Lech Lecha: All the families of the earth…

Lech Lecha: All the families of the earth…

Lech Lecha marks a turning point in the Torah. Everything before this-the Garden of Eden, Noah’s Ark-has been the shared story of humanity’s origins. Here, with the call of Abraham, begins the separate, special story of the Jewish people. Our distinct story begins with God’s command to Abram, “Go forth from your native land…” and God’s promise:


I will make of you a great nation,

And I will bless you;

I will make your name great,

And you shall be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you

And curse him that curses you;

And all the families of the earth

Shall bless themselves by you.
(Gen. 12:2-3)


There are seven promises here, a symbol of completeness, like the seven days of Creation. Most are straightforward-like turning Abram’s descendants into a large and prosperous nation or making Abram’s name (reputation) great. But the meaning of the final promise is less obvious.

“All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” The commentators are divided. Rashi (11th c. France) imagines people literally using Abraham’s name as a blessing: “A man says to his son: ‘May you be like Abraham.'” Ramban (12th c. Spain) suggests that the nations will be blessed because of the merit of Abraham. These interpretations emphasize the distinctiveness of Abraham and his family.

A bold line of commentators, led by Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson, 12th c. France), offer something completely different. They point out that the Hebrew root “b-r-ch,” which almost always refers to “blessing” (as in “Baruch Atah…,” “Blessed are You…), also has a horticultural meaning, “to graft” one plant onto another. They translate the seventh promise, “All the families of the earth shall be grafted onto you.” Rashbam explains, “the families of the earth shall be mixed into your family.” The commentary Chizkuni (13th c. France) goes further: “The leading families of the land will be mixed with you, so that you won’t be considered foreigners or strangers among them.”

Is it possible?! At the very moment when God singles out the family of Abram and Sarai to be distinct from all other clans and nations; in a Torah that is so concerned about assimilation, which legislates the separation of the Israelites from other peoples at every turn; and given hundreds if not thousands of years of Jewish anxiety about intermarriage in particular-can we imagine that the capstone promise of God’s first message to Abraham is precisely to be mixed with the other families of the earth?

This radical possibility has its roots in a passage from the Talmud:

Rabbi Elazar said: “Why is it written, ‘All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by [shall be grafted onto] you?’ The Holy One said to Abraham, ‘I have two good shoots to graft onto you: Ruth the Moabite and Naamah the Ammonite.'” (Yevamot 63a)

Upon joining herself to the Jewish people, Ruth the Moabite became the great-grandmother of King David. Naamah the Ammonite married King Solomon, and her descendants included the righteous kings Asa, Jehoshaphat, and Hezekiah.

The metaphor is beautiful: Non-Jews who join us (not even necessarily by converting) are like living shoots: growing together with us, sharing in the strength and sustenance of our roots, bearing new fruit. The implication is profound: Mixing with the other families of the earth is not a tragedy or a threat to Judaism, but a blessing to all of us and a fulfillment of God’s ancient promise to Abraham.

This is the true spirit of outreach, a grateful understanding of the opportunity to share the richness of Judaism with others. By welcoming and encouraging interfaith families and anyone seeking a spiritual home, we enable our community to grow in new directions.

In taking up the story of our patriarchs and matriarchs, the Torah does not abandon the rest of humanity. God’s promise to Abraham reminds us that ultimately, our mission and destiny are joined with those of all the families of the earth.