Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 1 November 2014 / 8 Heshvan 5775

Parshat Lech Lecha

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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Avram, who is childless, is afraid that his servant Eliezer will inherit him. G-d assures him, however, that “That one will not inherit you. Only he who will come forth from within you shall inherit you. And He took him outside and said, ‘Gaze now towards the heavens and count the stars if you are able to count them’. And He said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be’. And he trusted in G-d and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Bereishet 15:1-3)

Abarbanel finds numerous difficulties with these verses. Why does the Torah tell us that only in this instance Avram trusted in G-d? There were numerous other occasions where G-d made promises to Avram. What is meant by “and he reckoned it to him as righteousness”? Is this G-d speaking in reference to Avram, or vice-versa? Finally, what is meant by “righteousness”?

Abarbanel answers that Avram’s trusting G-d is a reference not just to this promise but to all previous promises as well. Avram refers to these promises as an example of G-d demonstrating righteousness towards Avram, in that he is deserving of them, having followed G-d’s directive by leaving Ur Kasdim years earlier. The expression “and he trusted in G-d” can also refer to the future, meaning that Avram’s progeny will also trust in G-d. When G-d tells Avram to count the stars, he is referring primarily not to the number of progeny, but rather to six special characteristics that will set them apart from all other nations.

Generally speaking, the nation — and particularly its prophets, scholars and righteous leaders — will be compared to the magnificent stars themselves. This is expressed clearly in the Book of Daniel (12:3): “The wise will shine like the radiance of the firmament, and those who teach righteousness to the multitudes will shine like the stars, for ever and ever.”

Just like the enormous number of stars cannot be counted, so too the nation of Israel will multiply to the extent that it will be impossible to enumerate. Thus the nation of Israel is compared to the stars both qualitatively and quantitatively. Abarbanel states that there are an enormous number of stars not visible to the naked eye, a fact not subscribed to by the rest of world when he wrote his commentary in the early 1500’s, long before the invention of the telescope.

Just like the heavenly bodies do not move by themselves, but are directed by a separate mover, i.e. G-d, so too the Jewish nation exists and moves forward through history according to G-d’s command. Just like all the heavenly bodies conform strictly to G-d’s direction, so too will Avram’s progeny be led to the fulfillment of G-d’s ultimate plan for the Jewish People. This is indicated by Yosef’s famous dream in which his father, mother and brothers are compared to the sun, moon and stars whose movements are directed by G-d.

Just like the heavenly bodies by virtue of their very existence proclaim the glory and honor of G-d, so too the nation of Israel was uniquely blessed to do the same. The verse in Psalms (115:16) states: “The heavens are to G-d, and the earth was given to man.” This means that the heavenly bodies were created to proclaim G-d’s praises, and the earth was given to mankind that it should do the same. But not everyone is capable of doing so. The unique, spiritual essence of the Jewish nation allows it to overcome negative temptations, and as a result G-d has granted it eternal blessing through its adherence to Torah, which sings the praises of G-d just like the heavenly bodies.

Just like the heavenly bodies in their movement sometimes ascend and cast their light, and sometimes descend and are no longer visible, so too the nation of Israel will undergo periods of spiritual ascent and success, and periods of descent into baseness and spiritual failure.

The physical universe, even though it had a definite beginning from absolute nothingness, is not progressing toward a definite end. Rather, it is eternal. Similarly the Jewish nation, even though its makeup and fortunes vacillate between good and evil, and freedom and slavery, will never be destroyed, even by the pressures of the Exile. As G-d says in the Torah (Vayikra 26:44) “I will not have been revolted by them nor will I have rejected them to obliterate them.” Furthermore, the prophet Isaiah relates in the name of G-d, “For just as the new heavens and the new earth that I will make will endure before me, the word of G-d, so will your offspring and your name endure.”

These last two characteristics, which equate the eternity of the Jewish nation to the eternity of the physical universe, offer another explanation to the enigmatic verse, “and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Here, it is G-d who is speaking to Avram and is referring to the future, not the past. He is telling Avram that in the future his offspring will be dealt with by Divine Providence and righteous judgment according to what they deserve, be it reward or punishment.

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