Homiletics on a Famous Rashi Comment

PARASHAT LECH-LECHA: What we can learn about the modern "Baal Teshuva" movement from Avraham Avinu

By Rabbi Ian Shaffer

ב  וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ, וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ; וֶהְיֵה, בְּרָכָה.

2 And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing.

רש”י בראשית פרק יב פסוק ב

דבר אחר ואעשך לגוי גדול זהו שאומרים אלהי אברהם, ואברכך זהו שאומרים אלהי יצחק, ואגדלה שמך זהו שאומרים אלהי יעקב. יכול יהיו חותמין בכולן, תלמוד לומר והיה ברכה, בך חותמין ולא בהם

Rashi is quoting from Chazal,on the concept of Avraham being a ‘blessing’, after mentioning that he will be ‘blessed by God’ and be made great. Chazal see this phraseology as a reference to the Amidah prayer. Even though all the Avot are alluded to in the prayer, the final part of the prayer makes Avraham into the main element of the blessing – “Your name will be at the end of the Bracha on its own’.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, (in his collection of sermons called The Royal Reach(1970), asks an obvious question here. If Avraham is the outstanding one, then this becomes like a tripod which has one leg longer than the others and in such a circumstance this type of tripod cannot stand. How can the Avot have one person with a greater essence than the others? Are they not all ‘fathers’ of the nation?

Rabbi Lamm answers by explaining, in a homiletical way, that Chazal are giving us an insight into the great Mitzvot which are represented by the Avot. Avraham represents ‘chessed’ – kindness, Yitzchak represents ‘avodah’- prayer and Yaakov ‘Torah’ – the study of Torah. By stressing Avraham at the end of the blessing, Chazal are telling us that his influence of ‘chessed’ has to be applied to all elements which the Avot represent. If avodah is to be complete, it must not be just functionary, but should be done with a generosity of time and spirit, not just to get it over with as a daily chore. The same is true for Torah study. One must allow oneself more time to understand the Torah well and even if this means more time away from other daily pursuits, it is worth it.

Finally, even the chessed of Avraham should be carried out in a ‘chessed ‘way. How many times do we give Tzedakah, but in a begrudging way, without any sense of generosity of spirit. This is why the presence of Avraham is the concluding point, as his lessons of chessed should permeate our actions when performing so many Mitzvot (even chessed itself), not just to get them over with but to do them as an act of love and kindness.

Rabbi Shimon Shkop (Rosh Yeshiva of Telz, Grodno and( for one year) RIETS, who died in 1940) gives a completely different approach to this comment of Rashi. He explains that Avraham represents the Jew who has no ‘yichus’ in his background. His father was an idol worshipper and certainly his grandfather and beyond. As Rav Hutner zal calls it in one of his essays, he is the first ‘gevorrener’ Jew. Yitzchak already is different, for even though his grandfather was bad, his father was a great Tzadik and there are some positive elements in his background. Yaakov is the quintessential Jew who comes from both a father and grandfather who were both Tzaddikim. He is described by Rav Hutner zal as a ‘geborener’ Jew, (as was Yitzchak).

In the days of the Mashiach, Rav Shkop argues, those who will come to learn Torah in the Yeshivot and seminaries will not just be the ‘geborrener’ Jews, with parents and grandparents steeped in Torah tradition. The main bulk of attendees will come from ‘Avraham’ type Jews, who will have no background in Torah studies but will flock to the Yeshiva to hear the word of God. This is what Chazal mean when they say:

בך חותמין ולא בהם – They will complete the blessing with you at the end (meaning at the end of days – in Messianic times). At the end of days, it will be the ‘Avraham’ type Jews who will come to the Yeshiva. This is a remarkable comment from a prewar Rosh Yeshiva, whose yeshiva was catering to the boys who came from learned families. This also reflects a phenomenon of our generation which we have called ‘the Baal Teshuva movement’ and it was a statement of both faith and ‘prophecy’ that Rabbi Shkop made in the prewar years.

Let us hope that in our ‘brave New World’ that we are now experiencing, especially with such major political changes taking place, the word of God will be listened to, even by those who have no background of a recognizable religious upbringing, and that our new leaders will hasten the advent of the Messianic promises for a better world, speedily in our days.

Originally appears on YUTorah

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