Parashas Lech-Lecha

In this week’s parashah, the Torah relates (Bereishis 15:1-5):
After these events, the word of Hashem came to Avram in a vision, saying: “Fear not, Avram, I am your shield, your reward will be very great.” And Avram said: “My Lord, Hashem/God, what can You give me, seeing that I go childless, and the steward of my house is the Damascene Eliezer?” Then Avram said: “Behold, You have not granted me offspring, and, behold, my steward is going to inherit me.” And, behold, the word of Hashem came to him, saying: “This one shall not inherit you; rather, one who comes forth from your loins shall inherit you.” And He took him outside and said: “Look up, now, toward the heavens and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He told him: “So (כה) shall your offspring be!”
The Maggid raises two questions arise concerning Hashem’s last statement. First, Hashem could have expressed himself more briefly, saying: “Count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your offspring be!” What is added by the phrase “look up, now, toward the heavens”?  Second, if Hashem were telling Avraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars, we would have expected Hashem to use the term כמוהם, which is the appropriate term for a quantitative comparison. Why did Hashem instead use the word כה, which generally designates to a qualitative comparison? The Maggid then presents an insightful answer.
His starting point is to consider why it is impossible to count the stars. It is not so much because there are so many of them; rather, it is because they are constantly moving. Thus, the Gemara relates (Sanhedrin 39a):
The Emperor said to R. Gamaliel: “It is written (Tehillim 147:4), ‘He counts the number of the stars.’ What is the news in this? I can also count them!” R. Gamaliel brought some quinces, put them in a sieve, spun them around, and said: “Count them.” The Emperor replied: “Keep them still.” R. Gamaliel responded: “The heavens also spin around this way.”
We can now see the point behind the phrase “look up, now, toward the heavens.” A person versed in astronomy like Avraham could reasonably estimate the number of stars. But to determine their exact number by looking up at the heavens and counting them is out of the question, due to their constant motion.
Now, when Hashem told Avraham, “so shall your offspring be,” He was saying that the Jewish People would be innumerable in a similar qualitative sense – the Jewish population would be constantly shifting. If, far be it, a calamity would come upon the Jews in a certain place and reduce their number, there would be an increase in the number of Jews somewhere else. We can bring out the idea with an analogy. Suppose a large number of coins are lying on a table, and someone wants to count how many are there. To do so, he will take the coins off the table one by one while keeping count of how many have been removed. But now suppose that whenever the person takes a coin off the table, someone on the other side puts a coin on the table somewhere else. It will then be impossible to make the count. So it is with the Jewish People – if the Jewish population wanes in one area, it will wax somewhere else. The Midrash describes this pattern at the level of Jewish leaders. It is written (Koheles 1:5): “The sun rises and the sun sets.” The Midrash remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 58:2): “Before the sun of Moshe set, the sun of Yehoshua rose. … And before the sun of Eli set, the sun of Shmuel rose.” The same pattern applies to the Jewish People as a whole – Hashem promised Avraham that the number of Jews would always remain substantial.
This idea is reflected, we could say, in a famous prophecy of Hoshea (verse 2:1): “The number of the Children of Yisrael shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured and cannot be counted. And it will be, that in place of it being said to them, ‘You are not My people,’ it will be said to them, ‘Children of the Living God!’” In Yoma 22b and Bereishis Rabbah 2:18, our Sages note that the first half of this verse seems self-contradictory: Hoshea first speaks of the number of the Children of Yisrael, and then says that they will be beyond number. We suggest that Hoshea is making the point that we brought out above. The sand of the sea has a definite number, but it is not practicable to determine what this number is. The same holds for the Jewish People, for the reason we have explained, and the second half of Hoshea’s statement reflects this reason. On occasion Hashem strikes down the Jews in one area of the world, saying: “You are not My people.” But correspondingly, in place of the Jews who were smitten, Hashem brings forth elsewhere a flourishing community of Jews, calling them “children of the Living God.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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