Ten Steps to Greatness
Abraham, “father of all
nations,” was the first true pioneer. He stood up to an entire selfish world
and trail blazed a spiritual path to life, forever changing history. It was
Abraham’s embrace of a higher set of values of love, generosity and service
that forged the standard for the basic human rights that we take today for
What was Abraham’s secret?
What shaped this man? From where did he derive the power and courage to defy
the tide of his times? How can we emulate Abraham and acquire his courage
in our own lives?
This week’s Torah portion
tells the story of Abraham. And it can be summed up in the concise words of
the Mishne: “Our father Abraham was tested with ten challenges, and he withstood
them all – to indicate how great was our father Abraham’s love” (Ethics of
the Fathers 5:3).
[The standard translation
of “nisyonos” in this statement is “tests” or “trials.” But perhaps “challenges”
is a more accurate and appropriate translation. Linguists of the world: Please
Why did Abraham need to
be tested? G-d must have known that Abraham had unique qualities and that
he would withstand the trials; why was it necessary to actually put Abraham
through the difficulties he endured? Does every man of faith need to be challenged?
The Hebrew word for “test”
(or “challenge”) – “nisayon” – shares the same root with the word “ness,”
which means miracle and also banner. A miracle reveals the extraordinary within
the ordinary; the Divine within the natural. The same is with a “nisayon,”
a challenge: Every person has innate qualities. By virtue of being created
in the “Image of G-d” every soul contains enormous reservoirs of extraordinary
potential. However, these powers remain dormant when unactualized. A
“nisayon” – the true test of one’s character – is a challenge that actualizes
our potential and brings the best out of us by revealing the powerful forces
we carry within. Like a banner the challenge spiritually elevates us and allows
us to fly high.
When we pass a difficult
test in life, two things happen at once: A deeper part of our soul is revealed,
to the point that it can actually bring on true transformation of the human
being. And, as a result, a deeper, transformative dimension of Divine light
manifests in existence.
Thus, the Mishne can be read: “Our father Abraham was exalted with
ten challenges, and he withstood them all – to indicate how great was our
father Abraham’s love.”
That was Abraham. What
Note the Mishne’s emphasis
(twice) on “our father Abraham,” indicating that we all, as his children,
inherit the features of our father. Both Abraham’s profound virtues and his
tremendous fortitude is our birthright as children of “our father Abraham.”
Each of us in our own
lives will be tested, or rather, challenged. [Tested has negative connotations
with condescending implications, feeding into the nursery school stereotype
that “an angry, long-bearded man in heaven is out to get us.” Challenged is
much more appropriate]. Each challenge is actually an opportunity to grow
– to draw out great strengths from within. Each triumph over a challenge lifts
us to unprecedented heights.
Everything that happened
to the patriarchs is an indication for their children (Midrash Tanchuma Lech Lecho 9.
Bereishis Rabba 40:6). All the events that happened with the Patriarchs
[Abraham, Isaac and Jacob] come to teach us about the future…they were shown
what would happen to their descendants (Ramban Lech Lecho 12:6).
Just as Abraham endured
ten challenges, one more difficult than the previous, we, his children, too
undergo in our lifetimes ten similar challenges. With one important qualification:
Once Abraham proved himself, his children do not need to be challenged with
quite the same intensity. And especially today, after all that we have endured
throughout history, we no longer need, thank G-d, to go through “fire” and
face life threatening challenges of pain, suffering and death.
Sadly, some of us are
still faced with awful challenges. But collectively, we are blessed to live
in freedom, without the persecution of old, unlike Abraham who faced the threat
of death for his beliefs. And individually as well, after all that we have
suffered, at this point we can expect and hope, and pray to G-d that enough
is enough: Our challenges today should only be positive ones, focused on eliciting
our inner potential.
Here are Abraham’s ten
challenges and one way that they can be applied to our lives today: (1)
Abraham’s early childhood, when he had to be hidden for a number of years.
Abraham being thrust into a fiery furnace for his refusal to acknowledge the
arch-idol of his native Ur Kasdim, the emperor Nimrod, and his continued commitment
to teaching the world the truth of a one, non-corporeal and omnipotent G-d.
Lech Lecho – the upheaval and change of leaving his home and building
a new life.
Famine – despite G-d’s blessings of prosperity.
Pharaoh’s abduction of Sarah.
The Covenant, when Abraham hears about the future subjugation and suffering
of his children at the hands of different nations.
Banishing Ishmael for his home.
10. The Akeidah
(binding of Isaac).
To achieve greatness,
every one of us needs to experience, in one form or another, these ten challenges.
If you study your life and the life and history of your family you will find
glimpses of ten different trials and tribulations, what we call “nisyonot.”
(They may or may not be in the same order as they occurred in Abraham’s life).
The challenge of childhood
The early formative years
of a child are the most precious. They define the strengths the child will
accumulate and the challenges the child will face throughout his or her entire
life. It is therefore absolutely vital to create a spiritually nurturing environment
for your child and protect your child, in these impressionable years, from
narcissistic and corrupting influences.
The challenge of commitment
Sometime in life, often
early on, and perhaps more than once in a lifetime, you will be asked (with
or without words) to make a choice: Either conform or “burn.” Today, thankfully,
“burn” isn’t literal. But the price of choosing the “road less traveled,”
the path of virtue and faith, will be threatened by material pressures that
consume us like “fire.” Will you choose to bow and worship an “idol” – money,
fame, superstars, whatever – or do you commit to a higher cause?
