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Avraham's Tests

By: SFW Students & Alumna
Rena Delman (SFW '09)

In this week’s parsha, parshat Vayeira, Hashem tests Avraham with Akeidat Yitzchak as it says:

“Vayihi achar hadevarim ha’ayleh, v’haelokim nissah et Avraham.” (22:1) 


Nechama Leibowitz utilizes the perushim of a few of the Rishonim, to help answer a difficult question: why did Hashem test Avraham, when He knew the future and the outcome of Avraham’s actions? Why would Hashem test a person in order to prove something when He is all-knowing?  And to further the difficulty we have, why did Hashem make Avraham suffer emotionally and spiritually, when He knew that Avraham would withstand the test?


Nechama Leibowitz presents two main approaches, which subdivide into the opinions of the Rishonim.  She also only focuses on a few words and not the whole akeida, “v’haelokim nissah et Avraham.”


Abarbanel prefaced his opinion by saying that the parsha of Akeidat Yitzchak is so special that it has more depth than any other section of the Torah and is worth learning and mentioning daily (as we do in tefilah).  Rav Soloveitcik z”l reflects this opinion stating that: “the idea of sacrifice is a cornerstone of Judaism.” (Abraham’s Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch).


Rambam gives an answer to our first question.  He says that Avraham loved his son more than anything else in the world but when Hashem commanded him to sacrifice his son, Avraham immediately ran to fulfill Hashem’s command.  However, Hashem made Avraham, Yitzchak and his 2 servants walk for three days to give Avraham time to properly consider and think over the idea of killing his son.  In this way, Hashem’s command became a genuine mitzvah in that Avraham’s actions came from his intellect and not from his instincts or emotions.  The purpose behind testing Avraham in Akeidat Yitzchak was to show us the most extreme situation in Judaism and history in order to teach us the extent to which one must fear and love G-d without any desire for reward.


Rav Saadia Gaon said that the word “nissah” hints that Hashem wanted to show everyone how amazing Avraham was and even though no one was there (Avraham’s servants) to see it, Akeidat Yitzchak was a way to educate people in the future and not to educate Avraham’s servants at that time.  Rav Yitzchak Arama or the Ba’al Akeidat Yitzchak has a similar opinion.  Akeidat Yitzchak was an event that everyone heard about in the future such that it was as if every Jew was there to witness Avraham’s faith in Hashem during his tenth and final test. Finally, Abarbanel’s approach is that Akeidat Yitzchak was for the good of the whole world and taught mankind a lesson.  The word “nissah” comes from the word “nes,” a flag or banner that showed the world Avraham’s complete faith in Hashem and set an example for the whole world to follow.


Rav Yosef Albo and the Ramban have a different approach to the word “nissah.”  They say that “nissah” is more like a “nisayon.”  Rav Yosef Albo gives an answer to our second question.  He says that Hashem often inflicts suffering on Tzaddikim, like Avraham, in order for their outward good deeds to reflect their inner character, which in turn intensifies their love and fear of Hashem.  Reaching one’s potential good by doing good deeds is called a nisayon.  Therefore, one can translate the pasuk, “G-d gave Avraham experience through this test.”


Ramban, however, says that the word nisayon means having the free will or bechirah chafshit to act or refrain from acting, so when Hashem commands Avraham to go and sacrifice his son, Hashem changes Avraham’s potential to do good deeds with his “free will” into a reality in order to reward him.  Hashem only confronts tzaddikim with tests like Akeidat Yitzchak when He knows it will benefit them. 


Rambam, Rav Saadia Gaon, Abarbanel and Rav Yitzchak Arama follow the idea that the purpose of Akeidat Yitzchak was to educate the world about how far one must go to love and fear G-d and to show the world the extent of Avraham’s faith in Hashem.  In contrast, RavYosef Albo and Ramban (according to Nechama Leibowitz) say that the purpose of the test was to “improve Avraham’s inner character and to train him in doing positive and good deeds and fully realizing his spiritual potentialities.”


Ramban brings a midrash from Parshat Lech Lecha to show that only some types of people deserve to be tested.  The midrash brings a mashal about a bottle maker who never tested the shaky bottles because it wasn’t worth the effort and they would break in a second, but would only test the good bottles which would never fall apart.  The nimshal is that Hashem doesn’t test Reshaim who will immediately fail but will only test the Tzaddikim who will withstand His tests.


Avraham’s test or experience at Akeidat Yitzchak was so special that it was beyond any normal imagination; but with regard to regular everyday nisyonot, Hashem tests every single person on their own level, in their own way.  With this in mind, may we be zocheh to fully realize our potentials and use these tests to elevate us spiritually toward Hashem! 


Shabbat Shalom!



Categorized under: 1: Parshat Shavua > Vayera