Parshas Lech Lecha opens with one of the ten nisyonos Avrohom Avinu confronted. Nisyonos are commonly translated as tests or challenges. Avrohom was confronted by ten of them and earned the title of Avinu by passing each test and overcoming the challenges.
A common misconception when studying these parshiyos is that Avrohom Avinu faced ten difficult situations, which he successfully endured. He was therefore blessed with better times.
Upon further scrutiny, however, one finds that this is not what a nisayon is about and it’s not what life is about.
There are many interpretations as to why we lain the story of Hagar and the birth of Yishmoel on Rosh Hashanah. Perhaps we can suggest another.
We read in this week’s parsha that Hagar, the servant of Avrohom and Sarah, ran away from them. Sarah didn’t take kindly to her, so, having had enough of the bad treatment, Hagar ran off into the desert. A malach found her in the desert and asked her where she was coming from and where she was going. She replied that she was running away from Sarai. The malach told her to return to where she had come from. “Shuvi el gevirteich vehisani tachas yadeha – Return to your mistress and submit yourself to her domination.” The malach then told her that she will have so many children that it will be impossible to count them. He told her that she would give birth to a son and that she should name him Yishmoel to memorialize the fact that Hashem heard her prayers. He then told her that the son would be a terrible person, who would be despised and hated by all (Bereishis 16:1-16).
Ostensibly, the malach was seeking to comfort her, so why did he tell her to go back to Sarai and be mistreated? What consolation was there in hearing that she should return and submit to her painful existence? Apparently, he was telling her to go back so that she may give birth to a son who would be granted to her on account of Hashem hearing her prayers. Why, then, did the malach tell her that he would be an awful person? Why would hearing that entice her to return? “Go back and suffer, but have no fear, as you will have a terrible son.” Why? “Because Hashem heard your prayers.” How does that provide her with an incentive to return to the home of her mistress?
In fact, if we think about the pesukim, we realize that the malach was not telling Hagar that her future would be bright. He didn’t tell her to return because she would live happily ever after in Avrohom’s house. He was telling her, “This is your shlichus, this is your mission, so embrace it. Your mission in life is to work for Avrohom and Sorai. Your mission is to give birth to this son. Hashem heard your prayers and this is what He wants from you.”
The happily-ever-after ending was the assurance that it was Hashem’s will that she return to Avrom and Sorai, difficult as it may have been. And that, too, is a consolation. Once she understood that her suffering was part of a Divine plan, she was able to accept it. When she heard from the malach that her mission was to give birth to the archetype pereh adam, she was relieved, satisfied with the knowledge that the travails were chosen for her by a loving G-d who heard her prayers.
When there is faith, there is strength and acceptance of any situation.
The Ramban (Bereishis 22:1) says that the purpose of a nisayon is to reveal a person’s dormant abilities. A nisayon is not really a test. It is an opportunity for growth. A person grows by accepting the curveballs that life throws his way and maintaining his faith and determination as he acts and reacts properly.
The posuk states, “Lech lecha…el ha’aretz asher areka – Go…to the land that I will show you.” The Meshech Chochmah explains allegorically that by following Hashem’s word, Avrohom would be shown his latent abilities, and they would be shown to the world, as well. We can add that it is by being faced with nisyonos and overcoming them that Avrohom was nisaleh, as his potential was realized.
Chazal proclaim, “Ba’asarah nisyonos nisnasah Avrohom Avinu ve’omad bekulam.” This literally means that Avrohom rose up to all his tests. The Slonimer Rebbe explained that Chazal state that “omad” refers to tefillah. As Chazal say, “Ein amidah elah tefillah.” He explains that Avrohom Avinu faced ten nisyonos and responded to each one in the same fashion: by davening.
We may wonder what Avrohom davened for. What was his request of Hashem?
We may answer that his prayers were not necessarily for him to merit what we would call a happy ending. Avrohom davened to merit the strength and conviction to fulfill Hashem’s will, come what may, and react the way that was expected of him.
This idea is further enforced by the Torah’s description of the Bris Bein Habesorim. When Avrohom heard of the pain and the darkness of the golus (15:12 and Rashi there), he was overcome by great fear. Hashem promised him that his children will live in a strange land, where they will be enslaved and tortured for four hundred years, ultimately being redeemed berechush gadol. “You will die at an old age, and the fourth generation of your progeny will return to the Holy Land, because until then the Emorites will not have sinned enough to merit their eviction.”
