“The Trials of Abraham”

by Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Vayeira, includes at least three of the ten trials that Abraham faced during his life.

Pirkei Avot, Ethics of our Fathers 5:3, declares that Abraham was tested with ten tests and withstood them all. But the Mishnah does not specify what those tests were. In fact, there is a rabbinic dispute concerning those ten trials.

Maimonides, in his commentary to Mishnah Avot 5:3, lists the trials as follows: 1. Abram is told by G-d to leave his homeland and his family, to seek out a new land that G-d will show him. 2. When Abraham arrives in the new land, he encounters famine and has to leave to Egypt. 3. The Egyptians capture his beloved wife Sarai, and bring her to Pharaoh. 4. Abraham has to battle the four most powerful kings of the ancient Near East. 5. Abraham is given Sarai’s handmaid, Hagar, as a wife, so that he may have children with her, because Sarai is barren. 6. Abraham is instructed by G-d to circumcise himself at the advanced age of 99 years. 7. The Philistine king of Gerar captures Sarah, intending to take her for himself. 8. G-d tells Abraham to banish Hagar after she had given birth to his child. 9. Ishmael is also driven out from his father’s home. 10. G-d tells Abraham to offer up his beloved son, Isaac, as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah.

Other commentators, such as Ovadiah of Bartenura, include certain events in their list of trials, which are recorded only in the Midrash, and not mentioned in the Bible. So, for instance, the Bartenura lists the fact that Abraham was thrown into a fiery furnace by King Amraphel in the Ur of Chaldees.

As noted earlier, at least three or four of Abraham’s trials are to be found in parashat Vayeira. In Genesis 20, when Abraham is in Gerar, Sarah is abducted. In Genesis 21, Hagar and Ishmael are expelled. In chapter 22, Abraham is faced with the final trial of the עֲקֵידָה  Akeida, as G-d commands him to bind Isaac on the altar atop Mount Moriah.

Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov, in his studies in Sefer HaParashiot, on parashat Vayeira, analyzes the purpose of the trials. Rabbi Kitov notes that of the patriarchs, only Abraham is tested, and not Isaac or Jacob. Despite the fact that Isaac was offered up as a sacrifice, the Akeida is considered a test only of Abraham and not of Isaac.

Rabbi Kitov maintains that it is impossible to suggest that G-d really “tests” a person–since G-d always knows the outcome of the test. The true purpose of the test is to enable G-d to show the world Abraham’s righteousness. However, this explanation is not entirely satisfying, otherwise G-d would have tested Isaac and Jacob as well. Furthermore, the trial of the Akeida, which is considered the greatest of Abraham’s tests, was conducted in private. Only Abraham and Isaac witnessed it. The Akeida is only known because the Torah publicized it. So what is the true purpose of the test?

Rabbi Kitov argues that the Divine tests are conducted in order to benefit the one who is tested. The one who successfully passes the test is ultimately strengthened and is enabled to more easily follow his chosen path. The trial purifies the one who is tested from any impurities and distances that person from those roads that might lead one astray. Abraham, who came from an ignoble background, needed the purification, whereas his son, Isaac and his grandson, Jacob, no longer needed those trials in order to be purified since they were themselves descended from the now pure and complete Abraham.

According to Kitov, our rabbis teach that when Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden fruit, good and evil in the world were intermingled. Both good and evil penetrated all the deeds and acts of all people, even those who attempted to do only good deeds. For the first twenty generations of humankind, from Adam to Abraham, it was impossible to cleanse the evil from the good, or to separate them. At times, evil overwhelmed the good, almost leading to the destruction of the world. This is what happened in the time of the flood and the building of the Tower of Babel.

The Al-mighty, however, wished to renew the world, to give it a truly solid foundation that would never crumble. To accomplish this, it is required that good entirely overwhelm evil. And if even a single person was able to accomplish that, that one person’s merits could swing the scale and save the entire world.

G-d could not create a pure world by fashioning Abraham into a pure new creature, since the evil emanating from the other humans who were yet alive would endure. Therefore, the Al-mighty created Abraham within the existing world, enabling Abraham to purify and repair all the existing creations.

Abraham, the spiritual giant, was that one person who was able to cleanse himself from all evil, so that he could worship G-d fully. Abraham succeeded to use every one of his 248 limbs for goodness and purity. He fought with all his might to overcome any evil that he encountered and to transform it into good. Fortunately, Abraham was also able to call upon the merits of some of his righteous ancestors, Shem, Ever, and Arpachshad, to help him vanquish evil.

It was through the ten trials that Abraham succeeded in purifying himself, to take the good that was in him and to make it even purer, so that he could, in effect, be regarded as a new creation.

In order to succeed, Abraham needed to master the three pillars upon which the world stands, תּוֹרָה, עֲבוֹדָה, גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים, Torah, service and acts of loving-kindness, (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:2). Abraham learned from Noah, who fed and cared for all the creatures of the world in his ark, to do acts of loving-kindness. He learned Torah from his grandfathers, Shem and Ever.

His challenge now was to show G-d that he had mastered the art of עֲבוֹדָה Avodah–uncompromising service to the Al-mighty.

From a young age, Abraham was prepared to put his life on the line in order to save others from evil and to redirect them from their wayward ways. In a fateful act, intended to defy the idolaters, Abraham was prepared to be thrown into the fiery furnace. When he could no longer do his outreach work publicly in Mesopotamia, he moved to Haran, where he was out of Nimrod’s reach and influence. It was in Haran that he and Sarai gathered the “souls” of men and women, enabling them to embrace G-d.

But suddenly, G-d informs Abram to go to a land, without specifying which land, a land in which the Canaanites and the Perezites, the brothers of Nimrod, dwell. He was concerned about leaving his spiritual “converts” back in Haran. Who would teach them Torah? Perhaps they would forsake everything they learned? Nevertheless, G-d insisted that he leave the land and leave his followers behind. It was a test for Abraham of immense proportions, in effect, negating all that he had accomplished in Haran where he effectively spread the word of Torah.

Once Abraham reached the Promised Land, he was tested again in another fundamental area of his belief–-חֶסֶד Chesed, when he was instructed to chase out his handmaid, Hagar, and her child, Ishmael. Abraham, who had spent his entire life trying to imitate G-d’s qualities of loving-kindness, welcoming people from near and far, was commanded to perform an act of singular cruelty.

Not a single person ever passed by Abraham’s tent without being invited in for food, drink, sleeping and accompaniment. All of Abraham’s wherewithal was dedicated to his passion for welcoming guests, even if they were idolaters. And now, he must chase out his own wife and son, Hagar and Ishmael, forcing them to leave with a little bread and water. They could no longer remain in his home, and he could not show any compassion.

While it is true that Ishmael was accused of being מְצַחֵק, of trying to sexually molest Isaac, and that Ishmael was a potential killer, yet Abraham had already welcomed idolaters into his home, who had similar evil attributes, and he had compassion for them. But now, for his own son, he was not permitted to show compassion. G-d demands of Abraham, “I am the compassionate G-d. It is not for you to be compassionate. The Al-mighty is compassionate on all His creatures (Psalm 145). You, Abraham, must fulfill the will of the Creator, and chase the child out.”

Ultimately, the dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael turned out to be for their own benefit. As the offspring of Abraham, Ishmael was given the gift of life and the ability to endure for many generations. G-d would not have tested Abraham if he were not capable of meeting the test.

Now Abraham faced the ultimate test–-the test of service, Avodah (the Akeida). For 137 years, Abraham served G-d with all his might, with every limb of his body. Abraham would encourage all the inhabitants of the world to “taste” the goodness of G-d. Abraham proclaimed to those near and far that the Al-mighty does not want human sacrifice of sons and daughters. Nor is there a need to constantly fast or to do any bodily harm. G-d only wants humankind to taste and see the goodness of G-d.

But now G-d tells Abraham, “Bring Me your son as an offering.” He had already cast out Ishmael, his oldest child. With the Akeida, everything that Abraham had learned in the service of G-d would be nullified. After all, G-d had promised him that through Isaac he will have children, and now he is told to bring that same child up as an offering!

“You, Abraham, must nullify your will before G-d. Take your child and bring him up as an offering!”

It was through the trial of the Akeida that Abraham achieved complete purity. Giving up his own personal will, he renounced his essence to Heaven. The successful test of the Akeida, enabled Abraham to prove to G-d that he had mastered Avodah–ultimate service to the Divine.

It was through this selfless act that Abraham further purified the good that was already in him. He became a new creation, bringing redemption to all humanity by restoring them to the state of purity that preceded the sin of the Garden of Eden.

May you be blessed.