“There was a famine in the land, and Abram descended to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land.2

The Torah portion begins with God instructing Avraham to uproot his whole life, leave his nation, society, and family, and go on a journey to an unknown destination. Soon after passing this test and traveling to the Land of Israel, Avraham endures a terrible famine and is forced to leave for Egypt. The Sages and Commentaries tell us that this famine constituted one of the ten tests that Avraham had to pass in order to achieve his full potential3. What was the exact nature of the test? Rashi says, “In order to test him if he would question the words of HaKadosh Baruch Hu – God told him to go to the land of Canaan and now He caused him to leave!4

According to Rashi, the main aspect of the test was not the challenge of having no food, but that Avraham was unable to fulfill God instructions of lech lecha. God had told him to go to Israel and there he would be able to fulfill his spiritual potential, and yet he was immediately met with a tremendous obstacle which forced him to take a course of action which seemed to contradict the whole point of his mission. He believed that his task was to be in Israel and yet he was forced to leave as soon as he arrived there! He could have wondered why he was forced to seemingly abandon his spiritual journey but he did not become frustrated and did not question God in any way. He recognized that he did not truly understand how his journey of ‘lech lecha should proceed – that was in God’s hands. He could only make his effort and accept that anything beyond his control was from Hashem and there was no need to be discouraged. He knew that the famine came from Hashem and that Hashem must have some reasoning behind the plan. Indeed, in hindsight, the events that took place there and the challenges that he faced, do seem to have had many benefits5.

The Ramban writes that all the experiences of the Patriarchs are an indicator of future events that their descendants would experience. We also face the challenges that he faced and the way that he dealt with those challenges will give us the ability to withstand them in our own lives. Accordingly, the test of the famine is very relevant to all our lives. A person may embark on a spiritual journey based on his understanding of God’s will. This may involve a major life change such as moving country, or changing one’s career, getting married, having children or even a smaller commitment to spiritual growth in learning or Mitzvot. Regardless of the form that the ‘journey’ takes, a person will likely have his expectations of the challenges that he will face and how he needs to overcome them. However, very often, he will be met with unforeseen difficulties or obstacles that seem to contradict his whole plan. At that point, there will be a strong inclination to become frustrated that he is unable to grow in the way that he desires.

What is the reason that a person becomes frustrated when his efforts to grow do not work out as he planned? He feels that he knows what would be the ideal way for him to reach his potential – by taking this course of action he will become a better person. Therefore, when he is placed in a situation where his planned course of action his impossible, he feels frustrated because it prevents him from attaining his goal. The mistake he is making is that he feels he knows how he will best reach his potential. Instead he should recognize that only God knows what circumstances a person should face in his life and that whatever obstacles he faces are only there for his growth. He may have thought that such an obstacle was not ideal for his growth, however, evidently Hashem knew otherwise.

Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits gives a common example of this kind of test. A yeshiva student hopes to begin a new semester of learning free of outside disturbances that will adversely affect his ability to learn. Torah learning is the ultimate way of connecting to God and growing as a person and therefore he hopes he will be able to invest all his energies into the learning. However, on occasion, it may occur that unavoidable distractions do arise, such as the need to attend a family wedding abroad, or health issues. At this point, the person may feel frustrated that he is unable to grow in the way that he wants to – he may see these disturbances as nuisances that prevent him from connecting to God. The mistake being made here is that he thinks he knows the best way for him to grow and that annoying distractions are preventing him from doing so. Instead, he should learn from Avraham and recognize that these ‘nuisances’ emanate from Hashem and evidently they offer the exact challenge that he needs at this moment. Then he can avoid the harmful attitude of frustration and focus on facing this challenge with joy and trust in God.

Avraham’s tests teach vital lessons that apply to our everyday life. May we all merit to emulate his behavior in reacting to challenges.

NOTES

  1. According to the Rambam (Avot, 5:4) the test discussed in this essay was the second of the ten tests. According to Rabbeinu Yonah, (Avot, 5:4) it was the fourth.
  2. Lech Lecha, 12:10.
  3. See Rashi, Rabbeinu Yonah, Rambam, Bartenura on Avot, 5:4.
  4. Rashi, Lech Lecha, ibid. See Rabbeinu Yonah, Avot, ibid. See Ayelet HaShachar of Rabbi Aron Yehuda Leib Shteinmann who writes that Rabbeinu Yonah explains this test in a different way from Rashi.
  5. For example, he left with great wealth, which had important spiritual ramifications.