How life teaches us! We read the wisdom of books and study the lectures of professors and we think we are ready for what life brings us. Armed with our learning, we venture into the world and discover that the formulas of the brain don’t help bind the wounds of the heart.
I remember the first time I went into a hospital room to counsel someone who was dying of a terminal illness. I was accompanied by a wise chaplain with many years of experience. We stood by the patient’s bedside and I expected that we would commiserate with his plight. We would explain that this illness wasn’t a punishment from God, but that these tragedies are random. With the inexperience of youth, I believed that nothing good can ever come from pain, that suffering is but an enemy to be vanquished, never a teacher to be heeded.
Imagine my horror, then, when the chaplain turned to the patient and asked, “What has your cancer taught you?” And imagine my surprise when the patient responded by offering many valuable lessons that he derived from his illness: renewed love of life, better priorities, deeper love for his family. This man knew exactly what the chaplain was addressing, and he was able to share the precious insights that he had gained at a very high price.
Another memory: When I was 14 I was diagnosed as having a terminal, inoperable cancer. Having endured two years of terrible pain, a pain so embarrassing that I hid it from my family throughout that period, I finally couldn’t take it anymore. After I revealed my suffering to my parents, they rushed me to a doctor, who promptly hospitalized me. There I was poked and prodded by countless experts, each trying to get a fix on my malady and to decide on a productive response. Thank God, one clever dermatologist noticed some bumps on my arm and connected that to my internal affliction. Within two weeks I was undergoing rounds of chemo and radiation therapy that lasted for several months.
I’m pleased to tell you that the assessment that my cancer was terminal and inoperable turned out to be an exaggeration. But the pain and fear I felt were not. I would gladly never have confronted that trial, never have suffered that anguish. But I also know that I could not be the rabbi, counselor, husband, father or friend I am today were it not for the lessons I learned from my own brush with death and pain.
The truth is that we all suffer at different points in our lives. Each of us faces challenges and endures pain — both our own and that of our loved ones. As creatures who are finite, mortal and flawed, it is not ours to choose whether we suffer. But we do have the power to choose how to respond. We may not be the masters of our fate, but we are the captains of our souls.
It is now in this light that I would like us to think about the binding of Isaac.
Whenever we encounter this story, it makes us profoundly uncomfortable. Part of our struggle, no doubt, is that we object to a God who demands the sacrifice of what we love most. We hate that Abraham is called to demonstrate faithfulness by offering up his beloved son. We resent the imposition of suffering in a world that is too filled with pain and sorrow. Abraham, as our tradition recognizes, is a stand-in for each one of us. As the Talmud notes, “Sound a ram’s horn before Me so that I remember in your behalf the binding of Isaac and count it to you as though you had bound yourselves before Me” (Rosh Hashanah 16a). The trial of Abraham tries us all. We can all perceive our pain in his silent anguish.
Just like Abraham, we, too, must concede that life puts us on trial. Much as we might wish to determine our destiny, such control is not in our hands. We cannot choose whether we will suffer or not, but we can decide what to do with our suffering.
Abraham, our father, also faced such a choice. The Bible records, “God put Abraham to the test” (Genesis 22:1). Abraham has no exemption from suffering; indeed, his righteousness makes him even more aware of his own pain. As the midrash notes, “God tests the faith of the righteous in that God reveals to them only at a later time the ultimate meaning of the trials to which the are subjected” (Bereshit Rabbah 55:7). Like the rest of us, all Abraham feels is anguish and sorrow. In the midst of his suffering, he cannot discern purpose or pattern. Only pain.
In his experience of pain, he is no different than any other human being. Indeed, the Zohar recognizes that to live is to lose, that to be is to suffer and to grieve: “Rabbi Shimon said: we have learned that the expression ‘And it came to pass in the days of’ denotes sorrow, while the expression ‘And it came to pass’ even without ‘in the days of’ is still tinged with sorrow” (Zohar I:119b).
“Tinged with sorrow.” I can’t think of a better description of what it feels like to be alive. We know that the dominant flavor of life is bittersweet — even in our moments of greatest joy, we recall our losses. Even in our greatest grief, we draw consolation from our love and our hope.
Yet this test need not shatter us; being tried doesn’t have to destroy us. Interestingly, the biblical word for test, nisayon, develops into a word which in modern Hebrew can mean “experience” or “experiment.” We alone can transform our test into an experience — something that provides an opportunity for new understandings and deeper connections. With the right attitude, our trials can transform us. The 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” Our father Abraham learned a similar lesson. I think he would have said, “What doesn’t kill me can make me wiser and more compassionate.”
