Posted in Dvar Torah, on October 1, 2012

Avraham Avinu: The Modern-Day Role Model

For those of us who play on sports teams, there is always that constant inner battle to play well for the team versus making yourself look good as an MVP. Surprisingly, we can apply lessons from the life of Avraham Avinu to the basketball court.


In this week’s ParshaLech Lecha, God tells Avraham “And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing.” (Genesis 12:2)

Then, the next verse states “and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.”(Genesis (12:3)

Rashiand other classical commentaries interpret the phrase“and be thou a blessing” as God providing Avraham with the capacity or power to provide blessings to others. Previously (Genesis 1:28 and 9:1), the Torah describes that only God had the capacity to bestow blessings. With this phrase, God opened a new era opened where he gave Avraham the capacity and ability to bless other individuals.

However, there is a small problem with this interpretation. We actually never find that Avraham blesses other individuals in the Torah. In fact, we don’t even see Avraham explicitly blessing his heir apparent son, Yitzchok, as the other patriarchs blessed their children.

This problem bothered the commentary, Da’at Zekeynim, leading him to suggest a different translation of “V’heyeh bracha” [“and be thou a blessing” ]Da’at Zekeynim understood this expression to meannot that Avraham canbestow blessings, but ratheras God directing Avraham to become a bracha by teaching people that God is the creator of the world and being a light unto the nations. God wanted Avraham to become a blessing by serving as a role model and acting in a moral manner. In this manner, he will be viewed as a bracha – as a person that everyone else wants to emulate. In this sense, Avraham, serving as a role model, will grant those individuals blessings from God.

This innovative interpretation is consistent with the way that Da’at Zekeynim re-interprets the verse where God tells Avraham that “in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed”. According to Da’at Zekeynim, the Hebrew word “Va’nivrichu”, which is traditionally translated as “be blessed”, should instead be defined from the Hebrew word “mavrich” – which implies “partnership” or “intermingling.” Hence, this phrase would mean that “all the families of the world will interconnect or interact through you.” All the nations of the world will see the moral character of Avraham and his acts of charity. Avraham’s character will serve as a powerful force for other individuals to align themselves with him in these activities and thereby become more moral people. Through seeing Avraham act as a caring person, other individuals will recognize this unique virtue and emulate his charitable acts.

In other words, we, as Jews, should recognize that we teach the world the standards of morality.  I see this directive throughout my global travels and lectures.  Most western cultures recognize that the Jewish people have given the world the foundations of social ethics (i.e the Ten Commandments) and in the past century the foundations of medical ethics and bioethics. These moral teachings elicit a tremendous amount of respect and pride for our people. We, as a nation, have the directive to serve as a moral compass for other civilizations.

For all of us, the lessons conveyed in these two verses are obvious. We are directed to act as moral and caring individuals in all aspects of our lives, whether it is reflected in community services, in education, or even in seemingly mundane activities. We can even choose to apply the lesson of Avraham’s morality to sports.  When playing basketball, for example, one can decide to be a team player and encourage plays that engage all the other players on the court to play as a cohesive unit, or one can strive to be the MVP of the game. What role would Avraham advocate? While the Da’at Zekeynim surely did not have basketball in mind, we can understand that, as Jews, we follow the moral ideals of Avraham by acting as role models in every aspect of our work, lives, or recreational activities.

Shabbat Shalom,

John D. Loike, Ph.D.

Center for Bioethics,

Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons