Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Lekh Lekha 5766/ November 12, 2005

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

 

“To Do or Not To Do”

 

 Dr. Gaby Barzilai

 

Department of Bible

 

Abraham is known in Jewish tradition for having faced many ordeals:  “Our patriarch Abraham of blessed memory was put to the test in ten trials and faced them all successfully” (Abot 5.3).   Who was supposed to benefit from them and what purpose did they serve? These questions have come up time and again in biblical exegesis through the ages. We too will try our hand at offering some answers.

The first test that Abraham faced comes up at the very beginning of Parashat Lekh Lekha; from this one and others in the parasha, we can learn something about the essence of trials in general and Abraham’s trials in particular. The divine command to leave his father’s house and his homeland and to set off for an unknown destination placed Abraham in a moral dilemma of the highest magnitude; on the one hand, there was G-d’s absolute command, which must be obeyed, yet on the other hand there was the duty of respecting one’s father, which itself is a value of prime importance. [1]   Abraham had to make a decision in favor of one or the other of these important values.   In contrast to the simplicity with which verse 4 relates that “Abram went forth as the Lord had commanded him,” the text in Genesis 11:31 hints that separation from his father’s house, from the plans and hopes his father had for him, had not been easy for Abraham:

Gen. 11:31 – Terah’s Departure

Gen. 12:5Abraham’s Departure

Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, …

and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan;

but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there.

Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, …

and they set out for the land of Canaan.

When they arrived in the land of Canaan, …

 

The use of similar words and expressions in these two passages indicates that following his father’s footsteps (literally) was of incomparable importance to Abraham, yet nevertheless he obeyed G-d’s command and set off for an unknown land.  Rabbi Mordechai Breuer illustrated the two faces of Abraham’s journey in a most marvelous way, [2] and from his commentary we can understand the magnitude of the Abraham’s dilemma. The need to choose between conflicting values is one of the characteristics of Abraham’s trials.  It is not so hard to do the right thing when it is perfectly clear what is right and what is wrong.  The true trial lies in deciding between two values both of which are important, when there is no way to uphold both simultaneously.

 

How to Decide?

In his trials, Abraham was repeatedly called upon to make such moral decisions.  For example, further on in the same chapter he had to decide whether to remain in the land to which G-d had sent him, or to go to Egypt in order to save his household from famine.   The decision to go down to Egypt again placed him in a dilemma; how was he to protect his wife’s honor in a situation of danger to his own life?  In these instances he received no divine command, but had to decide on his own, and the Torah does not tell us explicitly whether he made the correct choice. [3]  

 

The actual process of deciding and the acts that followed from his decisions were themselves the trials that Abraham faced.  The need to choose between conflicting values is not unique to Abraham’s trials, and as we shall see it is characteristic of trials in general, even those that we must face today.

 

Trials of the Heart

There is another characteristic to Abraham’s trials which is unique: Most of his travails take place on the level of his consciousness, within Abraham’s soul.   By showing his willingness to leave his father’s house and give up his past life, Abraham passes the test without actually being required to sever all his ties with the past.   True, he left his home and went to an unknown land, but upon coming to the land he found that in complying with G-d’s command he also succeeded in fulfilling his father’s wish to reach the land of Canaan.   Later on, when Abraham sought to provide a wife for his son, the connection with his father’s house was reestablished and strengthened.  This feature serves to emphasize that the Lord sees what is in a person’s heart and that one need not actually suffer in order to stand up to the trials He sets.   This kindness, however, was only enjoyed by Abraham.  Job, in contrast, suffered greatly in his trials, and not only in his mind; this is also the case for most human beings who have faced trials and tribulations, to our very day.  It is rare to be granted such kindness that true willingness to face a trial suffices and that in the end everything turns out for the best.

Who Benefits from Being Tested?

So much for the essence of trials; but why put someone to the test at all?   Who benefits from the trial?   Three basic approaches to this question can be seen in the midrash in Genesis Rabbah (ch. 32.3):

It is written:   “The Lord seeks out the righteous man, but loathes the wicked one who loves injustice” (Ps. 11:5).   Rabbi Jonathan said:   A potter does not check the quality of fragile vessels, which he has but to strike once and they break.   Which does he examine?   The sturdy vessels, that even if he strikes them several times they do not break.   Thus the Holy One, blessed be He, does not put trials before the wicked, rather before the righteous, as it is said:   “The Lord seeks out [Heb. yivhan, also meaning “examines”] the righteous man.”   It is also written (Gen. 22:1):   “G-d put Abraham to the test.”   Rabbi Jose ben Haninah said:   When a flax worker knows that his flax is good, the more he pounds it, the better it becomes, and when he beats it, it becomes finer; but when he knows his flax is not good, he has but to pound it once and the fiber breaks.  Thus the Holy One, blessed be He, does not put the wicked to the test, but rather the righteous, as it is said:  “The Lord seeks out the righteous man.”  Rabbi Eleazar said:  This may be compared to a landlord who has two cows, one robust and one weak; on which would he put the yoke, not on the robust one?  Thus the Holy One, blessed be He, puts the righteous to the test, as it is written, “The Lord seeks out the righteous man.” [4]

This midrash presents three views reflecting three different notions about putting a person to the test.  The potter strikes his pots to check which ones are fit for use.   Similarly, G-d tests and examines human beings to know how strong and reliable they are and how well they will succeed in doing His work.  In contrast, the flax farmer breaks the flax in order to refine and improve it.   If the flax stalks are good and strong, the more he breaks them the more numerous and fine the fibers that he can extract from them.  The object of the trial in this instance is the person himself who is put to the test, who is improved and refined by his trials.  In the third parable, the test is the yoke that is put on the neck of the animal that is harnessed to the plow.  The beneficiary is the field which is plowed and then yields its fruits; similarly, the beneficiaries of Abraham’are those who read and study the Torah, who see in the biblical figure a model to be emulated and learn from his deeds.

Many of the medieval biblical exegetes were divided more or less along the lines of these three approaches.  Ibn Ezra maintained that G-d put Abraham to the test to see to what extent he was G-d-fearing and to reward him for that.  Nahmanides followed the example of the flax dealer, maintaining that the trials were mostly for the benefit of the person tested. Rashi and Radak both were of the opinion that the narrative of Abraham’s trials was intended for the world’s edification, both in the time of Abraham and in all times and places that one might read and study the stories of Abraham. [5]



[1] A simple computation based on Genesis 11:26, 32 and Genesis 12:4 indicates that after Abraham’s departure Terah lived another sixty years in Haran.   Abraham not only departed from his father’s house, but also left his elderly father alone, without anyone to support him in his old age.

[2] R. Mordechai Breuer, Pirkei Mo’adot, Vol. 1, Jerusalem 1986, pp. 266-271.

[3] For example, see Nahmanides, who maintains in his commentary that Abraham sinned by going down to Egypt; opposing him are Rashi, Radak, and Ralbag, who do not rebuke Abraham for this.

[4] Cf. also Midrash Tanhuma, Parashat Va-Yera, par. 20.

[5] It would take too long to discuss the modern commentaries on this subject, but see the following sources:  R. Eliyahu Ki-Tov, “Nisyonot,” Sefer ha-Parshiyot, Vol. 1, pp. 351-356; Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Hamishah Sifrei Emunah, Jerusalem 1995, pp. 17-25.