For the week ending 2 December 2006 / 11 Kislev 5767

Trial Trio

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Ian in Toronto
Dear Rabbi,
Why does G-d try the righteous? And why did G-d try Abraham with 10 different trials, culminating in the command to sacrifice Isaac?
Dear Ian,

Our Sages asked, “Why did G-d try Abraham?” They answered with three parables: To what may the matter be compared? To a seller of earthenware vessels who bangs on his jugs; to a grower of flax who beats on his produce; to a mule driver who spurs his animal along the way.

This teaching needs explanation. If all three parables are alike, why did the Sages mention all three? If they are different, what is each intending to teach that the others don’t? A closer look at each parable will demonstrate the difference between them, and what each is intended to teach.

Why would a merchant bang on his jugs? To demonstrate in front of passersby their durability. To do so, he beats on the strongest of his jugs to show their ability to withstand even the strongest blow. So too, G-d “banged” on Abraham in order to demonstrate to the world the strength of his belief and loyalty to G-d. In general, the trials of the righteous and the way they overcome them demonstrate to us their greatness. And even more importantly, they show us what a person is capable of such that each of us will be encouraged to withstand our own trials.

Why does a grower beat on his flax? Beating the stalks of flax while they grow in the field causes the flax to grow fuller and more robust, similar to the way pruning encourages growth. So too G-d “beat” on Abraham in order to engender spiritual growth, elevating him level above level in closeness to G-d. In general, the trials of the righteous and the way they overcome them encourages them to grow, and makes them more sensitive and able to help and guide us to grow through our own trials as well.

Why does a driver spur his animal along the way? To ensure that the animal, lured by various diversions off the road, will remain on the path and ultimately reach the intended destination. So too G-d “spurred” Abraham to ensure that he would continue in His way. This is the meaning of the verse, “For I know Abraham, that he will command his children after him and they shall keep the way of the Lord” (Gen. 18:19). The loyalty Abraham maintained to G-d acquired for his progeny, the righteous as well as the simple Jew for all generations, the fortitude necessary to keep the faith despite adversity, and reach the final destination.

Thus our Sages relate the famous story of Hannah and her seven sons: A wicked Roman ruler wanted to break Jewish loyalty to G-d and force them to commit idolatry. He summoned Hannah’s oldest son, demanding that he bow to an idol or be killed. One after another, each of Hannah’s sons was taken out for execution. In a last ditch effort to save face, the ruler pleaded with the seventh son, yet a child, to make a mere semblance of bowing by picking up a sweet he’d throw in front of the idol. The lad refused. On his way to execution, Hannah whispered in his ear, “Tell Abraham our father, ‘You built an altar, Hannah offered seven sacrifices!’ ”

Hannah’s declaration to Abraham is peculiar. Was she boasting that her sacrifice was greater than that of Abraham’s? The commentaries explain that she meant to convey the idea mentioned above. Namely, Abraham’s building an altar with full intention to sacrifice Isaac instilled within even the most simple Jew for all generations to come a willingness to endure even the most severe trials in order to ensure that the merchandise — our precious Jewish heritage — is ultimately safely delivered to the intended destination — with the Jewish people until the arrival of Mashiach.

  • Rabbi Mendel Weinbach, Dean of Yeshivat Ohr Somayach

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