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IT'S A TEST!"Avraham Avinu was tested with ten nisyonos and he withstood them all. [This is recorded] to make us aware of how dear he was [to HaKadosh Baruch Hu]" (Pirkei Avos 5:3). The Rishonim argue as to how to count the ten nisyonos. Almost all of the Rishonim are of the opinion that Avraham's first nisayon was the fiery furnace in Ur Kasdim, and, according to Rashi, even the thirteen years he hid in a cave. As Rabbeinu Yonah comments on the above mishnah: "The first was Ur Kasdim, when Nimrod threw him into the furnace of fire, and he was saved. This is not explicit in the Torah, but is known from Tradition. There is a hint to this in the Torah itself (when it mentions Ur Kasdim - the fire of Kasdim, Ur meaning fire). This was to let you know that it was because he stood up to this test that God promised him and brought him to Eretz Yisrael."
Rashi comments on the above mishnah: "First Nimrod tried to kill him and he hid underground for thirteen years. Then he threw him into the fire of Kasdim. Afterwards he went into exile from his homeland."
The Rambam, however, in his commentary to the above mishnah, explains it differently: "The ten trials with which Avraham was tested are all explicitly written in the Torah. The first was his exile when the Blessed One told him, 'Go out from your land....'" So we see that the Rambam considered that the first nisayon was not that of Ur Kasdim, nor the thirteen years he spent underground, but "Go out from your land...."
One of the great Mussar teachers asked why the Rambam completely ignored the miracle of Ur Kasdim in his recounting of the ten trials. How is it possible that the great sacrifice necessary to pass through the fire of Kasdim in order not to engage in avodah zarah (idol-worship) was not in the category of a nisayon! And even if it wasn't explicitly written in the Torah, nevertheless it is cited in the Tradition, as Rabbeinu Yonah mentioned above, and as we see in the Midrash Rabbah: "What shall we do for our sister on the day that she will be spoken about?" (Shir HaShirim 8:8). This was the day that Nimrod decreed to throw him into the fiery furnace [Bereishis Rabbah 39:3]. Also, in Bereishis Rabbah 38:19 the whole incident is cited in its entirety, about how Avraham came to recognize his Creator, the incident when he broke the idols, and the trial with Nimrod when he was condemned to the fire.
Even more problematic is that the Rambam himself cites the whole episode of Ur Kasdim in the first chapter of Hilchos Avodah Zarah:
The world continued in this way until the Pillar of the World was born, Avraham Avinu. Once this giant was weaned, his mind started soaring even though he was still young. He started thinking day and night. He was astounded: How is it possible that this globe should be turning constantly without one to direct it and turn it? It is impossible that it should turn by itself. No one taught him, because no one was there to inform him. He was in Ur Kasdim, surrounded by foolish idol-worshipers...and he himself worshiped idols. But his mind was constantly working until he understood the Truth. He had a straight mind and understood mat there is only one God Who directs the Earth and Who created everything. There is no other Deity in existence besides Him. He understood that the whole world was mistaken.... When he was forty years old, he came to a clear recognition of his Creator, and once he recognized Him he knew, and started to answer the people of Ur Kasdim, and to argue with them and tell them that they weren't going in the true direction. He broke the idols and started telling everyone that it is not worth worshiping anything except the God of the world. To Him it is fitting to bow down, and to offer sacrifices and libation. All this he did in order that all future Existence should recognize Him, and that it is proper to destroy and break all images in order that people shouldn't be mistaken by them.... Since he overpowered them with his proofs, the king tried to kill him. A miracle occurred and he escaped to Charan.
We see that the Rambam himself refers to the miracle of the furnace and that this was a tradition that the Rambam was aware of. Therefore it is quite perplexing why he didn't include it in the list of the ten nisyonos.
We have to understand the greatness of Avraham Avinu. From the time he was a little boy, he had already begun to ask questions. He thought; he used his head; he was astounded. He looked at the sun and the moon and the stars and their constant and consistent movements. How is it possible, he asked, for them to move so systematically without someone moving them? Every day the sun rises and sets, everything so perfectly following the "laws of nature." How is it possible that there is no Manhig (master), no one causing them to move? All this with no teacher, immersed in the avodah zarah of Ur Kasdim. His father, his mother, everyone worshiped idols. We can imagine Avram, sitting in a temple with his family, sitting there during the service, thinking, How ridiculous! Until he came to the Truth, that there is a Prime Mover Who created everything, and there is nothing that He did not create and that He does not rule over. When he was forty years old he came to the recognition of God. Imagine, living in such a place and coming to his own recognition of God. Because of this they threw him into the fire. And yet, with all this, the Rambam did not include this in the list of the ten nisyonos!
