"And You Shall Be a Blessing"

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion




"And You Shall Be a Blessing"

Adapted by Dov Karoll

Our parasha opens with God's command to Avraham to leave behind his birthplace and travel to the land of Israel. The second verse describes the result of this choice:

And I will make you a great nation; I will bless you, and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing.

This verse is understood by Reish Lakish (Pesachim 117b, cited by Rashi, Bereishit 12:2 s.v. ve-e'esekha) as referring to the first blessing in the Shemoneh Esrei prayer. The first phrase, "I will make you a great nation," is taken to refer to the phrase "E-lokei Avraham," the "God of Avraham." The second phrase, "I will bless you," is taken to refer to the phrase "E-lokei Yitzchak," the "God of Yitzchak." The third phrase, "and make your name great," corresponds to "E-lokei Ya'akov," the "God of Ya'akov." However, the fourth phrase, "and you shall be a blessing," teaches that the blessing is to conclude with a reference to Avraham alone. As such, the first blessing concludes "Magen Avraham," "Protector of Avraham."

The Rashbam (Pesachim 117b s.v. ke-shem) explains that the blessing concludes with Avraham alone because blessings are supposed to have a "singular conclusion" (see Berakhot 49a). But this explanation does not fully answer the question, for the singularity of the conclusion could have been maintained while still making reference to all three patriarchs. The blessing could have concluded "Magen avot," "Protector of the patriarchs," rather than "Protector of Avraham." Therefore, the conclusion of this blessing must reflect some more essential traits that differentiate Avraham from the other patriarchs.

One could suggest that since Avraham was the first, his impact is felt in the activity of Yitzchak and Ya'akov, while the reverse is not correspondingly true. Avraham's legacy was centered around the element of transmission, not just his personal spirituality. In next week's parasha, God states of Avraham: "For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of God, to do righteousness and justice" (18:19). In a sense, the greatness of Yitzchak and Ya'akov stems from the success of Avraham's mission. Therefore, by concluding "Magen Avraham," we include not only Avraham's own relationship to God, but also that which he enabled and ensured in future generations.

However, it seems that there is more to Avraham's singularity than this. Not only was Avraham the teacher of Yitzchak and Ya'akov, but his spiritual voyage differed qualitatively from theirs as well. Avraham had no one to provide spiritual guidance, no one to help him recognize God's dominion or uniqueness, as described by the Rambam (Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 1:3).

Furthermore, Avraham did not come to this realization in a spiritually neutral society. Returning to the Rambam's description, Avraham at first was immersed in the pagan culture of Ur Kasdim. Everyone around him was worshipping idolatry, and he worshipped with them. Then, Avraham, on his own, came to the recognition and realization of God's dominion and His uniqueness, and began to pass along this message to others.

Avraham was a revolutionary; he alone came to God without any guidance or background, in the absence of an upbringing that would lead him to the service of God. Yitzchak grew up in the house of Avraham, and Ya'akov in the house of Yitzchak.

That is not to say that Yitzchak and Ya'akov did not also face spiritual challenges. They had to establish and continue the masora, the tradition from Avraham, and this was not something to be taken for granted. In these early generations, not everyone in the family would automatically remain part of the covenantal community. Yitzchak was chosen over Yishma'el, and Ya'akov could have followed the path of Esav.

Ya'akov is referred to by the rabbis as "bechir ha-avot," "the choicest of the patriarchs" (Midrash Sekhel Tov, Bereishit 33), in part because his entire family would serve as the basis for the Jewish people. But in terms of spiritual odyssey, Avraham's journey is incomparable to the journey of anyone else.

I was once approached by a student who informed me that he wanted to undertake a spiritual exploration, comparable to that undergone by Avraham, discovering religious truth on his own. I told him that Avraham had a unique role in history; his model is not repeatable. We are meant to build off his model, not recreate it.

While we should be willing to recognize God on our own were it to be expected of us, we are not meant to reinvent the wheel. Rather, we are to build off of the framework built for us by Avraham and those who have come since.

Nonetheless, this is not to say that we serve merely as successors. Every individual is in one sense a continuation, a further link in the mesora, in the tradition that traces back to Avraham. Each individual also serves as a starting point for those who will eventually succeed him.

Each and every one of us has a role comparable to that of Avraham when it comes to his own successors, providing them with a firm basis in the mesora. "That he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of God, to do righteousness and justice" is a challenge that stands before every member of the Jewish people.

Our patriarch Avraham, the founder and revolutionary who spread the belief and worship of God in the world, passing along the mesora to future generations and setting the foundation for the Jewish people, indeed earned and deserved his unique position at the conclusion of the first blessing of the Amida. "The conclusion will be with reference to you alone."

(Originally delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Lekh Lekha 5762 [2001].)


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