Its a Cruel World Out There
The ninth and tenth tests of Abraham, in the opinion of both Rashi and Rambam, Avoth (5:3) are described in our Torah portion, and they both revolve around Abraham's relationship with his children.
The ninth test was the banishment of Ishmael and Hagar. The tenth test was the Akeida, the binding of Isaac. Both tests are concerned with Abraham's willingness to give up his children for the sake of God. They both require Abraham to summon up the character trait of cruelty, and use it against the very people who are the objects of his most intense love.
It is far from easy to comprehend the purpose of these tests and what we are supposed to learn from them.
To highlight the problem, let us take a closer look at the ninth test, the banishment of Ishmael.
THE DIFFICULTY IN COMPREHENDING THE TESTS OF ABRAHAM
Sarah saw the son of Hagar, the Egyptian, whom she had born to Abraham, mocking. So she said to Abraham, "Drive out this slave woman with her son, for the son of that slave woman shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac!"
The matter greatly distressed Abraham regarding his son. So God said to Abraham, "Be not distressed over the youth or your slave woman: whatever Sarah tells you heed her voice, since through Isaac will offspring be considered yours. But the son of the slave woman as well will I make into a nation for he is your offspring."
Before we can examine the deeper ramifications of the test we must understand how this can be viewed as a test altogether. Every test must have a pass/fail option. Where are the options here? At this point was Abraham supposed to disobey God's direct order? God told him to 'heed Sarah's voice,' -- what else could Abraham do?
In order to make sense of the succeeding discussion we must nail down an obvious point. Although the Torah is full of God's commandments, even the observant, who are sincerely committed to their belief in God, don't always find it easy to follow these commandments and often find themselves severely tested by them. But their situation is very different than Abraham's.
First of all, no Torah commandment is addressed directly to any specific individual in a particular situation. The evil inclination usually has an excellent theory why the particular commandment at issue should not be interpreted to apply to someone in his or her particular situation.
Second, as none of us have ever spoken directly with God, nor have we even personally met anyone who has done so beyond a reasonable doubt, there is inevitably a corner of our hearts, which may vary in size from individual to individual, that doubts the very fact that the commandments are God-given.
Finally, most of us have never really made a Lech Lecha. We live within our cultures and in the bosom of our families, and it is extremely difficult for us to do anything that would hold us up to possible ridicule or criticism. When following the commandments puts us at odds with our social group we have a very difficult time.
None of these factors apply to Abraham. God addresses him directly and tells him what to do in his particular situation. He has absolutely no doubt as to God's existence or in the fact that God just issued him a commandment. Abraham has already abandoned society and family to follow God's lead and he doesn't care what anyone thinks of him. So how can we understand the test?
Let us begin by looking at what in fact Abraham did.
WHAT ABRAHAM DID TO PASS THE TEST OF ISHMAEL'S BANISHMENT
So Abraham awoke early in the morning, took bread and a skin of water, and gave them to Hagar. He placed them on her shoulder along with the boy, and sent her off. She departed and strayed in the desert of Beer-Sheba. (Genesis, 21:14)
This enormously wealthy man gets up early in the morning so as not to delay the speedy execution of the edict of banishment even for a moment, and sends off Hagar, his second wife, and his beloved son, who was suffering from a fever at the time [according to the Midrash], with a loaf of bread and a single jug of water, without transport or escort, into the wilderness that Hagar doesn't know and where she rapidly loses her way.
Why does Abraham, a man the Torah portrays as the epitome of hospitality and benevolence, the man who serves as the support of the pillar of gmilut chasadim, acts of loving kindness, behave so harshly? Why couldn't he send them off with a decent escort and provide for their future?
Rabbi Dessler explains: God told Abraham to listen to whatever Sarah says. Sarah said to drive them out, and this is the way you drive somebody out!
How would we have interpreted God's command in Abraham's place if we assume, as the sources inform us, that he loved his son Ishmael deeply, and felt nothing but gratitude and affection towards his mother, Hagar?
We surely would have thought to ourselves that God is telling me not to attempt to arrange a reconciliation between Hagar and Sarah. There is no way to make peace and restore the harmony of the household. So He is telling me to divorce Hagar. But He certainly means for me to do it decently. She is surely entitled to alimony and child support, if not some form of community property, after all she has done for me. What is more, God surely wants me to obtain visitation rights to my child who is, after all, my responsibility to raise and educate properly.
