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Parshas Lech Lecha (5771)

Life is a Test

The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (5:4) states: “Our forefather Abraham was tested with ten trials and he withstood all of them – to show the degree of our forefather Abraham’s love for G-d”.

There are different views among the commentators as to the precise identity of the ten tests, but according to Rashi, Abraham was tested as follows:

(1) Abraham was forced to hide underground for thirteen years from King Nimrod, who wanted to kill him (see Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer Chapter 26).
(2) Nimrod threw Abraham into a burning furnace because of his beliefs (see Rashi to Genesis 11:28).
(3) Abraham was commanded to leave his family and homeland (Genesis 12:1).
(4) Almost as soon as he arrived in Canaan, he was forced to leave due to a famine in the land (ibid 12:10)
(5) Sarah, his wife, was kidnapped by Pharaoh’s officials (ibid 12:14-15).
(6) The kings captured his nephew Lot, and Abraham was forced to go to war to rescue him (ibid 14:12-16).
(7) G-d told Abraham at the “Covenant Between the Parts” that his offspring, the Jewish people, would suffer under four monarchies (ibid 15:7-21).
(8) At an advanced age, he was commanded to circumcise himself and his son (ibid 17:9-14).
(9) Abraham was commanded to drive away his concubine Hagar and their son Ishmael (ibid 21:9-13).
(10) He was commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac (ibid 22:1-2).

It is a fundamental tenet of our faith that “This World” (Olam HaZeh in Hebrew) that we live in is not all there is – there is another spiritual world after this called Olam HaBa, “The World to Come”. In this world we are tested by G-d, and in the next world we receive our ultimate reward. As the Mishnah teaches us in Pirkei Avos (4:21): “This world is like a lobby before the World to Come; prepare yourself in the lobby so that you may enter the banquet hall”.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746) writes in Path of the Just Chapter 1: “It is seen, then, that man is veritably placed in the midst of a raging battle. For all the affairs of the world, whether for the good or for the bad, are trials to a man: Poverty on the one hand and wealth on the other, as Solomon said (Proverbs 30:9), "Lest I become satiated and deny, saying, `Who is God?' or lest I become impoverished and steal..." Serenity on the one hand and suffering on the other; so that the battle rages against him to the fore and to the rear”

In other words, life is a test. In fact, the Kabbalists teach that just as our forefather Abraham was tested with ten different kinds of tests throughout his lifetime, so, too, do we, his descendants all have to go through these ten types of tests throughout our lives.

Now we need to understand what it means that G-d “tested” Abraham and “tests” all of us. After all, G-d knows everything, so why would he need to test us to see how we’re doing? The Bible commentators explain that the purpose of a test is not for G-d to learn something but rather for the person being tested to bring out and actualize his latent potential. Much like a good teacher who doesn’t need to test his students to see how they are doing in class – he knows that already – but only tests them to help them go beyond their limitations and bring out their best.

The Hebrew word for test, nisayon, illustrates its ultimate purpose. The Sfas Emes explains that the word nisayon is related to the word neis, miracle. Just as a miracle is G-d’s way of helping man by going beyond the limitations of nature, a test of faith calls on man to overcome his own natural limitations for the sake of G-d.

As a corollary to this, we find the Talmudic concept that “G-d doesn’t deal unfairly with his creations” (Avodah Zarah 3a), meaning that He would never give us a test that we couldn’t pass. In other words, since the entire purpose of G-d’s testing us is only to bring out that which is already inside us, by definition we must have the ability to pass the test, as hard as it may seem to overcome.

Think about parents who are trying to teach their child to take his first steps. They put the toddler against a wall and they move a few steps back and encourage him to walk to them. Would they do this when the child is only two weeks old? Certainly not! That’s almost child abuse! It is only when the child reaches an age where the parents know he can do it that they start ‘testing’ him to get him to walk.

So, too, does our “Parent in Heaven” only test us to bring out that which He knows is inside us and that we are capable of achieving if we try hard enough.

A story is told about a man who came to a certain town for Shabbos to spend it with the holy Kotzker Rebbe. While he was there he heard that his hometown burned down to the ground along with his home and business. The man proceeded to faint. They revived him and then he fainted again. This scenario repeated itself a couple of times until the holy Kotzker Rebbe came over to the man and calmed him down by saying, “Yes, it may be true that the damage in your town was great, yet you do not have to worry about it at all. Your house and business were not burned down.” The man calmed down somewhat and sure enough, after Shabbos it was discovered that the Kotzker Rebbe was right in his prediction. "What a ‘Moifes’ (wondrous miracle)!" everyone proclaimed. The

Kotzker Rebbe said, "No, no, no, it is not a Moifes at all… it is very, very simple. I saw that this man kept on fainting because he simply could not take it, and I know that G-d does not give someone a test that he does not have the ability to pass, so I understood that it must be an error."

Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (1749 – 1821) writes in his commentary Ruach Chaim on Pirkei Avos (5:4) that the ten tests that Abraham went through and passed had vast, monumental consequences for the Jewish people’s national character. We benefit greatly in many ways from the firm faith of our forefathers. The reason for this is because it is an established principle of the Torah that “Ma’aseh Avos Siman L’Banim – the actions of our forefathers portend the future of their descendants”. This means that many of the attributes that our forefathers displayed were transmitted to their children as part of their spiritual genetic code.

For example, the fact that Jews throughout our history were willing and able to sacrifice their lives and be killed for the sake of G-d and His Torah comes from Abraham’s willingness to give up his life for his beliefs, or to sacrifice his son Isaac, if that was G-d’s will. Abraham ‘planted’ this ability within us through his actions.

And when a Jew decides to give up his cozy life in the Diaspora and move to Israel, it is only because our ancestor Abraham paved the way for him to do that by uprooting himself and his family at G-d’s command and making the difficult journey to the Holy Land.

Or when really bad things happen and a Jew still says “Gam zu l’tovah – this, too, is for the good” and accepts his fate with unquestioning loyalty to G-d, it is rooted in Abraham’s acceptance of G-d’s will – and in his belief that everything G-d does is for the best - even as he was forced to emigrate to Egypt due to famine shortly after having arrived in Canaan.

In our own times we are witnessing an amazing phenomenon that is virtually unprecedented in Jewish history – the so-called ‘Baal Teshuvah (returnee to Jewish observance) movement’ – where untold numbers of Jews who grew up far from a Torah observant lifestyle are slowly making their way back to the traditions of their forefathers.

This, too, is the legacy of our amazing forefather Abraham – the first ‘Baal Teshuvah’ in history – who heard the call of G-d “Lech Lecha – Go for yourself from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house”, and who, together with his wife and partner Sarah, ‘returned’ to G-d and His Torah and established the Jewish nation.

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