From Lekh Lekha to the Akeida
The Chronological Framework
Last week, we examined the odyssey of faith embarked upon by the progenitors of our people, Avraham and Sarah. We considered the immensely difficult prospect of leaving behind land, culture and family in order to travel to a destination both geographic as well as spiritual, whose ultimate bearings were initially not at all clear. Having arrived in Canaan, the couple and their household experience a myriad of challenges, mundane as well as profound, that address many aspects of their lives.
It is important to bear in mind that the Parashiyot of Lekh Lekha and VaYera describe a chronological period of perhaps sixty years: "And Avram was 75 years old when he left Charan" (Bereishit 12:4). "(Avraham) said in his heart 'shall I be a father at the age of one hundred? Shall Sarah give birth at the age of ninety?'"(Bereishit 17:17). "The days of Sarah's life were a hundred and twenty seven, and Sarah died..." (Bereishit 23:1). In other words, from the time that Sarah left Charan at the age of 65 (being ten years younger than Avraham) until her demise at the age of 127 (as described in next week's Parasha of Chayei Sarah), 62 years elapse. During this period approximately twenty discrete events in the lives of Avraham and Sarah are delineated by the Torah - some at greater length and many in quite succinct terms. Avraham survives his wife for a period of 38 years: "Avraham lived to a ripe old age of 175 years" (Bereishit 25:8), and during this rather lengthy period that corresponds to next week's Parasha, perhaps four or five additional events in his life are described.
Two important introductory ideas are indicated by these particulars. First, it is difficult to imagine that during a period of six decades of any person's life, only twenty odd events of significance occur. In our days, by way of contrast, the number twenty would scarcely begin to describe most people's employment history, let alone the important episodes of their lives! Rather, it is clear that what the Torah explicates are not simply events of Avraham and Sarah's lives or even significant events, but rather defining events. The occurrences that are instrumental, rather than incidental, in shaping or portraying the essential core of their beings are the only ones that are depicted.
Secondly, the majority of these events take place during the course of Parashat Lekh Lekha and Parashat VaYera. The few incidents described next week mostly correspond to Avraham's twilight years, and rather suggest closure and conclusion to a life whose boldest lines have already been circumscribed. Thus, the keys to understanding the attributes of Avraham and Sarah, the aspects of their character and behavior that make them exemplars in our tradition, are to be found in the sections of Lekh Lekha and VaYera.
The "Ten Trials"
Interestingly enough, in Rabbinic literature the events of these two Parashiyot are further compressed into ten components, and given a unique appellation: "Our ancestor Avraham was tried with ten trials ("Nisyonot") and passed them all, thus indicating how beloved is Avraham." (Avot 5:3). We would do well to look at some of these events in greater detail, in order to achieve a more informed and balanced view of what exactly is implied by the idea of "Nisayon" (singular of "Nisyonot"). We should also bear in mind as we examine the issue that, for the most part, these trials were equally borne by Sarah. She, together with her husband, is responsible for the inception of the Jewish people.
Which events are to be included among the ten is itself the subject of a number of differing opinions. The Rambam (12th century, Egypt) in his commentary on the Mishna enumerates only those events which are recorded explicitly in the text of the Written Torah. "The ten trials by which our ancestor Avraham was tried are all mentioned in the Torah. They are:
1) exile from his land, as God commanded 'Get thee out of thy land...' (Bereishit 12:1).
2) the famine which occurred in the land of Canaan after Avraham's arrival, in spite of the Divine promise of "and I will make you a great nation and bless you" (Bereishit 12:10).
3) the injustice perpetrated against him when the Egyptians seized his wife Sarah and presented her to Pharaoh (Bereishit 12:14-20).
4) the hostile confrontation and battle with the four kings (Bereishit Chapter 14).
5) his taking of Hagar for the purposes of procreation after he and Sarah had despaired of having children together (Bereishit 16:1-3).
6) receiving and carrying out the command of circumcision at an advanced age (Bereishit 17:9-14).
