Actualizing potential through tests
The Russian Czar Nicholas I, in his efforts to destroy Jewish life, demanded that each Jewish community provide soldiers for his forces. These young men, called "Cantonists," were typically drafted at the age of 12 and served in the Russian army for 25 years. They did not serve in the regular army, however, but in separate units under the most anti-Semitic officers. The Russian hope was that they would eventually convert to the Russian church. Ultimately, many of these young men did lose their Jewish identity. Others were killed, and many took their own lives rather than be baptized.
It so happened during this period, that there was a meeting in St. Petersburg of many of the great rabbis of the time. The meeting took place around the High Holidays and there was some speculation as to which rabbi should be given the honor of leading the Rosh Hashana services. Right before the services were to begin, a group of Cantonists walked into the shul and announced that one of them would lead the prayers. Seeing the quizzical looks on the faces of the rabbis, one of the Cantonists lifted his shirt, exposing his back. The flesh was a mass of scarred tissue, testifying to the many beatings he'd endured to maintain his Jewish faith. With no further discussion, the Cantonist was given the honor of leading the services.
Sacrifice and a willingness to undergo hardships for the right cause has long been a hallmark of Jewish greatness. Loyalty to a just cause is a great source of meaning and fulfillment. As the Sages say: "According to the difficulty, is the (divine) reward."
Nowhere is the importance of sacrifice more evident than in this week's Torah portion, Vayera. In the parsha, Abraham is commanded by the Almighty to offer his only son Isaac on an altar. In perhaps the most moving of all Torah passages, Abraham is told to bring "your son, your only one, the one you love" and bind him on an altar at Mount Moriah.
The Midrash describes how Abraham's life was a series of spiritual tests. At a young age, he risked his life to fight against idolatry. Later on, hearkening to God's call, he left everything behind, following God's dictates to go to a strange, new land. Now he was being asked to make the greatest of all sacrifices: to offer up his son. This was the son for whom Abraham and his wife Sara - previously childless - had spent decades praying for! All his dreams, all his teachings, the legacy he had hoped to pass down to mankind had been riding on this son. And now he was to slaughter him.
It was the cruelest of ironies that Abraham, who had spent decades preaching against idolatry and human sacrifice, was now being asked to perform this pagan practice. The Bible reports, though, how Abraham, with no sign of hesitation, took Isaac for the 3-day trip to Mount Moriah, then bound him on the altar. Abraham was about to slaughter his son... when an angel intervened - stopping the sacrifice.
The obvious question is: Why did the Almighty put Abraham through this test in the first place? Of course the Omniscient One already knew how Abraham would face this test!
In the view of many commentaries, the purpose of this test was to help Abraham reach a greater level of loyalty to the Almighty. While it is true that Abraham must have had this potential all along, having the potential to do something is not the same as doing it. Through this trial, Abraham actualized his potential and grew tremendously.
The Abarbanel (15th century Spanish rabbi) has a different interpretation. He sees the purpose of the binding not so much as a lesson for Abraham, but more as a message for the whole world. The Abarbanel points out that the Hebrew word for test - "nisa" - has in its root the word "ness" which means "banner." The primary purpose of Abraham's actions were to show successive generations the degree to which sacrifice is possible.
Whether it was the Cantonists or others, this lesson was learned quite well by Abraham's spiritual descendants who made great sacrifices to fulfill the Almighty's will.