November 16, 2019 — 18 Cheshvan 5780
I want to play a new game with you this morning, Jewish trivial pursuit. I am going to ask you two simple questions about the Hebrew Bible, and the winner gets a free bagel at kiddush this morning.
First question, what character in the Hebrew Bible is most associated with blessing? The word blessing, berakhah, is prominently and repeatedly associated with his story?
Second question, what character in the Hebrew Bible, more than any other, is tested? This character is tested so frequently, and so painfully, that there is a midrash speaking to the ten tests, or ten trials, or ten ordeals, of this character?
The answer to the first question is…Abraham.
The answer to the second question is…Abraham.
The answer to both questions is Abraham. The blessed one is also the tested one. The tested one is also the blessed one.
That fact suggests something important about the human condition. Something important about our own lives. To be blessed is not to be pain free. To be blessed is not to have it perfect. To be blessed is not to have it easy. The essence of being blessed is something else.
When Abraham first steps into the pages of history as the father of the Jewish people, in parshat lech lecha last week, God promises him blessing. I, God, will bless you, Abraham. You are going to be so blessed that anyone who blesses you will be blessed, anyone who curses you will be cursed. The blessings are just going to flow.
No sooner does God promise all this blessing, than Abraham begins with what the rabbis call the eser nisyonot shel abraham, the ten trials of Abraham. Moving about. From Iraq to Israel. From Israel to Egypt. From Egypt back to Israel. Famine. Kidnapping. His wife Sarah is kidnapped by Pharaoh. His nephew Lot is kidnapped by invading kings. Strife with local herdsmen. War with kings. Circumcision at the age of 99. Infertility. Sarah’s bitterness when Hagar gets pregnant. The banishment of Hagar and Ishmael. The command to sacrifice Isaac. The death of Sarah.
At the end of next week’s portion, Abraham is estranged from Isaac, whom he bound for slaughter, estranged from Ishmael, whom he banished, without Sarah who dies, without Hagar, whom he banished. Abraham is far from his family of origin. In a word, Abraham is all alone.
The tested one is the blessed one. The blessed one is the tested one.
What is the message here? If blessing does not mean pain-free, perfect, easy, what does blessing mean? I want to pause here and leave you marinating on that question for a moment.
But I also want to point out one other feature of Abraham. One of the appositives for Abraham is that he is haivri, the one who crossed over. Abraham is the one who crosses boundaries. As the father of our people, part of Abraham’s legacy is to be countercultural, to challenge, to resist, the norms and values of our surrounding culture that are not edifying.
Which leads me to these catalogues. Every day I get a large number of catalogues in the mail that I do not want, do not need, did not ask for. When I happen to be home when the mail arrives, I can literally hear the thump, the thud, of an avalanche of unwanted catalogues hitting the floor. The message of these catalogues is: buy, buy, buy. To have more is to be more.
Electrical gadgets. Yoga clothing. Work out clothing. Fancy men’s wear. Fancy women’s clothing. Kitchen appliances. 1,000 things clamoring for our attention. There are also catalogues for exotic travel. Take a cruise to the Baltic. A bike ride in Croatia. You have not lived until you have been to Iceland, the true holy land.
To have more is to be more. To travel to exotic places is to be more. To buy and to consume is to be more. This idea is baked into our national culture as Americans. Thanksgiving is the day of gratitude. The day after Thanksgiving, that Friday is black Friday. After practicing gratitude with friends and loved ones on Thursday, shop till you drop on Friday.
The measure of a life are the toys that you can accumulate over the course of your life.
That is where Abraham’s counter cultural move is so beautiful and so helpful. When we meet Abraham in our portion this morning, he is still smarting from his circumcision at the age of 99. But he forces himself out of his sick bed to show hospitality to the three strangers. He runs, he does not walk, to feed them his finest food.
Later in the portion, he pleads with God to save the few innocents who might live in Sodom and Gomorrah. Far be it from you God, to sweep away the innocent along with the guilty. He gives away his passion and his voice.
In both cases, feeding strangers, advocating for the innocent, he is not about himself. He is about others. To be more does not mean to have more. To be more means to give away more.
The measure of a life is what you give away. What energy do you give away? What resources to you give away? What time to you give away? Whom do you help? That is your metric for the life well lived.
Which leads us back to the conundrum over how Abraham could be both the blessed one and the tested one. To be blessed is not to have more. To be blessed is to give away more. The original blessing, when God first signs up Abraham for the covenantal package, is veheyei berakha, which means you shall be a blessing. Blessing here is a verb. Blessing is something you do for other people.
At the beginning of the Torah, we learn that nobody, not even Abraham, gets it pain free, perfect, or easy. The human condition includes trials and ordeals. See Abraham. Nobody gets a pass. But if you are a blessing to other people, you will fill your own life, in all of its pain and imperfection, with meaning, purpose and joy. If you are a blessing to other people, you will make of your life a blessing. You cannot buy blessing in a catalogue. You can only earn blessing through decency.
This past week I was with a family whose patriarch passed away at a young age. I was sitting with his wife and children and grandchildren. They really loved him. It was so interesting what they had to say about him. He was very successful. He made it financially. But nobody talked about that. Here is what every person talked about.
When his son was a young boy, his father threw him a birthday party. He wanted this party to be special. So the father read up on how to be a birthday party clown. He got the outfit, the make-up, the presence, the carriage, the shtick, for being a birthday party clown. He was apparently so effective that one of the other parents went up to him after the party and said: My son is quite ill. My son is at the Floating Children’s Hospital. I would pay you any price if you could do that clown routine for the children at Floating. This man answered: I will be happy to do my clown routine, but of course I would never take a penny. Shortly thereafter, he emerged as Bagels the Clown and entertained children hospitalized at Floating. He proceeded to do so regularly every year for 28 years. He did this until his strength gave way and he could do it no more. When he passed, his wife, his children, his grandchildren, did not talk about his car or his watches or his homes. They talked about Bagels the Clown for 28 years.
The measure of our life is not what we have, but what we give away. That is the message of Abraham. That is what it means to be truly blessed. Shabbat shalom.