7) the injustice perpetrated by Avimelech the King of Gerar who, like Pharaoh, also seized his wife Sarah (Bereishit Chapter 20)
8) the driving out of Hagar at Sarah's behest after Hagar had given him a son, Yishmael (Bereishit 21:9-14)
9) the driving out of that son, Yishmael, notwithstanding the fact that to do so was very grievous in Avraham's eyes (Bereishit IBID)
10) the binding and attempted sacrifice of Yitzhak (Bereishit Chapter 22). "
The Avot D'Rabbi Natan (a minor tractate of the Talmud consisting of an expanded version of Avot) contains a slightly different enumeration. "Our ancestor Avraham was tested with ten trials by the Holy One Blessed be He and was found to be perfect in all of them. They are:
1) being cast into the fiery furnace by Nimrod at Ur Kasdim
2) leaving his land
3) the famine
4) the taking of Sarah by Pharaoh's servants
5) the battle with the kings
6) the Covenant between the Pieces
7) the command of circumcision
8) the taking of Sarah by Avimelech
9) the driving out of Yishmael
10) the binding of Yitzhak." (chronological rearrangement mine).
A comparison of both sources indicates that the general outline of the ten is quite similar. Whereas the Rambam confined his enumeration to events mentioned in the text explicitly, the Avot D'Rabbi Natan began the count with an occurrence known solely from the Oral Tradition and for which only an oblique allusion exists in the Written Torah. According to either scenario, each incident of the ten either asked of Avraham to do an act that required some form of self-sacrifice, or else not to despair of Divine intervention in the face of difficult circumstances.
The Significance of Numbers
At this juncture, it might be useful to begin considering the significance of the number ten in these formulations. Why is Avraham tried with ten acts and not more or less? The Mishna in Avot actually speaks of the Ten Trials in the larger context of more "tens." "The world was created by ten Divine utterances ("and God said...")...There are ten generations from Adam to Noach...There are ten generations from Noach to Avraham...Our ancestor Avraham was tried with ten trials...Ten miracles were wrought for our ancestors in Egypt (the Ten Plagues) and ten at the Sea of Reeds...Our ancestors tried God's patience ten times during the wanderings in the wilderness...Ten miracles used to occur in the Temple...Ten things were created on Erev Shabbat at twilight... (Avot 5:1-6). " Perhaps we can think of some other tens, such as the ten righteous men not to be found in Sodom (Bereishit 18:32), (see the comment of Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra who sees these ten as the precursor to the notion of a minyan or quorum of worshippers!), the ten brothers of Yosef (Bereishit Chapter 42), the Ten "Commandments" (Shemot Chapter 20), the ten spies (BeMidbar Chapter 13-14), etc.
Although it is beyond the scope of this article to fully examine the topic of biblical numerology, it would not be audacious to suggest that numbers not only constitute the means of tracking and grouping items, but are, at the same time, indicative of more essential ideas. The Tanakh is full of recurring numbers such as three, seven (and its multiples), ten, and forty, and these numbers carry certain figurative values. I would like to clarify that I am not at all referring to the mystical properties of the numbers but rather to readily comprehensible symbolic connotations.
Thus, the number three (when used in the context of three days) seems to be associated with deliberation, preparation, anticipation, and expectation. So, we find three days preceding the Akeida in Bereishit 22:4, three days preceding Pharaoh's birthday in Bereishit 40:12, three days that Yosef incarcerates his brothers in Bereishit 42:17, and three days preceding the giving of the Torah in Shemot 19:15. In all these cases, the period of three days allows the protagonists the opportunity to ponder and prepare for a significant event set to occur at the conclusion of the interval.
The number seven, on the other hand, is associated with recurring cycles. Thus, we find that the seven days of Creation are constantly repeated in the seven days of the week (Bereishit Chapter 1); Pharaoh sees intimations of seven fat years and seven lean years (functions of the cyclical rise and fall of the Nile) in his dream (Bereishit Chapter 41); the seven Shemitta years (agricultural cycles) are counted seven times to introduce the Yovel (VaYikra Chapter 25); the major festivals of Spring (Pessach) and Fall (Succot), the respective poles of the cyclical seasons, are celebrated for a period of seven days (VaYikra Chapter 23); a seven week period separates Pessach from Shavuot (IBID); ritual unfitness associated with life cycles typically lasts seven days (VaYikra Chapter 12-15); and death itself is mourned for seven days (Bereishit 50:1).