Perhaps we can learn an important principle from this. It isn't considered a nisayon if the person being tested understands what is demanded of him. If the demand on the person is something the normal human mind can comprehend, then it is not a nisayon. Avraham Avinu understood that idols are foolish and vanity, as the Rambam wrote, "But his mind was constantly working until he understood the Truth.... When he was forty years old, he came to a clear recognition of his Creator." The Kesef Mishneh explains that at forty he completed his recognition, meaning that he reached a complete and clear understanding, with no doubts, that idols are vanity of vanities. It is very understandable that a person would be willing to give up his life for a clear cause when others are trying to force him to believe in what is vanity of vanities. Therefore the Rambam held that the fiery furnace was not yet in the category of a nisayon. We even find among the nations those who give up their lives for foolishness which they understand to be the "truth."
A nisayon according to the Torah, holds the Rambam, specifically consists of something that the human mind cannot understand. At least for that moment, a person doesn't understand why it is being demanded of him.
The Alter of Kelm, zt"l, commented that it is a surprise that the nisayon of the Akeidah is explicitly mentioned in the Torah, and at such length, and yet the miracle of Ur Kasdim isn't mentioned explicitly at all, only in Tradition. According to what we have just explained, it is quite understandable. Regarding the nisayon of the Akeidah it says, "That he suppressed his feelings of mercy in order to fulfill Your Will with a full heart" (Musaf service for Rosh Hashanah). Moreover, Chazal explain that Avraham Avinu could have claimed a very strong argument: "Yesterday You told me that 'in Yitzchak you will see descendants.' And today You tell me, Take your only son.'" Yet he suppressed his feelings of mercy and didn't ask and didn't doubt.
The greatness of the nisayon of the Akeidah was the apparent contradiction in God's commands. This was a tremendous question. And yet, with no hesitation, Avraham suppressed his natural emotions and no question could detract from his faith. Therefore, the great sacrifice of being thrown into the fire was not in the category of a nisayon. Thousands of people give their lives for their opinions and ideologies. The nisayon of the Akeidah was that he stood up against it in spite of the tremendous questions, even in light of the open contradiction: Yesterday You told me...and today You tell me....
"And Avram took...." Happy is the man who fears God. Why should he be happy? Because he did not fulfill the mitzvos begrudgingly, but with joy. "In Your mitzvos he had great desire...." HaKadosh Baruch Hu told him, "Go out from your land," and he didn't do it begrudgingly, but immediately - "And Avram took his wife Sarai" [Midrash Tehillim, quoted in Yalkut Yehudah 12:5].
This explains how he was able to pass the nisayon of Lech Lecha. At the time it wasn't at all clear what exactly the nisayon was. He had been promised wealth, children, and prosperity. Who wouldn't go to any place in the world, even for the remote possibility of turning into a millionaire? Do we not find men willing to travel great distances even on the slightest chance that they will find gold? So where was the nisayon of Lech Lecha?
ויהי כאשר התעו אותי "And it was when God caused me to go astray" (Bereishis 20:13). Ibn Ezra comments on the word התעו (go astray), "This word is lashon kodesh. It means that he traveled from place to place not knowing where he was going." This was the nisayon: that he had to travel without knowing to where, like a person wandering around. Then each step is a test, walking and not knowing the destination. And yet he didn't simply walk, but "in Your mitzvos he had great desire." This is also stated in the Midrash Tehillim (section 119):
"He went in wholeness" - this was Avraham, of whom it says: "Go before Me and be whole." What did HaKadosh Baruch Hu tell him: "Go out from your land, your birthplace," and he didn't answer back to Him, saying, "Whaf s the difference if I sit here or go to a different city? Why? One who moves from house to house suffers. Even more so from city to city." And yet he didn't delay, but immediately did everything that He told him, as it says, "And Avraham went, just like God had told him." So, too, the Rambam understood that the greatness of Avraham Avinu was in this point: that he stood up against a nisayon where human reason cannot comprehend, even though he was able to criticize and ask questions.
