By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Parshas Lech Lecha opens with one of the ten nisyonos Avrohom Avinu confronted. Nisyonos are commonly translated as tests or challenges. Avrohom was confronted by ten of them and earned the title of Avinu by passing each test and overcoming the challenges.
A common misconception when studying these parshiyos is that Avrohom Avinu faced ten difficult situations, which he successfully endured. He was therefore blessed with better times.
Upon further scrutiny, however, one finds that this is not what a nisayon is about and it’s not what life is about.
There are many interpretations as to why we lain the story of Hagar and the birth of Yishmoel on Rosh Hashanah. Perhaps we can suggest another.
We read in this week’s parsha that Hagar, the servant of Avrohom and Sorah, ran away from them. Sorah didn’t take kindly to her, so, having had enough of the bad treatment, Hagar ran off into the desert. A malach found her in the desert and asked her where she was coming from and where she was going. She replied that she was running away from Sarai. The malach told her to return to where she had come from. “Shuvi el gevirteich vehisani tachas yadeha – Return to your mistress and submit yourself to her domination.” The malach then told her that she will have so many children that it will be impossible to count them. He told her that she would give birth to a son and that she should name him Yishmoel to memorialize the fact that Hashem heard her prayers. He then told her that the son would be a terrible person, who would be despised and hated by all (Bereishis 16:1-16).
Ostensibly, the malach was seeking to comfort her, so why did he tell her to go back to Sarai and be mistreated? What consolation was there in hearing that she should return and submit to the torture? Apparently, he was telling her to return so that she may give birth to a son who would be granted to her on account of Hashem hearing her prayers. Why, then, did the malach tell her that he would be an awful person?
Why would hearing that entice her to return? “Go back and suffer, but have no fear, as you will have a terrible son.” Why? “Because Hashem heard your prayers.” How does that provide her with an incentive to return to the home of her mistress?
In fact, if we think about the pesukim, we realize that the malach was not telling Hagar that everything from now on would be rosy and bright for her. He didn’t tell her to go back because she would live happily ever after in Avrohom’s house. He was telling her, “This is your shlichus, this is your mission, so embrace it. Your mission in life is to work for Avrohom and Sorai. Your mission is to give birth to this son. Hashem heard your prayers and this is what He wants from you.”
The happily-ever-after ending was the assurance that it was Hashem’s will that she return, difficult as it may have been. And that, too, is a consolation. Once she understood that her suffering was part of a Divine plan, she was able to accept it. When she heard from the malach that her mission was to give birth to the archetype pereh adam, she was relieved, satisfied with the knowledge that the travails were chosen for her by a loving G-d who heard her prayers.
The Ramban (Bereishis 22:1) says that the purpose of a nisayon is to reveal a person’s dormant abilities. A nisayon is not really a test. It is an opportunity for growth. A person grows by accepting the curve balls that life throws his way and maintaining his faith and determination as he acts and reacts properly.
The posuk states, “Lech lecha…el ha’aretz asher areka – Go…to the land that I will show you.” The Meshech Chochmah explains allegorically that by following Hashem’s word, Avrohom would be shown his latent abilities, and they would be shown to the world, as well. We can add that it is by being faced with the nisyonos and overcoming them that Avrohom was nisaleh, as his potential was realized.
Chazal proclaim, “Ba’asarah nisyonos nisnasah Avrohom Avinu ve’omad bekulam,” This literally means that Avrohom rose up to all his tests. The Slonimer Rebbe explained that Chazal state that “omad” refers to tefillah. As Chazal say, “Ein amidah elah tefillah.” He explains that Avrohom Avinu faced ten nisyonos and responded to each one in the same fashion: by davening.
We may wonder what Avrohom davened for. What was his request of Hashem?
We may answer that his prayers were not necessarily for him to merit what we would call a happy ending. Avrohom davened to merit the strength and conviction to fulfill Hashem’s will, come what may, and that he react the way that was expected of him.
This idea is further enforced by the Torah’s description of the Bris Bein Habesorim. When Avrohom heard of the pain and the darkness of the golus (15:12 and Rashi there), he was overcome by great fear. Hashem promised him that his children will live in a strange land, where they will be enslaved and tortured for four hundred years, ultimately being redeemed berechush gadol. “You will die at an old age, and the fourth generation of your progeny will return to the Holy Land, because until then the Emorites will not have sinned enough to merit their eviction.”
