Throughout this week's parashah, God repeatedly assures Abraham that he will have many descendants, comparing them to the dust of the earth, and later to the stars in heaven. These metaphors have puzzled commentators for generations. Some read a historical reference into the images and suggest the two metaphors refer to the shifting fortunes of Abraham's descendants. Like the dust of the earth, they would at times be downtrodden and despised, but like the stars, they would also enjoy periods of glory and profound admiration.
Some understand the images in political terms. A single particle of dust is rather useless without other particles to join it. Stars, however, are breathtaking, even on their own. So the dust of the earth conveys the importance of the collective purpose, while the stars in heaven highlight the unique potential of every individual.
There is another distinction. While it is impossible to count every dust particle on the planet, the stars have been mapped with near-complete accuracy. A closer look at the verse shows that God does not explicitly say that Abraham's descendants will be numerous like the stars. He simply tells Abraham to go outside and count them, if he is able. God then says, "So will be your descendants."
The promise is not just that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars. Rather, they will be the kind of people who look up towards heaven and try to count them. They will attempt the seemingly impossible. They will be a people who endeavour to do great things; who, inspired by the wonder and awe of the world around them, strive to achieve excellence. God's blessing was more than a promise of many descendants. It was a prophecy for a nation that would be truly spectacular.