The dual Berachah of progeny and land given to Avram serves as a unifying strand that connects many segments of Parashat Lech Lecha. In fact, the first Mizbei’ach that Avram constructs after entering Eretz Yisrael is precisely in response to the report relaying to him Besorat HaZera and Besorat HaAretz, the promise of land and children (Rashi BeReishit 12:7 s.v. VaYiven Sham Mizbei’ach). In two instances, Hashem’s Berachah concerning progeny is likened to a natural phenomenon: the dust of the earth in one case (13:16), and the stars of heaven in the other (15:5). The comparison of Avram’s descendants to the dust and stars, on the surface, underscores the vastness of the nation that will emerge from Avram. Midrash Rabbah (BeReishit Rabbah 41:9) comments that like the dust of the earth which stretches from one edge of the earth to the other, so will Avram’s descendants spread out and populate the entire world. In quantity, as well, Avram’s progeny will be innumerable like the dust and stars (see Onkelos and Rashi 13:16). From this vantage point, the imageries of dust and stars share a common quality that Hashem sought to communicate to Avram; yet, Hashem’s utilization of two distinct metaphors is intriguing. In what way does the comparison to dust differ from the comparison to stars?
The Midrash (Aggadot BeReishit 39) interprets the dual comparison to dust and to stars as reflecting two distinct states of Hashem’s relationship with the Jewish people. When the Jewish people adhere to the will of Hashem, they are likened to stars – lofty, elevated, radiant, and transcendent. When they fail to listen to God’s voice, they are likened to dust – lowly, trodden, and abused.
Further investigation of the respective contexts in which each image is used reveals a second discrepancy between the two Berachot and sheds additional light on the meaning and difference between Hashem’s comparisons to dust, on the one hand, as opposed to stars, on the other. In the first instance concerning dust, Hashem instructs Avram to, “lift his eyes and see from the place where he is,” and behold, the entirety of the land that Hashem has granted him (13:14). The land is given to Avram and to descending generations who will be populous and innumerable like the dust of the earth. In contrast, the later blessing was not issued in the location “where you are;” rather, it is prefaced by Hashem’s repositioning Avram by removing him from the interior of his tent and, “taking him outside” (15:5). There, Hashem instructs Avram to look heavenward and attempt to count the stars because his descendants will be just as plentiful. The analogy to the dust of the earth is issued to Avram “where you are” whereas the comparison to the stars of heaven required Avram’s removal to a dfferent location outside.
Avram receives the first Berachah on the heels of his
successful return to Eretz Yisrael from Mitzrayim and the resolution of his dispute with Lot. He reestablished his position in the land and was in the state of mind and spirit of being to receive his Berachah. The Berachah which foretold the dual blessing of progeny and land resonated with him and fit his emotional psyche at that moment. The first Berachah could be issued “where you are.” The second Berachah, however, is granted at a time when Avram is despondent, mired in doubt and uncertainty concerning his future. At the time, Eliezer represented his only potential heir, and any Berachah concerning future progeny and station in the land would be met with reservation. The Berachah had to be issued only after “taking him outside.” The Midrash interprets the Pasuk as Hashem instructing Avram to abandon his calculations and astronomical readings which foretold his permanent childless state. Physically and emotionally, Avram had to enter a new place in order to receive the second Berachah.
Against this backdrop the imageries of dust and of stars is sensible. One of the primary differences in qualities between dust and stars is man’s relationship with each. The dust of the earth is familiar, accessible, trodden, and basic. It forms the foundation of man’s world. Stars, on the other hand, peer down from distant galaxies with tantalizing radiance, transcendent and removed from man’s world. The first Berachah compares Avram’s future progeny to the dust of the earth. At that moment, Avram could confidently and excitedly receive the Berachah. The metaphor of dust is used because it is part of Avram’s world and familiar to him. The second Berachah, though, visits Avram in a different state. Avram had to break free from his environment and the narrowness of vision that handicapped him. He had to enter a new place and set his sights beyond his current predicament in order to receive the Berachah. The imagery of stars is used in order to present Avram with an enchanting future that he could look toward.