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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Efraim and Menashe in the Parasha: Underpromising, Overdelivering and the Torah Portion of Lech Lechah

The opening verses of the Torah portion of Lech Lecha is loaded with meaning. Rashi's comments elucidate their depth, but also raise interesting questions. Much has been written about the first verse, therefore this post will focus on verses two and three:

1. And the Lord said to Abram, "Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you.
2. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing.   

3. And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you."

Below are a few of Rashi's comments:

And I will make you into a great nation: Since traveling (lit. "the way") causes three things: 1) it diminishes procreation, 2) it diminishes money, and 3) it diminishes fame (lit. name), therefore, he required these three blessings, namely that He blessed him concerning children, concerning money, and concerning fame. 

and [you shall] be a blessing: The blessings are entrusted into your hand. Until now, they were in My hand; I blessed Adam and Noah. From now on, you may bless whomever you wish. (Gen. Rabbah) (ad loc.). 
shall be blessed in you: There are many aggadoth, but this is its simple meaning: A man says to his son, May you be like Abraham. And so is every instance of [the words] “shall be blessed with you” in Scripture. And the following [text] proves this (below 48:20):“With you, Israel shall bless, saying: May God make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh.” - [from Sifrei, Naso 18]

There are a few obvious questions here: 

1) Rashi addresses three blessings that parallel three things that are diminished during travel. However, G-d gave four separate blessings, not three. Shouldn't Rashi list four concerns during travel as well, instead of three?

2) What is meant by G-d entrusting "the blessings" to Avraham? Which blessings? All blessings, or the particular ones mentioned in this verse? 

3) What is the advantage of stating, "and the one who curses you I will curse?" Wouldn't it be better if no one cursed Avraham to begin with? 

4) According to Rashi, G-d tells Avraham that "all the families of the earth" will say, "May you be like Avraham." Yet, we see that today we do not say, "May we you be like Avraham," but instead use the formula which Rashi uses in this very comment to prove his argument, "May G-d make you like Ephraim and like Menasheh." Based on this verse, people should also say, "May you be like Avraham!"

Perhaps we can arrive to an answer to these questions by examining a much later verse, found in the Torah portion of Ki Teitzei, in Chapter 23 of Devarim:

4. An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter the assembly of the Lord; even the tenth generation shall never enter the assembly of the Lord.     
5. Because they did not greet you with bread and water on the way, when you left Egypt, and because he [the people of Moab] hired Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor in Aram Naharaim against you, to curse you.    

RASHI - Because: Heb. עַל-דְּבַר [lit., “because of the word,” i.e.,] because of the [word of] advice they gave you (sic), to cause you to sin. — [Sifrei 23:114]
on the way: when you were in [a state of] extreme exhaustion. — [Sifrei 23:114]
6. But the Lord, your God, did not want to listen to Balaam. So the Lord, your God, transformed the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord, your God, loves you.  

The people of Ammon and Moab demonstrated qualities diametrically opposed to that of Avraham. While Avraham was known for his hospitality and kindness, serving his guests food and providing them with shelter (both physical and spiritual), Moab was cold, heartless, and selfish. Such people could not join "the assembly of the Lord."

Similarly, as also previously noted in this blog (http://www.kabbalahoftime.com/2014/07/words-in-desert-horrible-bosses-and.html), Balaam represented the exact opposite of Avraham. About Balaam, Balak states, "whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed." (Bamidbar 22:6) As also noted before in this blog, the contrast between Avraham and Balaam is explored in Pirkei Avot (5:19): 

Whoever possesses the following three traits is of the disciples of our father Abraham; and whoever possesses the opposite three traits is of the disciples of the wicked Balaam. The disciples of our father Abraham have a good eye, a meek spirit and a humble soul. The disciples of the wicked Balaam have an evil eye, a haughty spirit and a gross soul.

What is the difference between the disciples of our father Abraham and the disciples of the wicked Balaam? The disciples of our father Abraham benefit in this world and inherit the World To Come, and as is stated, "To bequeath to those who love Me there is, and their treasures I shall fill" (Proverbs 8:21). The disciples of the wicked Balaam inherit purgatory and descent into the pit of destruction, as is stated, "And You, G-d, shall cast them into the pit of destruction; bloody and deceitful men, they shall not attain half their days. And I shall trust in you" (ibid., 55:24).

1) The above verses from Devarim do in fact point to a fourth danger of travelling (again, lit. "on the way"): the curse of an evil eye. A person becomes susceptible to it if he/she sins. One becomes particularly susceptible to sin if he/she is exhausted. 

2) Hashem's entrusting Avraham with the blessings points to the qualities instilled in him and his students/descendants that serve as a shield against Ammon and Moab in general, and Balaam in particular. A person's best defense against the evil eye is for the person him/herself not be envious or haughty, but instead have a "good eye, a meek spirit and a humble soul." Such qualities lead to the desire as well as the power to bless, to give.

3) G-d delivers much more than He promises. Not only would Hashem curse the one that wished to curse the Jewish people, but instead He did not even allow the curse to take place at all. 

4) Similarly, Hashem's blessing of having all the families of the earth say, "May you be like Avraham," will certainly one day be fulfilled as well on a literal sense, in an even greater measure. In fact, the blessing given today already hints to this greater level of fulfillment. "May G-d make you like Ephraim and like Menasheh," is a reference to the blessing given by Jacob that the children of Efraim and Menasheh (who are in fact an extension of Avraham), "will multiply like fish over the land," "Veyidgu LaRov BeKerev Ha'Aretz." 

The above blessing speaks to the growth and the numerous descendants promised to Avraham, yet also includes an additional blessing, possessed by fish and also by all the descendants of Joseph: protection against the evil eye (mentioned above).  The Talmud (Berachot 55b) states:  

"The fish in the waters are concealed by the water, and thus not susceptible to the Evil Eye. So too, the descendants of Joseph are not susceptible to the Evil Eye."

By blessing each Jewish child with a reference to Efraim and Menashe, we expand Yaakov's blessing to all the Jewish people, while at the same time more than fulfilling the original blessing with which Hashem blessed Avraham.

May we merit to see the fulfillment of all of the G-d's promises and blessings to the Jewish people (and much more), with the coming of Mashiach, speedily in our days!

We hereby complete a full cycle of comments on Torah portions. Baruch Hashem L'Olam, Amen veAmen.

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