The Mishna in Pirkei Avos [5,3] states: “Avraham our father was tested with ten trials and he passed them all, which shows how great Avraham’s love [for Hashem] was”. This Mishna bears a fundamental question, did Hashem really needed to test Avraham to find out he was a “true servant”? didn’t King David said in the psalms [139:2] “you discern my thoughts from afar”, and [139:4] “Even before a word is on my tongue, behold Hashem, you know it altogether”. What was then the purpose of those tests?
Among the 10 tests were: the hunger in the Land of Israel because of which Avraham was forced to migrate to Egypt, and the Covenant Between the Pieces, when Avraham asked how he could be assured that he would really inherit the Land of Israel. Both are listed as tests that he passed yet were both mentioned as sins he committed. The Ramban says, both show a lack of trust in Hashem. He should’ve remained in Israel and not expose Sarah to dangers. Hashem brought the hunger; Hashem would’ve surely provided for him!
Though, Hashem Himself said [after the Binding of Yitzchak, in Bereshis 22,12] that He knows that “Avraham is G-d-fearing”. Hashem also praised Avraham’s righteousness when he told Yitzchak that Avraham had “hearkened to My voice, and kept My commandments, My statutes and my laws” (26,5). Since there’s no concept of time by Hashem, it’s obvious Hashem knew all along about Avraham’s righteousness, what was then the purpose of the tests?
Also, how could the Sages have ascribed to Avraham sins such as those mentioned above? The Torah certainly did not list them as such! The Gemara [Nedorim 32a] mentions three opinions why Avraham’s descendants will be punished with 210 years of severe and cruel bondage:
- Rav Elazar says: Because he took Torah scholars from their studies to wage the war against the kings that abducted Lot his Nephew.
- Shmuel says: By asking for a sign that he would in fact merit the Land, as he committed a sin.
- Rav Yochanan says: It’s because he allowed the men of S’dom and Amora – not exactly the biggest tzaddikim – to return home instead of keeping them and teach them the ways of Hashem.
How does the punishment fit the crime? The severe decree of 210 years of cruel bondage for an entire nation is totally out of proportion to any of the sins mentioned above: Isn’t it an obligation on all to save a Jewish life as stated in Vayikra [19,16]? Also, some people are irredeemable as were the people of S’dom, as Hashem Himself decided to destroy them. Why then are these actions accounted as sins?
Where is G-d’s attribute of midah k’negged midah, proportionate punishment? One would think, it had to be a major sin for Avraham’s descendants to deserve to be enslaved so torturously? Besides, if Avraham sinned, why his innocent descendants merit to be punished so cruelly?
To understand let’s image it with a parabola. The prison system is a world of its own, with human beings that have very limited freedom of action. Though, there’s an internal hierarchy, including rich and poor, smart and dumb, strong and weak, just as the main society has. But, it’s a very poor copy of the main as they have a very limited freedom and at all time they’re scrutinized. Any bad move and they will have to bear the heavy hand of the Justice system.
Any person that has the chance to look at their life is flabbergasted. How can some of them be haughty or bully, when they all share a common fate, being in a cage system? To a certain extent we share their fate and we act just as stupidly. Our Neshama is trapped in our body and therefore we have tremendous limitations. Our days on planet earth are numbered and will all share the same fate. Why is it so difficult to listen to this internal voiced pushing us to better ourselves and abide by the Torah’s commandments? Just as we find the prisoner’s attitude challenging, our attitude is similarly challenging. The Torah elevates us and provides the freedom the body restrains. It would be logical to embrace it and follow its precept to the letter. Though, just as the prisoner, our attitude is irrational.
With that in mind, it is evident the purpose of Avraham’s tests was not for Hashem to discover what Avraham’s true heart was: of course, He knew the results in advance. It was rather to elevate Abraham by giving him challenges to overcome, and to allow him to prove to himself what tremendous spiritual heights he could reach.
The Zohar elucidates that the reason is hinted in the words “לך לך” [Lekh Lekha], leave for your own benefit. Though, Avraham didn’t go alone, he was accompanied by his wife Sarah, his father Terach and his nephew Lot, then the Pasuk should’ve addressed them in plural not in singular. There’s evidently a deeper meaning. The numerical value of “Lekh Lekha” is 100, which hinted he’ll have progeny at 100. It is also the numerical value of “ס”מ” [Satan’s name]. Avraham had to go to Eretz Canaan in order to even up the Plainfield for his descendants, to have the tools to overcome the human tendency to evildoing.
