Parshat Lech Lecha: The Blessing of Theological Optimism

My shiur rebbe, R. Daniel Feldman, gives a parsha shiur every Thursday on the fourth aliyah of the week’s parsha, for a reason that strikes me as a very astute observation: 95% of all divrei Torah are on, if not the first passuk of the parsha, the first aliyah. This week I was struck by the truth of this observation, and resolved to do a dvar torah on an aliya other than rishon. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any good ideas about any other aliyot. So now I am giving a devar torah on rishon. So sue me. Anyway, let’s take a look at the first couple of pesukim, in which I think we can point out something rather interesting.

(א) וַיֹּאמֶר יְקֹוָק אֶל־אַבְרָם לֶךְ־לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ:

(ב) וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ וֶהְיֵה בְּרָכָה:

(ג) וַאֲבָרֲכָה מְבָרְכֶיךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ אָאֹר וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה

Now, take note of how many times the root B.R.Kh (bless) appears. It’s a bunch of times. God seems to be stressing the quality of bracha as it relates to Avraham, or Avram, at this point. This is particularly interesting considering the opposite idea, that of “A.R.R,” a curse has characterized the story of Bereishis up until this point. Adam is cursed, Chava is cursed, the snake is cursed, the ground is cursed, Kayin is cursed, the people who would kill Kayin are cursed, the generation of the flood aren’t cursed but they’re wiped out so we’ll count it, and God says he won’t curse the land anymore, but right before Noach curses Cham and Canaan. So lots of curses, no blessings, until Avram, who will be the conduit of blessing to all the families of the earth. So what’s special about Avram?

What I’d like to suggest is that these two categories of Bracha and Me’areh, of blessing and curse, represent two ways of seeing God and the world, and that the generations before Avraham related to God as a “Curser,” and it was Avraham who began to recognize God as a source of blessing. What do I mean by this? One can see God, his creations, and his demands as a curse, as the demands of a capricious and irrational ruler who commands only by virtue of his power. Such a God does not desire the good of mankind, and in fact is seen to actively plot against it. Such a God merely wants his will submitted to, so that his subjects can be put in their place. Such a God’s creations are themselves curses, endless frustrations at which we endlessly toil, which can at any moment be used to kill us, should we get too unruly. Such a God’s only demand is submission and sacrifice, and even then its no guarantee.

This view of God could obviously engender rebellion against such a cruel taskmaster. When God rejects Kayin’s offering, he rebels, killing his brother and defiantly asking God if he’s responsible for his brother’s welfare. When God gets angry and punishes Kayin, his response is to complain about the extent of his punishment, essentially, “come on man, that’s totally unfair.” Kayin, seeing God as a capricious and unfair ruler, with unrealistic expectations and draconian demands, decides to rebel, and throws off the yoke of obedience to a God he sees as immoral.

But not all who have this theology rebel. Some stay frum. Very frum. True, God curses us, and our life, and our world. True, God’s commands are curses, demands that make our life harder and strain our intellectual and moral senses. But it doesn’t matter. God demands obedience and unquestioning devotion and submission. God’s commands must be obeyed for no other reason than that God commanded it, and it is not for us to question why or how. We must remain passive and submissive in the face of the divine command, and accept it wordlessly, for God is not good or moral or just, God is just a curse, a powerful force that compels us against our will. Noach is emblematic of such an attitude. His very name means passivity and throughout the story of Noach and his ark, it is striking that Noach says not a single word. He does not plead with God to save his generation, he does not attempt to understand, he just accepts the divine word for what it is. God repeats himself in the story, over and over, going at length as to what he’s about to do, the dimensions and the animals and over and over, as if he is trying to get Noach to realize, hey, I’m about to wipe everyone out, don’t you want to think about it? But Noach does not. Not that he doesn’t have thoughts. He is obviously distraught at the end of the story. But does he turn to God to express himself? No. He does not think he has the ability to. But there is no one to turn to. So he seeks to blind himself to the world, drinking himself into a stupor, shutting himself from anything that highlights the contrast between his feelings and the divine command. And in the end, in an act of imitatio dei, he curses his son and grandson.

The issue of course, with this view of God as a curse, is that it is wrong. And this is where Avram comes in. Avram’s relationship with God is one of bracha, of blessing. Avram sees God as the source of blessing in this world, as a God who wants the best for his creations. God’s demands may be, due to the infinity and omnipotence of God, beyond human comprehension at a given point in time, but they are not merely the demands of a tyrannical dictator. Thus, Avraham is willing to trust in God’s judgement without knowing exactly why he is doing so. He is willing follow God’s command to pick himself up, leave his home and everything he’s ever known, and move to wherever God shows him. He is willing to trust God’s assurance that he will have many children and inherit the land, despite all evidence to the contrary.(15:2) וְהֶאֱמִן בַּיקֹוָק וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ צְדָקָה.

But this faith is far from uncritical and unquestioning. In our parsha, Avram doesn’t react wordlessly to the promises God has made to him that seem unfulfilled. He asks God, (15:2) מַה־תִּתֶּן־לִי וְאָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ עֲרִירִי, and he wants to know (15:8)  בַּמָּה אֵדַע כִּי אִירָשֶׁנָּה. These are not the accusatory, rebellious questions of a Kayin, (only a Noach would make such a mistake!) These are the questions of someone who believes that God wants the best for him and humanity, a God who is the source of blessing and not curses, and he is having trouble squaring what he sees with what he has been promised, with the God he believes in and trusts in and what’s going on in his life, and he is pouring out all these doubts and his fears to God, not challenging but asking. Indeed, it is only because he has that trust in God that such questions arise! When Avram attempts to challenge God’s destruction of Sedom, his main point is that (18:25) “חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִם־רָשָׁע וְהָיָה כַצַּדִּיק כָּרָשָׁע חָלִלָה לָּךְ הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל־הָאָרֶץ לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט”, that for God, the moral and just ruler of the world, to commit such injustice. For Kayin and Noach, the question never gets off the ground. Of course God would kill a whole city, hell, he’d kill a whole planet!

Avram is the first person to have a relationship with God that was more than that of a subject fearful of punishment from an cruel and irrational leader, which sees God’s command as a curse that can either be rebelled against or accepted as fate. Avram’s relationship with God is one that sees God as a blessing, of a moral and just ruler who can be trusted, and because of that trust, inquiry about the morality of justice of God is welcomed. It is that relationship and that theology, that of trust but also a critical sense borne of that trust,  that allows Avraham to later incredulously ask God הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל־הָאָרֶץ לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט , but also to pass the ultimate test of his faith at the Akedah.

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