Emigration, leaving behind a home and birthplace, is an experience which, by definition, involves loss and hardship. People make the sacrifices for the promise of a better life. But the losses are real. We read at the beginning of this week’s parsha, Lech Lecha, that G-d commands Abraham to emigrate from his birthplace, as it says, to “the land that I will show you”, the Land of Israel. Rashi points out in his commentary on this verse that emigration can impact negatively on three things in particular – family, finances and reputation. This was a test for Abraham; would he be prepared to endure all of this because of G-d’s commandment?
The mishna in Pirkei Avot points out that Abraham was tested 10 times, of which this was one. What is very interesting is that on the one hand, Abraham faced tremendous potential loss, but on the other, G-d promised him great blessing if he made the move: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you and I will make your name great and you will be a blessing.” Rashi says this is telling Abraham that G-d would replace all the things that he could potentially lose as a result of his emigration and actually bless him with abundance – he would emerge even more blessed than if he had not made the move in the first place.
This is captured in the name of the parsha. G-d says to Abraham: “Lech lecha” – “Go for yourself”. Why didn’t it just say “go”? Why does it emphasise “for yourself”? Rashi interprets this to imply “for your benefit and your own good”, because if you go on this journey, you will make a historic contribution to human civilisation, to the establishment of the Jewish people, and you will also be blessed materially, while if you stay here, you will remain childless and your name will be forgotten from history.
On the one hand, this is presented as a test for Abraham, but on the other, it’s for his own benefit. Was it really a test, then? The Dubna Maggid deepens this question by referring to a midrash in the Yalkut that says not only was this considered a test, but the benefits themselves were part of the test. How do we understand this?
The Dubna Maggid says we need to deepen our understanding of the concept of a test. Often, we think of it too narrowly, that a test is when a person has to endure hardship in order to do the right thing. Will a person choose to close their business on Shabbos even though they may lose money – that’s the conventional perspective of a test.
The Dubna Maggid says that situations of blessing and abundance can also be tests. Sacrificing in order to do the right thing is one kind of test, but when there’s actually benefit in choosing right, the challenge shifts. Are you doing it for the sake of G-d, because it’s the right thing to do, because this is the purpose for which you were created, or are you doing it for personal benefit?
That was the test for Abraham. G-d said to him, go to the land of Israel. If you do, it will be a journey of incredible blessing, material prosperity, you will finally have children, and your name is going to be part of Jewish and world history forever. Of course Abraham wants to do it, but could he do it for the purest of motives? According to the mishna in Pirkei Avot, Abraham passed the test; he went out of loyalty and devotion to G-d.
This concept of a test is illuminating and applies to many areas of life, including Shabbos. The Dubna Maggid explains the verse: “Remember the Shabbos day to make it holy.” He refers to the Talmud that says we need to remember Shabbos because it can be forgotten. What is the deeper meaning of this?
Shabbos is the most remarkable day. There are so many personal benefits – delicious food, fine clothing, spending time with family, resting and refreshing. It uplifts us from a physical and emotional point of view.
But why do we keep it? Because it enhances our lives? I often think to myself, with all of the pressures in my own life – and we all have our own pressures and responsibilities – I don’t know what I would do without Shabbos. But this itself is part of the test. Are we keeping Shabbos because it is such a wonderful, incredible experience, or because G-d said we must, to remember that He created the world, to declare our faith in Him? Remember Shabbos, don’t forget it.
G-d, in His kindness and love, finds ways for us to serve Him that uplift and enrich our lives. Shabbos is the primary example, but there are others, such as charity. There are so many studies that show that generosity is good for mental and physical health, and the Talmud says that G-d promises blessing for charity both in this world and the next. So why are we giving?
G-d created the Torah and then He created the world around the Torah in which the best quality of life comes from doing mitzvot. At the same time, we need to remember that we should do the mitzvot not because of the benefit they bring to our lives, but because it is the right thing to do. That becomes our test.
In fact, the concept of a test is even more subtle and profound. This is learnt from one of the most difficult tests that Abraham had to face; in next week’s parsha – the akeida, G-d instructed him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac.
The midrash in the Yalkut that we referred to earlier points out that, remarkably, when G-d instructed Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, it uses the same wording “for yourself”: “Take your son and go for yourself to the land of Moriah and offer him up there as a sacrifice to G-d.” What kind o f benefit could possibly be gained by sacrificing his son?
The Dubna Maggid draws a parallel between these two tests, emigration and the sacrifice of Isaac, but he doesn’t elaborate on the akeida. One of the Dubna Maggid’s students, who wrote notes on his commentary, explains the meaning. Bringing his only son, Isaac, onto the altar would be transformational, both emotionally and spiritually. Even though G-d withdrew the test at the last moment, it would help Abraham achieve tremendous spiritual greatness. Here, too, that was the test – what would be his intention? Would he go ahead with G-d’s commandment in order to fulfil His will or in order to become spiritually great? This is a much more subtle form of temptation. And again, he passed the test.
This applies equally to us. We’re on a journey, it’s not a binary choice. Every decision is on a spectrum of altruism and personal benefit. As human beings, we can’t always be altruistic, but we need to be journeying in that direction all the time. In fact, the Talmud says that it is important for a person to do the mitzvot even for the added benefits, because doing the mitzvah for self-gain can lead to doing it for the altruistic purpose of serving G-d in the best possible way. But this holds true only when that is what we’re striving for.
We need to be on the same journey that Abraham was on, because everything we go through in life – the good times and the hard times, wealth and poverty, health and illness – are all tests. Poverty tests if a person is going to retain their faith and trust in G-d through hardship. Wealth tests whether a person will maintain their humility and gratitude, as well as their understanding that wealth comes as a blessing from G-d and needs to be shared. Illness tests a person’s faith in times of suffering and health tests if we are going to use times of good to do mitzvot. Will we do the right thing in each situation or not?
We learn from this week’s parsha to face our tests, and also that the concept of a test is more subtle than it appears at first glance. Let us seize every moment in our lives to live up to the inspiring example of Abraham, our founding father.