THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Chayei Sarah – פרשת חיי שרה
November 11, 2017 – כב מרחשון תשעח
This essay is dedicated in memory of Goldie Wruble רחל גולדה בת צבי אריה.
Blessed with Everything
After attending to Sarah’s funerary needs, Abraham shifts his focus to Isaac’s matrimonial prospects. Abraham sends his servant to Aram Naharaim, the family’s ancestral home, in search of an appropriate bride. This episode is preceded by a peculiar introductory verse. “Now Abraham was old, well on in years, and the Lord blessed Abraham with everything בכל (Genesis 24:1).” An alternate translation of בכל is “in all things.” The commentators must address two questions: (a) what is the relationship between the divine blessing and the subsequent narrative about Abraham’s servant? (b) What does it mean for Abraham to have been blessed in all things?
Radak explains that Abraham had everything he possibly could have wanted in this world. The only thing missing was a suitable wife for his son. Rashbam notes that 24:1 is necessary lest the reader develop the mistaken impression that Isaac was an undesirable marriage partner and that the servant’s long journey to Aram was necessary to find a woman willing to marry him. The contrary was true. Abraham was blessed with everything and indeed his son was highly sought after by the local Canaanite girls. It was only because Abraham did not want Isaac to marry a local idolater that he sent his servant to a distant land. Sforno understands the word בכל as the reason why Abraham forced his servant to take an oath not to betroth a local girl to Isaac. Because of his great wealth, Abraham feared that some undesirable individual with an available daughter would bribe the servant to arrange a marriage with Isaac. To forestall this possibility, Abraham had his servant swear in the name of the God of heaven and earth not to violate his instructions (24:3).
But in what specific ways was Abraham blessed? Since the text is silent on this point, any commentary will, perforce, reveal more about the priorities of the commentator than it will illuminate the intended meaning of the verse. Rashi notes that the word בכל has the same numerical value (gematria), 52, as the word בן, or son. Rashi had no sons. It is therefore not surprising that he viewed the divine gift of a male child as the ultimate blessing.
Ibn Ezra adopts a more expansive definition of בכל. He notes that God blessed Abraham with long life, riches, honor, and progeny. Interestingly, Ibn Ezra does not attempt to prove each of these assertions with citations from Scripture. Rather, he categorically states, “Such is the desire of all man.” This claim is supported by the Mishnah. It states that “Beauty, power, riches, honor, wisdom, old age, and offspring are good for the righteous (Avot 6:8).”
The Talmud (Baba Bathra 16b-17a) offers many widely differing explanations for בכל. According to Rabbi Meir, the word בכל means that Abraham had no daughters. The charitable understanding of Rabbi Meir’s interpretation is this: Had Abraham begotten a daughter, he would have been hard-pressed to find a suitable husband for her in a land dominated by idolatrous Canaanites. However, as a matter of historical and Talmudic accuracy, it cannot be denied that Rabbi Meir did indeed have a relatively low estimation of women. He firmly believed in the Talmud dictum that “Women are light-headed נשים דעתן קלות (Kiddushin 80b).” He also wrote the morning blessing (recited by men) thanking God “That Thou hast not made me a women שלא עשני אשה (Menachot 43b).” Moreover, legend has it that Rabbi Meir’s career ended ignominiously after his wife succumbed to the sexual blandishments of one of his students and then committed suicide (Rashi, Avodah Zarah 18b). Accordingly, it seems that we may safely infer that Rabbi Meir’s negative attitude toward women animated his interpretation of בכל in our verse.
