June 15, 2024
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The grand narrative of Parshat Lech Lecha follows Avraham’s journey as he follows God’s directive: travelling from his home in Haran and establishing a new life in Eretz Yisrael. The story reaches its climax when Avraham receives the promise that he will have children and they will inherit the land. With wonderful imagery, the verse describes God’s words to Avraham:

“He took him outside and He said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars if you are able to count them.’ And He said, ‘So shall your offspring be.’” (Bereishit 15:5)

This verse poses two difficulties.

First, God promises Avraham that his family will grow to become a large nation. But we have yet to see this promise fulfilled! The Jewish nation, having been persecuted throughout the generations, remains small (and very countable). Is it possible that this promise – unlike the other patriarchal promises in Bereishit – was never fulfilled?

Second, there seems to be a syntactical repetition in the verse. “And He took him outside and He said… count the stars; and He said ‘so shall your…’” Why did God begin “speaking” two separate times? It seems as though God needed to re-engage Avraham after making His initial request to “count the stars.”

Rav Meir Shapira of Lublin addresses this question by explaining that God needed to re-engage Avraham as Avraham actually stood, looked up and began to count, star by star. God needed to interrupt Avraham’s counting in order to continue their dialogue!

Continuing this spectacular explanation, Rav Shapira explains that the phrase “so shall” refers not to a quantitative blessing (regarding the Israelites being as numerous as the stars), but rather to Avraham’s act of counting. Counting the stars—the ability to achieve an impossible task—will be the qualitative blessing given to Avraham’s descendants.

Too often in our contemporary culture people falsely measure the true value of something by a total number—be it likes, dollar signs or signatures. By de-emphasizing the actual sum of the stars in the sky, the verse offers a recalibrated focus not on the size of Am Yisrael but on the greatness of those who have this special spark within.

In a similar vein, Rashi comments: “And He took him out: He took Avraham out from his astrological definitions.”

We all have natural powers and capabilities, but what God demanded of Avraham at this point was that he move beyond his natural abilities—to exceed his own expectations and perceived limitations. It is this very capability, promised by God, that has been interwoven within our spiritual genetic code.

In the glow of the Yamim Noraim and the promises we made to improve and actualize our best selves, encountering this verse so soon after the end of Tishrei is a further motivation toward taking that leap to the greatness we are striving for as individuals and as a nation.

This perspective also helps us understand a more nuanced way to discuss popular conceptions about aliyah.

For many, the concept of moving across the world can be overwhelming before even considering the varied logistics of Hebrew, taxes and finding a new community. This often leaves one in awe of the greater concept but frozen with regard to the actionable undertaking. Aliyah becomes a topic that is all or nothing, and the concept of making such a leap leaves many stuck without a direction.

Many of life’s greatest achievements seem like an enormous and impossible mountain to climb and the first footsteps are the most difficult.

Through Rav Shapira’s approach, one can channel the energy of this verse, the command to Avraham and Avraham’s decision to start counting, and thus visualize one active step forward towards reaching your goal. Even if the first step may be a small action, each of us can dip into this qualitative ability to actualize your most inspiring goals.

Looking at the accomplishments of Jewish history and the challenges that have been overcome, this is certainly a promise that is—and continues to be—fulfilled.


Rabbi Yehoshua Fass is the co-founder and executive director of Nefesh B’Nefesh. He is a member of the Mizrachi Speakers Bureau (www.mizrachi.org/speakers).

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