Though he was informed that his children would be oppressed for four hundred years, he was comforted because he was told that it was part of a greater plan. Four hundred years of enslavement should be crushing. The revelation that his people would be subject to such confinement and abuse should have caused Avrohom more pain. But he accepted it, for he knew that it was the will of Hashem and not something caused by happenstance. Although he was promised the Land of Canaan, Avrohom was comforted with the knowledge that although the happy ending wouldn’t come as soon as he had expected it, because he learned that there were many Divine calculations which determined the length of the exile, “lo sholeim avon ha’Emori.” It wasn’t how he had envisioned it, and there would be many years of pain and deprivation on the way, but he was happy, for he now knew that there were more factors involved in Hashem’s plan than he could ever fathom.
Our Hollywood-influenced generation tends to believe that every story has an instant happily-ever-after ending. Many of the communal problems we face stem from these false expectations. People are sad and feel unfulfilled because they think that they are entitled to the perfect job, family, children, neighborhood and life.
As we grow and mature, we have to accept the reality that Hashem decides what we get. The fairy tale ending comes when we embrace His plan and make it our own. When we realize that a perfect life is one that embraces the challenges that it confronts, we can begin to anticipate achieving joy and inner peace. As long as we cleave to fictionalized views of life, in which success and happiness mean having wealth, beauty, shiny white teeth, a big house on an expansive field, and many cars in the garage, we will be unhappy and always seeking to find the elusive true joy.
A group of bochurim facing the Russian military draft went to the Chofetz Chaim to request a brochah that they be spared. He assured the group that they wouldn’t be drafted. Indeed, they weren’t. There was one bochur, however, to whom the Chofetz Chaim said, “Es iz nisht geferlach if you get drafted, as a person can be mekadeish sheim Shomayim wherever he is, and he can help others observe mitzvos.”
That bochur was drafted into the army and faced hardship, privation, hunger and loneliness. Along with his troop, he stopped in a town that had a Jewish community. The soldier went to speak with the local rov and unburdened himself about his difficult situation, explaining how rough it was to be a lone shomer Torah umitzvos. The lack of kosher provisions added to the burden.
The rov, determined to help him, set out to obtain kosher food for the soldier. The rov organized the local askonim, who went through the tedious bureaucratic process and eventually succeeded. The rules were changed and kosher food was allowed. The bochur convinced another 40 Jewish boys to eat kosher.
The Chofetz Chaim’s message to the boy was that everyone has a shlichus, is part of a plan, and the ultimate goal is to be mekadeish sheim Shomayim. If you are destined to be in the army and can be mekadeish Hashem and encourage people to do mitzvos during your period there, then that is also a happy ending.
People wonder how we can be happy on Purim when we know the fate of Esther Hamalkah, heroine of her people. Her extreme valor and the rescue of the Jewish nation came at an extreme personal cost. Esther remained the wife of Achashveirosh Harasha long after everyone else was saved.
The answer might well be that she also had joy, for she knew that she was exactly where the Ribbono Shel Olam wanted her to be. Her shilchus was to serve as the queen, and therefore, for her, serving in that position is a happy ending.
Perhaps we read the story of Hagar on Rosh Hashanah to reinforce that message. Whatever Hashem plans for us in the coming year, we will accept and embrace, because that is our destiny and there is nothing more satisfying than knowing that we are fulfilling the will of Hashem.
Speaking to my friend, Reb Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, last week, I shared this idea with him, for he exemplifies comprehending this message in a very real way. In return, he shared a story that he said keeps him going day after day.
He told me about a chassidishe Yid in Russia named Reb Mendel Futerfass, who was incarcerated in the Gulag. Reb Mendel retained his joyous demeanor and bearing even in jail, much to the surprise of his Russian cell-mates, who were broken by their situation.
One of them, an intelligent fellow, asked Reb Mendel how he succeeded in maintaining his high spirits despite the bleak and gloomy surroundings.
“Before we were imprisoned,” Reb Mendel said, “you were a prominent banker. They brought you here and took away your identity. Of course you are devastated. But before my imprisonment, I had one identity, and now, here, I have the same identity. I was a Yid before and I am a Yid now. I was happy before and I am happy now. I served Hashem before I came here, and now that I am here, I continue to serve Him. Nothing has really changed.”
This is what is meant by the Chovos Halevavos, who says that a person who has proper bitachon is most joyous. Those who are able to internalize this message achieve serenity and peace. They are blessed with clarity, allowing them to appreciate their task.
Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein in his sefer, Piryo B’ito, relates the story of a high-ranking Israeli soldier who seemed to be on track to a promotion into one of the army’s top-secret, elite units. Unfortunately, he was kidnapped by Arab terrorists.
His cruel captors began to press him for information, but the loyal soldier refused to divulge anything. They started to beat him and threaten the wellbeing of his wife and children, but he wouldn’t budge. Although the beatings worsened daily, and as much as his captors afflicted him, the soldier remained firm in his refusal to speak.
One day, they beat him to a pulp and left him more dead than alive. They threw him back into his cell and he crawled onto his cot, battered and bruised, unable to move. As he lay there, he thought to himself that his life was worth more to him than the military secrets his captors were after. He decided that he was going to cooperate with them, so that he would have a chance to live and return to his wife and children.
As he lay there thinking these thoughts, he overheard traces of a conversation between his Arab captors coming through the threadbare wall. They were speaking to each other in fluent Israeli-accented Hebrew. The same people who spoke to him in Arabic Hebrew for weeks thought no one was overhearing them and spoke to each other as two Israelis would.
The prisoner grasped that he wasn’t being held by Arabs, but by Israelis. He reasoned that they were members of the Israeli army, sent to test his resilience. The realization emboldened him, and the next day, when he was dragged out for his daily round of beatings and pressured to give up the secrets, he felt a new confidence. One of his captors held a gun to his head and said, “Tell me what I want to know or I will kill you.”
By now that he knew that his captors were Israeli Jews, he had faith that a Jew would not pull the trigger on a fellow Jew.
With resolute strength, he said, “Shoot me if you want, but I am not telling you a thing.”
His tormentor returned the gun to his holster and told him the truth.
“We are Israelis, posing as Arabs, to test your strength and ensure that you have the strength demanded to serve in a leadership position in our unit. You have earned the promotion,” they happily proclaimed.
When the soldier perceived the truth, that the people tormenting him were his colleagues, he derived the strength and resolve he needed. The knowledge that his torture was part of a plan enabled him to pass the test.
When Hagar heard from a malach Hashem that she should go back and withstand the suffering, she accepted it, for it was His will.
May these parshiyos open the floodgates before us so that we perceive our roles as His servants, “chayim birtzono,” living by His will. And may our paths be joyous and serene until we merit the great day when “oz yimalei sechok pinu – laughter will fill our mouths.” On that day, just as the reason for his children’s suffering was revealed to Avrohom, we will be able to look back and understand everything that afflicted us. We will know why we suffered and why it appeared as if we were lacking what others took for granted. The plan and plot will be revealed, and everyone will be joyous.
The onset of winter’s cold is compensated by the warmth of the winter parshiyos, the accounts, stories and messages that formed us as a people and guide us until this very day. The avos hakedoshim imbued us with strengths and qualities that stand the test of time and define us through trials, travails and tribulations.
Hashem assured Avrohom Avinu that even though we daven to Elokei Avrohom, Elokei Yitzchok v’Elokei Yaakov, calling upon the zechus of all three avos, nevertheless, “becha chosmin,” we will close with Avrohom’s name, as the first brocha of Shemoneh Esrei concludes with the words “Magein Avrohom“ (Pesochim 117).
It is related in the name of the Chiddushei Horim that Hashem was telling Avrohom Avinu that the final stage of golus, the last generation, will be infused davka with his middah, enabled by the strengths Avrohom implanted in his children.
Thus, “becha chosmin,” in the merit of Avrohom Avinu’s middos, the geulah will arrive. In the merit of us embodying and perpetuating his middos of chesed, emunah and bitachon, and in the merit of his kindness, graciousness and acceptance of Hashem’s plan, Moshiach will put an end to the current chapter.
May we all do what we can to follow Avrohom’s path, for our own benefit and for the benefit of all mankind. We – and they – will be much happier.