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Avraham, Happiness, and God's Open Hand

If ever there were a person for whom Psalm 145 -- the Ashrei -- was
written, it is Avraham. Ashrei begins: "Happy are they who dwell in
your house" and then continues through the Hebrew alphabet to list
God's attributes and blessings bestowed on us and our reasons for
giving thanks.

This is not to say that Avraham's life, and especially that portion of
his life described in Leh-Leha, was uniformly happy or easy. At the
start of the Parashah, Avraham is still Avram, suddenly ordered by God
to take himself out of his father's house and embark on a journey to
an unknown land. All this based on a promise that God will bless him
and his descendants and though them all people on earth.

The first stop is Canaan, the land that will be promised to
Avram's descendants. But Avram quickly passes through, almost as if it
were no place special. Avram's travels prefigure those of his
descendants, including encounters with Pharaoh in Egypt and through the
Negev and to the north. These are no easy journeys. They include
battles, rescue missions, tricky negotiations with kings, along with
disturbing family disputes. Through them all, Avram demonstrates that
God has chosen well. Avram values people over wealth and rises to
every challenge. So it is that by the end of the parashah, God has
renamed him Avraham, because he will be the father of many.

Avraham's life in this parasha reflects the key points of the Ashrei,
and examining the events in Leh-Leha. against the Ashrei adds a
dimension to its events. Just as the Ashrei is about abundance and
gratitude, God gives Avraham wealth, power, a destiny, and a
mission. In turn, Avraham shows gratitude for what he has and finally
commitment to his destiny by circumcising himself and all the males in
his household, a contract cut in flesh.

The importance and meaning of the Ashrei is often overlooked. It can
seem like just one more Psalm. But the Ashrei was the first of Psalms
recited as part of the service. Even when others were later added to
eventually became the Pesukey Dezimrah, the Ashrei played a special
role. The Talmud says we are to recite Ashrei three times a day. And
during that recitation, we must pay special attention to the verse
"Poteach et Yadecha," which in the Reconstructionist Siddur is
translated, "Providing with your open hand, you satisfy desire in all
life." If this verse is not said with the appropriate kavanah -- focus,
concentration, and intentionality -- it must be repeated.

The reference to God's open hand might be mistaken for a petition for
wealth, and certainly in this parashah, Avraham acquires great wealth
and power.

But of far more importance is that, although he accumulates wealth and
power, Avraham can walk away from them when that is the correct
choice. Though he knows deep sorrow and loss, he never exhibits the
sense of grievance shown by his grandson Jacob who many years in the
future will complain to Pharaoh of his 130 years of life, "My years
have been few and hard." Instead, Avraham's death is the occasion that
brings together his sons Ishmael and Isaac, healing the loss of his
oldest son in Leh-Leha. As a result of the way he lived his life,
Avraham is truly blessed and truly rich. As the Talmudists said: "Who
is rich? Those who are happy with their portion." (Pirkey Avot 4:1)

Ellen Dannin is Fannie Weiss Distinguished Faculty Scholar and Professor
of Law at the Penn State Dickinson School of Law and a former member of
the Ann Arbor Havurah, Dor Hadash in San Diego, and Congregation
T'chiyah in Detroit.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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