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Torah Attitude: Parashas Lech Lecha: Overcoming life's tests and challenges
A Ba'al Teshuva, who strives to fulfil the Torah commandments, may encounter many obstacles en route to be become an observant Jew. G'd gave the ten tests to Abraham to help him 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 first 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 leaves 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 have grown up in secular homes, become Ba'alei Teshuva. They return to their roots and embrace a lifestyle based on Torah values. This can be a challenging experience. They often encounter many obstacles as they strive to fulfil the Torah commandments and become observant.
Abraham's ten tests
In this week's Parasha, the Torah relates how our Patriarch Abraham became the first Ba'al Teshuva, after discovering the truth of the Omnipotent G'd. Unlike today's Ba'alei Teshuva, Abraham merited a direct communication from G'd, instructing him what to do. In Pirkei Avos (5:4) it says that G'd tested Abraham ten times. Obviously, G'd did not need these tests to evaluate whether Abraham was honest in his belief and consistent in his conduct. Rather, G'd tested Abraham to help him grow and reach his full potential. In the same way, every Ba'al Teshuva may encounter several tests and trials to help him grow and achieve his personal potential. Ba'alei Teshuva should never be disillusioned by the difficulties they encounter. On the contrary, they must realize that these are signs from above, to help them grow. This is one of the lessons that the Torah teaches us when it relates Abraham's trials and tribulations. And when we analyze Abraham's tests, we can learn how to deal with our personal tests in life.
Leave land, birthplace, and father's house
The Torah relates that G'd tested 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 that G'd used an unusual expression when He said "go for yourself". It would have been sufficient if G'd had said "go from your land". Rabbi Eliezer Kahan, the late Dean of Gateshead Yeshiva, adds that the order of G'd's instruction also seems illogical. G'd told Abraham to leave his land, then his birthplace and finally his father's house. Physically, he would first leave his father's house, then his birthplace and only then his land. So why did G'd reverse the order?
Severe emotional and ideological ties
Rabbi Kahan explains that this teaches us that G'd did not tell Abraham just to leave a geographical site on the map and move to another place. Abraham was instructed to move away from all the ideals that he had grown up with and remove himself on an emotional and an ideological level. Not only did he have to distance himself from the accepted norm in the land that he had lived in until now, such as the customs and ceremonies that were related to idol worship. He also had to remove himself from the lifestyle of the area where he had lived that he was familiar with. He would even have to severe the ties with the philosophy and atmosphere of his parental home to be able to fully dedicate himself to serve G'd. Says Rabbi Kahan, many Ba'alei Teshuva start to study Torah and observe the commandments, but they still cling to the values of their past. G'd instructed Abraham in a reverse order of land, birthplace and Abraham's father's house, to emphasize the purpose of this test. This is a difficult test that almost every Ba'al Teshuva has to overcome. In order to fully embrace Torah observance, one must be ready to severe the emotional and ideological ties to the past. For the lifestyle of the secular world is not compatible 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 pained 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 first wives and did not sever the ties with their idolatrous lifestyle. The same thing applies when a Ba'al Teshuva tries to maintain secular values and combine them with a Torah lifestyle.
"Go for yourself"
We still need to clarify the strange way G'd instructed Abraham and said "go for yourself" instead of just telling him to "go". Rashi explains that the words "for yourself" indicate that it was for Abraham's benefit and for his own good that he leaves 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 his family and friends behind. G'd wanted to make it easier for Abraham to overcome this test, and therefore G'd 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 someone has a challenge and is being tested, there are two tools one can use to help him overcome the difficulties he faces. First of all, he 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, we 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 going out to the mall or taking the family on an outing or to a 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. This gives us an opportunity to bond with our family and have a break from our stressful lifestyle. Similarly, the laws of kashruth restrict where we can go and eat, and the kinds of food we bring 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 at 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, G'd often showed the blessed consequences when the Jewish people observed the laws of the Torah. Nowadays, we do not see the direct connection between Torah observance and materialistic success. But we must remember that G'd clearly informed us that the time will come when He will conceal Himself. This is in itself a difficult test that we must learn to overcome. However, we must constantly remind ourselves that we are being tested like our Patriarch Abraham, and, in the long run, when we follow G'd's instructions, it is for our own good and benefit.
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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