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Lekh Lekha 5784   | Rabbi    David Wolkenfeld

01/26/2024 10:27:06 AM


And You Shall Be a Blessing


I never get as much done “after the hagim” as I hope to. There are always too many deferred plans and meetings and tasks to accomplish when the holiday season comes to an end. I am sure I am not alone in having that experience. This year, I thought I would preempt the end of the holiday season by using the opportunity to speak to you on Shimini Atzeret morning to publicly thank the community, not only for welcoming my family to the neighborhood and to the shul, and not only for partnering with me to plan and implement an inspiring and festive holiday season but also and especially for showing up and participating and davening with heart and soul from the beginning of Selichot to the final hakafah.

Of course, horrifically, Shimini Atzeret this year was not an opportunity for happy reflections and I suspect the day will never be the same for any of us for as long as we live and probably for a long time after that as well.

But I did want to carve out a moment for gratitude even in the midst of so many weighty thoughts and during such a challenging and scary time for Jews and for Judaism. My family, b’ezrat Hashem,  is now just two weeks away from celebrating Sophie’s bat mitzvah. When Sophie began her studies to prepare for her bat mitzvah we did not know where we would live and we did not know if we would end up living near an Orthodox shul that would accommodate a bat mitzvah celebration consistent with the rituals and traditions with which we raised Sophie and according to the halakhic customs of Women’s Tefilah and Torah Reading as they were practiced by Sophie’s own mother and by the grandmother for whom Sophie is named.

None of us take for granted the ways that we have been made to feel welcome in this community and we are so happy and grateful that so many relatives and friends will be able to meet you and experience our new shul community as our family marks this significant milestone. The diverse ways that families celebrate b’nai mitzvah here at Ohev has meant that our  family too has found a way to celebrate that is consistent with our family’s traditions and with Sophie’s own expectations. . We hope it is the first of many Wolkenfeld family semachot that we celebrate together. 

Parashat Lekh Lekha opens with an unusual and unexpected promise from God. “Lekh Lekha -go, for your own good…to the land that I will show you. As a reward for obeying this command, or perhaps as a demonstration  of how this journey, away from everything Avraham had known, was truly in Avraham’s benefit, God promises Avraham:

וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה׃

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

God continues:

וַאֲבָֽרְכָה֙ מְבָ֣רְכֶ֔יךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ֖ אָאֹ֑ר וְנִבְרְכ֣וּ בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָאֲדָמָֽה

And I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you, and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.

The phrase that cries out, perhaps more than any other for explanation is the phase וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה “and you shall be a blessing”. How does a person become a blessing?

Rashi, quoting classic midrashim offers two explanations. God promised to turn over the keys of Divine blessing, as it were, over to Averham. This sets us up to understand the meaning of the phrase in the next verse וְנִבְרְכ֣וּ בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָאֲדָמָֽה. If the keys of Divine blessing are in Avraham’s hand, then he is, somehow, a conduit for blessing coming to all people. 

Rashi then quotes a second interpretation from the Talmud. In this view, וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה has a very quotidian explanation. The hatimah, the final seal of the first berakhah of the amidah is “magen Avraham.” We bless God who is the “protector of Avraham.”The only one of our patriarchs and matriarchs  mentioned in a hatimah of a blessing is  Avraham. His name was literally written into our siddur. This still strikes me as somewhat odd - Avraham is being reassured before embarking on a lonely and frightening journey: don’t worry, a thousand years from now there will be something called the amidah and you will be mentioned in that amidah.  

However, if the phrase  וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה is a refernce to Avraham’s name being mentioned in our amidah we can then appreciate the the phrase in the next verse, וְנִבְרְכ֣וּ בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָאֲדָמָֽה which, as many point out, can mean that people all across the world will say to their children “grow up like Avraham.”

The Malbim elaborates on the significance of this blessing. Avraham himself faced persecution for his iconoclastic beliefs. God promised him that one day, most of humanity would come to accept Avraham’s monotheistic revolution and see Avraham as a role model for themselves and for their children.

These two meanings of being a berakhah merge when we bless others. We too, through our words and our prayers become a conduit for Divine blessing. 

The Talmud, in several places, suggests that וַאֲבָֽרְכָה֙ מְבָ֣רְכֶ֔יךָ is not a reference to non-Jewish people praising Avraham and his children, but is a reference to the obligation for Jews to confer blessings on one another when given the opportunity to do so. A guest who is offered the chance to lead Birkat HaMazon and recite a blessing for his host should accept that offer! Kohanim, when presented with the opportunity to recite birkat kohabnim and bless the community, should embrace that opportunity. God promises to bless those who bless Avraham’s children and that obligation to confer blessing falls upon us as well. 

