torah

The trials and tribulations that form our lives

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There was a coffee shop in the town in which I once lived. It was part of a national chain, so that all kinds of people gathered there for their morning coffee and doughnuts. This particular shop was under strict kosher supervision so that many of those who frequented it were from  the Orthodox community and the nearby yeshiva. 

There was one gentleman there who never missed a morning. He dressed in the clothes of a laborer: overalls, flannel shirt and rubber boots. His head was covered by a baseball cap, which he removed as soon as he entered the café. Generally, we nodded good morning to each other, but that was the extent of our relationship.

One day, he broke the ice. Beckoning to me, he pointed to the seat across from him, and I hesitantly accepted his invitation. He spoke to me in a heavily accented English, and thus began a memorable relationship. He said, “I am greater than Abraham!”

I could not determine whether he was teasing or being provocative. It even crossed my mind that he might be delusional, perhaps psychotic. I decided to take his comment at face value and simply responded, “What do you mean?” He replied, “Abraham is praised in our tradition because he successfully withstood ten trials. I withstood many more trials than ten, before I succumbed.” 

Until that morning, it had never occurred to me that he was Jewish, let alone knowledgeable about Jewish tradition. Over the course of that morning’s conversation, and the many mornings that followed, I learned much about him. He was a Hungarian Jew and born to a devout family. He was considered a prize Talmud student and attended a yeshiva during his teenage years. I had heard of his yeshiva and its prestigious dean, and I knew that the dean, the entire faculty, and most of the student body were killed in the furnaces of Birkenau. I was face-to-face with a survivor. 

In due time, he told me more of his story. He left the yeshiva, hid for a while in a dozen places, and eventually joined a partisan resistance militia. He was betrayed to the Gestapo by one of his fellow partisans. Because of his physical appearance and obvious strength, he was directed to a series of work camps and ultimately to Auschwitz. He witnessed the deportations of thousands of Jews and was forced to cooperate in the incineration of bodies removed from the gas chambers. Interviewing some of those Jews before their deaths, he learned the horrid details of the murder of his family, of his fellow students, and of the rabbis with whom he had studied. 

“My faith was tested ten times or more daily. But I persisted in my faith, prayed, and even studied in the small Mishnayos that I kept hidden with me. Eventually, my faith dissipated. It was a slow process, a gradual descent into a pit of despair and anger. I finally became convinced that I had to renounce everything I was taught to believe. Even Abraham himself was tested but ten times, I was tested a thousand times. That was too much for any man!” 

• • •

I tell this story not because it has a happy ending. Shortly after I moved away from that town, I learned that my coffee-shop companion had died, had requested that his body be cremated, and left a brief will in which he expressed his stubborn adherence to his faithlessness. Of course, none of us can sit in judgment of such a person. 

But to this day, and especially in the days before we read this week’s Torah portion,  Vayera (Genesis 18:1-22:24), I vividly recollect this gentleman and the conversations that we had. I struggle with many questions, not the least of which is the question, «What am I to learn from this man and the many like him?» 

If one studies the Torah portions of this week and last and familiarizes oneself with the Abraham narrative, one cannot help but call to mind the passage in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), which reads: “Abraham our father was tested with ten trials and he withstood all of them, to make known how deep was our father Abraham’s love of G-d.” 

Some of you may even have attempted to list the ten trials and have discovered that even the greatest rabbis do not agree upon the exact identity of all ten. But even if you can conclude that there were several more trials that Abraham experienced, you must agree, or at least sympathize, with my coffee-shop companion’s contention that he suffered many more trials than Abraham did. 

Personally, I have found it meaningful to remember my companion whenever I read the Abraham narrative at this time of year, but especially on Rosh Hashana when we read of the most dramatic of those trials. For one thing, I find myself counting my own blessings in the realization that I have been spared the kinds of trials that Abraham experienced with enhanced faith, and certainly the trials which my unnamed companion suffered and lost his faith. 

But I also find myself realizing that we all are faced with trials, hopefully far less traumatic than those of my Holocaust survivor-friend, but trials nonetheless.

• • •

I especially recall, and contemplate repeatedly, the lesson I learned from one of the last surviving yeshiva deans of the previous generation. I had consulted him for advice when I was offered a particularly challenging, but extremely prestigious, rabbinic position. On the one hand, I was tempted to accept the position. But on the other hand, I knew that I would have to compromise some of my religious standards in the process. I sought out the counsel of this yeshiva dean.

He encouraged me to take the position and even offered to stand by me throughout my tenure in the position with his support and guidance. 

Neveftheless, I ignored his counsel and turned down the position. Several weeks later, he asked me what had happened. I told him that I had concluded that the position entailed too many nisyonot, too many challenges, too many trials.

His retort still resounds in my ears: “Too many nisyonot?! Too many challenges?! Heshele (his pet name for me), there is only one place on Earth where there are no nisyonos, no challenges, no trials! And you don’t want to go there!” He was referring, of course, to the cemetery. 

We cannot avoid challenges. Perhaps this is the most important life lesson that Abraham taught us. We are all presented with trials, some ten like Abraham, some less, and some many more. But we must rise to challenges, cope with these nisyonos, withstand these tests, and overcome these trials with our faith intact. 

This lesson is explicitly and eloquently taught to us by the great eighteenth century mystic and ethicist, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, in his masterpiece Mesilat Yesharim (The Path of the Upright). This is what he writes near the very beginning of this book: 

The Holy One, blessed be He, has placed man in a world where there are many things that keep him distant from G-d. If a man follows the promptings of his physical desires, he gradually departs from the true good and soon finds himself engaged in a desperate battle. Man’s circumstances, whether fortunate or unfortunate, are a source of trial. This is true of poverty and also true of wealth.

“Lest I be full and deny, and say, ‘Who is the L-rd?,’ or lest I be poor and steal, and take the name of my G-d” (Proverbs 30:9). Tempted both by prosperity and by adversity, man is in a sore predicament!  

We must all be prepared for the trials of life. They are part and parcel of the human condition and cannot be avoided. Abraham taught us this, and Rashi on verse 22:12 envisions the L-rd Himself proclaiming with satisfaction, “Now I am able to answer Satan and the nations of the world who wonder why I love you, Abraham. Now they can see for themselves what a G-d-fearing person you are!” 

Abraham resolved the sore predicament. And so can we.

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