Translated and abridged by Rabbi Chanan Morrison
Parshat Lech Lecha
Stars and Sand
When Abram complained to God that he was childless, God promised that his children would be as numerous as the stars in the sky.
"God took him outside and said, 'Look at the sky, and count the stars if you can! So will be your descendants.'" (Gen. 15:5)
On another occasion, God promised Abraham that his children would be like "the sand on the seashore" (Gen. 22:17). Why are the Jewish people compared to both stars and grains of sand?
Greatness at Mount Sinai
The Sages took note that the rather uncommon word 'so' (koh) appears in God's promise, "So will be your descendants." They explained that this word alludes to their future greatness at Mount Sinai: "So shall you say to the house of Jacob" (Ex. 19:3). What does the greatness of the Jewish people at Mount Sinai have to do with being likened to stars?
In general, we need to understand this metaphor of stars. The psalmist wrote that God bestows a name to every star (Psalms 147:4). Why do stars need names?
Personal and Collective Missions
What is in a name? A name reflects an entity's inner essence. It defines the nature of its existence, it indicates its fundamental purpose. Stars are wonderful, tremendous creations. Each star has a unique function for which it was created, and each star has a unique name corresponding to its special purpose.
The comparison of Abraham's descendants to stars indicates the importance and greatness of every individual Jew. Every soul is a universe unto itself, as the Sages wrote: "One who saves a single soul of Israel, it is as if he has saved an entire world" (Sanhedrin 37a).
But the Jewish people also have a collective purpose, to bring about the world's spiritual perfection. "This people I have created for Me (so that) they will recount My praise" (Isaiah 43:21). For this reason, they are also compared to the sand. The metaphor of sand emphasizes their collective purpose. A single grain of sand is of no particular consequence. But together these grains of sand form a border against the oceans, establishing dry- land and enabling life in the world.
It is logical to first establish the collective purpose of Israel, and only afterwards adjoin their individual goals. Upon leaving Egypt, Israel was formed into a people with a unique collective purpose. This collective mission of Israel is an integral part of their very essence, regardless of any individual merits. The collective aspect of the Jewish people was valid even though they lacked personal merits and good deeds when they left Egypt, as it says, "And you (Israel) were naked and bare" (Ezekiel 16:7).
Like the Stars
The prominence of the stars, on the other hand, indicates the special mission of each individual. This refers to the greatness that the Jewish people acquired at Mount Sinai.
These special goals are a function of their individual efforts, their deeds and Torah learning. This level is based on the revelation of Torah and mitzvot at Mount Sinai. The Midrash teaches that when Israel promised to obey the laws of the Torah, the angels tied two crowns to the head of every Jew. These crowns reflected the greatness of each individual. Every Jew was a prince, bearing his own unique crown of holiness.
(adapted from Midbar Shur pp. 110-121)
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Rabbi Chanan Morrison of Mitzpeh Yericho runs http://ravkookTorah.org, a website dedicated to presenting the Torah commentary of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, to the English-speaking community. He is also the author of Gold from the Land of Israel (Urim Publications, 2006).