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 granted.
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 weigh in.)
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 about us?
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 did 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.
2. 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.
3. Lech Lecho – the upheaval and change of leaving his home and building a new life.
4. Famine – despite G-d’s blessings of prosperity.
5. Pharaoh’s abduction of Sarah.
7. The Covenant, when Abraham hears about the future subjugation and suffering of his children at the hands of different nations.
9. Banishing Ishmael from 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.)
1. 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.
2. 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?
3. 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.
4. 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?
5. 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?
6. 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 an 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.
7. 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.
8. The challenge of transformation
Abraham’s circumcision 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 your 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.
9. 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 becoming Divine
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.
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 your 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?
* 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 chronological 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).