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Parashat Lekh Lekh 5783

October 31, 2022

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Lekh Lekha
By Rabbi Rena Kieval (’06)

Be a blessing! Vehe-yei berakha! I am always struck by the profound, surprising and somewhat mysterious words spoken by God to begin a new relationship with Abraham. God might have opened with something more like, “Follow this important set of rules I will give you,” “You shall believe in Me,” or, “Let us enter into a covenant.” In time, the Torah will present all of those frameworks for a life with God, but God’s momentous first call to Abraham sets the stage with a series of statements about blessing: “I will bless you, those who bless you will be blessed, those who curse you will be cursed, you will be a source of blessing to others, and vehe-yei berakha: you will be, or should be, a blessing.” (Genesis 12:2,3) God’s words about blessing suggest not only the birth of a relationship with Abraham, but a new vision of humanity’s role in God’s world.

From the dawn of creation, as it is told in the Torah, God imbues the world with blessing. God blesses animals, human beings and the seventh day. But before long, blessings are repeatedly undone. The God whose enterprise started with blessing responds to human (and serpent) misbehavior by introducing curse to creation. After Adam, Eve and the serpent disobey God, the snake is cursed. The earth itself is called cursed because of Adam, with humankind struggling to draw food from it. After Cain murders Abel – he is “cursed on the land,” having no home, forced to wander.

After the flood of Noah’s time, God declares, I will no longer curse the earth – lo osif lekallel od et ha-adamah – on account of humans, suggesting that the flood itself was a curse. Instead, God promises that the natural order will be sustained. Then God blesses Noah and his family with the charge to be fruitful and fill the earth (Gen. 8:219:1.)

Until this point, God has been the sole dispenser of blessing and curse, in response to human behavior. But now, as God calls to Abraham, “be a blessing,” God introduces a radical new dimension of blessing: human responsibility. Abraham will not only be a recipient of God’s blessing. He will now also be an agent of God’s blessing for others. For the first time, a mere mortal is charged to be a source of blessing in the world!

The sages of the midrash describe this dramatic evolution in the role of humans. “Why,” asks R. Berekhiah, “does God say ‘Be a blessing’ when God already said ‘I will bless you? …’ He answers, ‘God said to him: ‘Previously, I alone was able to bring blessing into the world. From this time forward, the ability to bless is given to you.’” (Gen. Rab. 39:11) Citing this comment, Rashi specifies further, “Blessings are now entrusted to you; hitherto they were in My power — I blessed Adam and Noah — but from now on you shall bless whomever you wish. (Gen. 12:2)”

Beginning with Abraham, blessing becomes a human power. As God invites a human partner to establish a new people and a new faith, God also invites that partner to share in the endeavor of creating a world of blessing. Humans share in this awesome gift, which is also a complex responsibility.

The power of people to bless one another and to evoke God’s blessing is formalized in the ritual of the priestly blessing. God states about the kohanim, “Thus they (the priests) shall set My name on the people of Israel, and I Myself shall bless them.” (Num. 6:27) Through the centuries, Jews have embraced our power to bless, as the Priestly Blessing is now offered to children by parents, and is invoked by anyone who wishes God’s blessing on another person. We have even adopted the empowered and possibly ‘hutzpah-dik’ notion that we can bless God, as we routinely do in our prayers!

Neither we nor Abraham are given a concrete list of what constitutes blessing and curse. The Torah offers one overriding principle in the well-known passage from Sefer Devarim: “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live—” (Deut. 30:19). Blessing is associated with life, curse with death. But the specifics are left open, to be discovered by each individual and every community, from Abraham to our own.

God’s call to God’s new partner Abraham calls to us as well. We receive God’s blessings in gratitude, and we are also empowered and obligated to actualize blessing in the world. As we begin a new year, each of us might ask ourselves how we can best answer that call. In the face of our challenges, our curses, both global and personal, may each of us find the ways to “be a blessing.”
Rena Kieval was ordained as a rabbi by AJR in 2006. She retired in June 2022 as full-time rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY, and continues to teach, write and study.