Bossewitch Wide

The Trials of Avraham

Oct 29, 2009

Regarding Avraham Avinu, Chazal teach us: "The Attribute of Chesed said: 'so long as Avraham was in this world, I did not have to perform my job, for Avraham stood there in my place'" (Sefer HaBahir page 86, note 191). Avraham was the personification of chesed in the world and there was therefore less work for Hashem's Attribute of Chesed.

Avraham Avinu was then challenged with ten tests of faith, tests aimed at proving the extent of his devotion to Hashem. These trials went contrary to his nature of chesed. The first of these was the war against Amrafel which we read about in our parsha. Lot was taken captive and the only way Avraham Avinu would be able to save him was to wage war against Amrafel and his comrades. In the midst of this war Scripture relates: "then there came the fugitive and told Avram, the Ivri" (Bereishit 14:13). What is the meaning of the description "Ivri"? The simple explanation is that he was a descendant of Ever. The Midrash has another viewpont: "the entire world is me-ever echad (on one side) and he is on the other side" (Bereishit Rabba 42:8) - Avraham Avinu had to wage war on his own against an entire world. Nimrod tried to force people to worship avoda zara just as Terach had - Avraham however was not influenced by them, for his only desire was to serve Hashem. This is the simple understanding of the midrash.


I would like to suggest that Avraham's battle was not only against the outside world - in this case Amrafel, but there was an internal struggle as well. As we mentioned, Avraham, by nature, was a man of chesed. In order to save Lot he would have to go against his very nature. He would now be obligated to spill blood, to kill Nimrod and his cohorts (see Rashi Bereishit 14:1) - to act in a way that is the antithesis of chesed. He had to put himself "on the other side" of himself, so to speak. This was a great nisayon for him. Avraham realized that saving Lot from these evil people would bring about a great Kiddush Hashem and he concluded that if sanctifying Hashem's Name meant acting contrary to his trait of chesed, then that was what had to be done.


Some of the later nisyonot teach us that Avraham Avinu's acts were not motivated solely by his natural instinct of chesed, but by his commitment to comprehend and to do whatever it is that Hashem wants from him. In one of the trials Hashem then commanded Avraham to expel Hagar and Yishmael, his own wife and child, from his home. Avraham Avinu, that pillar of chesed had to evict his own flesh and blood. This presented a great challenge to him. He was aware however that if Hashem commanded him to heed Sarah's request that they be evicted "since through Yitzchak will offspring be consideredyours" (Bereishit 21:12) then this is what he must do.

What about the potential chillul Hashem? What would people now say? Here is a man who travels near and far preaching chesed and hachnassat orchim and is about to expel his own wife and son. Yet Avraham does not even entertain the thought of acting otherwise - it is Hashem's wish that he drive out Hagar and Yishmael so this is what he must do. He's afraid of a chillul Hashem? Hashem will take care of that! In fact not only was there no chillul Hashem but there was a Kiddush Hashem. Following Yishmael's expulsion from the house, the Plishtim said to Avraham:
"G-d is with you in all that you do" (Bereishit 21:22). How often are we convinced that we know what is best for us? Hashem knows better - if this is what Hashem wants then this is what must be done.

We then read of Avraham and Lot parting ways. Lot had been very devoted to Avraham, he faithfully accompanied him from Haran to Eretz Yisrael and to Egypt. Lot did not reveal to Pharaoh that Avraham was not Sarah's brother. Avraham, however, decided that it was time to part: "Please let there be no strife between me and you and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen, for we are kinsmen. Is not all the land before you? Please separate from me: if you go left then I will go right, and if you go right then I will go left." (Bereishit 12:8-9). It is not good for us to remain together. Chazal add that the angels asked Hashem: "what sort of man are we dealing with? He preaches belief and chesed and then goes and drives away his own devoted nephew?" Regardless, this is what must be done. Avraham was not acting according to his nature but was following the will of Hashem. Although Avraham was not explicitly commanded to part from Lot, he realized that it would not be a good idea for them to remain together.


The ultimate act which showed that he was not driven by natural instincts but rather solely by the will of Hashem was the final trial, that of Akeidat Yitzchak. Avraham is commanded to slaughter Yitzchak without any clear reason for doing so. The mere idea goest completely against everything Avraham stood for. Regarding the evil Amrafel and his cohorts, while it went contrary to his nature, he easily understood the need to kill them. As painful as it was to evict Yishmael, it was understandable, after all Yishmael did not behave the way a son of Avraham Avinu should and there was the danger that he would have a negative influence on Yitzchak. In fact to this day we are constantly reminded of just who Yishmael is. But why should he kill Yitzchak? Is Yitzchak not the model child and disciple? Did Hashem not promise Avraham that Yitzchak would be the one to continue his legacy? How can he even think of sacrificing him? What will the other nations say? Here is the man who spent his entire life portraying Hashem as a G-d of chesed and trying to convince the world to emulate His ways, and now he is about to offer his own son upon the altar! Avraham succeeds in passing this tremendous nisayon and proceeds to Har HaMoriah to fulfill Hashem's wish. Avraham was the total servant of Hashem. We may not be anywhere near the level of Avraham Avinu but we must also strive to totally devote our lives to Hashem.

Only later does he realize that Hashem never intended for Yitzchak to be sacrificed and that he was only commanded to "place him upon the altar" (see Bereishit 22:2). At the time he understood that Hashem had commanded him to kill Yitzchak and he obediently proceeded to do as he thought he was commanded. Hashem praised Avraham for this: "for now I know that you are a G-d fearing man" (ibid. 12). Up until this point, Avraham may have given the impression that his acts of chesed were part of his nature and not a fulfillment of Hashem's will. People enjoy all sorts of hobbies, perhaps Avraham simply enjoyed practicing chesed. The binding of Yitzchak, however, proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Avraham's chesed was purely out of belief in Hashem and a desire to fulfill His commands.


Chazal teach us that Avraham knew the entire Torah without being taught: "Avraham Avinu fulfilled the entire Torah before it was given" (Kiddushin 82a). From where did he know the Torah prior to Matan Torah? Chazal teach us: "Avraham's two kidneys became as two pitchers of water and were flowing with Torah" (Bereishit Rabba 95:3).

The Rambam distinguishes between mitzvoth sichliyot (from the root sechel) - logical mitzvoth which our minds (sechel) can grasp, and mitzvoth shimiyot (from the root shema - to hear) - mitzvoth which we fulfill because we heard them from Hashem without necessarily understanding them. Regarding the latter category we should not feel "I really abhor the idea of eating pig", rather we should say "I would love to try it, non-Jews eat it and say it tastes wonderful, but what can I do Hashem forbade me to eat it!" This does not apply to mitzvot sichliyot. We are never allowed to say: "I would really enjoy murdering and stealing, but unfortunately our holy Torah forbids it." We must abhor murder and thievery even had the Torah not forbidden it.

Avraham Avinu had an innate understanding of all mitzvoth. He was able to comprehend on his own the reason for mitzvoth, even those mitzvoth whose reasons were only revealed many generations later. Avraham ate matzah on the fifteenth of Nisan long before there was an exodus from Egypt. His inner soul understood that on this day he must eat matzah. For Avraham, all mitzvoth were sichliyot. Hashem therefore gave Avraham his own mitzvoth shimiyot by commanding him to act in a way which even he did not understand, in a way which was contrary to his nature.


Some of the commentaries debate whether acts are intrinsically good or bad and Hashem commands that which is good and forbids that which is negative, or whether mitzvoth considered good only because Hashem commanded them, but had Hashem not commanded such they would not be considered positive. I would like to suggest that there are acts which are intrinsically positive or negative and Hashem wishes for us to be good. Hashem does not want us to kill, steal, or perform any other act which we instinctively abhor. However, this is only because Hashem created a world in which these acts are considered negative. Hashem is above all nature and He could have created a world in which stealing and murder would be considered positive acts. Hashem is the source of all good in this world.

As we mentioned above, regarding logical mitzvoth a person on the one hand should not proclaim that he would love to be a thief but Hashem commanded otherwise, but on the other hand regarding mitzvoth which we do not understand we must refrain, for example, from wearing shaatnez simply because Hashem forbade it. We are not like Avraham Avinu who understood the entire Torah on his own - there are things we do not understand yet we observe them because Hashem commanded us to.


Striving to follow the will of Hashem should be our guide in life: "you shall be wholehearted with Hashem, your G-d" (Devarim 18:13). Chazal greatly praise the Jewish nation's declaration of naase venishma - "At the time Israel preceded 'naase' (we will do) to 'nishma' (we will hear), sixty myriads of ministering angels came to each and every Jew. They tied two crowns on each Jew - one corresponding to 'naase' and one corresponding to 'nishma' (Shabbat 88a). Furthermore, Chazal write: "at the time Israel preceded 'naase' to 'nishma', a Heavenly voice emanated and said to them: 'who revealed to My children this secret which the ministering angels use'?" (ibid.). We find many other such praises for this statement in the works of Chazal. Perhaps we can now explain that when the Jewish nation declared 'naase' they were expressing a desire to be like Avraham Avinu. However, given that we are unable to attain a comprehension of the mitzvoth from our kidneys, then we have no choice but 'nishma' - to be taught the Torah by Moshe Rabenu. May we all merit fulfilling the Torah and serving Hashem with all our hearts.

Venue: Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh


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