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What Does It Truly Mean to Be Blessed?
CHAYEI SARA, Genesis 24:1-25:18
In this week's Torah portion, we read: "Abraham was now old, advanced in years, and the Lord blessed Abraham in all things." What does it mean to be truly blessed, to feel that God has granted us all we could possibly want in life? There are probably as many answers to this as there are different kinds of people.
Our talmudic sages seem to reflect this diversity in their interpretations of this verse. Rabbi Eliezer of Modai opines that the blessing means that Abraham was such a great prognosticator of the future that all the kings of the east and west would arrive early at his door to ask his advice.
In other words, Abraham was a political and professional success. Some of us would view the greatest blessing in life as achieving public acclaim, and thereby leaving our mark on posterity. Being well-regarded by others is the peak blessing, according to this perspective.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai offers another view: There was a precious stone that hung from Abraham's neck, and any sick person who looked at it was instantly cured. The great blessing given to Abraham was his ability to heal. This interpretation suggests, in contrast to the previous one, that it is not external prestige that matters but what you give to others -- even if that is never acknowledged. Physicians might want to frame this passage for inspiration, with its understanding that the gift of healing ultimately comes from God.
Another passage holds that Abraham's great blessing was that the yetzer hara -- "evil inclination," or impulse to follow selfish and base desires -- had no control over him. This blessing, as some talmudic commentators point out, cannot be taken literally. After all, if this were true, then Abraham would not be deserving of reward. He would have nothing to overcome, no moral choices to make.
My understanding is that Abraham had so conditioned himself through the years that doing good and avoiding evil was second nature to him. He was that rare individual who could not be tempted to gossip, lie or exploit another. His blessing from God was the enormous power of self-control and self-discipline.
Another cluster of opinions sees the great blessing as emanating from Abraham's children. Rabbi Yehuda maintains that Abraham had a daughter with the woman he married after Sarah's death. His family was complete, having everything, as Nachmanides puts it, that people desire.
Abraham's reward is that Ishmael repents. Notice his blessing is not that Isaac follows in his footsteps; this was expected. Rather, it's that Ishmael, the previously wayward son, becomes a righteous person. When our children turn their lives around, our exultation is greatest.
Finally, Abraham is said to have been blessed with a taste of the world to come. What exactly that means is not clear, since the sages themselves have diverse opinions as to what the world to come (the afterlife) involves. It could simply mean that Abraham was blessed with the secure knowledge that God knew and valued what a good person he'd been, and would, therefore, grant him the ultimate reward.
A more expansive interpretation might hold that Abraham was gifted with the faith to believe in the afterlife -- and that alone was his "taste of the world to come."
In addition to all these blessings, we know from the Torah that Abraham had wealth, honor and longevity. Truly, he was the man with everything. Few of us are in a position to merit all of Abraham's blessings.
But if you had to choose just one, which one would it be?
Would you prefer status and prestige, or the ability to help others without societal rewards?
Perhaps if we aspire to emulate Abraham and his behavior, we can enjoy many of these very same blessings.
Rabbi Alan Iser is rabbi of Congregation Or Shalom in Berwyn, and an adjunct instructor in the department of theology at Villanova University.