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Lech Lecha 5765

By: Rav Michael Susman

Email shiur Parshat Lech Lecha

In the fifth perek of Pirkei Avot the mishna tells us that Avrakam Avinu
was tested on ten separate occasions, and he withstood all ten trials
(nisyonot) (Avot 5:3). The mishna explains that he was so tested "l'hodia
kama chibato shel Avraham Avinu alav hashalom". This is generally
translated to mean that the willingness that Avraham Avinu displayed in
standing up to the tests shows the love that Avraham felt for Hashem.
Alternatively, it can be explained as saying that the tests show Hashem's
love for Avraham, since Hashem wished to test him in order to hold Avraham
up as an example of what devotion to Hashem is all about.

Our Parsha, Parshat Lech Lecha, contains the lion's share of the nisyonot,
no less than six, according to the count of the Rambam in his commentary on
the Mishna. The second of these nisyonot (according to the count of the
Rambam), was the famine which struck in Eretz Caanan after Avraham and
Sarah arrived there from Haran, and the third was the anguish caused by
Sarah's abduction by the Egyptians. The Rambam explains that the famine was
in fact a tremendous nisayon, since Avraham had already settled in the
land, and had been promised that he would be the progenitor of a great
nation (12:2), and now he was being forced off the land. Clearly, for a
lesser individual, this would have called into doubt the validity of
Hashem's entire promise to Avraham.

Interestingly, the Rambam feels it necessary to explain to us the severity
of the second nisayon, something he only does for the ninth, the expulsion
of Yishmael. I can only speculate as to why this may be so. These two
particular nisyonot contain within them the threat of defeat to Avraham's
general worldview. Avraham comes to Eretz Caanan on the strength of his
faith in the promise of Hashem that he is being led into the land in order
to build a nation based on the principles of the Torah, a belief system
that he has already begun to establish amongst his followers. To be
suddenly forced to leave the land brings into question whether the entire
quest was somewhat quixotic. Similarly, Avraham is forced to expel
Yishaael from his household. Since this event takes place after the birth
of Yitzhak, one can not argue that Avraham fears for his legacy.
Furthermore, the Rambam specifically quotes the passuk (Breishit 21:11)
that this was difficult for Avraham "al odot b'no", on account of his son.
I would argue that here, too, Avraham is forced to face a contradiction to
his worldview. Avraham is all about bringing people to recognize Hashem,
and to behave in accordance of that recognition. By expelling Yishmael,
Avraham must face the fact that at least in this case he has failed, with
no less an individual than his own son. Rav Hirsch argues that Avraham's
previous failure in this realm, Lot, was a result of the fact that Lot only
became part of Avraham's household at a more mature age. Hence, Avraham
proved unable to overcome the education and habits that Lot developed prior
to coming under Avraham's wing. No such excuse exists in the case of
Yishmael. By being forced to expel Yishmael, Avraham is also forced to
confront his values and ask himself, is it the person or is it the system.

If we adopt this approach, we can also explain why the nisayon of expelling
Yishmael is greater than the nisayon of expelling Hagar. Just as Lot was
unable to cast aside the effects of the earlier influences in his life and
fully embrace the teachings and values of Avraham, so is the case with
Hagar. Hagar, who according to the Midrash had left the household of her
father Paroah and attached herself to the household of Avraham and Sarah
also proves incapable of fully overcoming her background and completely
embracing the teachings of Avraham. (It should be noted that the Rambam, in
his commentary on Avot 5:17, gives a different explanation why the Passuk
tells us that Avraham was anguished over the expulsion of Yishmael, but not
over the expulsion of Hagar. This is based on the teachings of the Mishna,
that Avraham is characterized by three qualities, "Ayin Tova" - a lack of
materialism, Nefesh Shefela" - control of physical pleasure, and "Nefesh
Nemucha" - humility. The Rambam suggests that the passuk does not tell us
that the expulsion of Hagar was especially difficult for Avraham, because
to do so would be to suggest that he was pained by the loss of the physical
relationship, which stands at odds with the quality of "Nefesh Shefela".)

According to our approach, we must explain why the expulsion of Hagar is
counted as a nisayon while Avraham's parting with Lot is not. One
possibility lies in the nature of the relationship between Avraham and
Hagar. While there is no question that Sarah is the love of Avraham's
life, we can assume that his relationship with Hagar also bound him
emotionally. She was, after all, the mother of his first born son. Fur
thermore, if we adopt the position of the midrash that Ketura, who Avraham
marries after the death of Sarah (25:1), was in fact Hagar, we see that the
relationship did not end with her expulsion from his home. The fact the
Midrash explains that the name Ketura is a reference to the Ketoret, and
the Torah wishes to stress the beauty of her actions through this
reference, further supports this thesis. Being forced to expel her was
certainly difficult for Avraham. Parting with Lot, on the other hand,
while stressful, was certainly not as traumatic for Avraham.

Another possibility would be that even though Avraham initiated the parting
with Lot, he did so voluntarily and out of a sense of what was good for all
involved. Avraham sees the friction that has developed between his
shepherds and those of Lot, and realizes that the escalating conflict is in
no one's interest. Further, the Midrash tells us that Avraham was no
longer experiencing nevuah as a result of Lot's presence. It is therefore
clear that the time had come for a parting of ways. (It is interesting to
note that while Rashi explains (13:14) that the loss of nevuah was a
function of Lot's presence in Avraham's household. As long as the evil one
(Lot) was with him, Hashem's presence was removed from Avraham. The
Ralbag, on the other hand sees the absence of Hashem not as a result of
Lot's presence, but as a function of the meriva, the arguments and
conflicts which the tensions between the workers, and by extension their
masters, brought into the home. Hashem's presence can not coexist with
conflict.) On the other hand, the separation from Hagar was forced upon
Avraham, and was therefore was seen as a nisayon.

I believe that the distinction between the case of Lot and the case of
Hagar is significant. There are certain things in life that we must deal
with, even though they are unpleasant. That does not make them a nisayon,
it makes them part of life. A nisayon comes about when we are challenged
and tested and when the positive in the act doesn't clearly outweigh the
negative. It is clear to everyone that the situation with Lot is out of
control and unhealthy for all involved. The need to expel Hagar and
Yishmael, while clearly perceived by Sarah, is not at all clear to Avraham.
Yet he heeds the command of Hashem, and unhesitatingly sends Hagar and
Yishmael off. Our challenge is to be open to nisyonot, to recognize that
sometimes our hesitation is not based on principle but on convenience, and
most importantly to be able to tell the difference between the two.

Shabbat Shalom


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