Parshat Vayera: Personality ‘exercise’

After Avraham succeeded in this test, his emotional powers are strengthened and he becomes a better person.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Toward the end of this week’s Torah portion, we read the dramatic story of Akeidat Yitzhak (the Binding of Isaac). It is a story with a message that became one of the central stories accompanying the Jewish nation throughout its thousands of years of existence. It is a story of ultra-human bravery.
G-d commands Avraham Avinu to slaughter his son Yitzhak. No less! The story may sound enraging. For a father to slaughter his son is the greatest cruelty imaginable; especially when it is a son born to Avraham and Sarah in their old age, after decades of waiting.
But we must read the story to its end and discover that indeed G-d did not want Avraham to slaughter Yitzhak. And at the last moment, after the knife was already brandished in the air, G-d instructed Avraham to stop and avoid this appalling deed. G-d, as opposed to other gods that people believed in in the past, is not interested in any way in human sacrifices. G-d, who is the source of endless good, perfection and grace, expresses clear-cut objection to the heinous and cruel act of killing people.
Why, if so, does G-d initially instruct Avraham to slaughter Yitzhak? The Torah provides us with the answer to this in the verse which opens the story: “And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham.” (Genesis 22, 1) It was a test and nothing more.
But now another question perturbs us: Why did G-d test Avraham? Does G-d not know ahead of time what Avraham’s reaction will be to His instruction? Is there anything which G-d does not know in advance? This question is not only asked about the story of Akeidat Yitzhak. G-d tests us as well in different ways. We are occasionally confronted with various unforeseen and undesired events and we ask ourselves: Why is G-d doing this to us? And the answer is: It is a test. G-d is testing us to see if we will react correctly; if we will maintain calm even when things do not turn out as we would like; if we will stand on our moral principles even when reality makes this difficult for us.
And again we ask: Why does G-d test us? He undoubtedly knows ahead of time how we are going to react.
Many of our sages dealt with this question, and we will look at the answer of the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, of the great Spanish sages of the 13th century) who wrote: The Tester, blessed be He, will command to take the thing from potential to the actual, so he will have a reward for a good deed, not only a good-heart reward... and so all the tests in the Torah are for the good of the one being tested. (Ramban on the Torah, Genesis 22, 1) What good comes to man when he takes his deeds from “potential” to “actual”? Nowadays, it is very common for people to exercise for enjoyment – working out, lifting weights, running great distances, etc... If we look at this, we discover something which makes us wonder. The harder the man works, the greater his abilities become. It would be reasonable to think that the greater the effort, the weaker the man would, become since he is “wasting” his strengths. The explanation for this phenomenon is that man’s muscles are made in such a way that if man exercises and uses them, they become stronger and able to deal with greater effort.
And just like his body, so are man’s emotional strengths. Man sometimes feels like there are things he cannot do. Someone makes us angry and we think to ourselves, “I cannot be silent about something like this.” But the truth is that if we succeed in this test and overcome our natural tendency to react, the next time something like this happens, it will be easier for us to restrain ourselves.
The more a man acts in a desirable way, the easier it is for him to do so.
Now we understand why G-d tested Avraham and why He tests people. After Avraham succeeded in this test, his emotional powers are strengthened and he becomes a better person.
When we succeed in a test we encounter, our personality is strengthened and the better parts of us overcome our negative tendencies. Because of the test, we take our abilities from the potential to the actual and strengthen them. Thus, G-d “exercises” our personalities, our inner emotional strengths, and we become better people who can make the world a better place for all those who live in it.The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.