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Torah Attitude: Parashas Lech Lecha: Overcoming life's tests and challenges
A Ba'al Teshuva may encounter many obstacles en route to be become an observant Jew who strives to fulfill the Torah commandments. The ten tests were given to Abraham to help him to grow and reach his full potential. The first test that the Torah mentions is when G'd instructed Abraham and said to him: "Go for yourself, from your land, your birthplace, and from your father's house." In order to fully embrace Torah observance, one must be ready at some point to severe the emotional and ideological ties to the past and look ahead with the understanding that one's past lifestyle does not go hand in hand with Torah observance. There was no real value in Eisav's new marriage since he kept his original wives and did not sever the ties with their idolatrous lifestyle. The words "for yourself" indicated that it was for Abraham's benefit and for his own good that he leave his parental home and go to wherever G'd would instruct. There are two tools a person can use to help him overcome the difficulties he faces. "Calculate the loss of a mitzvah against the gain, and the gain of a transgression against its cost." We live in a time when G'd conceals Himself. This is in itself a test that we must learn to overcome, and constantly remind ourselves that in the long run, when we follow G'd's instructions, it is for our own good and benefit.
We live in a time when many people who grew up in secular homes have become Ba'alei Teshuva. They return to their roots and embrace a lifestyle based on Torah values. This can be a challenging experience. And one may encounter many obstacles en route to be become an observant Jew who strives to fulfill the Torah commandments.
Abraham's ten tests
In this week's Parasha the Torah relates how our Patriarch Abraham, after discovering the truth of the Omnipotent G'd, merited a direct communication from G'd, instructing him what to do. The Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 5:4) says that Abraham was tested ten times. G'd did not need these tests to evaluate whether Abraham was honest in his belief and consistent in his conduct. Rather, they were given to Abraham to help him to grow and reach his full potential. In the same way, every Ba'al Teshuva who follows in the footsteps of Abraham is likely to encounter several tests and trials that will help him to grow and achieve his personal potential. One should never be disillusioned by the difficulties one encounters. On the contrary, one should be aware that this is a sign from above, helping the person to grow. This is what the Torah teaches us when it relates Abraham's trials and tribulations. And by analyzing Abraham's tests, we may be able to learn how to deal with our personal tests in life.
Leave land, birthplace, and father's house
The first test that the Torah mentions is when G'd instructed Abraham and said to him (Bereishis 12:1): "Go for yourself, from your land, your birthplace, and from your father's house." Rashi points out the unusual expression of "go for yourself". It seems that it would have been sufficient if the Torah had only said "go from your land". Rabbi Eliezer Kahan, the late Dean of Gateshead Yeshiva, adds that the order in this verse seems illogical. Abraham was instructed to first leave his land, then his birthplace and finally his father's house. He would physically first have to leave his father's house, then his birthplace and then his land. So why did G'd reverse the order?
Severe emotional and ideological ties
Rabbi Kahan explains that this test was not just for Abraham to leave a geographical site on the map and move to another place. Abraham was expected to move away from all the ideals that he had grown up with and remove himself from them, both on an emotional and an ideological level. He not only had to distance himself from the accepted norm in the land that he had lived until now, but from the customs and ceremonies related to the idol worship that were rampant there. He was further expected to remove himself from the lifestyle of the area where he had lived and was familiar with. He would even have to severe the ties with the atmosphere of his parental home to be able to fully dedicate himself to serve G'd. Says Rabbi Kahan, many people start to study Torah and observe the commandments, but they still cling to the values of their past. G'd reversed the order of land, birthplace and Abraham's father's house to emphasize the nature of this test. In order to fully embrace Torah observance, one must be ready at some point to severe the emotional and ideological ties to the past and look ahead with the understanding that one's past lifestyle does not go hand in hand with Torah observance.
At the end of Parashas Toldos (Bereishis 28:8-9), the Torah relates how Eisav realized that his marriage to the daughters of Canaan was evil in the eyes of his father, Isaac. He tried to rectify this and went to his uncle, Ishmael, and married his cousin, a granddaughter of Abraham. Rashi quotes from the Midrash Rabbah (67:3) that there was no real value in Eisav's new marriage since he kept his original wives and did not sever the ties with their idolatrous lifestyle. The same thing applies when someone tries to maintain secular values and combine them with a Torah lifestyle.
"Go for yourself"
We still need to clarify why G'd instructed Abraham with the words "go for yourself" instead of just telling him to "go". Rashi explains that the words "for yourself" indicated that it was for Abraham's benefit and for his own good that he leave his parental home and go to wherever G'd would instruct. Rabbi Kahan explains that G'd knew that although Abraham had disputed the practice of serving idols, and opposed the lifestyle of his birthplace, it still would not be easy for him to leave everyone behind. G'd wanted to make it easier for Abraham to overcome this test and therefore informed him that he would greatly benefit from listening to G'd.
Two tools: fear and minimization
Rabbi Kahan quotes Rabbi Israel Salanter who taught that whenever a person has a challenge and is being tested, there are two tools a person can use to help him overcome the difficulties he faces. First of all, a person should strengthen his fear of G'd, and secondly, he should try to minimize the test. For example, if a person has an opportunity to make a lot of money on a deal. Even if one is aware that the deal involves improper conduct, most people would find it difficult to overcome such a temptation. Different people are tempted in different ways. For one person, it could be that the test is due to the fact that the deal is only available to be performed on Shabbat and not on any other day of the week. For another person, the temptation may manifest itself in that the deal is not totally honest. Says Rabbi Salanter, first of all a person should strengthen his fear of G'd and say to himself, "If I go ahead with the deal, G'd will surely punish me, either in this world or in the World to Come. So it is not really worth my while to go ahead". At the same time, he should say to himself, "I cannot be 100% sure that I will succeed in this deal. Even though it looks very lucrative, there might be some facts that I am not aware off. At the end of the day, I might end up doing something I should not have done and get nothing out it. Even worse, other people may find out about what I was about to do, and I will put myself to shame." With these two tools, a person can overcome literally every temptation in life.
In the very first of the ten tests recorded in the Torah, G'd informed Abraham that despite that the test may be difficult at first sight, eventually he will greatly benefit if he overcomes his challenge. Rashi explains that G'd promised him that he would have children and become rich and famous. This is an important insight that we all have to internalize. Yes, the Torah may restrict us, with the laws of Shabbat, prohibiting us from taking our car to go out to the mall or take the family on an outing or place of entertainment. But at the end of the day, we see such a great benefit from the peaceful, harmonious family structure when we spend the Shabbat at home, bonding together in an otherwise stressful lifestyle? Similarly, the laws of kashruth restrict us from the places we can go out and eat, and the kinds of food we take home. But at the same time, we are keenly aware of the great benefits. First of all, from a health point of view, but even more, as it teaches us how to exercise restraint and not just go for anything we see. And so it is with every commandment in the Torah. As it says in Pirkei Avos (2:1): "Calculate the loss of a mitzvah against the gain, and the gain of a transgression against its cost."
G'd conceals Himself
Time and again, the Torah reminds us of the great benefits we will receive when we fulfill its commandments. As it says in the second paragraph of Shema (Devarim 11:13-15): "And it shall be if you listen to My commandments … and I will provide rain in your land in the right time … And I will provide grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied." In the days of the prophets, this was apparent to everyone. Nowadays, we do not always see the direct connection between Torah observance and materialistic success. But we must remember that we live in a time when G'd conceals Himself. This is in itself a test that we must learn to overcome, and constantly remind ourselves that in the long run, when we follow G'd's instructions, it is for our own good and benefit.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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