What is the significance of the number ten? Similar to our modern base-ten usage of the number, ten seems to signify a complete unit of something. In all of the examples quoted above, it becomes apparent that ten items means a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The ten utterances that bring the world into being are individually not terribly significant. Only when all ten have been iterated, is the process of creation of the cosmos concluded. The ten generations from Adam to Noach and from Noach to Avraham are an expression of complete self-contained epochs in human history, each with particular features that characterize the spirit of the age. The Ten Plagues are an integral unit of events that together herald the Exodus from Egypt. The Ten Commandments are the essential and comprehensive principles that together form the underlying foundation of a functional society.
Achieving Complete Faith
But what of Avraham's Ten Trials? What is represented by the number ten here? It is clear that like the other tens, the trials also form a complete unit. Each trial alone is a small part of the picture; only taken together does the entire portrait emerge. But what exactly is the semblance that these ten things bring into sharp focus? It is nothing less than the formation of a comprehensive faith in God. In other words, each of the ten events enumerated by the Torah as being the defining events in Avraham's life, is a building block towards the construction of a magnificent edifice of trust in God. This trust, in turn, only truly achieves a complete form after a period of six decades of living and grappling with difficulty. Each successive event is not simply a redundant duplication of a past problem overcome, but a completely new challenge that propels Avraham's trust in God forwards, so that it becomes a more developed reality. Taken together, the Ten Trials not only provide a sweeping overview of Avraham's chronological life, but more significantly, they chart out the entire course of its spiritual development. Conversely, the absence of any one of the events signifies an incomplete assemblage, a faith that is somehow not yet fully realized.
Significantly, the first event (as enumerated by the Rambam) as well as the last, are introduced by the Torah with a phrase that occurs only in these two instances: "Lekh Lekha – Get thee out of thy land..." initiates Avraham's trek, "Lekh Lekha – get thee to the land of Moriah" completes the odyssey of faith. In the words of the Midrash: "Rabbi Levi stated: Lekh Lekha is written twice, and we are hard pressed to tell which of the two is more beloved in God's eyes, the first or the last. Since the text states "to the land of Moriah" this indicates that the last is more beloved" (Bereishit Rabba 39:9).
The Midrash is intimating that the significant events of Avraham's life are bracketed by these two singular moments. The perilous journey which started with halting and tentative steps in Ur as Avram fumbled for a Truth in the midst of idolatry, reaches its grand conclusion at Mount Moriah where Avraham comes to surrender completely to trusting the will of his God. The first step was a break with the past, with convention, spiritual stagnation, and stultified values. It was a movement 'away from' the polytheistic and relativistic realities of Ur. The final step, described as a movement 'towards' the land of Moriah, was a trusting embrace of the Divine command, a loving affirmation of absolute faith and a glimpse of eternity. And in between the two, the dynamic process of Avraham's spiritual development unfolded. It is inconceivable to me, even had Avram left Ur as a father clasping the hand of his tender son, that the Akeida could have been requested by God any sooner in the sequence. This is because the Ten Trials describe not ten unconnected, disparate incidents but rather the ten parts of a unified process. All processes require time to yield a product. Only when experienced sequentially, can events of faith and trust forge a man's spirit and propel it forward.
The Nature of Nisayon ('Test' or 'Trial')
"Asara nisyonot nitnasa Avraham Avinu... With ten trials was our ancestor Avraham tried." The word 'nisayon' coming from the root NaSaH describes these various events, which developed and refined the faith of our Patriarch. Although the Torah only uses this verb to describe the final episode of the Akeida or Binding of Yitzchak ("It came to pass after these things that God tried ('NaSaH') Avraham"), traditional sources understood that all of the earlier events constituted trials or 'nisyonot' as well. Significantly, it is the relationship between God and Avraham that constitutes the first time in the Torah that the root NaSaH is used.