Although he was informed that his children would be oppressed for four hundred years, he was comforted because he was told that it was part of a greater plan. Four hundred years of enslavement should be crushing. The revelation that his people would be subject to such confinement and abuse should have caused Avrohom more pain. But he accepted it, for he knew that it was the will of Hashem and not something caused by happenstance. Avrohom was promised the Land of Canaan and he was comforted with the knowledge that although the happy ending wouldn’t come as soon as he had expected it, he learned that there were many Divine calculations that determined the length of the exile, “lo sholeim avon ha’Emori.” It wasn’t how he had envisioned it, and there would be many years of pain and deprivation on the way, but he was happy, for he now knew that there were more factors involved in Hashem’s plan than he could ever fathom.
We are conditioned to expect every story to have a happy ending. Many of the problems we face stem from these false expectations. People are sad and feel unfulfilled because they think that they are entitled to the perfect job, family, children, neighborhood and life.
As we grow and mature, we have to accept the reality that Hashem decides what we get. The fairy tale ending comes when we embrace His plan and make it our own. When we realize that a perfect life is one that embraces the challenges that it confronts, we can begin to anticipate achieving joy and inner peace. As long as we are stuck with fictionalized views of life, in which success and happiness are defined by perfect children, wealth, beauty, shiny white teeth, and a big house on a big lot with an expensive car in the garage, we will be unhappy and always seeking to find the elusive joy.
A group of bochurim facing the Russian military draft went to the Chofetz Chaim to request a brocha that they be spared. He assured the group that they wouldn’t be drafted. Indeed, they weren’t. There was one bochur, however, to whom the Chofetz Chaim said, “Es iz nisht geferlach if you get drafted, as a person can be mekadeish sheim Shomayim wherever he is, and he can help others observe mitzvos.”
That bochur was drafted into the army and faced hardship, privation, hunger and loneliness. Along with his troop, he stopped in a town that had a Jewish community. The soldier went to speak with the local rov and unburdened himself about his difficult situation, explaining how rough it was to be a lone shomer Torah umitzvos. The lack of kosher provisions added to the burden.
The rov, determined to help him, set out to obtain kosher food for the soldier. The rov organized the local askonim, who went through the tedious bureaucratic process and eventually succeeded. The rules were changed and kosher food was allowed. The bochur convinced another 40 Jewish boys to eat kosher.
The Chofetz Chaim’s message to the boy was that everyone has a shlichus and is part of a plan, and the ultimate goal is to be mekadeish sheim Shomayim. “If you are destined to be in the army and can be mekadeish Hashem, encouraging people to do mitzvos during your period there,” said the Chofetz Chaim, “then that is your happy ending.”
People wonder how we can be happy on Purim when we know the fate of Esther Hamalkah, heroine of her people. Her valor and the rescue of the Jewish nation came at extreme personal cost. Esther remained the wife of the wicked King Achashveirosh long after the Jewish people were saved. The lives of everyone else she knew returned to normal, while she remained in a place she didn’t want to be.
The answer might well be that she also had joy, for she knew that she was where the Ribbono Shel Olam wanted her to be. Her shlichus was to serve as the queen, and therefore, for her, serving in that position was her happy ending.
This is what the Chovos Halevavos refers to when he writes that a person with proper bitachon is most joyous. Those who are able to internalize this message achieve serenity and peace. They are blessed with clarity, allowing them to appreciate their task.
Perhaps, the reason we read the story of Hagar on Rosh Hashanah is to reinforce that message. Whatever Hashem plans for us in the coming year, we will accept and embrace, because that is our destiny and we know that we are fulfilling the will of Hashem.
When Hagar heard from the malach that she should return and face suffering again, she accepted it, for it was Hashem’s will.
May these parshiyos open the floodgates before us so that we perceive our roles as His servants, “chayim birtzono,” living by His will. And may our paths be joyous and serene until we merit the great day when “oz yimalei sechok pinu – laughter will fill our mouths.” On that day, just as the reason for his children’s suffering was revealed to Avrohom, we will be able to look back and understand everything that afflicted us. We will know why we suffered and why it appeared as if we were lacking what others took for granted. The plan and plot will be revealed, and everyone will be joyous.
We are currently experiencing tough times. Anti-Semitism is evident everywhere, even in places where Jews have been prominent for many decades. The economy is precarious, many people have lost considerable amounts of money and worry about the future, the pandemic is still here, and next week’s election will decide the future direction of this great country.
The onset of winter’s cold is compensated by the warmth of the winter parshiyos, the accounts, stories and messages that formed us as a people and guide us until today. The avos hakedoshim imbued us with strengths and qualities that stand the test of time and define us through trials, travails and tribulations. May we use the abilities we’ve been given to emerge from our present period stronger, more inspired, and more dedicated to fulfilling our purpose in this world.