The Biblical patriarch Abraham is the central figure in three weekly Torah portions we are in the midst of: Lech Lecha (Oct. 28); VaYeira (Nov.4); Chayei Sarah (Nov. 11). Jews have traditionally seen a connection between what transpires in the weekly Torah portions that are read in Shull every Shabbat and current events, particularly things that are happening to and with the Jewish People, on both the individual micro level and on the global macro level.
We are taught by the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) that Abraham was subjected by God to Ten Tests that he withstood: "With ten tests our father Abraham was tested and he withstood them all—in order to make known how great was our father Abraham's love [for God]." (Pirkei Avot 5:3).
There are differences of opinion among the classical Jewish Sages as to what Abraham's Ten Tests were that is beyond the scope of this short essay.
Let us go with Maimonides' interpretation in his Commentary to the Mishna:
1. God tells Abraham to leave his homeland to be a stranger in the land of Canaan.
2. Immediately after Abraham's arrival in the Promised Land, he encounters a famine.
3. The Egyptians seize Abraham's wife, Sarah, and bring her to Pharaoh.
4. Abraham faces incredible odds in the battle of the four and five kings.
5. Abraham marries Hagar after not being able to have children with Sarah.
6. God tells Abraham to circumcise himself at an advanced age.
7. Avimelech the king of Gerar captures Sarah, intending to take her for himself.
8. God tells Abraham to send Hagar away after having a child, Yishmael, with her.
9. Abraham's son, Yishmael, becomes estranged.
10. God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac upon an altar.
These tests were not just for Abraham but they are factors in the lives of the Children of Israel and the Jewish People who are regarded as the main descendants of the three Biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The way these tests filter down to all later Jewish generations reaching the Jewish People today is by a special mechanism that is defined by the principle of what the Classical Rabbis call Ma'asei Avos Siman LeBanim —"the deeds/acts of the fathers are a sign/portent for the sons/descendants'' based on the Medrash Tanchuma, Parshas Lech Lecha 9 - which says א"ר יהושע דסכנין סימן נתן לו הקב"ה לאברהם שכל מה שאירע לו אירע לבניו —"Rabbi Yehoshua of Sichnin said that the Holy One Blessed Be He gave Abraham a sign that everything that happened to him would happen to his sons/descendants".
Abraham embodies the attribute of Chesed (Loving Kindness), Isaac embodies the attribute of Din (Justice) and Jacob embodies the attribute of Emes (Truth). Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are the founders of the thrice daily prayers according to the Talmud. Abraham symbolizes the essence of the First Beit Hamikdash (Temple), Isaac symbolizes the essence of the Second Beit Hamikdash, Jacob symbolizes the essence of the Third Beit Hamikdash of the future, and there are many other examples that go beyond this short essay.
This means that not just the Ten Tests of Abraham are "signs/omens" of what would happen to his descendants but everything else that happened to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as described in the Torah would happen to their Jewish descendants as well. They create the ultimate "Blueprint" and "Template" and therefore the statement by the Jewish Sages הסתכל באורייתא וברא עלמא—"[God] Looked into the Torah and created the world" takes on more profound meaning because God looked so to speak at the acts and deeds of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and made them into the plans and patterns that the Jews and humanity would follow during all of world history as embedded and prophesied in the Torah itself.
The Ten Tests of Abraham are a good point to start because they speak to the conditions and challenges that the Jewish People face today in Israel and in the world as a whole:
1. God tells Abraham to leave his homeland to be a stranger in the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:1): This has been a recurrent phenomenon for the Children of Israel and for the Jewish People throughout Jewish History. Following in the footsteps of Abraham the Children of Israel that had grown up to be a large people in ancient Egypt followed Moses in the Exodus and headed to the Promised Land of Eretz Yisrael - the Land of Israel.
After the destruction of the First Temple and the onset of the Babylonian Exile, the Jewish People were later led by the prophets Ezra and Nechemiah back to the Land of Israel to rebuild the Second Temple.
After the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans the Jewish People were sent into a two thousand year exile that has been ending dramatically with the Jewish People returning to Israel by the millions in modern times.
Abraham's journey to the Promised Land around 3,500 years ago is the prototypical role model and blueprint for every modern Jew's return to the Holy Land of Israel.
2. Immediately after his arrival in the Promised Land, Abraham encounters a famine (Genesis 12:10): Judaism teaches that three things are acquired with suffering: The Land of Israel, Torah, The Future World. Even though God instructs Abraham to move to the Land of Israel, then called Canaan, it did not mean that Abraham would have an easy time doing so since suffering is a requirement for its acquisition. If something comes too easy one can never be sure of its permanence, as the saying goes, "easy come, easy go" but by expending "blood, sweat and tears" and in order to acquire and hold onto something it becomes more real with effort expended on it.
