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Torah Attitude: Parashas Lech Lecha: Testing the will to serve G'd's will

Summary

G'd's sole purpose for Abraham's ten tests was to show the world and all future generations the great love Abraham had for his Creator. The question arises, what was the test of leaving his father's house since it appears that Abraham would benefit greatly from it? What was the great difficulty in leaving such a country where Abraham was persecuted and such a father who almost caused his death? Abraham's love for G'd and his readiness to listen to G'd's commandments was his only concern. The Kabbalists explain that the special character traits of the Patriarchs correspond to the first three Sefirot of Chesed (lovingkindness), Gevurah (strength) and Tiferet (beauty). Each of the Patriarchs was tested by G'd suited to their special way of serving Him. Abraham was tested to prove that he was able to go against the character trait of lovingkindness when this was the will of G'd. By putting our Patriarchs through their special tests, G'd established that the Jewish nation would always have the ability to rise to the situation and evaluate what is the will of G'd, as we were shown by our Patriarchs.

Abraham's ten tests

The Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 5:4) states: "Our Patriarch Abraham was tested with ten tests and he withstood them all. [This is] to show to what degree was our Patriarch Abraham's love [for G'd]." From the words of the Mishnah we learn that G'd did not test Abraham to see how he would react. G'd knows and understands every person better than the person himself. G'd's sole purpose for the ten tests was to show the world and all future generations the great love Abraham had for his Creator.

Abraham's benefit

Our sages (Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 26) explain that one of these ten tests was the command related in the beginning of this week's Torah portion (Bereishis 12:1) when G'd told Abraham, "Go for yourself, from your land, from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you." Rashi addresses the unusual expression of "go for yourself" and explains that this indicates that it will be for Abraham's own good and for his own benefit. As G'd continues and says (Bereishis 12:2): "And I will make you [Abraham] into a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you." However, the question arises if it was for Abraham's personal gain, why was it considered a test altogether? This is comparable to a childless pauper who is being addressed by a great king. The king promises him that if he will listen to him and go on a special mission to another country he will lavishly reward him with wealth and fame. The king further undertakes to personally ensure that the pauper will be treated by the best doctors for his fertility problem.

Bad father, bad country

If we investigate a little further we find that Abraham was actually having a most difficult time in Ur Kasdim. Rashi quotes from the Midrash Rabba (Bereishis 11:28) that Abraham's father, Terach, had complained to Nimrod, who was the ruler of Ur Kasdim, that Abraham had literally destroyed his business. Terach had a major warehouse of idols and had employed his son, Abraham, to manage his facility. Not only did Abraham preach his new beliefs in monotheism at every opportunity, but he actually destroyed the idols and broke them into pieces. After Terach's complaint, Nimrod put Abraham on trial and condemned him to be burned to death by a fiery furnace. Only due to a miraculous Divine intervention was Abraham saved. The Ramban, at the end of Parashas Noah (Bereishis 11:28), explains that Nimrod put Abraham into prison and later exiled him to the end of his country and confiscated all of his wealth. So what was the great difficulty leaving such a country where he was constantly persecuted, and a father who almost caused his death?

Abraham's only concern

The Or Hachaim answers this question by analyzing the continuation of the events related by the Torah. It says (Bereishis 12:4):"And Abram went as G'd had spoken to him." This verse seems to be redundant, as the Torah in the very next verse gives a detailed description of how Abraham took his wife and nephew and all their belongings and traveled to the land of Canaan. However, says the Or Hachaim, here the Torah points out what motivated Abraham to make this journey. It would have been most natural had he looked forward to all the blessings promised him by G'd and to fulfill G'd's command in order to achieve these blessings. However, the Torah says that there was only one purpose in Abraham's mind: G'd commanded him to go. This in itself was a major test that only G'd, Who knows a person's innermost thoughts and feelings, could verify. And this is what the Mishnah says in Pirkei Avos. The purpose of the tests was to show Abraham's great, unconditional love for G'd. It was neither fame nor wealth that motivated him to follow G'd's instructions. Not even the promise of establishing a family made him go. Abraham's love for G'd and his readiness to listen to G'd's commandments was his sole motivation.

Kabbalistic explanation

We may be able to explain this test on a different level. Our sages explain (see Ramban, Bereishis 17:22) that each of our Patriarchs had their special character trait that they utilized in their service of G'd. The Kabbalists explain that these special character traits correspond to the first three Sefirot of Chesed (lovingkindness), Gevurah (strength) and Tiferet (beauty). This in turn corresponds to what the Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 1:2) teaches are the three pillars of the world: Torah study (Tiferet), service of G'd (Gevurah), and kind deeds (Chesed). The Jewish nation, whose mission is to put these character traits into practice, also stands on these three pillars, represented by our three Patriarchs. Although they all utilized all three character traits, each one had his own special way of serving G'd. Abraham represents Chesed as he served G'd through his kind deeds to his fellow human beings. The Talmud (Sotah 10b) relates how Abraham was most hospitable to all wayfarers and had a guest house open available to everyone. Isaac represents Gevurah, and specialized in serving G'd through his great fear and awe of G'd. He reached the highest level of self-sacrifice at the test of the Akeidah where he was ready to let himself be sacrificed for the honour of G'd. Jacob represents Tiferet as he combined the two character traits of his father and grandfather in beautiful harmony and served G'd through his study and teaching of Torah.

Suited tests

Each of the Patriarchs was tested by G'd according to their special way of serving Him. Jacob, who excelled in the study of Torah, was known as a man, guided in every action by the truth of the Torah. As it says (Micah 7:20) "Give truth to Jacob, kindness to Abraham". That is why Jacob's main test was how he would react to situations where he was forced to deviate from the accepted norm of truth and trust. Jacob had to go against his regular conduct when he went to receive the blessings from Isaac (see Bereishis 27:6-29), and again later when he had to deal with Laban (ibid 29:15-28 and 30:27-31:13, see also Torah Attitude: Parashas Toldos: The complete truth and nothing but the truth). Rabbi Dessler explains that he was expected to understand what G'd wanted him to do in every situation, and not just what was considered to be truth by conventional standards. Similarly, Isaac, whose whole ambition in life was to quietly serve his Master, was disturbed time and again and for a while had to constantly move from one place to another (see Bereishis 26:1-33).

Abraham's lovingkindness

In a similar way, we can understand Abraham's test of moving away from his country and from his father's house. Abraham, whose whole purpose in life was lovingkindness, was tested to prove that he was able to go against this character trait, when this was the will of G'd. The Midrash Rabba (39:7) relates that Abraham was scared to leave his father as it may cause a desecration of G'd's name. Abraham said, "People will say, 'look at Abraham who left his father at an old age." G'd answered him, "I free you from the obligation to honour your father (see also Rashi, Bereishis 11:32). This was a difficult test for Abraham as he was expected to go against his regular conduct of lovingkindness. A similar test was later given to Abraham in regards to his wife and son when he was commanded to send away Hagar and Ishmael (see Bereishis 21:9-14).

Will of G'd

Many people have good character traits by nature such as lovingkindness, truthfulness, etc. However, when put to a test they cannot go against their nature. When G'd established the Jewish nation through our three Patriarchs, He established our nation on a foundation of the character traits of lovingkindness, service of G'd and truthfulness. However, G'd made sure that these character traits would not be taken to extremes, where they contradict His will. By putting our Patriarchs through their special tests, G'd established that the Jewish nation would always have the ability to emulate the way of our Patriarchs and rise to any situation and evaluate what is the will of G'd.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.


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