“Our father Abraham was tested with ten trials and he withstood them all, demonstrated how great was Abraham’s love (for God) (Avos 5:3).”
I. Purpose of Trials
What is the purpose of a trial?
God knows what a person will and will not do. He knows a person’s capabilities. Further, the Sages teach that a person is never tested beyond his capabilities: the implication is that a divine test is inflicted only upon people of already proven greatness. Clearly, God inflicts trials for a purpose that goes far beyond one’s normal life-experience. The businessman who takes a crushing loss or forgoes a huge profit because he, and no one else, knows that the profitable course of action will violate an obscure clause in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), will surely be rewarded. He is to be admired, respected, and emulated; but his temptation and triumph do not fall within the category of ‘trial’ which was the lot of the Patriarchs. Abraham, for example, was an immensely wealthy man who surely had business dealings of all varieties. He had as much opportunity as the next man for sharp dealing, even dishonesty; yet such matters are not included among his ten trials. The concept of ‘trial’ as used with relation to the Patriarchs goes infinitely deeper than the mere need to cope with the normal twists and challenges of life.
King David was told that he was inferior to the spiritual level of the Patriarchs because they had been tested while he had not been. Yet the agony of David’s life is graphically and poignantly portrayed in the Book of Samuel, the verses of Psalms, the countless heart-rending Aggadic references to his history. We may well pray that we not face even a fraction of David’s trials – yet his challenges were not considered, trials, in the sense of Abraham’s, Isaac’s and Jacob’s. (Sanhedrin 107a). If David’s life was not a series of tests, than the Torah’s definition of ‘trial’ surely involves more than the clichés of normal existence.
Ramban in introducing Abraham’s climactic trial, the Akeidah of Isaac (see commentaries of chapter 22), explains that the trial is not for God’s benefit, in the sense that a teacher may administer a test to evaluate the performances of a student. That sort of test is for the benefit of the teacher, but God’s test is for the benefit of the person being tested. God already knows what he can and will do. A human being’s primary reward is not for good potential and fine intentions. This world was created to serve as the medium for human free-willed performance, and God’s reward and punishment are reserved primarily for deeds. Just as a person is not punished for a sin he was coerced to do since the lack of free will on his part renders the act null and void in terms of transgression, so too, a good but unfulfilled intention is hardly equivalent to a deed performed. Thus, when God puts a great man to the test, it is in order to permit him to translate potential into reality so that he becomes even greater for having overcome obstacles in the service of God and so that he can be rewarded for the performance itself.
- Know that Hashem tests (only) the righteous; when he knows that the Tzaddik will do His will and He wishes to benefit him, He will command him (to undergo) the trial. But He will not test the wicked who will not obey. Behold, therefore, that all trials in the Torah are for the benefit of the one being tested. (Ramban 22:1)
Sforno adds that God wants the righteous to demonstrate in deed their love for and fear of God, for by translating their feelings into action they emulate God Himself Whose merciful deeds are continuing and endless. By realizing their great potential, the righteous fulfill the purpose of creation – which was that man should emulate God as much as possible.
As many commentators note, the word trial, is related to a banner, which was raised up high. The purpose of a trial is not to test in the usual sense of the word – and most assuredly it is not intended as a trap for the inadequate; if it were, the wicked would be tested – rather the trial is meant to ‘raise up’ the righteous by lifting them to new spiritual heights. Every person has observed countless times that someone who successfully survived the crucible of difficult experience emerges a better person. The lecturer, teacher, cook, mechanic, driver – no matter what field, the one who turns theory into practice in difficult situations becomes a superior master of his craft. Great though Abraham already was, he became greater with each triumphant surmounting of a new trial. This, indeed, was the purpose of a trial – not to prove to God what He already knew, but to raise the subject to new heights just as a banner is lifted higher and higher on its pole.
As Abarbanel notes, a banner has other functions as well. It is meant to be an affirmation of identity, to hold the loyalties of its adherents, and to warn enemies to maintain their distance. Who would have known what the Patriarchs were capable of doing had they not been tested? And once they emerged as God’s proven champions, they became ‘banners’ proclaiming to all the world that human beings are capable of attaining heights exalted beyond prior imagination. And if mortals could accomplish so much, then why shouldn’t everyone aspire to reach above his imagined limitations? As our Sages taught, a person should always say, “When will my deeds touch the deeds of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?”
Maharal (Avos 5:3) derives ‘trial’ from ‘miracle The nature of a miracle is that it is supernatural. That the Patriarchs could withstand the trials imposed upon them was entirely miraculous. Human beings should not have succeeded. That is why David failed when at his insistence, he was tested with the temptation of Bathsheba (Sanhedrin 107a). Yet the trials of the Patriarchs, though surely difficult, do not seem to us to be unendurable. Even the climatic trial, the Akiedah, however awesome, has not gone unduplicated. How many Jewish parents have sacrificed everything to sanctify God’s Name? But, as we shall now see, even that awesome degree of devotion is a direct result of Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice even Isaac.
II. The Nation is Formed
As explained in the Overview of the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not limited to themselves as individuals. Rather, they set patterns that became part of the national grain. Clearly, the character traits of the Patriarchs were engraved in the national genes, so to speak – this, too, was part of the process of forming a profound and ever lasting influence so that the deeds of the Patriarchs were a sign for the children.
Rabbi Chaim infers this principle from the words of the Mishnah. In telling of the ten failed generations from Noah to Abraham, the Mishnah does not refer to Abraham, our Father (Avos 5:2-3). The inference to be drawn is that the trials endured by Abraham were part of the patrimony he bequeathed to his children. He endured them as the Father of the nation, not as a great and righteous individual.
As King Solomon wrote, “When a tzaddik proceeds in his wholesomeness, praises go to his children after him. (Proverbs 20:7). Many are the traits that a tzaddik acquires only through the hard, unremitting labor of character perfection – by conquering the most unforgiving of enemies: himself! But to his children after him, they are second nature.
When the Sages insist that we take as models the deeds of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they urge an attainable goal. Not, of course, that any of us can actually become even remotely as great as they were, but that our deeds can ‘touch’ theirs, because our deeds grow out of the seeds they planted just as we, ourselves, are their offspring. We need not fear the challenge of greatness because the ground has been broken by the Patriarchs and we are blossoms of their tree.
The trials of the Patriarchs were branded indelibly into Israel’s character that faith comes above life, and that if death must come, it will be accepted with invigorated faith in God because it is but a trial that will raise us like a banner proclaiming that we are children of Abraham. It remains with us and became part of us because God imposed it and the Patriarchs survived it in order to chisel a new trait into the eternity of Israel.
Abraham could have protested. But did not…He did not question or complain. Whatever God willed was good, and if he did not understand why, the deficiency was his. Only the wicked who have earned adversity complain when it comes. The righteous do not complain for they know that human affairs are guided by an Intelligence higher than theirs and by a Compassion unfathomable even to an Abraham.
III. The Cycle of Ten
Chapter five of Avos lists a series of historical phenomena that are numbeed in sets of ten. God created the universe with ten utterances, there were ten generations from Adam to Noah, another ten from Noah to Abraham, the ten trials of Abraham and so on. Ten denotes perfection – represents a development from beginning to completion.
As we have seen in the previous Overview of the Patriarchs, Abraham replaced Adam as the spiritual father of humanity, the one through whom God’s purpose in the universe would be realized and through whom Israel would become the nation selected to receive the Torah. The ideal order of creation began with the realization created by the first utterance: In the Beginning. That utterance was the clear indication that before God began His creative labor there was nothing save for God Himself. Thus, In the Beginning represents the realization that every facet of existence stemmed from His word and will.
From that initial realization, creation went from stage to stage until it reached its culmination with the creation of man whose task it was to bring God’s word into even the minutest aspect of the world. When man was created, however, everything with all its potential of beclouding his senses and obscuring the source of it all was already in place. If mankind knew Who spoke the first utterance, then each succeeding stage represented a further glorification of the One Who could create an universal so multi-faceted. If, however, man saw before him a universe without God, then each succeeding step in creation further obscured the Source. In order for him to comprehend the message of the Ten Utterances, he would have to start from the lowest stage of spiritual recognition and work his way upward. Only after having dismissed each succeeding level of obscurity could he stand at the summit of his spiritual potential and proclaim that God is Master of the universe.
When Abraham began his life of recognizing and proclaiming God, man had fallen from the understanding of creation through two successive ten-generation plunges into the spiritual abyss. The Ten Trials were designed to raise Abraham to ever higher levels of greatness until he stood at the level of ‘In the Beginning’.
The first test was in Ur Kasdim where he defied the institutionalized idolatry of Nimrod’s kingdom and thereby became an enemy of the people. Abraham’s first trial involved a courageous stand – he refused to demean himself by worshipping man’s own handiwork as his god.
Thereby, he proclaimed his humanity, for a man who denies the existence of God forfeits his right to God’s protection and His gifts of life and breath. How can man ever hope to rise above the animal if he fails to acknowledge the sovereignty of his Maker, the source of all spiritual growth? Therefore, Abraham’s first trial established his recognition of the last utterance of creation: ‘Let Us Make Man’. For, indeed, Abraham merited the mantle of Adam.
The eighth trial was circumcision. The surplusage (foreskin) hiding the perfection of man is a barrier to his spiritual advancement. Such barriers must be removed by man and his life must be dedicated to the continued prevention of mundane forces from diluting his spiritual potential. By circumcising himself, Abraham removed from himself the material encumbrance which stood in the way of his spiritual advancement and his attainment of perfection.