Certainly for the modern Olim, the Jewish pioneers who came to live in the Land of Israel and work its land and develop its communities it did not come easily to say the least. Deserts had to be transformed into farms, swamps had to be drained, sufferings and privations awaited the early Olim for a long time until they could build up the Yishuvim, Moshavim, Kibbutzim and build large towns on the dust and sand of the land that had been laid waste for two thousand years.
3. The Egyptians seize Abraham's wife, Sarah, and bring her to Pharaoh (Genesis 12:15): The Midrashic commentaries explain that the evil Serpent that seduced Eve in the Garden of Eden was subsequently flung into the Nile River in Egypt. Pharaoh and Egypt were the embodiment of the Serpent and its minions. It is not a coincidence that archeology shows that on some of the crowns of the Pharaohs was an image of a cobra. Pharaoh tried to do to Abraham what the Serpent did to Adam but he was foiled. Whereas Eve succumbed to the Ruach Zuhama ("Evil Spirit") of the Serpent, on the other hand Abraham's wife Sarah was rescued from Pharaohs entrapment.
In our own day too many Jewish women have been lured into relationships with non-Jewish men and vice versa and it has been called a "Silent Holocaust". In Israel there are hundreds of Jewish Israeli women who have been lured into marrying Arab men, often with disastrous results, and so far no solution has been found to this terrible tragedy.
4. Abraham faces incredible odds in the battle of the four and five kings (Genesis 14:14): Abraham's nephew Lot was taken as a captive hostage in the course of a civil war in the Land of Canaan between five kings who rebelled against four kings. The four kings were victorious and Abraham marshalled his men to rescue Lot and other hostages. Jewish Sources teach us that this war between the five and four kings is a prophecy for the end of time of the war of Gog Umagog that will happen at the End of Time when the Jewish Messiah will lead the Jewish People to victory over their enemies.
It also speaks to us today during the Hamas-Israel Swords of Iron War of 2023 when hundreds of Israeli Jews have been taken as hostages. It has been a feature of the terrorism that the Arabs have practiced against the Jews in modern times that they both murder and torture their victims as well as cynically taking hostages. Hopefully in the end the Jewish People will follow in the footsteps of Abraham and fight against the enemies of the Jews and free the hostages.
5. Abraham marries Hagar after not being able to have children with Sarah (Genesis 16:3): It was Sarah who gave Hagar to Abraham as a wife because Sarah was old and barren and therefore could not have a child of her own. According to Midrashim, Hagar was of royal birth the daughter of Pharaoh and she is known as Hagar HaMitzris (Hagar the Egyptian). Hagar grew haughty and was sent away by Sarah but was told by God to return and that she would have a son Yishmael. After Sarah dies the Midrashim say that Abraham remarried Hagar who was also called Ketura and later has many more children with Abraham. This fits with Abraham's title as Av HaMon Goyim ("father of many nations") as described in the Torah.
According to Maimonides there is a great Divine Plan at work that must see the descendants of Abraham become the originators of the Muslims through Yishmael and the Christians through Esau who was the son of Isaac and therefore he was Abraham's grandson. According to Maimonides it is the seed of Abraham that has the ability to believe in the ultimate coming of a messiah and even though their belief system is presently faulty, yet when the true Jewish Messiah will appear they will have the framework of understanding and accepting him, may it happen speedily in our days!
6. God tells Abraham to circumcise himself at an advanced age (Genesis 17:24): Abraham was ninety nine years old when God commanded him to circumcise himself and Yishmael and all the males of his household. From that point onwards the Bris meaning "covenant" becomes the distinguishing mark of Jewish males. The Torah instructs Jews to circumcise their baby boys at eight days old. There is a Midrash that teaches that when King David was naked he grew despondent that he could do none of the Mitzvot (commandments) but then he realized that he carried a Mitzvah in his own flesh and that is the Bris, the mark of the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
The Bris is in the organ that has the power of procreation and the creation of life and it is at that very point that the Bris is performed to subjugate the power of physical procreation to the upper spiritual powers that is the covenant between God and the Jewish People. That is why sexual immorality is such a serious sin because it interferes between the connection that the Jewish People have with God.
7. Avimelech the king of Gerar captures Sarah, intending to take her for himself (Genesis 20:2): Starting from the times of Noah who lived ten generations before Abraham, all people were obligated to follow the Sheva Mitzvos Bnei Noach the "Seven Noahide Laws": (1. Not to worship idols. 2. Not to curse God. 3. Not to murder. 4. Not to commit adultery or sexual immorality. 5. Not to steal. 6. Not to eat flesh from a living animal. 7. To establish courts of justice). Therefore, because Avimelech, king of Gerar intended to do the sin of adultery after Sarah had informed him that she was a married woman, he was punished.
This is a lesson that speaks to all of humankind for all time until today. Abraham was not only the teacher of monotheism to a world that had forgotten that there was only one God but that there is also a code of ethics that includes sexual ethics as well. That is why Judaism has been called a religion of ethical monotheism.
8. God tells Abraham to send Hagar away after having a child, Yishmael, with her (Genesis 21:12): According to the Jewish Sages this is the root of the struggle between the Arabs and the Jews. It's a rivalry between two heirs of Abraham but God makes it very clear in the Torah that it is Isaac who is the true heir even though God promises to make Yishmael into a great nation as well. The bitter rivalry between Yishmael's Arab and Muslim descendants and Abraham's seed through Isaac and Jacob known as the Jewish People continues in our days with all its fury.
They are in a violent struggle over who owns the land that God promised to Abraham that is the root of the Arab–Israeli Conflict. The world recognizes Abraham as the originator of the Abrahamic Religions as Wikipedia puts it: "The Abrahamic religions are a group of religions, most notably Judaism, Christianity and Islam, centered around the worship of the God of Abraham. Abraham, a Hebrew patriarch, is extensively mentioned in the religious scriptures of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, and the Quran."
9. Abraham's son, Yishmael, becomes estranged (Genesis 21:10): Abraham loved Yishmael and wanted him to follow in the good ways that Abraham practiced. The Midrashim teach that Abraham would take time out and visit Yishmael to see how he was progressing. Fascinatingly the Midrashim also teach that at the end of time Yishmael would do Teshuva (repent). There is a saying that every cloud has its silver lining. Rav Avigdor Miller has taught that were it not for the rise of Islam 1,500 years ago the world would have been conquered by the Christians that started 2,000 years ago.
The Arabs and Muslims have a great chip on their shoulder and carry a big grudge that they are not at the forefront of the world as are the Christian influenced Western nations with the Jewish People mixed in. Face it, according to the Torah's narrative, Yishmael was kicked out by Abraham on the advice of his wife Sarah that was backed up by God who tells Abraham:
"וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל-אַבְרָהָם, אַל-יֵרַע בְּעֵינֶיךָ עַל-הַנַּעַר וְעַל-אֲמָתֶךָ--כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תֹּאמַר אֵלֶיךָ שָׂרָה, שְׁמַע בְּקֹלָהּ: כִּי בְיִצְחָק, יִקָּרֵא לְךָ זָרַע"
"And God said to Abraham, let it not be bad in your eyes about the boy [Yishmael] and your handmaid [Hagar], everything that Sarah says to you listen to her voice, because through Isaac will your seed be called." (Genesis 21:12).
10. God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac upon an altar (Genesis 22:2): This event is known as the Akeida ("binding" [of Isaac]) and it is more a test for Abraham because he represents the attribute of Chesed ("lovingkindness") as exhibited in his love of the Mitzvah of Hachnasas Orchim (welcoming guests) and pleading for mercy on behalf of the wicked people of Sodom. Abraham has to negate his own Midda ("attribute") of lovingkindness and switch to practicing absolute justice by listening to God's command to slaughter his own son Isaac who agrees to go along with this greatest of tests. This combined act of submission to God's will even at the cost of sacrificing one's life is the greatest example of Kiddush HaShem, Sanctification of God's Name.
Any time that any Jewish persons anywhere throughout the ages are willing to give up their lives willingly for no other reason than they are Jews or if they are killed for no other reason than they are Jews, they are following in the combined example of Abraham and his son Isaac who passed this ultimate test and were rewarded by God with Eternal Life in the World to Come. Ultimately every Jew must live with this idea that at any moment they may be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice for Kiddush HaShem, Sanctification of God's Name.
Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin was born to Holocaust survivor parents in Israel, grew up in South Africa, and lives in Brooklyn, NY. He is an alumnus of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin and of Teachers College–Columbia University. He heads the Jewish Professionals Institute dedicated to Jewish Adult Education and Outreach – Kiruv Rechokim. He was the Director of the Belzer Chasidim's Sinai Heritage Center of Manhattan 1988–1995, a Trustee of AJOP 1994–1997 and founder of American Friends of South African Jewish Education 1995–2015. He is also a docent and tour guide at The Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Downtown Manhattan, New York.
He is the author of The Second World War and Jewish Education in America: The Fall and Rise of Orthodoxy.Contact Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin at [email protected]