Directly contrary to Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Judah understands the verse to mean that, indeed, a daughter was born to Abraham. Technically, one satisfies the obligation to “be fruitful and multiply” only after siring both a son and a daughter. Abraham was so pleased to have finally fulfilled this commandment that he felt blessed in every way. Alternatively, the birth of a daughter is an exceedingly joyous moment. Even more so than with the birth of a boy, the birth of a girl results in further propagation and the continuation of the species. In the same interpretive spirit as Rabbi Judah, “Others” claimed that Abraham had a daughter named בכל. [However, Ibn Ezra, ever the grammarian, correctly notes that בכל could not possibly be a proper noun, otherwise the prefix ב would be necessary – i.e., there would have to be two letters ב before כל, one part of the name proper, and the other meaning “by” or “by means of.” There aren’t. Therefore, either the supposed daughter’s name was not בכל or there was no daughter at all.]
Rabbi Elazar Ha-Moda’i offered the interpretation that Abraham was blessed with profound knowledge of astrology. All the kings of the East and West would turn to him for advice. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai explains that Abraham possessed a unique gem, endowed with special healing powers, which he hung around his neck. Throughout the centuries, Jews have been represented disproportionately in the fields of statecraft and medicine. Medieval and early modern monarchs, including many who were hostile to Jews and Judaism, often had Jewish counselors and physicians. Samuel ibn Nagrela, Maimonides, and Don Isaac Abarbanel were respected by heads of state for their unparalleled sagaciousness. Abraham’s descendants were blessed with everything, בכל, in the form of superior intellect and unsurpassed skill in the learned professions.
Abraham was further blessed in that, during his lifetime, Ishmael repented. Also, Esau did not rebel until after Abraham’s death. The sages were gravely concerned that their children should follow in their footsteps and not depart from the path of Torah. Yet it was not uncommon for the children of the learned to be unlettered (Nedarim 81a). For example, the son of Jose ben Joezer was an avowed Hellenist who rejected Jewish tradition. He was disinherited by his father (Baba Bathra 133b). Considering the hysteria that grips many Jewish parents over the prospect of their child’s possible assimilation, it is not surprising that one’s ultimate blessing can be deemed to be not seeing such apostasy.
Another interpretation of בכל is that, while still living, Abraham tasted a portion of the World to Come; he was no longer subject to temptation by the evil inclination; he did not meet his end at the hand of the Angel of Death; and his corpse was not consumed by worms and maggots. Escaping the clutches of the evil inclination was of particular importance to the sages, who claimed that the greater the man the stronger the temptation to sin (Sukkah 52b). Death by divine kiss was seen as the ideal way to expire, thereby avoiding the terrible discomforts of terminal illness (Berakhot 8a). It was also believed that a deceased person’s soul is aggrieved by the knowledge that his or her flesh is being consumed by worms (Shabbat 13b).
We study the tales of the Patriarchs in order, in part, to try to incorporate their estimable behavior and philosophy into our lives. All three Patriarchs expressed satisfaction with their lot to the point of believing that they had everything (Genesis 24:1; 27:33; 33:11). This notion is captured in the phrase בכל מכל כל recited in the Grace after Meals. The Talmudic era sages emphasized reproduction, intellectual achievement, protecting the next generation from religious corruption, and avoiding the horrible pains of morbidity and subsequent bodily disintegration in the grave.
We should ask ourselves what we desire God to grant us in order for us to feel as though we have everything. For too many people, the answer may be a frivolous one, and relate to a mere hobby or triviality of no conceivable real significance. A perfect example is the banner that was held aloft when the Rangers won the Stanley Cup at Madison Square Garden on June 14, 1994: It read “NOW I CAN DIE IN PEACE.” Yes, presumably it was meant as a joke; still, such a joke possesses the unfortunate sub-text that a sports team’s victory has some sort of inherent good embedded within it, or possesses some kind of moral value, or is a “blessing” that the fan is, indeed, thankful to have received. Such a mindset is cheapening. It is coarse. It is contrary to a proper understanding, in Judaism, of what a true blessing is.
For faithful descendants of Abraham, being blessed with everything means departing this world confident that moral and religious values were properly reflected in our lives as we led them, and that they will continue to guide the ensuing generations not only of our immediate families but of all Jews.