August 17, 2019

To be a blessing

Lech lecha is a parsha kidnapped by its opening verse (Genesis 12:1), in which Abraham adheres to an inner voice, which is also a cosmic voice, urging him to embark on a spiritual journey. 

“Lech lecha” means “Go to yourself,” to your innermost core, embark on a journey whose outer layer is geographical and spatial, but whose ultimate purpose is spiritual — to live a life in which you constantly strive to grow, evolve and expand.

This timeless call to every Jew to be committed to a life of inner growth and inner journeying at times obscures yet another timeless call pertaining to the Jewish condition, which appears in the following verse as the Almighty says to Abraham, “And [you] shall be a blessing.” 

We know that in Judaism a blessing is a linguistic formula by which we express gratitude to the Almighty for all the abundance and plentitude which He has bestowed on us, and that a Jewish blessing usually commences with the generic formula of “Baruch atah Adonai … ” But how can a person actually become an articulation, a set of words, an ideational awareness, a blessing?

Rashi states laconically that the Almighty’s statement to Abraham “to be a blessing” is more of a Divine gesture to Abraham than an imperative. According to Rashi, what the Almighty conveys to Abraham is that he, Abraham, will be mentioned at the conclusion of the first paragraph of the Amidah service, which we always conclude with the words “Magen Avraham” (referring to God as the protector/shield of Abraham).

And yet, I would like to suggest that the commandment to be a blessing is much larger than that. 

To be a blessing is the threefold life vocation of every Jew. The first facet of this calling has to do with our national and collective obligation to serve God by being “a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 49:6). To be a universal blessing means to enrich and inspire the rest of humankind spiritually, morally, culturally and scientifically. 

I think we have done quite well in this regard. 

From Abraham himself, who smashed the false religious idols of his time; to Moses, who led a rebellion against the political despotism of Pharaoh; to the Jews who conceptualized and propagated socialism; to Sigmund Freud and his Jewish entourage, who revolutionized the way humanity understands its soul and psyche; leading the way to 20th-century physicists such as Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller; and followed by the leading postmodern thinkers of our time, no human group has contributed so vastly and so disproportionately to the advancement and refinement of human spirituality, culture, science and economy. 

Even though our people constitute solely 0.2 percent of the world’s population, no other group of people has demonstrated so consistently and over so long a span that history has meaning, and that humanity has a destiny.  

In addition to being a light unto the nations, the call to be a blessing also entails a much more daily and concrete moral and empathic commitment “to be there” for other people, to help them, to be a source of empowerment to them — materially, socially, emotionally or spiritually.

The third component of being a blessing has to do with achieving deveikut. Deveikut is the core mystical and kabbalist mission of the Jew, namely to achieve in consciousness utmost attachment and unity with God, while being immersed in prayer and the experiential component of the religious life, to the extent that we and the blessing become one and the same, that we merge into the infinity of God, by ceding and nullifying our ego, sense of self and individual consciousness.

So this is the threefold formula of what it means to be a blessing: To serve God by enriching all of humankind, to help any person in need who comes across our way, and to achieve unity with God in prayer, in privileged moments of enhanced and heightened spiritual awareness as our consciousness soars from its quotidian concerns to the infinite expanses of cosmic being. 

We have our work cut out for us. So let’s get to work. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Tal Sessler is senior rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. He is the author of several books on philosophy and contemporary Jewish identity.