"When one pleases one's fellow creatures, God is pleased; when one does not please one's fellow creatures, God is not pleased.” — Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa
The Promise That Moved Abraham
If you there was one thing you'd want to be remembered for after you physically left this earth, what would that be?
Would it be the size of your bank account or stock portfolio? Would it be your physical beauty as preserved in photos? Would it be the length of your obituary?
It is a question that the founder of Judaism, Abraham, considers this week as God provides him with marching orders to leave his hometown in modern-day Turkey and journey to what one day will be called Israel.
Let's set the stage: In his early 60s, it appears that Abram — as he was known then — has it all; he has wealth, he is respected, he is married to an attractive and compassionate partner.
As Abram prepares to enter his years of semi-retirement, God approaches him and instructs him to leave it all behind. Says God, “Go forth (Lech Lecha) from your native land ...to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:3)
Is it any wonder that the Torah does not record a response?
So, God sweetens the deal. “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.”
God then adds an additional incentive, “I will make your name great.” But there still is no record of a response from Abram.
But then God makes a pledge, which according to my mentor, Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, of blessed memory, was the “deal maker” that sent Abram, wife Sarai and their entourage on their way.
Later in the Torah, God will add the “H” sound to Abram's name, as Judaism's founder transitions to Abraham. God literally “makes his name great.”
God promises Abraham, “and you shall be a blessing” and two sentences later, Abraham goes forth “as God commanded him.”
The phrase, from Genesis 12:2, was the favorite of Rabbi Ehrenkranz, whose teachings I'm currently compiling. Why did Rabbi Joe so adore the sentence “and you shall be a blessing?”
In his words, “there are so many things we can acquire in a lifetime — children and grandchildren, a Shem Tov — a good name — but maybe the most important thing is to be a blessing unto others.”
What does that mean? It means when we walk into a room, people smile and appreciate our company. It means that our advice and wisdom are welcomed.
In short — Rabbi Joe taught — each one of us wishes to be accepted and embraced as a blessing to others.
For it was Abraham and Sarah who led a religious revolution that would ultimately spawn three religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Notes the Etz Chaim biblical text: “Abraham was the first person to realize that the world is ruled by one God who demands righteous behavior of humanity.”
And that is the blessing that Abraham leaves behind.
The teaching goes on to confirm that it is not so much God's approval that each of us needs to acquire, but rather the love and respect of those around us — our family, friends and community.
That is the blessing.
Noted the Talmudic scholar Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, “When one pleases one's fellow creatures, God is pleased; when one does not please one's fellow creatures, God is not pleased.” (Pirkei Avot 3:13)
Translation: “You can pray all you want, provide the choicest sacrifices at the Temple, but if people don't like you through your actions, then God doesn't like you. But, conversely, if people like you, then God likes you.”
It's one of the cornerstone teachings of my late mentor. During the latter part of November and December, I will attempt to condense 25 hours of tapes recorded from 2011 to 2013, into a book of transcripts which will be titled “The Book of Joe.”
And somewhere near its beginning, it will bear this message: If Judaism is to move into the future, it must focus on the core values that were advanced by Abraham and Sarah. These include hospitality, kindness and compassion.
This week's Torah portion inspires us to ask ourselves, if we have yet become a blessing, or if we are too grounded by our passions.
Are we supporting causes that promote the healing of the world, or are we overly dedicated to our own physical pursuits? Indeed, pleasure is part of life, but it can't be all. How can we be better parents, spouses, citizens, children of God?
Abraham, at the height of his physical success, embraces the core desire within us all to be a blessing unto others.
Is there anything we can do today, to be that blessing?
There are some who believe that their best days are behind them. That what is done is done — that there are no more mountains to climb.
But, as Abraham modelled as he followed God's commandment to “go forth,” our best days can be ahead of us.
The grandmother of my friend and colleague, Reverend Roger Williams, once shared, that — “If you keep doing the same thing, your worst days are ahead of you. If you do better, your best days are ahead.”
Indeed, we are never done. It is that perpetual search for perfection, justice and peace that makes us a blessing.
For if we resolve to be kinder, to be more caring and compassionate, and to love better, we can follow in the shoes of Judaism's first couple, Abraham and Sarah.
And we, too, can be a blessing.
Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman