We have seen in previous articles that Avraham Avinu’s nisyonos are the prototype for the experiences and spiritual struggles of our lives. It behooves us, then, to delve into a deeper understanding of those nisyonos and thus understand ours better. The Mishnah in the fifth perek in Avos cites Avraham Avinu’s ten nisyonos; Bartenura there enumerates them, the first being Ur Kasdim (when Avraham Avinu was thrown into a furnace by Nimrod for refusing to repudiate his teachings about one G-d), and the last being the akeida. This is the classic list, echoed by most meforshim. Yet there are different opinions as well. If one looks at the Rambam’s commentary on the Mishnah there, one does not find the test of Ur Kasdim! How could the Rambam not count Avraham Avinu’s willingness to give up his very life for the ideal of Hashem Echad, which was basically unknown at the time? Isn’t this the test from which thousands upon millions of martyrs throughout countless generations drew fortitude and strength and were able to give up their lives for their Jewishness? How can the Rambam not count it in the list of nisyonos?
Another difficulty: After that first test, after Avraham showed his readiness to sacrifice his life, shouldn’t every other one (perhaps excepting the akeidah in which he had to kill his son — but even that is debatable) be easier, a step down, a lower, less-intense test? After all, if Avraham was ready to sacrifice his life, and every vestige of Avraham and his teachings would then dissipate into nothingness, isn’t having to go down to Mitzrayim because of a famine a no-brainer? Or chasing away Hagar and Yishmael? Why the need for any more tests? (Arguably, even the akeidah should pale alongside Ur Kasdim; the akeida at least left open the possibility of other children, whereas after Avraham would be dead, who is to say anything would rise up from the ashes? Furthermore, at the akeida, Hashem explicitely told Avraham to slaughter Yitzchak, while at Ur Kasdim, Avraham Avinu acted alone, only upon his own conviction.) Why the need for eight or nine other, seemingly lesser, nisyonos if Avraham had already proven his mettle in a more difficult trial? And Rabbeinu Yonah in Pirkei Avos actually counts as the final nisayon Avraham Avinu’s needing to purchase a gravesite for Sarah — nu, come on, that’s aggravating, depressing, insulting — but as the pinnacle of nisayon?!
We are used to the idea that our main service of Hashem involves our actions, while more intangible items such as emunah and bitachon are sidebars. We therefore measure nisyonos using our scale of values, i.e., how hard or difficult it would be to, say, jump into a burning furnace versus leaving one’s father’s house and traveling throughout a promised Land. Thus we see the question as a good one — why anything after that first test?
Yet the premise is false. As Chovos Halevavos makes abundantly clear throughout his sefer, the primary obligation of a Jew is to be aware of, to know, to be convinced of, and to trust in, the reality of Hashem’s existence, His Oneness, omniscience, omnipotence, and essential goodness and fairness. This is stated as well by Ramban in many places throughout the Torah, especially Sefer Shemos, specifically at the end of Parshas Bo. The Gra writes (Mishlei 22:19) that the entire Torah was given to the Jewish people for the purpose of fostering emunah and bitachon and this possuk in Mishlei is teaching us that that is the focal point of all of the mitzvos. And so is the simple understanding of the Gemara in Maseches Makos (24A), which states that the prophet Chavakuk distilled all 613 mitzvos into one basic principle: Vetzadik be’emunosah yichyeh — And the righteous shall live with (or by) their faith.
Hashem is real. Hashem exists. Hashem is One, with no contradictions, no inconsistencies, no falsehood, no subjectivity — only emes, reality, rationality itself. Goodness, justice, honesty, truth.
What is a nisayon? When I am faced with incomprehensibility. Why did Hashem do that? How could Hashem do that? How could Hashem allow that? That is so unfair! Where is Hashem? I davened so intensely, with so much kavanah — everyone did! I gave tzedaka, I did Machsom L’fi, I increased my acts of chessed.
A true nisayon lies not in the seeming difficulty of task performance. After all, once one is convinced of the rightness of one’s actions, one rolls up one’s sleeves and does what must be done. So it’s difficult to get up at four a.m. every morning? Okay, but if one wants to know Shas, one does that. But how about if I just concluded a week’s learning in my newly carved-out early morning seder — and then I’m fired from my job? I just started giving five percent of my money for tzedakah, instead of the more common ten percent — and the stock market takes a dive, I’m now broke, and I just found out that my daughter needs braces? I devote my spare time to chessed, I control my temper — why does my spouse have inexplicable headaches?
That was the crux of Avraham Avinu’s nisyonos! From the lesser “question” to the burning unanswerable one. Ur Kasdim? No problem, I’ll die for my belief, I’m willing to be moser nefesh. I have no questions on Hashem; this is a kiddush Hashem. (And Rambam holds this doesn’t even make it to the list!) Ah, but I have to wander about in sudden insecurity? Hashem promises me the world, and suddenly Sarah is kidnapped? I finally have a son (Yishmael) and I am told to chase him away? Hashem — I don’t understand! Are you really there?
Now that’s a nisayon!And the ultimate test is the biggest question of all: Yesterday you promised me Yitzchak and his descendants, today you are telling me to slaughter him — which Hashem do I believe? You promised me Eretz Yisroel and, my goodness, I can’t even find a place to bury my wife!
Now you understand the Rashi in Pirkei Avos that, when describing the nisyonos says: “Here, then, is the list of ten — and we see how Avraham Avinu did not question the Almighty.” Clearly, Rashi is making this point: this was the kernel, the nub, of the nisyonos — and the greater the question, the harder the nisayon. And so it is in our own lives. True, we have the more pedestrian nisyonos as well (go read last week’s column — in fact, go read the last few weeks’ ones); but we, too, at times, face the ultimate nisayon, because it forces us to come face-to-face with our fundamental faith, belief, and trust in Hashem: How can Hashem do this to me? I moved to Eretz Yisroel, gave up my everything, and now I don’t have parnassah? Is Hashem there? Is He even listening to me?
Conclusion, im yirtzeh Hashem next week…