The narrative of Parshat Lech Lecha follows Avraham’s journey as he follows God’s directive, travels from his home in Haran and establishes a new life in Eretz Yisrael. The story reaches its climax when Avraham receives the promise that he will have children who will inherit the land. With wonderful imagery, the pasuk describes Hashem’s words to Avraham:
“And He [Hashem] took him out and He said: ‘Look at the heavens and count the stars, if you are able to count them;’ and He said to him, ‘Your children will be like this’”
This pasuk poses two difficulties. Firstly, Hashem 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?
Secondly, there seems to be syntactical repetition in the verse. “And He took him outside and He said… count the stars; and He said…” Why did Hashem start “speaking” two distinct times? It seems as if Hashem needed to re-engage Avraham after making His initial request to “count the stars.” Looking closely, it is precisely the grammatical anomaly of the second difficulty that explains and properly interprets the first one.
Rav Meir Shapira of Lublin addresses the question of syntax and explains that the reason Hashem needed to re-engage Avraham was because Avraham actually stood up, looked skyward and started to count, star by star. Hashem needed to interrupt Avraham’s counting in order to continue their dialogue.
Continuing this spectacular explanation, Rav Shapira explains that the word “this,” 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 descendents. The prophecy is that of a nation that strives to achieve the impossible and implausible.
In a similar vein, Rashi comments: “And He [Hashem] took him out; He took Avraham out from his astrological definitions.” We all have natural powers and capabilities, but what Hashem demanded here of Avraham was that he move beyond his natural abilities, to exceed his own expectations and perceived limitations. It is this very capability that Hashem promised and is interwoven within our spiritual genetic code.
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).