The ninth trial was the expulsion of his first-born son Ishmael, together with Hagar. Sarah saw with her superior vision, Ishmael presented a danger to the emergence of Israel, and God instructed Abraham to heed her demand for his expulsion. The second utterance was ‘Let There Be Light’. Ishmael’s presence would have extinguished the merging light of Isaac. By preserving and nurturing that light, Abraham and Sarah attained the level of authentic spiritual light, the light of Torah that illuminates more than do a thousand suns.
The final trial, the AkiedahYitzchak (the Binding of Isaac) brought Abraham to the peak of his fulfillment. He could advance no higher. God said to him, Now I know that you are God-fearing (22:12), for he had been ready to comply with God’s will even if it meant the slaughter of his most cherished possession – the son for whom he had waited so long and who was the guarantor of his future. This recognition that everything was God’s and that nothing stood higher than His will was the living acknowledgment that In the Beginning there was nothing except for Him and that therefore, even after the creation and elaborate development of the universe, there is still nothing except for His will.
IV. Individual Trials
Everyone’s trial varies according to what he is. For someone to follow his instincts and preferences proves only whether or not his instincts are sound, but it does not prove that his love of God is great enough to lift him above his person desires.
Many of Abraham’s trials involved behavior which ran counter to his generous personality or which would have driven people away from his company. From this perspective we see a new dimension in many of the trials. The command of “Get yourself from your land (12:1), can be seen as a break with family and past, never an easy thing to do for a man of seventy-five. However, it would have been far less difficult for a gevurah-person like Isaac. Abraham had already established a chesed way of life in Charan. He had become a center of spiritual activity; his students numbered in the hundreds and those upon whom he had at least some influence probably ran into the thousands. Now he was to leave the place where he was established and become a stranger in a new land with new customs where he would be forced to begin life anew and develop a network of relationships in order to spread God’s message again. And he was acting cruelly toward his aged father, deserting him at a period in life where he would be needed more rather than less.
The command to dispatch Hagar when she was pregnant, and again later to expel her with Ishmael ran counter to his innermost instincts and the chesed way of service which had become synonymous with his name. How could he drive out people who were part of him, who were dear to him, who were dependent on him and helpless without him?
It is inadequate to see this only in human terms. Abraham had based his service of God on the principle of kindness. How could he reconcile this with cruelty? Circumcision, too, was an act, he feared, that would drive people away from him. The people would consider it bizarre and abnormal. They would sever their relationships with him. The Akiedah, because it was climactic, the greatest of the trials, was also the most complex and difficult of all. (More of this will be discussed in an overview of the Akeidah)
There is a further aspect of a trial. We know that there are two sides to every story and we have learned, especially in modern times, that an appealing argument can be made for almost any point of view or course of action.
The most ‘irrational’ behavior may be bizarre to the beholder, but the doer may easily consider it proper and even imperative. He may be able to gather up such an overwhelming array of justifications that it may seem useless to engage in discussion much less dispute. Unfortunately, people muster enormous powers of self-deception and rationalization in defense of a course that, once undertaken, must be made to seem logical.
The Patriarchs were not permitted this fallacy. Part of the trial was that Abraham not indulge in the luxury of justifying the required course of action. And Abram went as Hashem told him (12:4): He did not think of the blessings and assurances which God had given him. If Abraham had done that, his obedience would have been selfish. All those thoughts he drove from his mind. He complied with God’s word only because it was God’s will. So it was with every trial, he obeyed because God willed it, not because he understood.
We are part of a tradition. Israel is an old nation whose succeeding generations have laid brick upon brick, but all the bricks are laid atop the foundation that was poured by the Patriarchs. Our reactions to events and sense of national responsibility are predicated upon the lessons of the Torah and the experience of our history. But the Patriarchs had no previously-transmitted Torah and no national experience. They were the originals. They created tradition. They shaped experience. The very title ‘Fathers’, tells what they were. They were our founders and we carry on their mission.
The nature of the trials, and the performance and motives of the Patriarchs in rising to meet them – formed the national character. All the noble strains of intense faith and spiritual exaltation that have ennobled Israel during its almost four thousand years, the determination which has maintained the nation throughout an exile that has far exceeded all its years of national tranquility and independence – these were molded in Ur Kasdim and on Mount Moriah, in Beer Sheba and Hebron, by unquestioning willingness to uproot families and bind children for a slaughter, by readiness to risk unpopularity and provoke hatred, by obeying God’s will even when the obedience seemed to be the direct cause of greater suffering, without doubting for an instant that it was the God of Mercy Who commanded all and a Supreme Intelligence that decreed every event in its minutest detail.
The ‘children’, from David of old to an embattled entrepreneur of today, who follow in those exalted footsteps of old are walking a path that was trodden for them by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Their manifestations of greatness had no precedent. And when they had finished molding Israel’s character, the period of Fathers ended and the period of children began.