We find this in our everyday lives. These are the daily nisyonos - for example, in the development and growth of a ben Torah. Who wouldn't learn with burning desire if he had the ability to become a gaon overnight? All of us believe in the kedushah of the Torah. Certainly each one of us wants to elevate himself in his learning. But the reality is as the Vilna Gaon states (Even Shelemah, chap. 4, section 10): "Sometimes a person starts going in the straight path, but afterwards drops out, because it is too hard. And he complains to God that he didn't have any inspiration." The Gaon is referring here to one who came to learn, and studied, and sacrificed over his studies, and yet has complaints: "Ribbono shel Olam, where is my inspiration?" Without a doubt, he is suffering from the nisayon of Lech Lecha. No one can argue this. And he complains that he doesn't have any inspiration!
The Vilna Gaon concludes, "Really, he himself was the one who ruined it, by wanting to reach the highest level in one jump." This person ruined it for himself because he didn't understand how ruchaniyus is developed. How much sacrifice and strain are required for each laborious step of the way in the spiritual life! How many obstacles and nisyonos stand in the way and oppose one's rise! A person should be strong and persistent. Many powerful questions and contradictions arise to sway the individual and he begins to question, Where is my inspiration? Why aren't I succeeding? Why is this so hard for me? He does not see that this is the right path, this is how to learn, and this is how to develop.
This is not even so hard to understand. Normal reason comprehends that difficulties are encountered in all studies. However, when it pertains to the subject of Divine Hashgachah, then a person doesn't understand that "This is the way of Torah, eat your bread with salt, and drink a bit of measured water, and sleep on the floor..." (Pirkei Avos 6:4). Just look at all the difficulties in everyday life. One comes to learn and all of a sudden he gets sick, or he suffers from the cold, or from other disturbances. And he doesn't understand what happened - why all the disturbances?
If only it would be possible to attain Torah easily. If only a person understood why learning is so hard for him, when for his friend it is so easy and he succeeds in his learning more than he does. Why is he different from his friend? Because if he were not, then it wouldn't be a nisayon. He must understand that we cannot understand, and we don't have to understand, the nisyonos of life which are the success of ruchaniyus. Each one of us is born with his own destiny and a special Divine Hashgachah (Iggeres HaGra).
The Vilna Gaon, in Even Shelemah (chap. 3, section 4), writes that "there are two types of strength found in those who serve God. There are the strong - גיבורים - and the powerful - אנשי חיל. The strong person is one who conquers his nature when he is inclined to sin, while the powerful ones are those courageous people with perfect trust which enables them to pore over the Torah day and night, and not to pay attention to their household crying for bread, as Chazal have interpreted the verse 'as black as a raven' (Shir HaShirim 5:11) to refer to one who makes himself 'merciless' in regard to his children, like a raven (Eruvin 22a). What does HaKadosh Baruch Hu do? He prepares for him someone who will support him, as Yissachar supported Zevulun." These are the most difficult of all nisyonos. But with bitachon and God's Hashgachah, this is the way to develop into a ben Torah. As the Vilna Gaon labeled them, the powerful ones have complete bitachon which enables them to hover over the Torah day and night.
This is the path of the Torah. The nisyonos of the Torah are not things which the mind can comprehend. This was the greatness of Avraham Avinu: even though he didn't understand the nisyonos, nevertheless, as it is written, "and You found his heart steadfast before You."
Rav Chaim Volozhin writes (in Ruach Chaim on Pirkei Avos 5:3):
"Avraham Avinu was tested with ten nisyonos" (Pirkei Avos 5:3). Here it says, "Avraham Avinu" (our forefather), while above it says, "There were ten generations from Avraham until No'ach," and it doesn't call him "Avinu." We can explain this by applying the verse "A tzaddik walks in his sincerity; happy are his children after him" (Mishlei 20:7). How many mitzvos did a tzaddik work hard and toil to achieve, which to his children after him are engraved in their nature - and with just a little bit of effort they reach the same level! As we see in real experience, so many Jews show real acts of Jewishness. Even simple laymen give up their lives for kiddush Hashem. This is something that we inherited from our forefather Avraham, who was willing to give up his life in Ur Kasdim for the sake of his faith. All of the ten tests smoothed the path for us. Also, how many people get a sudden urge to go to the Holy Land, to Eretz Yisrael! This is from the test of Lech Lecha ("Go out from your land"). And as for a Jew's ability to accept everything that happens from Heaven as good, this comes from the nisayon of the famine, when Avraham did not question God's commands.