Eretz Canaan was at that time the center of evildoing in the world as hinted by the numerical value of “ארץ כנען” which is 481. The Midrash Eicha  tells us that in Jerusalem at the time of the Beth Hamikdash there were 480 Batei Midrash [houses of learning], which totals 481 including the Beth Hamikdash. Forces of Good and Evil must be even so a person, with his actions, can make the difference. Good deeds will make the world worthy of Hashem’s blessings and the opposite will bring hardship to the world.
The Zohar learns from here that a person’s actions affect the entire world; The person was not created to be egocentric; the very fabric of his being intermingles with the world at large. The reason Hashem created the world in that manner, is to entice people to do good deeds, as they will be rewarded for following Hashem’s commandments and for providing goodness to others. This is the reason why the value of a Mitzva is immensurable, as at every given time it has a different value. For instance, if the world at that moment needed a single Mitzva to prevent a bad decree, which would’ve costed human life, the person will be rewarded for saving lives too. The opposite is also true, if the world was even and by doing a bad deed that person enabled a bad decree, he is responsible for the outcome. Therefore, a person should always think before undertaking any action that the world is 50-50 and his action will tip the balance. A person during his lifetime will be tested with his Yetzer Hatov, his good inclination, and his Yetzer Hara, his evil inclination.
The Zohar explains that each of the three Patriarchs had one overriding characteristic. Avraham was the man of Chessed [loving-kindness], Yitschak was the man of G’vurah [might], and Yaacov represented the Tiferes [glory]. Each of them was tested in situations where they had to overcome their natural instincts. For example, a loving person finds it difficult to be tough or cruel. At times some Mitzvos requires toughness and putting the kind and loving feelings aside. For instance, stopping people from speaking or misbehaving in Shul is difficult for a person of Chessed but very easy for a person of G’vurah. Though, we’re obligated to defend Hashem’s Honor. If the Chessed person finds excuses not to do it, he failed his test.
Avraham’s tests were in the two same categories: since Avraham’s fundamental instinct was Chessed, Hashem tested him by subjecting him to situations where he had to overcome his Yetzer hatov, to be a man of Chessed, so as to fulfil his mission. We are all familiar with situations where we must overcome our yetzer hara; sometimes it can be a far harder challenge to overcome our yetzer ha-tov. This was what Avraham had to do by rebelling against the idolaters of “Ur of the Chaldees” – rejecting his friends and families, offending what was dear to them, alienating himself from society and society from himself.
The same applied when he expelled Hagar, his almost-wife, and their son Ishmael. Of course, he loved them, of course he was conflicted about sending them away to fend for themselves. But when Hashem told him to obey his wife’s decision (Genesis 21:12-14), he did not hesitate.
The second category of test was to imperil the very survival of the ideology which he preached, and yet to maintain his unwavering faith despite apparent disaster. When King Nimrod sought to kill him for his belief in the One true G-d, he was forced to flee and hide in an underground cave, alone and friendless for 13 years.
The direct consequence was that when he was eventually caught and was given one last chance to recant: worship the idols or be flung into a fiery furnace. The young Avram faced a horrendous dilemma: if he was killed, then there would be no one left in the entire world to defend the truth. Yet Avram knew that by compromising his principles, even by pretending to agree to worship an idol, his entire mission would be perverted, his entire life would become worthless, and he would not be able to propagate the message of monotheism. His test was both a supreme self-sacrifice, and not despairing of the ultimate victory of truth in the world.
Now we can answer all the above questions: When Avraham led his 318 students into war, knowing that he must inevitably kill the enemy and subject his students to potential death on the battlefield. he had to conquer his innate Chessed, his unconditional love of his fellowmen. Though his ultimate motive was to save his nephew Lot as stated in the Pasuk and not to accomplish the Mitzva of saving a Jewish life, which was the ultimate goal of that test. Therefore, Rav Elazar considered this test incomplete.
Similarly, when the famine struck the Land of Israel immediately after his arrival, and which forced him to move to Egypt, his intentions were good. He needed produce and food in order to feed his guests. Avraham entire being was to do for others, to the point he endangered his very wife. That was not right; charity starts at home. The very first duty of a married man is the wellbeing of his wife.
Growing in Torah and closer to Hashem is the capacity to be able to take more burden and more failures without giving up. In contrary, every failure and pain is supposed to fuel the next few steps.
By Rabbi Fridmann * email@example.com * 305.985.3461
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