The Mishna in Avot teaches us that Abraham was tested with 10 ordeals. Those ranged from initial challenges to his monotheistic faith coming from the pagan society in which he lived, all the way to the binding of Isaac which appears at the end of this week’s Parsha. In between he had to deal with uprooting his household and relocating to a new region. He endured the pain of childlessness, he dealt with the privations of famine, the abduction of his wife Sarah; He found himself caught in the middle of wars between local tribes, as well as strife and rivalry within his household and more.
These ordeals tested Abraham’s resolve in his relationship with the Almighty. More than that, however, the struggles fueled his development of character. Abraham was forced to flex his mental and spiritual muscles time and again, which strengthened those attributes and reinforced his resilience and resolve, forming the foundation for a future nation who would follow in his path.
What was special about Abraham was not his trials, however. Everybody goes through ordeals and challenges. Nobody is given a pass in this life. The true test is whether we respond to these challenges and how we respond. Abraham was recovering from a painful procedure at an advanced age. He was not expected to continue his famed practice of hospitality while he was recovering. But he would not let an opportunity to extend his kindness pass. He invited the three travelers into his home, making them welcome and providing refreshments and respite from the heat. Abraham could have similarly turned a blind eye to the fate of Sodom and its sister cities. He knew that Lot would be extricated before the cities were overturned. He really had no stake in Sodom. But he spared no effort to seek merit for Sodom and ameliorate its plight. His sensitivity to the suffering of others, his determination to find the good in the other, his response to the ordeals, set him apart from everyone around him.
Life throws many trials at us, both small and great. The nature of these challenges, their intensity and duration, do not serve as a measure of our worth or character. The trials themselves show nothing about us. Our responses to these trials, however, reveal a great deal about our character. After 9/11 the president of the US broadcast his message, urging Americans to go back to their routines, return to the shopping malls, to the daily grind of work and entertainment. The sentiment was to try and not internalize the event, to avoid having the tragedy cause lasting effects on average Americans.
That may have been the appropriate counsel for the time, although as individuals we can do better. Judaism is very clear that God makes all events occur, that God is directly involved in every aspect of life on this earth, both major and minor. We therefore cannot be true to our faith without acknowledging this and without responding to His call.
How do we appropriately respond to God’s tap on our shoulder? The earthquake that rocked New Zealand in mid November had the power to dramatically alter our lives, although we seem to have gotten off with a severe warning. It is easy to get lost in the technicalities explaining the mechanism of the earth’s tectonic plates grinding against one another, but that distracts us from the real issue. This was a tap on our shoulder. There is a message here. How should we react? Ultimately the test is not merely to survive and move on but to pick up the message and respond to it. The one thing we have confidence in when everything else is in upheaval, the one thing that should be our rock and stability no matter what else is happening, is the ground beneath our feet. When even the ground flops and heaves, threatening to crack the walls of our homes and cause roofs to cave in, we struggle to find an alternative anchor. What should we do? How should we respond?
The Torah teaches us how we should not respond. Due to Ishmael’s dangerous conduct around Isaac Sarah demanded that he be cast out along with his mother Hagar. Hagar trudged through the desert until Ishmael grew weary and feverish. Anticipating the death of her child Hagar placed him in the shade of a bush and sat at a distance. “She went and sat herself at a distance the distance an arrow flies, for she said, “Let me not see the death of the boy.” and she sat at a distance and she raised her voice and wept.” (Genesis 21:16)
At the sign of a crisis Hagar withdrew. When her son needed her most she put herself at the center of her world, building an emotional wall rather than comfort her dying child. This is recorded in the Torah to remind us that our base nature has such tendencies and we need to overcome such instincts. We need to be better than Hagar.
We have seen many upheavals recently. The physical upheaval of the shaking earth is a physical manifestation of upheavals around the world. I have not expressed any political views on American politics and the following is merely an observation and does not indicate my personal feelings. Many liberal Jews are devastated by the recent election results in the United States. Entire communities are in shock and mourning, literally weeping in regards to America’s future. Hagar threw in the towel in despair, shutting herself out of what she assumed would be the inevitable result. Abraham, receiving news of Sodom’s demise, immediately sprung into action. How can he help, how can he negotiate a better outcome and salvage as much as possible?
The difference between Hagar and Abraham was not in the nature of the trial but in the nature of the response.
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