BE A BLESSING, Shabbat Lech Lecha

Shabbat Lech Lechah
Congregation Beth Shalom
Rabbi David Whiman

In this week’s portion God calls to Abram and directs him to set out on a journey of becoming, to leave his father’s house and travel to a far and distant land. In turn, God promises Abram blessing and gives the added assurance that through him will all the families of the earth be blessed. V’huyay berachah, and God concludes, “It will be a blessing.” Or the better translation I think is to render the Hebrew as God’s command: Abram, Be a blessing.

You and I know how to say blessings. That’s easy. We just recited the blessings before and after the Torah reading together. We know how to sing blessings and we do so to a host of different melodies. But how would one actually go about being a blessing? What would you have to be doing to qualify? Why would you even want to be one?

The story is told of a rabbi and his disciples who were sitting together and eating apples. They recited the blessing that you say before eating fruit, borai p’re haetz, and then they partook of the apples. The rabbi then asked his students, “Do you know the difference between you and me?” His students were silent. The rabbi said, “You recite the blessing so that you can eat your apple. I am struck with wonder and gratitude by the majesty of creation all around. I eat the apple so I can recite the blessing that extols the greatness of God.”

Many of the ritual blessings we recite, the berachot, acknowledge God as Creator. Blessed are You Creator of the fruit of the vine. These formulations are at heart expressions of praise. Sometimes you and I too are worthy of praise. At times, we human beings do extraordinary things. We exhibit sterling qualities of heart and mind. But the call to be a blessing is not about recognition, accomplishment, or fame. Far from it. And, though we human beings have produced some very impressive things over our long history, there are precious few if any things that we have actually created, that is brought into existence. So I’m guessing that our capacity to create, our creativity and the things that we produce that make life more comfortable, though important, are not what it means by the
summons to be a blessing.

Nor is it really about our ability to perform praiseworthy or commendable actions. Our rabbis teach that the highest in human behavior lies in the imitation of God’s way: In a text called the Mehilta we read: As God is called holy you shall be holy. As God is called gracious you be gracious and as God is called compassionate you be compassionate. There is a whole category of mitzvoth – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, burying the dead - that are seen as praiseworthy because these are actions that God performs in the Torah. But such acts are more in the category of gemilut chasadeem, acts of loving-kindness. When we act in imitation of God’s scriptural kindnesses we bring blessing to others. Such acts are important, holy but the performance of such actions is not exactly what it means to be the blessing itself. Nasty people can perform a mitzvah. It’s more than what you do. Though I think we are getting closer.

One of these lesser-known benedictions in our repertoire is prescribed after you eat a certain category of food. The specific foods need not concern us now but the brachah goes like this: Blessed are you O Lord, borei nefashot rabbot v’chesronam. Who has created a vast universe of souls and all that they lack. That’s a strange formulation, isn’t it? Praised are You O Lord who created our deficiencies. Surely we are not intended to praise, to thank God for our disabilities and deficits. There must be more to it than that.

I think this blessing is meant to remind us that we are all lacking, incomplete, partial beings in need of wholeness and healing. No matter how self sufficient and put together we may appear on the outside we are all wanting in some way or another. And the fact that we have deficiencies means that we need one another. “What you lack I may have and what I lack you may have. Our deficiencies make our social existence both essential and important.” In coming together, we learn what we could not have known if we stayed isolated. It is in coming together that we grow in ways we could not grow by ourselves. And so doing we accomplish what we could never accomplish alone or disconnected. Because of our deficiencies we find that we need one another. To be the person who provides another with what is needed for them to get to that place they could never get to on their own, that is the essence of what it means to be, to actually be a blessing.

Let me give you some personal examples. My 10th grade English teacher taught me how to write, that is how to express myself coherently, lucidly in writing. I’m not sure how she did it. It was more than what she taught. It was how she taught what she taught. How she carried herself as a teacher. She made us want to know what she knew. And I just know that my success in University and in my later professional life is due in no small part to that teacher What she taught me was invaluable. But she was the blessing.

My 98-year- old mother has a bevy of caregivers attending her around the clock. These women are models of caring, patience and support. One of the women however, by dint of her person, her loving heart, and her personal faith I believe is keeping my mother not only alive but lively. Not so much by what she does – all the women provide for her needs – but this woman makes my mother want to live. She is the blessing.

A couple years ago, I met a man at my High Holy Day congregation. He was in his 80’s at the time and he was battling cancer. But moreover this man was tormented by events and experiences that he had endured 60 years previously as a young foot soldier in World War II. He still had terrible recurring nightmares about it. He was if I might say, a tortured soul. I listened to his story and after a while I said to him. “Sander, you can’t undo the past. The question I would ask you is: Is there a way for you to use what you experienced to win back some small benefit for good? It’s not about forgiveness. It’s about redemption.” That one word gave him a new way to understand what he had happened. For the first time he spoke to his children about what he had experienced. For the first time he addressed the congregation and his community on Yom HaShoah. His wife told me he never had another nightmare. And she “I don’t think you told him anything that his therapists didn’t tell him before. It’s that you told him. And you enabled him to leave this world at peace. You are a blessing to our family.”

God’s summon to Abram huyay berachah to be a blessing is addressed to each and every one of his descendants. Think of it this way. Every soul is a complex assembly of puzzle pieces, some souls with more pieces than others, some souls more difficult to assemble than others. But no soul is ever complete in and of itself. At birth we are all nearly but not yet complete. Borei nefashot rabot v’heshbonam. We all have deficiencies. No one has within him or herself all the pieces to their puzzle. And everyone carries within them at least one and probably many pieces needed for someone else’s puzzle. Sometimes they know it. Sometimes they don’t. But when you present that piece which may be insignificant to you but essential to them, whether they know it or not, whether you know it or not, that is when you have fulfilled the command heyay berachah, be the blessing.

The Torah tells us that responding to God’s call Abram sets off on his journey of becoming taking with him his wife, his nephew Lot and the Hebrew says ‘all the souls that he had made, created in Haran.’ Now we know that only God can make a soul. So let us understand that to be all the souls that Abram had helped make whole there in Haran. Yes, only God can create a soul. But it is true that there are times when only we human beings can complete them. From the very start then Abraham fulfilled the summons to be a blessing. May we too ever be reminded that we are called to the same task and be ever watchful for those precious opportunities to be the blessing to others.

Cayn y’he ratzon.