One measure of the level of performance on tests is how well the subject tested listens to the instructions. Abraham really paid attention. He didn't interpret. He listened and obeyed.
THE TEST OF THE AKEIDA
But if this explanation serves to explain how the banishment of Ishmael was indeed a test, it will not help us at all to understand the tenth test, the Akeida. There was nothing to misinterpret there, absolutely no ambiguity. God clearly told Abraham in the most explicit terms to take his son Isaac and sacrifice him. So what was the test?
The answer is obvious and applies to the banishment of Ishmael as well. Suppose Abraham would have said the following: God, I understand the instructions but I can't do it! It isn't that I don't want to listen -- I do. I just don't have the necessary cruelty! Suppose I was in an accident right now and lost the use of my limbs so that I would be physically incapacitated and therefore objectively unable to sacrifice Isaac. Could any blame be attached to this failure that is clearly not my fault under the circumstances? Well what's the difference between physical inability and emotional incapacity?
Shouldn't we think less of Abraham for being able to summon the reserves of cruelty necessary to carry out both these tests so diligently and with such apparent enthusiasm? Wouldn't he be a more admirable person if he would have told God, I just cannot do this! I don't have the necessary cruelty in my makeup!
WHY GOD WOULD ENCOURAGE ABRAHAM TO DEVELOP A STREAK OF CRUELTY
Once we have reached this point, we are able to confront the real question: Why was God interested in developing such a wide cruel streak in the character of his chosen one, Abraham, by giving him such inhumane tests? Isn't the cruelty and intense ruthlessness required to succeed at these tests absolutely abhorrent in the eyes of God? What is the qualitative difference in being able to follow such Divine instructions and blowing up the Twin Towers and annihilating thousands of innocent lives instantly all for the greater glory of God?
The answer lies in understanding the concept of serving God with your evil inclination.
We are obligated to utter a blessing to God on evil just as we are obligated to bless Him for the good, as it is written, "You shall love YHVH your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your resources" (Deut. 6:5)
- With all your heart - with both your inclinations - the evil inclination as well as the good.
- With all your soul - even at the cost of life itself, you have to be prepared to give up your life for the love of God.
- With all your resources - with all your possessions, in any measure that He may deal with you, you always have to be thankful for His involvement. (Talmud, Berachot 54a)
HOW TO SERVE GOD WITH YOUR EVIL INCLINATION
But how is it possible to serve God with the evil inclination? Surely the evil inclination always directs one to commit the very acts that are the antithesis of Divine service. After all, that was the purpose of its creation.
To answer this question and discover the key to understanding Abraham's tests, we must appreciate the difference between the purpose of actions and the emotional drive and energy required to execute them.
To bring this down to earth let us look at a very common real life situation light years away from spiritual issues. John is a medical student facing a final. He knows that if he doesn't study hard he will fail his final, flunk out of medical school, and forfeit the dream of becoming a doctor that he has worked to actualize for years. However, John has absolutely no desire to open his books. He does not have an iota of interest in their contents, not a single drop of enthusiasm in his heart for the task ahead. John will not study and he will fail his test. This is not an uncommon event at all. We have all encountered such people and these sorts of situations.
It's not enough to know the consequences of your actions in your mind. You have to care about the outcome in your heart, at least a little bit. The tiniest bit of concern is often enough if you understand the importance of the consequences in your mind, but there must be some desire present to provide the necessary energy to enable you to act. No one can energize himself to act with zero desire, no matter what is at stake.
The purpose of banishing Ishmael had nothing to do with cruelty. In the same speech that God ordered his banishment, He assured Abraham that He would turn Ishmael into a nation, as he was Abraham's child. Abraham was not concerned about Ishmael's survival or his ability to prosper. What was at issue was the severance of all ties from a beloved son. Abraham would play no part in his future.
The reason: Ishmael was a mocker. God loved Abraham not merely because he was His faithful servant.
And God said, "Shall I conceal from Abraham what I do, now that Abraham is surely to become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by him? For I have loved him, for he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of God, doing charity and justice, in order that God might then bring upon Abraham that which He had spoken of him. (Genesis 18, 17-19)
Abraham stood not only for belief in God and dedication to His service, but for the establishment of a society based on the principles of charity and justice within the context of this belief and this service. The great and mighty nation God foresees emerging from Abraham has nothing to do with material greatness or military might, but has to be understood in terms of moral stature. The Tablets of the Law given to Jews at Mt. Sinai, the bases of this greatness, assign equal importance to the duties owed man and obligations to God. There are two Tablets and five commandments on each.