The Talmud records a story of Rabbi Yishmael who was one of the last to serve as a kohen gadol, as a high priest and enter the kodesh ha-kedoshim the Holy of Holies in the Beit Hamikdash. 

תַּנְיָא, אָמַר רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל בֶּן אֱלִישָׁע: פַּעַם אַחַת, נִכְנַסְתִּי לְהַקְטִיר קְטוֹרֶת לִפְנַי וְלִפְנִים, וְרָאִיתִי אַכְתְּרִיאֵל יָ-הּ ה׳ צְ-בָאוֹת, שֶׁהוּא יוֹשֵׁב עַל כִּסֵּא רָם וְנִשָּׂא, וְאָמַר לִי: ״יִשְׁמָעֵאל בְּנִי, בָּרְכֵנִי!״ אָמַרְתִּי לוֹ: ״יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ, שֶׁיִּכְבְּשׁוּ רַחֲמֶיךָ אֶת כַּעַסְךָ, וְיִגּוֹלּוּ רַחֲמֶיךָ עַל מִדּוֹתֶיךָ, וְתִתְנַהֵג עִם בָּנֶיךָ בְּמִדַּת הָרַחֲמִים, וְתִכָּנֵס לָהֶם לִפְנִים מִשּׁוּרַת הַדִּין״. וְנִעְנַע לִי בְּרֹאשׁוֹ. וְקָמַשְׁמַע לַן, שֶׁלֹּא תְּהֵא בִּרְכַּת הֶדְיוֹט קַלָּה בְּעֵינֶיךָ.

תַּנְיָא, אָמַר רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל בֶּן אֱלִישָׁע: פַּעַם אַחַת, נִכְנַסְתִּי לְהַקְטִיר קְטוֹרֶת לִפְנַי וְלִפְנִים, 

Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, the High Priest, said: Once, on Yom Kippur, I entered the innermost sanctum, the Holy of Holies, to offer incense, and in a vision I saw Lord of Hosts, one of the names of God expressing His ultimate authority, seated upon a high and exalted throne (see Isaiah 6). 

And God said to me: Yishmael, My son, bless Me. יִשְׁמָעֵאל בְּנִי, בָּרְכֵנִי!

I said to God“May it be Your will that Your mercy overcome Your anger, 

and may Your mercy prevail over Your other attributes, 

and may You act toward Your children with the attribute of mercy, 

and may You enter before them beyond the letter of the law.”

The Holy Blessed ONe, nodded God’s head. . This teaches us that you should not take the blessing of an ordinary person lightly. 

On multiple levels I’m glad that we once again recite Misheberakh blessings for the men who receive aiiyot and for the women who carry and escort the Torah. These are indeed birkot hedyot - the mere blessings of ordinary people. But we should not take them lightly שֶׁלֹּא תְּהֵא בִּרְכַּת הֶדְיוֹט קַלָּה בְּעֵינֶיךָ. By bestowing blessings on one another we fulfill the Divine promise וַאֲבָֽרְכָה֙ מְבָ֣רְכֶ֔יךָ.

And, just as Avraham was enticed by the knowledge that his name would be included in our amidah, when we recite Misheberakh blessings for one another  we also give an opportunity for all of us to have our names mentioned in a blessing and out loud and for a happy occasion. Our full Hebrew names connect us to our families and our ancestors and they should be heard. In many Orthodox shul communities after a girl is given a beautiful Hebrew name at birth, that name is not used again until it appears on her ketubah. And it might not be used again in public  until it is engraved on her tombstone. 

There is another paradox which courses through these verses and that is Avraham’s connection to the rest of humanity even as he leaves behind his homeland and his extended family. He embarks on an unprecedented journey of faith, in pursuit of a totally unique religious vision. And with Parashat Lekh Lekha, the Torah’s focus pivots and is no longer the book of humanity but it becomes the book of our family.  And yet, as we’ve seen, the shift in focus of Sefer Bereishit does not entail a narrowing of God’s concern. The phrase וְנִבְרְכ֣וּ בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָאֲדָמָֽה can mean that Avraham, and Avraham and Sarah’s children, are meant to be a conduit of Divine blessing to the whole world. And the phrase וְנִבְרְכ֣וּ בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָאֲדָמָֽה can mean that Avraham’s solitary journey was necessary. But eventually, all people would come to appreciate what he stood for and what he represents so that they too will bless their children, “be like Avraham.”

Mon, July 22 2024 16 Tammuz 5784