A Promise To Be Blessed/The Command To Be A Blessing

Posted by Arik Ascherman on Sunday, 14 October 2018

Abraham is commanded at the outset of this week’s Torah portion, to “Go forth from your land, our birthplace and your fathers house to the land I will show you. (Genesis 12:1)  if He does this, he is promised,

I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make our name great,
And you shall be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you
And curse those that curse you;
And all the families of the earth
Shall bless themselves through you.
(Genesis 12:2-3)

Blessing those who bless us and cursing those who curse us is fairly straightforward. We have heard all too much about being a great nation in the past few years, and we should be asking what God means. We shall see in a moment that “You shall be a blessing” can be seen as a promise, or a command.

The prophecy command “All the families of the earth shall be blessed  through you” is repeated with slight variations numerous times in the book of Genesis. I often see my work as trying in some small way to bring this prophecy closer to reality.

The mid 19th century Rabbi Shimon Raphael Hirsch (seen as one of the founders of modern Orthodoxy) comments extensively on these verses.

He says that “I will bless you” means, “There will be civil rights creating prosperity on earth.”

He argues that the reference to those who bless and curse us refers to the period of the Diaspora.

” The period in which the people of Abraham are dependent on the blessings and curses of others is in the Diaspora that Israel would be sentenced to if they dd not remember their responsibility.  If the will seek to be blessed, and not a blessing”

 We were dependent on the good will of others. (Just as those under our control today are often powerless and dependent on our good will.)

What does Hirsch mean by seeking to be blessed, and not a blessing?  He explains,

“God can bless a person and nations.  But God can only express the wish that they will achieve a moral level and that their actions will be exemplary.  This is dependent on their faithfulness to the Divine Torah.  God doesn’t say ‘You will be a blessing,’ (as a prediction A. A.), but rather ‘Be a blessing’ (as a command/wish A.A). These two words encompass the entire moral task, the carrying out of which is dependent on fulfilling God’s Wish.  ‘My desire to make your name great-means that you must be a blessing!’ ‘My desire is to make you into a people that will be a light unto the nations:  Nations wiil look at this people, and immediately remember their responsibilities. The responsibility that has been plaed upoin ou 0 in contrast to the normal aspirations of nations- is: Be a blessing. ‘

Hirsch explains further,

“The common desire is not to be a blessing, but to be blessed.  This is the desire of every person.  – and even more so of every  nation.  Honesty, humanity and love these are commandments expected of individuals.  However, they are seen as absurd and irrelevant for nations.  The are not seen as important by statespeople and politicians.  The individual can be found guilty of wrongdoing, deceit and murder, but countries murder and deceit on a huge scale.  One who murders and deceives ‘for the good of the country’ is seen as one who should be rewarded.  This is not the portion of Abraham.”

” Humanity desires to make a name for itself by increasing its power and expanding its territory without consideration. However, the people of Abraham, both individually and collectively, will listen to only one voice, ‘Be a blessing.’  His/her/their lives will be dedicated to the Divine Goals of peace for individuals and the world.  He/she/they  will restore the place of humanity to the lofty place it once inhabited (or perhaps “originally intended to inhabit.” A.A.)  His/her/their name will be made great among the nations in order that all be educated to share these aspirations.”

There are those of us who aspire to be blessed, and have no desire either as individuals or nationally, to be a blessing. We are all that matter.

There are those of us who pervert this vision to a form of “the white man’s burden.” We must rule and dominate others for their own good.

Maybe I am just a naïve 21st century rabbi identifying with a naïve 19th century rabbi.  However, I look at my country today and know that we are a curse for many of those living under our control.

We are a curse to Ibrahim,  who used to have 450 olive trees next to the Khavat Gilad outpost, and now has 230.  Last week I sent a video clip in real time to the army, because it looked like a vehicle was operating in his grove, but I was too far away to be sure.  The army did nothing.  We also sent numerous letters and held many conversations because every year Ibrahim gets to his trees to find 70-100% of the olives stolen.  We even went in and began harvesting olives ourselves, and  brought them back to Ibrahim. The army eventually stopped us. When he finally was allowed to get to his trees, he found that 23 trees had been cleared away, and the land prepared for more illegal building. Two more trees were cut down.  The olives from 60 trees were stolen.

Until a week ago, Ibrahim had 23 trees on this land adjacent to the Khavat Gilad outpost
One of Ibrahim’s trees freshly cut down adjacent to the Khavat Gilad outpost

We have been a curse to the thousands of families inside Israel and in the Occupied Territories whose homes were demolished because we gave them no fair chance to get a legal building permit.

We have been a curse to those who dispossess in the Occupied Territories because a Knesset they cannot vote for, planning committees they are not represented on and courts with no Palestinian judges systematically, unilaterally and undemocratically impose laws on them in order to dispossess them.

We have been a curse to those being systematically dispossessed, because they are a minority within Israel, and are always “democratically”outvoted.

Having one of the largest gaps between rich and poor in any of the OECD countries, we haven’t exactly been a blessing to all Israeli Jews.

 I believe that we have it within us to do better.

We can fulfill God’s desire that we be a blessing.

Let’s try. Let’s try a little harder.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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