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Jewish World Review
Nov. 17, 2006
/ 26 Mar-Cheshvan, 5767
Life is a Test
Rabbi David Aaron
Visions of love at its very best
Abraham was put to ten tests. And the truth is we are all put to tests, some of us more than others. The Midrash(1) states:
"G-d tests his righteous," (Psalms 11:5) Rabbi Yona explains, "Like flax, the more you beat it, the better it becomes. This is true of good quality flax, but if it's inferior, then it will deteriorate."
The tests were meant to make Abraham even stronger. Since G-d is already all- knowing Abraham's tests were not meant to prove to G-d how strong Abraham was. Rather, the tests were meant to empower Abraham and give him the opportunity to actualize himself as created in the divine image.
Each of the ten tests was a milestone in Abraham's personal evolution towards a greater sense of self and distinct identity. His spiritual journey was one that progressed from selfless surrender towards the achievement of a powerful and assertive self that comes by recognizing G-d as ELOKIM.
The name ELOKIM suggests that you are a being other than G-d, with free willpower to make choices. Those choices really make a difference. G-d relates to you as He responds to your choices, evaluates them, judges and determines the consequences. So it was with Abraham. Each test set Abraham on his feet by giving him the opportunity to establish himself in his own right and confidently stand before ELOKIM. This is the goal of all loving parents, to empower their children to stand on their own. Without this, the children will never achieve a loving relationship with others. You have got to "be" before you can be in love. Each test was for the sake of Abraham's personal evolution and empowerment so that he could stand in love with G-d.
The Midrash Tanchuma offers us another opinion about the purpose of the tests.
Rabbi Yehudah bar Shalom said, "A potter does not hit one of his weaker pots, lest they break. However, he strikes a sturdy pot. So too, G-d tests His righteous ones."
According to this opinion, which appears to contradict the above, the test was for the potter's sake, to show his great abilities and to demonstrate the high quality of his work. Abraham's test was for G-d's sake (The Great Potter), to reveal His greatness. Abraham's success was meant to show the greatness of G-d's oneness and the splendor of His love. Abraham's success was meant to show that G-d as ELOKIM can create a significant other, give of Himself to this other, and bond with this other through a covenant of unconditional love. Indeed Abraham ascended to the lofty heights of godlike stature, but he continued to be in love  consciously living within the loving embrace of God's oneness. He succeeded to humbly uphold the covenant by revering ELOKIM; he did not abuse his new sense of power by rebelling against G-d or thinking he was himself an independent god.
The Midrash(2) teaches:
When G-d wanted to create man, the angels said to Him, "What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visited him? And yet You have made him almost as ELOKIM, crowning him with glory and honor. You have given him domination over the works of Your hands." (Psalms 8:5) G-d responded, "This is because you see the idolatrous generations of Enosh [who named men with the names of G-d, making them into gods]. However, in the future you will see the father who slaughters his son and the son who is slaughtered for the holiness of My name."
Adam and Eve and the generations to follow justified their fears, but it was not until Abraham and Isaac that the angels saw the finest examples of G-d's works that were worthy of His love. Therefore, the test of Abraham was also for G-d's sake, to reveal the power of His all-inclusive oneness  the power of love.
The Midrash(3) gives us yet another opinion regarding the meaning of these tests.
Rabbi Eliezer said, "Like a person who has two cows, one weak and the other strong. Upon which cow will he place his heavy load? The strong one. So too G-d tested Abraham."
From the time he accepted the covenant Abraham carried the load of the world, bearing the brunt of the regeneration of humanity. In that sense, his tests were not only for his sake and G-d's sake, but they were also for the sake of all of us. He set the foundations of the universal religion of love  Judaism. His mission was to bring blessings to the whole world by establishing the principles of true love.
SETTING THE STAGE
Let us now explore the details of the classic scene where Abraham is tested with the commandment to sacrifice his son Isaac:
It was after these things, that G-d tested Abraham, and He said to him, "Abraham!" and he said, "Here I am!" And He said, "Please take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love and go for yourself (Lech Lecha) to the land of Moriah; and offer him as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains that I will tell you." Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took his two young men (Yishmael and Eliezer) with him and Isaac, his son."(5)
What is the Torah referring to when it says "after these things" and how was this test a reaction to the previous story? What is the ironic suggestion in the usage of the words Lech Lecha, which previously meant "for your pleasure and good" in G-d's first call to Abraham? What pleasure or good could be in such a sacrifice?
In essence, this test meant not only that Abraham would sacrifice his biological son for whom he and Sarah had so longed but that he was being asked to sacrifice his entire future and life mission. Not only would the heir to his life's mission die on an altar, but Abraham's lifelong career would also go up in a cloud of smoke. Abraham spent his whole life teaching the message of the G-d of love and protesting against the idolaters' cruel practice of sacrificing their children. How could he ever face the world after committing the same crime? Imagine the scandalous headlines of the Canaanite Times: "Abraham Big Phony: Sacrifices Son."
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In other words, Abraham was being asked to sacrifice his religion of love. The irony of his challenge was that this time his service to G-d was to sacrifice his service to G-d and sacrifice G-d's presence on earth. Abraham could have argued with G-d and claimed, "My whole life's mission has been to promote Your name, teach Your truth and inspire the world towards love and justice. If I do this, there will be no hope for the redemption of humanity and the revelation of Your presence on earth. You are asking me not only to put my son on that altar but also to put You on that altar." Abraham, however, was surprisingly silent. He put his entire past, present and future upon the altar and was willing to perform the ultimate in self-sacrifice and love.
This story teaches us a lesson about the subtle differences between real love and selfish romance. Sometimes selfish motives are cleverly disguised in the garb of love. True love means I am willing to do what my beloved wants. But what if my beloved asks me to do something I really don't want to do? What if my beloved asks me for a divorce? This is an opportunity for true love. Do you love her and, therefore, honor her request to part ways? If you do not, then this relationship was only about you. Your supposed beloved was only an object for you to feel good.
Abraham was a true lover of G-d. His love for G-d was completely selfless. He taught the world the truth about G-d only for the sake of G-d. If G-d wanted him to give up his rabbinical career, then he would say, "OK." All that mattered to Abraham was to do G-d's will  a sign of true love.
Imagine a rabbi who is doing a great job in inspiring people to return to the ways of G-d. He has a synagogue that is bursting at the seams, growing every day by the hundreds. He even has a tremendously successful daily TV show where he teaches the word of G-d to millions. Then one day G-d appears to him and tells him to quit. Even asks him to do something that would destroy his reputation and world influence. This is a great test. Is this rabbi teaching G-d's truth for his own sake to make himself feel good? Is it just about his ego and he is selling G-d because it brings him so much power and recognition? Or is this rabbi truly devoted to G-d, and it is his love for G-d that motivates him and not the love for himself? If the latter is true, he will do the will of G-d no matter what the consequences.
This was the test of Abraham. It was the ultimate test of love.
Ironically, Abraham's willingness to let go of everything actually empowered him to get it all. Surely this test proved more than just Abraham's selflessness, a trait that he had already demonstrated numerous times before. In this incredible act of complete surrender Abraham actually received the ultimate gift of self. Only when we are able to let go of our self, will we truly receive it. Only when we are willing to let go of a relationship can we receive it and not be a slave to it. True love must be an act of choice and freedom.
Often people cannot let go of their selves, relationships or careers. Those people do not have a "self," but rather their selves have them. They are slaves to their identity. Self-transcendence means becoming masters of the self. Perhaps this is the subtle hint in G-d's peculiar wording, "Take your son," when in fact He is really asking him to give up his son. It is precisely the act of letting go of his son that truly prepared Abraham to receive him as a gift from G-d. This then was an additional purpose of Abraham's test: to receive the gift of self, which he had struggled to acquire his whole life, by his willingness to completely let go of it.
(1) Tanchuma, Vayera 20
(2) Tanchuma, Vayera 18
(3) Tanchuma, Vayerah 20
(4) Rashi, Genesis 22:3
(5) Genesis 22:1-3
For more on this topic see, please see: Endless Light: the ancient path of Kabbalah to Love, Spiritual Growth and Personal Power
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Rabbi David Aaron is the founder and dean of Isralight, an international organization with programming in Israel, New York South Florida, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Toronto. He has taught and inspired thousands of Jews who are seeking meaning in their lives and a positive connection to their Jewish roots.
He is the author of the newly released, Inviting G-d In, The Secret Life of G-d, and Endless Light: The Ancient Path of Kabbalah to Love, Spiritual Growth and Personal Power , Seeing G-d and Love is my religion. (Click on links to purchase books. Sales help fund JWR.) He lives in the old City of Jerusalem with his wife and their seven children.
© 2006, Rabbi David Aaron