Thus God was aware that Abraham would be pained by the destruction of Sodom even though it was a city full of evildoers and unbelievers. What if there were some righteous people in Sodom? How can you destroy the righteous along with the wicked? The object is not to coerce the infidel to change or obliterate him. The object is to get him to see the light.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF BEING A MOCKER
Ishmael was no different back then than he is now. He was dedicated to the belief and service of God, but human rights, charity and justice was not his thing. His policy: either convert the infidel or destroy him indiscriminately, man, woman and child. In his worldview, Abraham's commitment to strive for justice and equality, his concern for the fate of the gentle unbeliever was to be diagnosed as weakness of character. It was a trait through which Abraham could be cynically manipulated.
He knew that if he would stick around he would eventually take over. He would claim that he was the oldest, that it was not his fault that Sarah couldn't have children until he came along, that he should not be discriminated against because he was the child of the former maidservant, and he knew that Abraham could not withstand this type of onslaught on his sense of justice and fairness.
Sarah also knew her husband and her son, who would follow in his ways. She knew that the family had to separate itself from Ishmael. She saw that he was a mocker, a cynical manipulator of other people's sense of justice. There is nothing as immoral as using a person's own moral principles against him when you yourself do not subscribe to them at all. God agreed with Sarah.
God's plan was to make use of Abraham's dedication to Him to accomplish the creation of a peaceful world where people respected each other's rights and everyone was treated with justice and humanity. The aim was to inspire, not force. Ishmael could not participate in such a scheme. The separation from Ishmael had to be total and complete. All ties, emotional and physical had to be cut in such a way as to place them beyond the possibility of repair. God commanded Abraham to banish Ishmael in a manner that would make the severance from him absolute, as Rabbi Dessler explained.
THE NEED FOR CRUELTY
But the actual banishment was an intensely cruel act. Whatever the rational necessity for it may have been, it could only be executed with the energy provided by the character trait of cruelty, in itself an evil character trait that is one of the main weapons in the arsenal of the evil inclination. If Abraham would have been totally incapable of cruelty, he couldn't have done it.
Not that such a failure would have carried any negative consequences. If it were beyond Abraham to summon forth the necessary cruelty and execute the deed, he would have been absolved from all punishment. The Torah rule; violation of God's commandments committed under duress is not liable to punishment (Avoda Zarah, 54a) But he also would have been unsuitable to serve as God's instrument to build the world God wanted. Abraham had to be willing and able to serve God with his evil inclination as well. That was the test.
The same principles apply to the Akeida. It is obvious that for the true servant of God, who regards the sanctification of God's name as the very purpose of life, the abhorrence of desecrating God's name must weigh heavier on the scales than the prospect of the loss of corporeal life. The surrender of life to the sword of the executioner has been regarded with equanimity by multitudes of our people through our long and bloody history.
But sacrificing the life of one's child for the sanctification of God's name is not the same as sacrificing one's own. Jewish history demonstrates how vast this gulf between the two sorts of sacrifice really is. The fallout from continuity along the Jewish chain of generations has usually originated from the feeling of the typical Jewish parent that "I want my child to have a better life than I did". During the two thousand bloody years of our Diaspora many Jewish parents have said to themselves, "I myself might be able to tolerate the persecution that results from the virulent anti-Semitism that surrounds me, no matter how painful or harsh, but I cannot summon the reserves of cruelty necessary to place my child in my own painful circumstances."
THE DIFFICULTY OF SACRIFICING ONE'S CHILDREN
The Akeida was an extension of the ninth test. It is one thing to banish a child who is assured of a rosy future by God Himself. It is quite another matter to nip his life in the bud and kill him so as not to profane God's name by disobeying His command. The mind may tell me, "Yes, you have got to do this no matter how painful it may be, the purpose of your child's life is the same as the purpose of your own. There is no real difference between sacrificing your own life and the life of your child." Yes, I understand this in my mind, but the heart just won't allow me to raise my hand to do it. I am coerced by my own nature to disobey. Being coerced, I am not at fault and no one can blame me.
Again, this is true. You cannot be blamed. But those Jews who have not had the "cruelty" to put their children through the same difficult life that they suffered as a consequence of anti-Semitism, have often been the cause of the Jewish people forfeiting these children to the outside world. They and their offspring tend to disappear among the nations without a trace. No one can blame them but they are lost to God's mission and drop out of Jewish history. You need some "cruelty" to keep Judaism alive.