GOOD MORNING! We are certainly living in challenging times. Due to COVID-19, many millions of people have lost loved ones and millions more have lost their jobs. Here in the not-so-United States of America, citizens are living in a severely politically and ideologically divided country during one of the more divisive political environments in history.

When a person experiences a sharp bodily pain all of his attention is instantly drawn to that area. Similarly, Americans are engaged in a way that is, by many measures, unprecedented.

Often when people go through particularly challenging times the common refrain becomes “God is testing me.” This week I would like to examine what that really means. After all, isn’t the Almighty omniscient? What is the point of a test? Moreover, what is a test?

I am reminded of the following exchange between a teacher and her student who was wise beyond his years. The teacher was discussing careers and handed out an assignment asking the students to write about different types of jobs. After they handed in the assignments the teacher gave a one question pop quiz: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” While all her pupils were feverishly writing paragraphs about their future careers, one student wrote a single word answer – “Happy.”

The teacher said, “I don’t think you understand the test.” The student answered, “I don’t think you understand life.”

As always, we must look into the Torah for insights on how to understand and manage our lives. In this week’s Torah readings we are introduced to many seminal events in the life of our forefather Abraham.

Much of Judaism’s views on standards for personal conduct were codified two thousand years ago in the work known as Pirkei Avot Ethics of our Fathers. In chapter five we find the following statement: “Our father Abraham was tested with ten different tests who withstood them to show his love (for God)” (Pirkei Avot 5:3).

There is some discussion among the commentators what events in Abraham’s life are included in the list of the ten tests. According to Maimonides these are the Ten Tests of Abraham:

  1. God tells him to leave his homeland and become a stranger in foreign land (Canaan).
  2. Immediately after his arrival in Canaan, he encounters a debilitating famine.
  3. Because of the famine he travels to Egypt whereupon the Egyptians seize his wife, Sarah, and bring her to Pharaoh.
  4. His nephew Lot is captured, which causes Abraham to enter into a war against the mighty armies of four international world powers.
  5. He is unable to have children with Sarah who suggests that he marry her maidservant Hagar to sire a heir.
  6. God tells him to circumcise himself at an advanced age.
  7. The Philistine King Avimelech kidnaps Sarah, intending to take her for himself.
  8. God tells him to send Hagar away after having a child with her.
  9. His son with Hagar, Ishmael, becomes estranged.
  10. God tells him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac upon an altar.

The first of Abraham’s tests is found in the opening sentences of this week’s Torah reading:

“God said to Abraham; “Go for yourself, away from your homeland, from your birthplace, and your father’s home, to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you great and make you a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-2).

The famous medieval Biblical commentator known as Rashi explains the Almighty’s curious statement to Abraham (“Go for yourself”). Rashi says that the Almighty was telling Abraham that if he left his birthplace and his father’s home he would be given three gifts: 1. He would merit to have children 2. He would become very wealthy 3. He would be world famous.

While there is some discussion by the commentators as to which events in Abraham’s life are included on the list of Ten Tests, it is universally agreed that the Almighty asking Abraham to leave his home and go to Canaan makes the list.

This seems a little odd. It’s true that God asked Abraham to pick himself up and move to a foreign land, but God also promised incredible compensation for his troubles. After all, who wouldn’t leave where they are living and move somewhere with the proviso that they will be guaranteed the three amazing blessings of family and nationhood, wealth, and fame? Honestly, what kind of test is that?

Superficially, one may answer that the test is to see whether Abraham leaves his homeland because God asked him to do so or because he wanted the benefits promised. However, this approach is untenable for several reasons.

Firstly, this seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of a test. God doesn't administer a test to gauge a person’s loyalty; the Almighty is omniscient and knows exactly how loyal someone is. Rather, test from God is to give the person being tested an opportunity for personal growth.

Secondly, this understanding actually contradicts God’s very words. The Almighty very clearly tells Abraham “Go for yourself” – i.e. for your own sake. If the incentives were only offered as part of the test, God would have simply said, “Go.”

