Shaarei Shamayim

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He was an old man. Sarah, his wife, had just passed away and he was beginning to feel the effects of his age. When he looked back at his life, he realized that he had experienced his share of challenges and sorrows: leaving his father's home, smuggling his wife into Egypt and later among the Philistines and nearly losing his life to 2 lustful kings in the process; dealing with a jealous wife, expelling Hagar and Ishmael from his home, and dealing with the feud between his householders and those of Lot. And then there was the Akeyda; Isaac had not spoken to his father ever since that fateful day when Abraham placed him on the altar and nearly slaughtered him as commanded by the mysterious Gd in whom he believed. Now he realized that he only had one son in his household, Isaac, and Isaac was a bachelor, so he had no grandchildren. Abraham looked back at his life in his old age with a mixture of wonder and sorrow, regrets and misgivings.

And yet, the Torah (Gen. 24:1) describes his life with these words: V’Avraham zakeyn ba bayamim vaHashem beyrach et Avraham bakol (Abraham was old, advanced in years, and Gd had blessed Abraham bakol, with everything).

On this Thanksgiving weekend as we express thanksgiving for the things Gd has blessed us with, it is fitting to ask: What does it mean to be blessed bakol—with everything? Is there anyone who can claim that they feel that they “have it all”—that they are really blessed with everything? Are you so blessed that you can say you have been blessed with everything?

This expression, “Gd blessed Abraham bakol, with everything” was a source of fascination to our sages. Because the Torah is silent about what it means, the Talmud (Bava Batra 16b) offers a variety of different interpretations. Some explained that bakol means that Abraham was blessed with a son. Abraham had only one lifelong wish—to be blessed with a son to carry on his legacy. Rashi notes that the gematria numerical value of bakol is the 52—the same as the Hebrew word ben (son)!

The Talmud adds other explanations like Rabbi Meir who suggests that Abraham was blessed because he only had a son and no daughters! Anyone with a teenage daughter can relate to that at times. But not to worry—the sages weren’t so misogynistic. In fact Rabbi Yehuda explained bakol the other way around. If Abraham had everything, he maintained, it must mean that he indeed had a daughter as well because his life would be lacking without one. (He wouldn’t be able to fulfill the mitzvah of be fruitful and multiply without both a son and a daughter.) What was her name? Her name, others suggest, was bakol because to be blessed with a daughter meant you had everything! 

Still others explained that being blessed with everything means that Abraham came to terms with the conflicts and sorrows of his life. They claimed that Abraham was blessed with everything because he was reconciled with his son, Ishmael, before death. At the end of our parsha Isaac and Ishmael appear together at their father’s funeral. So maybe Abraham was blessed with all things because his children got along at the end of their lives!

Still others (Midrash Rabba) said that Abraham actually passed away prematurely so that he did not have to witness his grandson Esav’s rebellion as he married a Canaanite—with their idolatrous and violent ways. Abraham was “blessed with everything” because he didn’t live to experience such sorrow in his family.

Did you notice that all these explanations of Abraham’s bakol—being blessing with everything—has to do with family?! At the end of the day—at the end of our lives—family is the greatest source of blessing and sometimes the greatest source of sorrow and disappointment. 

There were other explanations as well. According to one Midrash, Abraham was blessed with “everything” because he was universally admired by the leaders of other nations who came to consult with him. Still others claimed that Abraham had the power to heal the sick—whoever came to see him would immediately be healed. In these explanations, Abraham’s blessing was his desire and ability to make the world a better place by sharing his gifts with others.

It’s interesting that the sages chose to ignore the most obvious explanation. How do we know that Abraham was blessed with everything? Because he was fabulously wealthy. He was a very rich man who lacked for nothing. As my grandmother liked to say, “Rich or poor, it’s good to have money!” Abraham lived out his years in comfort, was able to provide an ample dowry for Isaac’s marriage and even remarried and had 6 more children!

Finally, we find one more explanation. Some of the sages claimed the nature of Abraham’s blessing can be found in the beginning of this verse: V’Avraham zakeyn ba bayamim (Abraham was old, advanced in years). This approach maintains that old age was Abraham’s blessing. It cites the Talmud (Bava Metzia 87a) that claims that until the time of Abraham, young and old looked the same. No one grew grey, got wrinkled or lost their hair. An 80-year-old looked just as good as a 20-year-old! Sounds like a blessing doesn’t it?

But Abraham was distressed because people couldn’t tell the difference between him and his son! So he prayed to Gd and asked that he been given signs of advanced years. You see—from the Jewish perspective—age is not an embarrassment but a sign of dignity and honor. Age should not to be hidden or covered over but glorified and honored. To be a zakeyn (an elder) is to be one who acquires wisdom—as Rashi (Kidushin 32b) teaches, zakeyn is an acronym for zeh kana chochma (this one acquires wisdom). And so—according to this approach—Abraham was blessed because he was the 1st person to look old and be honor for it. 

Let me ask you: Are you blessed? What does it mean to be blessed? In Pirke Avot Ben Zoma asks: Eyzehu ashir? Who is rich? His answer: Hasomeyach b’chelko (One who is happy with his portion). Lou Gehrig—one of the greatest baseball players of all time—on July 4, 1939, shortly after he was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig disease—was honored by his fans and teammates at Yankee Stadium. Gehrig stood up and made the most famous speech in baseball history: “Today, I am the luckiest man in the world…” Imagine that—to have been handed a death sentence with a terrible disease and yet to still see one’s good fortune and blessings. Gehrig’s greatest gift was not in his successes on the baseball field; it was in his ability to recognize that he had lived the life he wanted, that he did what he loved, and that he was surrounded by people who loved him and cared about him. Are there any greater blessings than these? Gehrig ended his speech by saying: “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.”

My friends, a blessing is not so much what we have but what we do with what we have—the knowledge of knowing that we made a difference in some way with our lives. Life’s blessing is to look back and know there was meaning and purpose in our lives.

This Thanksgiving weekend we thank Gd for all our blessings, but the greatest blessing of all is to use the blessings Gd has showered upon us to bring more light and blessing to the world. When we do so—when we use our blessings to bring more light and blessing to the world—we can truly say we have been blessed bakol, with everything—with a life of meaning and purpose. And that blessing, my friends, in the end is up to us. Amen!

                             Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis


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