpretation of this verse suggests, in this moment, God passes on the ability to bless others to Avram; before, only God could be that source of blessing. But now, that power could rest in the human heart, and be made real by human hands.
This moment sets the stage for us to become a people: now, Avram is the first link in shalshelet ha’kabbalah; it gives us a lineage, and a family, in covenant with God.
Rashi, the 11th century French scholar helps us understand this idea: this is God’s way of saying to Avram “Blessings are entrusted to you; until now they were in My power — I blessed Adam and Noah — but from now on you shall bless whomsoever you wish (Genesis Rabbah 39:11).
As Stan Lee taught us— with great power, comes great responsibility.
This is a big moment for our friend Avram.
We often think of the story of Lech Lecha as an origin story for a hero’s journey— the parasha which infamously begins with the command to go forth!
M’artzecha- from your land
Mi’molad’tcha– from your birthplace
U’mi beit avicah— from your father’s house
El ha’aretz asher ah’recha- to the land that I, God, will show you.
It’s a story that begins with an invitation that by all counts is radical: Avram, at 72 years old, is an unlikely seed to plant in the story of the Jewish people which will blossom from here.
With this call to go forth comes a promise:
I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great.
V’heyey bracha. And be thou a blessing.
The question is, how?
How do human beings, in all of our frailty and error, become living, breathing blessings?
The rabbis suggest that to be a disciple of Abraham means to possess three qualities: a good eye, a humble spirit and a moderate soul. Perhaps then we might understand that in order to be a blessing, we must be able to see and discern the world as it is.
Two years ago, on the eve of the 2020 Presidential Election, I taught one of my favorite midrashim, which relates the following story:
There once was a man on a journey who came across a bira doleket--- bira, meaning “palace” and doleket, which has two possible meanings: either on fire, or aglow–illuminated.
The man looks around— wondering, “surely there must be someone who owns this palace, someone who cares for it"
The man calls out: “is there anyone there? Is anyone responsible for this palace?”
“Is it possible that this palace has no caretaker?!”
At that moment, the owner of the palace peeks out and reveals himself.
Similarly the midrash concludes, it is like Avram who asks, “Who is responsible- is this a palace without a master?”--- and God calls out “It’s me. Now go forth- and be a blessing.”
Tonight, at this tender moment in our nation’s history, I believe we have a choice, and even, a responsibility to read this story through both possible lenses.
As a bira doleket—- as a palace on fire.
And, a bira doleket— as a palace illuminated.
In either reading, Avram is marveling at the state of the world, and wondering who is responsible. It’s not hard for me to imagine—
Version 1: Avram looks up and says “Wow. The palace is aglow— with love, and learning, and beauty. How could such marvels exist if not by design?”
Version 2: Avram looks up and says “Oy. The palace is in flames— consumed by evil. Is it possible that there’s no one who cares?”
And truly, in either reading, there is the possibility for blessing.
Because it is true: the world is like a palace on fire. The winds of hatred fan the embers of hatred and division around us— the fires of injustice have distilled a vision of America that we hate to see, and yet cannot look away from.
But, it’s also true that the world is like the palace illuminated: the world is filled with people working to create change; filled with parents loving their children, teachers teaching their students, artists creating beauty and meaning. That is also true.
Considering this parable, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, writes in God in Search of Man:
“There are those who sense the ultimate question in moments of wonder, in moments of joy; there are those who sense the ultimate question in moments of horror, in moments of despair. It is both the grandeur and the misery of living that makes man sensitive to the ultimate question.”
It is both the grandeur and the misery.
The world is on fire. And the world is illuminated.
And this is where the voice of my teacher Rabbi Everett Gendler rings in my mind, reminding me that ultimately, with all of these truths in our hands, our highest calling is “Be thou a blessing”.
With a good eye, a humble spirit and undemanding soul— we can see both versions of the palace, and respond accordingly.
To be a blessing is to step forward, and as Abraham will in just a few weeks, say “Hineni”. Here I am.
If we see the palace on fire— to be a blessing is to show up ready to repair and rebuild. We bring the waters of justice to douse the flames of evil.
If we see the palace illuminated— to be a blessing is to notice it, to name it, and to find ways to share the light of that blessing with others. We bring that light to the dark corners, sharing our bounty until the whole world is aglow.
Avram only becomes Abraham when that relationship is made real by becoming reciprocal: God brings him into covenant, and with that surety of God’s presence, Abraham becomes the progenitor of a new story: one in which human beings have the power to change the world, by their capacity for giving blessings to others.
On this Shabbat, on the eve of yet another Election Day, as we see more oxygen being given to fan the flames of anti-semitism, my hope is that we will see both versions of the palace— knowing that they are both real. May we heed the call of God to Abraham, to be a blessing, sharing the light of illuminated thought and righteous action with others.