I have often wondered, “Does a blessing have to be recognized as a blessing for it to count as a blessing?” Especially when I read this week’s Torah portion where we are introduced for the very first time to Abram and Sarah, the first Jewish family in history with the difficult challenge of finding out that what God wants us to do is be a blessing to all the families of the earth.
It always strikes me as a rather large job for such a small people to take on for the whole world – this “being a blessing” challenge. Kind of raises the entire question of just who gets to decide what is and is not a blessing? Does it have to be a blessing for everyone, or is it sufficient that one group or individual feel blessed, even if someone else ends up resentful or even cursed?
And then it reminds me that most of the blessings that the Jewish people have given to the other families of the earth have been accepted with little acknowledgment that it was someone of the Jewish persuasion who made the contribution in the first place.
After all, how many people on the street in any American city would tell you (or would think about it at all), that Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, or Jonas Salk who invented the Polio vaccine were Jewish? How many know that Irving Berlin, composer of “God bless America,” and “White Christmas” was a Jew? Or thought “Jew” when they learned about the mysteries of the universe from Carl Sagan, or quantum physics from Niels Bohr?
Likewise I wonder how many cared that Henry Kissinger was Jewish when he was Secretary of State, or Stephen Sondheim when they went to the theatre, or Ted Koppel as they watched “Night Line?”
Does the average person in America feel “blessed by the Jewish people” because of Bob Dylan or Jerry Seinfeld, Marc Chagall or Alan Greenspan, George Gershwin or Mark Spitz?
So when we come to the opening words of this week’s portion and God tells Abram, “I will bless you and I will make your name great and you shall be a blessing…and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you,” it seems like a moment to kvell with some Jewish pride in all the blessings that we have given to the world in which we live, even if the world itself doesn’t really notice.
These words are both a statement and a challenge. The very first words by God to the very first Jew in history is a challenge to act in such a way as to be the source of blessings to the entire rest of the world. So I suppose that whether the rest of the world notices or not, whether they say “thank you” or not, whether the Jewishness of the scientists, musicians, artists, doctors, lawyers, actors, inventors and philanthropists who have made significant contributions to the world is noticed or not, it is obviously a source of collective pride that all those myriad Jews have helped to fulfill the promise of God’s first conversation with Abram over 4,000 years ago.