All of the tests which passed over Avraham made it easier for us to do mitzvos, even though we don't understand. We have inherited this from Avraham Avinu. Rav Chaim Volozhin emphasizes, "With just a little bit of effort we are able to accomplish great things." This is not anything new for us. It is already part of our nature, which we inherited from Avraham Avinu. He paved the way and made it easier for us. Therefore this should be our job as b'nei Torah, to ignore all the difficulties which pass over us in our spiritual development. Just like the soldier whose courage is shown specifically on the battlefield when the bullets are flying all around him, so too the ben Torah should know that he has to pass through a world of tests and it is his job to excel in them, until he attains a sweetness in his learning and becomes great in Torah. Only a fool gives up. He doesn't understand any of this. With the first test that stands in his way, he packs his bags and leaves. When he sees his friends succeeding more than he, it is very hard for him. However, as we said, it is specifically within this very test that his development is hidden and in this way will he acquire greatness. Even with Avraham Avinu, it was the tests which made him into Avraham Avinu. He didn't merely stand up to the test and overpower it; rather, with each test that he passed through, he grew and developed and thus he accomplished.
Through nisyonos one gains a courageous heart. Through nisyonos one gains strong faith, emunah. This builds the person. Don't ask, "Why is it so much easier for my friend?" On the contrary -perhaps because I merit more, therefore it is harder for me. "God tests the one He loves." Can we fathom the way of Hashgachah? It is not our job, or within the grasp of our understanding, to understand God's ways. Why is it so hard specifically for me? No, it is just the opposite! That's the proof! That shows that I have found favor in God's eyes. This is my way of growing, this is my path to greatness!
This is what Chazal themselves said:
"Go out from your land...." R. Berachyah introduced this parashah thus: "Your ointments have a goodly fragrance; your name is as ointments poured forth" (Shir HaShirim 1:3). R. Berachyah said, "To what was Avraham Avinu similar? To a flask of fine oil sealed and put aside in the corner. Its fragrance was not spreading. But as soon as it was moved, it gave forth its fragrance. Thus HaKadosh Baruch Hu said to Avraham Avinu, 'Move yourself from place to place and your name will become great in the world'" (Bereishis Rabbah 39:2).
This is Man's greatness, not to worry about difficulties. Just the contrary - if we understood, they wouldn't be tests. If Avraham Avinu had been shown where he was going, what nisayon would this have been? Certainly he would have gone in order to inherit the land of Canaan which had all of the promise and success of the world. Instead, how much torment did he suffer? He traveled from place to place, wandering and straying in his journey, not knowing where he was going, where to direct his feet. And there was also the nisayon of the Akeidah: "Yesterday You told me...and now...." Nisyonos are what cause us to grow, and we cannot compare one person's nisyonos to another's. Each person has his own talents and strengths. Each person has to reach a different greatness. It isn't something one can understand; rather, it depends purely upon Divine Providence. This is why the Rambam headed his list of the ten nisyonos specifically with God's commandment: Lech Lecha. There it was possible to recognize Avraham's great desire to do God's mitzvos, for that test was where he was led to stray. It was an act of great sacrifice. His greatness wasn't expressed by his self-sacrifice in being thrown into a fiery furnace, for when a person understands what is happening to him, there are no difficulties preventing the person from bringing out his inner desire. After all, people constantly travel long distances for big business ventures in spite of the greatest difficulties involved.
We pray that God grant us the merit to stand up to the tests, and to understand that through them we can attain the standing of the courageous of heart. This is our strength, in spite of all hardship. We will accept everything that we encounter with love and with a willing soul. With the help of God we will attain true greatness.
Rabbi Eliezer Parkoff
Yeshiva Gedolah Medrash Chaim
Rabbi Parkoff is author of "Chizuk!" and "Trust Me!" (Feldheim Publishers), and "Mission Possible!" (Israel Book Shop ? Lakewood). You can access Rav Parkoff's Chizuk Sheets online:
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