The challenge of change
As you mature into an
adult the time comes to “cut the (psychological) umbilical cord,” and leave
your home and comfort zones to discover yourself and what you are capable
of. This can be a formidable challenge. More specifically, the journey consists
of freeing yourself from the subjective forces that shape our lives: Our natural,
biased, tendencies; parental influences; and social programming. “Lech Lecho”
commands us to leave our inertia-based environments and experience the “real
you” – who you are and what original contribution do you make,
as opposed to being a product of others.
The challenge of deprivation
Then there will be those
times when you may experience deep hunger and wonder whether your choices
was all worth it. You committed to G-d and yet you have no “food on your table.”
You may need to wander to strange, hostile places to acquire some nourishment.
Will you give up or see it through?
The challenge of sexuality
And then your most intimate
needs may be compromised or abducted. Your heart challenged and your love
denied. Will this break you?
The challenge of confrontation
No matter who you are
and what your life space is like, you will be faced with confrontations. Even
when you are not looking for adversary, enemy forces will assault you. They
may take on the shape of people – so-called friends, co-workers, neighbors,
surrounding nations, or they may be inner fears, psychological phobias, haunting
ghosts of the past. But whatever form it takes you can rest assured that you
will have to fight a battle or two in your life. These battles will either
demoralize you or strengthen you.
The challenge of suffering
No one is immune to loss
and some form of pain in our lifetimes. Even when G-d is merciful, we will,
in our current condition, experience the loss of a loved one, the break of
a promise or the dissolution of a dream. We are mortals and fragile creatures.
Health issues will crop up. Here too, the challenge is whether we can discover
deeper resources to help us through the harder times.
The challenge of transformation
at age 99 marked his metamorphosis to become spiritually complete, as G-d
says to him: through circumcision you will “walk before Me and become complete.”
The covenant “in you flesh” will bond you with me forever (a covenant stated
thirteen times in the Torah). For Abraham the challenge was compounded by
the fact that he as 99 years old at the time. Today the challenge is to ensure
that our children (8 day year old boys, and girls are considered circumcised
upon birth) have engraved in their very flesh Abraham’s’ Divine covenant.
The challenge of transformation is not just a partial, limited commitment
to a higher cause, but one that is complete and permeates every aspect of
our lives, including the material and physical.
The challenge of discipline
Often, in the name of
deep love and spiritual conviction, we can overwhelm ourselves and those around
us. Abraham, the epitome of love (chesed), found it difficult to send away
his son Ishmael. But this discipline (gevurah) was necessary for the welfare
of Abraham’s own home as well as of Ishmael and Hagar. We too will have the
challenge in our lives, where we will need to exercise profound discipline
lest we become consumed by spiritual and sensual passions.
10. The challenge of
Finally, the ultimate
challenge will be when you are asked to be ready to give up the single thing
you love most for G-d. Not with the intention of actually having to relinquish
it – but you cannot be privy to that at the time or it will defeat the entire
purpose; you will feel as though you actually will be sacrificing your most
precious possession. Only to discover, that when you are sincerely ready for
such a sacrifice, you not only lose nothing; in return you gain immortality
and an eternal connection to the very thing you love so much. (see G-d Said to Abraham: Kill Me a Son).
These are the ten general
challenges that we will all face in our lifetimes (obviously, with many subsets
within each). How we will rise to these ten challenges will define our lives.
The key thing to always
remember, with every fiber of our being, is that these are all challenges
that you have the power to withstand, and when you do they will help catapult
you to greatness.
Abraham was not just a
man of distant history. His story is our story. His travels paved the way
for our own. His endurance demonstrates – and empowers us, his children, with
the ability to not just survive, but to thrive and reach immortality.
Over 3600 years of difficult
history is a living testimony to a man's absolute dedication to a higher cause.
Through all these millennia, and all of history’s upheavals, Abraham remains
the pioneering spirit that changed the world forever, and is admired today
perhaps even more than in his own time. If that does not instill in us confidence
and inspiration that we too (with far less difficulties than Abraham's) can
see it through, what will?
(1) Opinions vary as to
the exact nature of Abraham’s ten challenges (as to what Abraham’s ten challenges
actually entailed consisted of). Here we followed the interpretation of the
Pirkei D’rebbi Eliezer (chapter 26-31).
All opinions agree on
seven of these challenges (not in chronoligical order): 1) Lech Lecho; 2)
Hunger; 3) Pharaoh’s abduction of Sarah; 4) War; 5) Circumcision; 6) Banishing
Ishmael; 7) Akeidah. All the opinions (except for Maimonides) also include:
8) Abraham being thrust into the fire; 9) The Covenant, when Abraham hears
about the future suffering of his children at the hands of different nations
(Pirkei D’rebbi Eliezer ch. 26. Avot D’rebbi Natan ch. 33. Midrash Tehillim
95. Bartenura. Rabbeinu Yonah). Regarding the tenth challenge – some consider
10) Avimelech’s abduction of Sarah (Bartenura), or Abraham hiding for 13 years
(Pirkei D’rebbi Eliezer ch. 26).
Maimonides does not include
#8 and #9, and instead separates into two challenges the banishment of Hagar
and Yishmael, and includes Avimelech’s abduction of Sarah (which the others
consider as part of #3) and Abraham's taking Hagar as concubine. (Some explain
that Maimonides enumerates only the challenges that are specifically stated
in Biblical verse). Rabbeinu Yonah considers the banishment of mother and
son as one, and instead adds the purchase of Sarah’s burial plot (Meorat haMachpeilah).