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Torah Attitude: Parashas Lech Lecha: Why good people sometimes do bad things
The purpose of the ten tests was to show Abraham's love for G'd. A person's nature is not necessarily all good or all bad. Each person has their particular level of free choice according to their background and situation. The world stands on three things, on Torah, on service [of G'd], and on acts of lovingkindness. To keep the secret of the relationship between Abraham and Sarah was a tremendous challenge for Lot. Everyone with their unique nature has within them both greatness and lowliness.
In this and next week's parshios, the Torah relates how G'd kept testing Abraham throughout his life. We may ask what was the purpose of these tests. In general, a test is given to see how a person performs. However, G'd knows everything. So why does G'd test a person? The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (5:4) addresses this question and says: "Our patriarch Abraham was given ten tests and he withstood them all, to publicize how great our patriarch Abraham's love was [for G'd]". In other words, G'd did not need to test Abraham to determine how he would perform and what he was capable of doing. The purpose was to show Abraham's contemporaries and subsequent generations Abraham's great love for G'd and his readiness to do anything to please his Master.
Why ten tests?
The commentators further ask why it was necessary for G'd to test Abraham ten times. We would assume that if he could past the most difficult of all these tests, the ultimate test of the Akeidah, where he was told to sacrifice his son (see Bereishis 22:1-19), then he could pass any test. They answer that this comes to teach us a most important lesson about human nature. Sometimes we find a person who in many areas has a great personality, but this very same person acts in other areas in a low way, seemingly unfitting for such a person. We look at this person and wonder, how can the same person on one hand be so great and on the other hand fall so low? The truth is that a person's nature is very complex and is not all good or all bad. There is absolutely no contradiction in one person showing greatness in one area and in another area the opposite. For example, one person may be very calm to the extent that he cannot understand how others get angry or frustrated. At the same time, this person cannot get himself to give even a small donation to charity. With another person it can be just the opposite. This person loves to help others with charity and will extend himself in every possible way. But if someone steps on his toes, he will flare up in a rage. G'd gives every person their custom-made challenges which is part of their unique purpose in this world.
Particular free choice
Rabbi Dessler explains that everyone has their particular level of free choice according to their background and situation. One person born into a family of Torah observant parents has no difficulty in observing the laws of Shabbos and kashrus, going to pray three times a day in a synagogue, and so on. On the other hand, when this person starts his own business he suddenly finds himself challenged right, left and centre, with issues of honesty, the prohibition against taking or giving interest, and so on. Another person born into a less observant home, but blessed with parents who were scrupulous in their honesty and implanted these values into their children, will not find it difficult to continue in the path of honesty. However, when this person discovers that there is a beautiful life of Torah and mitzvos, it becomes a real challenge to incorporate these observances into his daily life.
Torah, service, lovingkindness
In the beginning of Pirkei Avos (1:2) we are taught: "The world stands on three things, on Torah, on service [of G'd], and on acts of lovingkindness." The Maharal explains that these three things include the obligations of man in all areas of life: between a person and himself, between a person and G'd, and between a person and his fellow human being. The study of Torah and following its laws are obligations on every individual, even without interacting with anybody else. The service of G'd manifested itself in the Temple service with the bringing of offerings. Nowadays, this is fulfilled by our daily prayers, where we ask G'd for whatever we need and thank Him for all of His blessings. The third area is the relationship we have with our fellow human beings where we are expected to emulate G'd Himself by doing acts of lovingkindness. The Maharal explains that only a person who completes himself in all of these three areas will be a truly righteous person. This is hinted at in the Talmud (Bava Kama 30a) where it discusses what it takes to become a truly righteous person, and all these three areas are mentioned. The Vilna Gaon and other commentators elaborate on the importance of every person striving to develop these three areas of righteousness.
What may be a challenge for one person may come easy for another, and vice versa. In this week's parasha, the Torah describes how Sarah was abducted and taken to the palace of King Pharaoh in Egypt. Our sages explain that Abrahams' nephew, Lot, was saved from the destruction of Sodom in the merit of not disclosing that Abraham and Sarah were husband and wife, and not brother and sister (See Rashi next week's parasha, Bereishis 19:29). It seems strange that Lot, who endangered himself to invite total strangers into his home in the corrupt city of Sodom, was not saved in that merit. Rather, not slandering his uncle and aunt, who had adopted him as a young orphan and looked after him as their own son, was considered a merit for Lot. To understand this we must remember that Lot grew up in the house of Abraham, a house that was built on the foundation of taking care of visitors and attending to their every need. In this way, it became second nature to Lot. And even in the despicable surroundings of Sodom, this was not a challenge for him. On the other hand, Lot had a strong desire to become affluent. Our sages explain that Lot's decision to move to Sodom was based on his greed for wealth and riches. It was therefore a tremendous challenge for him to keep secret the relationship of Abraham and Sarah. One can well imagine how generously Lot would have been rewarded had he disclosed their secret to Pharaoh's agents. He withstood his test and in this merit he was later saved.
Our sages (Pirkei Avos 2:4) teach us not to judge our fellow human beings until we find ourselves in a situation similar to theirs. It is so easy to be judgmental and begrudge how a person who seems so great can act so low. But the truth is that everyone has their unique nature with a tendency of greatness in one area and lowliness in another. This is why G'd gave Abraham ten tests. These tests represent all areas of his lofty character traits. G'd wanted to show how Abraham perfected himself in all areas of his nature and developed into a true servant of his Master, who did whatever he could in his great love for G'd.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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