In the same verse that God promises Abram that he will be made into a great nation God also commands Abraham to be a blessing (Genesis 12:2). The grammar of the verse is ambiguous, however. It need not be read as a command to “Be a blessing!” (After all, how can such a command be followed or assessed?) but, rather, a prediction about the future (“You will be a blessing.”). Assuming that this alternative reading is correct, exactly how that might be manifest is unstated. How, exactly, Abraham will become a blessing is not defined. The nature of the blessing is not detailed. As often is the case with imprecise passages in the text, rabbinic interpretation acts to fill in the missing pieces.
The Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 39:11) begins by suggesting a different reading of the text, which is entirely plausible based on the fact that the scriptural text is unvocalized. Rather than reading the word “berakhah” (blessing), the Midrash proposes reading the word as “bereikhah” (well-spring). With this different reading in mind, the Midrash presents an analogy: “Just as a wellspring purifies the impure, so will you bring closer those who are distant and purify them for serving their Father in Heaven.” In other words, Abram (not yet Abraham) will serve as God’s vehicle for bringing the world closer to monotheism and ridding the world of impure thoughts and actions. By transforming the world and offering a way to better human conduct, Abraham shall become a blessing.
Interestingly, Count Leo Tolstoy recognized this contribution of Abraham and his descendants, capturing the very idea of the Midrash: “The Jew is that sacred being who has brought down from heaven the everlasting fire, and has illumined with it the entire world. He is the religious source, spring and fountain out of which all the rest of the peoples have drawn their beliefs and their religions.” Tolstoy’s declamation is a bit exorbitant since the same could not be said about Eastern religions. Nevertheless, the point is properly made. Christianity and Islam owe a debt to Judaism, as does all of Western civilization.
The contribution of Judaism to improving the world was further noted in the popular 1998 book written by Thomas Cahill, The Gift of the Jews. There is no better reason for Jews today – old and young – to take pride in identifying as a descendant of Abraham who have been a well-spring of conscience for humanity.