So we are left with our original question: What kind of test is this that the Almighty is promising Abraham  money, fame, and nationhood? Every single one of us would be thrilled to have that offer!

The answer lies in our shallow understanding of these gifts and the responsibility that comes with them. Most of us think it would be great to have a billion dollars – “I could buy the most amazing houses and boats and not have to worry about paying bills or having to show up to work.”

Similarly, “If I were famous I would be the toast of the town. I would be the most amazing influencer ever! I would constantly get comped clothes, meals, and travel. I would get invited to the most amazing parties. Everyone would want to be my friend. I would have enormous power.”

Unfortunately, we all tend to think this way because of the shallow and superficial value systems of modern society, which can be summed up in the following credo: “How can I make the most amount of money with the least amount of effort so that I can focus on giving myself the maximum amount of pleasure?”

A test is an opportunity to grow as a person. It’s purpose isn’t to give a person a passing or failing grade. A test allows one to learn something about himself and provides the opportunity for a person to continue challenge himself to grow to ever higher achievements of personal growth. Tests teach us who we are and, even more importantly, who we can become.

That is exactly the test that the Almighty was giving Abraham. Are you going to use these gifts for a life focused on maximizing personal pleasure for yourself or will you employ them to better humanity?

Abraham is the first Jew and the origin of the Jewish people. This is because Abraham came to recognize that we live in a theocentric world and not an egocentric world. This worldview enables one to arrive at the realization that all resources should be used to further the Almighty’s plan for the world.

Abraham passed the test because he understood the maxim that having enormous wealth, fame, or power doesn't mean I can do more for myself; it means I have been “gifted” a ginormous responsibility.

Most of us, upon realizing that these gifts aren't for personal use, would run in the other direction rather than accept them. This is because the responsibility for properly administering these gifts for a higher purpose is a lot of work (and usually thankless).

But, if one is able to succeed in doing the right thing with the resources entrusted to him, he will feel an incredible sense of accomplishment, which will result in enormous personal pleasure. After all, true happiness is derived from accomplishment; it is the source of everlasting pleasure and the reason we were created. Thus, this is what God meant when He said to Abraham, “Go for yourself.”

Torah Portion of the Week

Lech Lecha, Genesis 6:9 - 11:32

The Almighty commands Avram (later renamed Avraham) to leave Haran and go to “the place that I will show you” (which turned out to be the land of Canaan -- later renamed the Land of Israel). The Almighty then gives Avram an eternal message to the Jewish people and to the nations of the world, “I will bless those who bless you and he who curses you I will curse.” Finding a famine, Avram travels to Egypt asking Sarai (later renamed Sarah) to say she is his sister so they won't kill him to marry her (the Egyptians were particular not to commit adultery ... so they would kill the husband instead).

Pharaoh evicts Avram from Egypt after attempting to take Sarai for a wife. They settle in Hebron (also known as Kiryat Arba) and his nephew Lot settles in Sodom. Avram rescues Lot -- who was taken captive -- in the Battle of the Four Kings against the Five Kings.

Entering into a covenant with the Almighty (all covenants with the Almighty are eternal, never to be abrogated or replaced by new covenants), Avram is told that his descendants will be enslaved for 400 years and that his descendants (via Isaac not Ishmael, “through Isaac will offspring be considered yours.” Genesis 21:8) will be given the land “from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates.”

Sarai, childless, gives her handmaid Hagar to Avram for a wife so that he will have children. Ishmael (the grandfather of our Arab cousins) is born. The covenant of brit mila, religious circumcision, is made (17:3-8), God changes their names to Avraham and Sarah and tells them that Sarah will give birth to Yitzchak (Isaac). Avraham circumcises all the males of his household.

Candle Lighting Times

Happiness is that state of consciousness derived from the achievement of one's values.

Dedicated with Deep Appreciation to

Wayne & Anita Kerness

In loving memory of
Rabbi Kalman Packouz
Kalman Moshe ben Reuven Avigdor

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

Copyright © 2021 Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig