Lech Lecha(Genesis 12-17)
Above the Stars
Bereishis, 15:5: "And He [God] took him outside and said, 'gaze, now, toward the Heavens and count the stars if you are able to count them!' and He said to him, 'so too will be your offspring!"
Rashi, Bereishis,15:5: sv. And He took him outside: "According to its simple meaning, He took him out of his tent to the outside to see the stars...Alternatively; He took him out of the space of the world and raised him above the stars; this is the language of habata - looking down."
Abraham expressed his concerns to God that he had no descendant to continue his role of spreading God's name in the world. God reassured him that he would indeed merit to produce offspring that would be as abundant as the stars. Rashi notes the extra words in the verse describing this discussion of: "He took him outside" - what does this taking out refer to? Rashi's first explanation simply says that God took him out of his tent to see the stars. However, he continues and offers another explanation (1) - that God seemed to take Abraham out of this world to show him the stars - Rashi emphasizes the fact that Abraham was above the stars and God told him to look down on them. Why, according to this interpretation, did God deem it necessary to bring Abraham to a state of being above the stars?(2) How did that add to the message that God was telling Abraham - that he would have descendants who would be as numerous as the stars?(3)
Perhaps we can answer this question through a fascinating comment made by the Baal HaTurim in Bereishit. Having completed its account of the creation of the universe, the Torah states: "These are the products of the heavens and the earth when they were created [behibaram] on the day of HaShem, God's making." (4) The Torah applies the unusual wording of behibaram to describe God's creation. The Baal HaTurim observes that the letters of behibaram can be reassembled to spell a different word: bAvraham which literally means, 'for Abraham'. He explains that the Torah is alluding to us that the heavens and earth were created in the merit of Abraham.(5) This means that the whole purpose of Creation was worthwhile because of Abraham.
How do we understand this idea? Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto in 'Path of the Just' tells us, God created the world in order to bestow pleasure on mankind, and the way to tap into such pleasure is through fulfillment of His mitzvot.(6) After twenty generations of mankind, Abraham emerged as the person who could enable God's goal to be met. In this way, the creation of the universe was all in his merit.
We can now explain why God took him above the stars and told him to look down on them. Standing above something demonstrates superiority over that thing, thus God was telling Abraham that he was above the stars in the sense that he was above them because they were only created at all in his merit! If not for Abraham, then there would have been no need for stars or anything else in creation. This deeper message served to strengthen God's point that Abraham would indeed have offspring. God was allaying his concern that he would have no descendants to continue his task of spreading God's name in the world. Since the whole purpose of creation could only be fulfilled through Abraham, it was essential that he have children who would continue in his path.
The Sages extend this idea to include every descendant of Abraham as well: (7) The Mishna tells us: "Every person must say, 'the world was created for me.' " (8) This should simultaneously give us a sense of importance and responsibility. There is absolutely no reason for a person to have feelings of insignificance; he is so valuable that the whole of creation was worthwhile just for him. At the same time this should make one realize that every action he performs has great ramifications in the spiritual world. Internalizing these basic tenets of Torah thought should provide the foundation for us to reach our full potential in emulating our forefather, Abraham in bringing God's presence into this world.
1. Based on Bereishis Rabbah, 44:12. See Rashi for his second explanation, and my essay, "Lech Lecha - A New Level of Existence" which discusses it in depth.
2. See Ayeles HaShachar. Bereishis, 15:5 who points out that Rashi does not explain the reason that HaShem took Avraham out of this world.
3. There are additional questions on this Rashi, including how Avraham could look down on the stars even if we take the Midrash to literally mean that HaShem took him into space. Any answers to this question are appreciated.
4. Bereishis, 2:4.
5. Baal HaTurim, Bereishis, 2:4.
6. Mesillas Yesharim, Chapter 1.
7. This includes converts who are spiritual descendants of Avraham Avinu.
8. Sanhedrin, 37a.