A Paradoxical Blessing
After Abraham passed the test of the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac, an angel called out to him:
“God states: I have sworn by My Essence, since you performed this act and did not withhold your only son, I will bless you greatly and increase your descendants like the stars of the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your descendants shall possess their enemies’ gate. And all the nations of the world will be blessed through your descendants.” (Gen. 22:16-18)
This blessing appears to be self-contradictory. On the one hand, Abraham’s descendants will be victorious over their enemies – “Your offspring shall possess their enemies’ gate.” On the other hand, his descendants will be valued and appreciated by the entire world — “All the nations will be blessed through your descendants.” What will be the lot of Abraham’s children — hostility and strife from the nations, or love and respect?
Also: why are Abraham’s descendants compared to both the stars and the sand?
In fact, two times an angel appeared to Abraham. The first angel appeared just as Abraham was about to offer up his son:
“Do not lay your hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God.” (Gen. 22:12)
Why were there two messages from God?
We all live in two realms. There is our external world of action and deed; and there is our hidden inner life — our thoughts and desires. Often there lies a wide discrepancy between our outward actions and our inner thoughts.
The Akeidah occurred differently in these two realms. In the realm of actual deed, Abraham offered a ram on Mount Moriah. But in his inner thoughts and emotions, in his extraordinary love and devotion to God, Abraham had offered up his own son. As the Midrash explains:
“As he performed each stage of offering [the ram], Abraham prayed: ‘May it be Your will that this should be deemed as if it were being done to my son: as if my son were slaughtered, as if his blood were sprinkled, as if my son were flayed, as if he were burnt and reduced to ashes.'” (Rashi, based on Tanchuma Shelach 14)
The two calls from heaven, as well as the dual blessing, correspond to the two sides of the Akeidah: in deed and in thought, the actual and the potential, the revealed and the hidden.
The first call from heaven prevented Abraham from physically carrying out the Akeidah. “Do not lay your hand on the boy.” This summons related to Abraham’s inner state of holiness, fully revealed only to God. “For now I know that you fear God.” Only God knew the true greatness of Abraham’s inner soul. This level of hidden holiness could not be expressed in action — “Do not do anything.”
After Abraham offered the ram in place of his son, a second angel appeared. Abraham’s inner devotion had been expressed also in the realm of deed. Now, the angel informed Abraham, his blessing was no longer limited to himself, to his own inner spiritual world, but extended to all future generations of his descendants. Abraham had succeeded in revealing his inner holiness in the physical realm. The angel emphasized that Abraham had realized his love for God in deed and action — ‘since you performed this act.’
What is the meaning of this unusual oath, Bi nishbati — “I have sworn by My Essence”? This short phrase refers to both the inner and revealed dimensions. God’s Essence is, of course, the deepest, most profound secret. An oath, on the other hand, is a promise to take action, to act upon an inner decision. (The word ‘oath’ (shevu’ah) has the same Hebrew root as the word ‘seven,’ thus relating to the seven days of creation and the physical world.)
This dichotomy of the hidden and the revealed explains the dual blessing to Abraham. Why were Abraham’s children likened to both the stars and the sand? They will reach for the stars, as they strive to fulfill their inner aspirations of love for God. At the same time, they will also be like the sand, with a down-to-earth revealed holiness, expressed in practical mitzvot.
The destiny of Abraham’s descendants among the nations also reflects this dual nature. In the beginning, the Jewish people appeared as yet another nation in the world, struggling against enemies and foes. Their inner sanctity was hidden and unrecognized. For this stage in history, the Jewish people required the Divine blessing of “possessing their enemies’ gate.”
But in the future, God’s hidden light on Israel will be revealed. The nations will realize that this is no ordinary nation, but the revelation of God’s will in humanity and the entire universe. The inner sanctity of Israel will then be apparent to all, and “All the nations of the world will be blessed through your descendants.”
(Adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. I, pp. 94-96)