Why is Abraham’s resilience tested? We are never told. One possibility, however, is that suffering was a necessary — if regrettable — spur to depth, caring and meaning. Throughout his life, Abraham had known only success: a beautiful and devoted wife, great wealth, prominence and intimacy with the Creator of the universe. With all that bounty, how could he learn to empathize with others? How could he not feel smug and superior to other people with their failures and their sorrows? How could he not blame them for their sorrow? Suffering taught Abraham what success could not. The Zohar notes this salutary function when it asks, “Why is it written that God tested Abraham and not Isaac? It had to be Abraham! He had to be crowned with rigor. ... Abraham was not complete until now” (Zohar 119b).
Perhaps the worth of Abraham’s trial lay in adding a layer of depth to his faith. How easy it is — when all goes well — to put God in our pocket, to think of God as a big buddy, a Santa in the sky. How tempting it is to think of God as merely there to indulge our obsession with ourselves! Suffering makes such a narcissistic and arrogant faith impossible. By undergoing the ordeal of his trial, Abraham could transcend the bartering faith of his youth for the more nuanced trustfulness of mature faith. As the psalmist sings: “You Who have made me undergo many troubles and misfortunes will revive me again. … You will turn and comfort me” (Psalms 71:20-21). While faith doesn’t exempt us from tragedy, it does provide comfort even amid the pain. Abraham learns that faithfulness between God and humanity is not wish fulfillment. It is commitment, relationship and steadfastness.
The Bible records no reason for Abraham’s trial. And few of us ever know why we must endure suffering and sorrow. But we do know that how we respond to our suffering has the power to transform us, for good or for ill. As 20th century spiritual leader Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan notes, “According to Jewish traditional teaching, a person is not trapped but tested. Our vicissitudes should serve as a challenge to our faith. … To deny the worth of life and to fall into despair because the promise is slow of fulfillment is to fail the test (“Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion,” p. 68). How we cope with the trials of life spells the difference between renewal and resignation, between spiritual growth and spiritual stagnation.
Abraham’s greatness lies precisely in his determination to respond to his trial with resilience and resolve. God calls out the test, and Abraham does not evade the challenge. His immediate answer is Hineni, here I am. Abraham’s willingness to set out on this gruesome path is rooted in faithfulness — to Isaac, to himself and to his God. In the words of 20th century Bible scholar Rabbi Julian Morgenstern, “This is the true faith, which enables us to endure all trials and stand all tests, and prove ourselves fit and ready for the great work for which, sooner or later, God calls every one of us.”
Abraham passes the test because he faces the challenge that is posed to him. Rather than fleeing what lies ahead, rather than cowering and allowing its struggle to cripple him, Abraham moves forward to do whatever needs to be done, to go wherever it is that his path in life will lead.
Abraham learns that suffering — as painful as it is — can be a source of insight. It is in this spirit that the 13th century medieval Jewish scholar Rabbi Moses ben Nahman asserts, “All trials in the Torah are for the good of the one who is being tried.” Not that pain is good — true faith doesn’t celebrate misery. We don’t seek out suffering, and we certainly don’t enjoy it. But neither do we refuse to learn from life’s challenges. In the words of the Jerusalem Talmud, “Why do you scorn suffering?”(Peah 8:9) The great men and women of the Torah were able use their trials to derive great lessons about life. They wrestled with their pain and emerged wiser and better because of how they responded to it. In that sense — and in that sense alone — their trials were for their benefit. They used those trials as occasions for deeper understanding and connection.
Abraham learned from his trial, and it became a source of personal growth and spiritual depth. The Zohar recognizes a hint of that growth from the way the angel calls out his name as Abraham is about to slaughter his son. At the moment when Isaac is bound to the altar, as Abraham raises the knife high in the air, “An angel of the Lord called to him from heaven: ‘Abraham! Abraham!’”
Why does the angel say Abraham’s name twice? “Rebbe Hiyya said that the angel repeated Abraham’s name in order to animate him with a new spirit and to spur him to new activity with a new heart” (Zohar 119b). Having faced his suffering directly, having been willing to learn from his terrible trial, Abraham emerges with a new spirit and a new heart. Indeed, the Zohar claims that the angels shouted “Abraham! Abraham!” to show that “the latter Abraham was not like the former Abraham; the latter was the perfected Abraham while the former was still incomplete.” Out of the horror of his suffering, Abraham changed. Abraham grew.
“God tries everyone in some way. ... The real test is the way we offer our sacrifice, the willingness with which we give up what is dear, the perfect faith in God which we still preserve, and which keeps from doubting God’s wisdom and goodness (‘The Book of Genesis,’ p. 148).” These words of Rabbi Morgenstern, written almost a century ago, translate the great lesson of the test of Abraham: We do not seek to suffer. We do not deify pain. But we know that suffering and pain are part of the journey we call life, and we know that we can learn, and grow, even from an encounter with tragedy, especially from the trials life brings.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is vice president of American Jewish University in Los Angeles. This is an excerpt from “Passing Life’s Tests: Spiritual Reflections on the Trial of Abraham, the Binding of Isaac” (Jewish Lights).