Typically, we translate this root as 'test' or 'trial' and indeed a majority of its usages in Tanakh support such a translation. Nevertheless, understanding "God 'NaSaH et' Avraham" as "God tested Avraham" raises a serious theological difficulty. The administration of a test to an individual implies that there is something about the individual's abilities or purported mastery of a subject that is not known. A teacher tests a student in order to ascertain whether the student has understood and internalized the subject matter. By administering the test, the teacher will learn something that he or she did not know beforehand, such as the level of the student's familiarity with the material or the ability of the student to apply the acquired knowledge to a new contingency. For an Absolute Omniscient God, this notion of 'test' is inapplicable. God already knows the choice that Avraham will make; He whose knowledge is perfect cannot acquire new knowledge concerning Avraham by administering these tests.
For this reason, some of the classical commentaries preferred to connect the 'NaSaH' of our passage to the related form 'NeS' which means mast, banner, or pole. Thus, Moshe fashions a bronze serpent in the aftermath of Israel's chastisement in the wilderness, and affixes it to a 'NeS' or 'pole' so that the people might see it from afar and direct their thoughts heavenward to seek relief (BeMidbar 21:4-9). In Yeshayahu's messianic vision of ingathering, God will "raise a banner to the nations and gather in the dispersed of Israel...from the four corners of the earth" (Yeshayahu 11:12). The related but later meaning of 'NeS' as 'miracle' derives in all probability from the fact that such an event is a public and obvious demonstration of God's intervention, visible to all both near and far as a banner billowing from a flagstaff.
Rambam in his Guide to the Perplexed (3:24) had this to say on the matter: "Wherever the notion of test or trial is mentioned in the Torah its purpose is to indicate to people how they ought to act or think...the test serves as a model to others who might learn from it and follow its example...Avraham was for many years childless and yearned for offspring...after many years of despair a child was born to him. How great must have been his love for and attachment to that boy! His love and reverence for God, however, was greater still...By this act of absolute 'fear of God' all people might come to know what constitutes real reverence for the Deity...this being the ultimate goal of the entire Torah and all of its commandments..." In other words, the value of the test or trial for the Rambam is in its ability to serve as a 'banner' or indicator to others. They can learn from the example of the one who 'passed the test' and emulate that individual's conduct in the course of their own lives. The thrust of the test is therefore directed outwards and has nothing to do with adding to God's transcendent body of knowledge which is absolutely complete.
The Ramban (13th century, Spain), addressing himself to the same theological difficulty, sought a different solution, which managed to preserve the more common meaning of the term 'NaSaH' as 'test': "A person has absolute freedom to choose his course of action in any given circumstance. We refer to this event as a trial or test from the perspective of the one tested, who is free to decide how he will act. God causes Avraham to undergo the test to allow him the possibility of translating his latent spiritual potential into concrete reality, so that reward can be apportioned not only for good intentions but for good actions as well." (Bereishit 22:1). In other words, God knows the outcome of the test at the outset. The only one who "learns' from the experience is Avraham himself, who is thus able to actualize the spiritual ability that is latent within him. Ramban's words resonate perfectly with the understanding of the Ten Trials as the maturation of Avraham's personal spiritual development. For him, the thrust of the 'nisayon' is directed primarily inward, affording the individual the opportunity to incrementally, over time, fashion an intimate and profound relationship with God.
For further study: see how the differing approaches of the Rambam and the Ramban are reflected in the much earlier source of the Midrash – Bereishit Rabba 32:3.
Also, consider the fact that for the Ramban, leaving the land of Canaan during the famine, as well as requesting of Sarah to present him as her brother both constitute unintentional but serious transgressions on Avraham's part. Nevertheless, both of these incidents are counted among the Ten Trials. Since it is generally not Ramban's exegetical approach to reject a Midrashic source, we must reconcile these 'failures' with the Mishna's contention that Avraham was beloved for having passed all the ten! How does the above analysis lend support to Ramban's thesis?