In this week’s Parshah, Hashem tells Avraham (15:5), “Look up to the sky and count the stars - can you count them? So shall your children be.”
What are we supposed to do when we are asked to do the impossible? Most people simply shrug their shoulders and ignore the command. The Midrash to Kohelet relates a story of a king who summoned two people, one who was intelligent and one who was foolish. He made them fast for a day and then he brought them into a room and put a loaf of bread on top of a high beam. He told them, “If you can take a bite from this loaf, I will shower you with tremendous wealth. If you can’t, then here you will starve to death.” The foolish person gave up immediately and crawled into the corner and died. The smart person took off his belt and his shirt and looked for any small pieces of rope he could find. He tied it all together and swung it at the bread until he could knock down the loaf and take a bite, and he was then showered with all of the promised wealth. When we have to do the impossible, we shouldn’t just give up; rather, we should put in our best effort. This concept is evident in our Pesukim. Rabbi Yissachar Frand quotes Rav Meir Shapiro who asks what a person would do if he were told to count the stars. He answers, most people would look toward the heavens and see the large amount of stars and respond by saying that this task was impossible and they would not even bother to attempt it. That is not what Avraham did. When Hashem told him to “look up to the sky and count the stars,” that is exactly what he did. He started counting, since that was Hashem’s command, even though it appeared to be impossible.
A story is told about a student in a Yeshiva who was not blessed with a wonderful memory. When he would learn in the Beit Midrash, he would get up to ask someone for the translation of a word. By the time he would return to his seat, he would have forgotten it. He was persistent though, as he knew that his learning Torah was Hashem’s will. He would get up and ask again and again until he would master the word, then the phrase, and finally the entire concept which he was studying. Many of the other students wondered what would happen to him in the future, since learning Torah was such a difficult task for him. Many years later, one of the other students met him and saw that he had a Yoreh Deah in his hand. He asked him what he was doing with a Yoreh Deah? He responded that he was learning for Smichah. The other student was surprised, even shocked, that this student, who had had such difficulties remembering simple words of the Gemara, could eventually get Smichah. This student was like Avraham, his ancestor, who would not view any task as impossible and would never give up. Eventually, this person did get Smichah and taught Torah to the next generation. This perseverance is what Hashem promises to Avraham, “So shall your generations be.”
The Chatam Sofer (Sukkah 36a) comments on the Mishnah which states, “An Ethiopian Etrog (that is black) is Kosher, but if an Etrog is compared to an Ethiopian Etrog (i.e., it is black, but not from Ethiopia), it is invalid.” He notes homiletically, that a black Etrog is analogous to a righteous person whose actions stand out, just as a black Etrog would stand out. However, it is insufficient for a person to simply wish to be compared to such an Etrog. When he strives for others to compare him with a Tzaddik, he does not have the proper intentions that the Tzaddik has, to do everything LeSheim Shamayim.
May we learn the message from Avraham Avinu to not look at anything in life as impossible and to do the commandments of Hashem for the pure purpose that it is the will of our Creator. Hopefully, we, too, will be blessed with, “So shall your children be.”