How To Be a Blessing (On Election Day): Commentary on Parashat Lekh Lekha 5783
By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President & Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary

I am lucky that, when I was young, I learned how to recite Hebrew blessings. As I grew, I was grateful when I learned how to acknowledge when I felt blessed—when I was granted good fortune and kindness by God and humanity.

Much of my Jewish spiritual life has focused on blessing and noticing blessedness. Yet the origins of the Jewish religion implore us to embody a blessing.

When God first encountered our ancestor Abram, God put in a tall order: “וֶהֵיֶה בְרָכָה” (vehyeh verakhah “…and be a blessing”).[1] After God commanded Abram, “לֶךְ־לְךָ” (lekh lekha, “go for yourself”)[2] on a journey to the promised land, the next instruction that Abram received was abstract at best: be a blessing.[3]

Our rabbis of old were stumped when interpreting this awkward injunction. Some opted to read those words in Genesis as convoluted evidence that the authors of the Amidah prayer were justified in highlighting Abraham’s presence in the prayer’s opening blessing[4]—as if Abraham is a blessing said three times daily around the world today. Someone whom the ancient commentary Bereshit Rabbah named Rabbi Berekhyah (whose name sounds suspiciously like בְּרָכָה—berakhah, “blessing”) struggled with the being a blessing business; this sage[5] instead reworded God’s speech to Abram:


.עד כאן הייתי זקוק לברך את עולמי. מיכן ואילך הרי הברכות מסורות לך. למאן דחזי לך למברכא בריך

Until now, I was necessary for blessing My world. From here on out, all blessings are transmitted to you[, Abram.] Bless whoever you see as appropriate to bless.[6]


The truest and most poetic ancient understanding of how to be a berakhah though may come from the same collection, Bereshit Rabbah:


.והיה ברכה: קרי ביה בריכה. מה בריכה זו מטהרת את הטמאים אף את מקרב רחוקים ומטהרם לאביהם שבשמים

[Where Genesis 12:2 has] “And be a berakhah,” read instead “[and be a] בְּרֵיכָה (berekhah, “wellspring”). Just as a wellspring purifies the impure, so too you should bring near those who are far away and purify them for their Parent in Heaven.[7]


Humans cannot be literal blessings—streams of words and hopes. But we can become blessed streams that bless others; we can help center friends, neighbors, and strangers in hard times. We can strive to act with divine grace and encourage others to do the same.

At the onset of the 17th century, the Polish Rabbi Shelomoh Efrayim Luntschitz developed this notion in his Keli Yekar commentary on Genesis 12:2:


.אתה תהיה מקור הברכות על ידי שתדבק… בשכינה. יהיה פיך כפי ה’ יתברך ובידך לברך לכל מי שתרצה

You shall be the source of blessings by way of your cleaving… to the Shekhinah (שְׁכִינָה, God’s “Presence”). Your mouth shall be like the mouth of the blessed God, and within your hands shall be [the power] to bless all whom you want [to bless].


Like most rabbis in Jewish history, Rabbi Luntschitz was part of a hearing (and, unfortunately, Deaf-excluding) community and associated the mouth with the most vital body part for self-expression. Even for those of us whose language is predominantly signing and not an oral language, the underlying message remains though: Being a blessing means striving for closeness with God and expressing Godly messages—because we communicate on behalf of God.

Reading the Torah portion of Lekh Lekha the weekend before Americans observe Election Day reminds us just how holy human expression is. American Jews are blessed to live in a society that does not restrict voting rights based on religion; however, Jewish electoral freedom in the United States has not always been a given. Fewer than 200 years ago, Jews were still denied the right to vote in Maryland. We were holy beings made in God’s image two centuries ago, but our divinity was questioned at the polls.

Democracy showcases the value of all American citizens’ opinions. As our ancestors were prohibited from participating in full civil society, American Jews understand that democracy is imperfect, and the accessibility of the ballot is not equal for all. Some voters drive their own cars freely, and others cannot afford to get to a polling location several miles from their home. Some voters are hyper-vigilantly accustomed to voting every November, and other voters want reminders that an election is around the corner. Voting eligibility varies state by state, and, in some states, the laws surrounding voting can be overwhelming for the electorate to digest. Helping ensure that American democracy is shaped by the thoughtful input of all Americans is a blessing—an act of linking the sacred thoughts and expressions of humans with the sacred thoughts and expressions of the divine Creator.

The best-known American Jewish holiday in the Hebrew month of Marcheshvan this year is Election Day. Whether you will be reminding some family and friends to vote, phonebanking or textbanking to raise awareness about Election Day, volunteering at the polls, or driving neighbors and strangers to their polling stations—there are plenty of ways to volunteer as a blessing leading up to and during any Election Day. Most of these opportunities are just a Google search or two away.

Although Americans separate church and state, there is something inherently holy about humans working together to create a better society. There is something undeniably Godly about good governance. When it is time to vote, go your way, think of others, and be a blessing.

[1] Genesis 12:2.

[2] Ibid. 12:1.

[3] Genesis 12:2.

[4] Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 117b.

[5] It appears that rabbinic texts’ editors often applied fortuitous names for the teachers of the relevant content. See, e.g., Shamma Friedman, “השם גורם: דברי החכם נופלים על שמו” (English title: “Nomen est Omen: Dicta of the Talmudic Sages which Echo the Author’s Name”) in Aaron Demsky (ed.), ואלה שמות: מחקרים באוצר השמות היהודיים  (English title: These are the Names, Studies in Jewish Onomastics), vol. 2 (Ramat-Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1999), pp. 51–77 (Hebrew).

[6] Bereshit Rabbah 39, near the end of Genesis 12:2. The text above quotes from the Vilna edition; the edition edited by Julius Theodor and Chanoch Albeck reads almost identically.

[7] Ibid.