Avraham's Ten Trials

Avraham's Ten Trials

Mishna Avot 5:3

Interactive Learning Module

Sacrifice of Isaac / Caravaggio

1. Introduction

  • Mishna Avot 5:3 speaks of ten trials through which Avraham was tested, noting that he withstood all of them.
  • However, it does not elaborate as to what those trials were or why they were necessary.
  • A quick glance at the Avraham narratives in Sefer Bereshit confirms that Avraham's life was indeed filled with various ordeals, but only one of these is referred to as a test, the Akeidah (Bereshit 22:1).
  • To which of Avraham's many other tribulations, then, does the Mishna refer?
  • Moreover, why was Avraham's life filled with so much suffering?
  • What does it mean that Avraham was "tested"? Did Hashem not know how he was to react?

2. The Ten Tests

  • Let's begin our study by trying to enumerate the ten trials.
  • Scan the Avraham narratives in the Mikraot Gedolot (Bereshit 12-25), using the red arrows in the grey bar to move from chapter to chapter.
  • Based on these chapters and your general knowledge of Avraham's life, what events would you include among Avraham's ten trials?
  • What made you choose the events you did and skip others?
  • How did you define a trial?

3. Comparing Lists

  • Let's now return to the Mishna to see how its various commentators enumerate Avraham's trials.
  • Which events does each of the following sources include?
  • See Rambam and R. Yonah on the Mishna.
  • See Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 26-30 as summarized by the Rashbatz (see the second paragraph which begins "הפירוש לא הסכימו המדרשות", or see the much longer original here).
  • See Avot DeRabbi Natan 33:2 (until the words "בברית מילה"), accessible from the library here.
  • Afterwards, return to the Mishna.
  • Which tests appear in all the lists; which appear only in some?
  • Why do you think each commentator chose the events they did? How might they be understanding what constitutes a trial?

4. Criteria

  • Though most of the lists overlap significantly, certain events such as Avraham's imprisonment by Nimrod and being thrown into the fiery furnace, Avraham's marriage to Hagar, the Covenant Between the Pieces, or Sarah's burial, appear in only one or two lists.
  • Why might some commentators think that these do not qualify by the Mishna as trials?
  • See R. Naftali Herz Wessely's Yein Levanon (beginning towards the end of the second paragraph, from the words "אבל הרמב"ם ז"ל מונה"). What does he suggest?
  • For further study: The Mishna states that Avraham passed all the tests. Do you agree? See Ramban on Bereshit 12:10 (scroll down to the last paragraph). What test might he have omitted from the list? [Return to the Mishna here.]

5. Why Test Avraham?

  • The commentators disagree regarding whether to count only tests that appear explicitly in Torah or also those culled from the Midrash, whether a trial need include some sort of physical suffering or might emotional turmoil or disturbing prophecies also count as tests, and whether the Akeidah must have been the final, crowning trial.
  • Let's now move to our second question. Why did Hashem find it necessary to continuously test Avraham and fill his life with such ordeals?
  • Abarbanel discusses the question in his commentary Nachalat Avot. Look at the last paragraph, from the words "ואמנם מהו ענין הנסיון" until the words "שילמדו לעשות כמוהו".
  • What does Abarbanel suggest are three possible purposes of a test?
  • Which does he think is not applicable when speaking of a test sent by Hashem? Why?
  • Which of the three possibilities does the Mishna itself appear to imply?

6. A Test for the Tester

  • Abarbanel maintains that a test might be for the benefit of the one being tested, who grows from the experience, for an external audience who learns from what they witnessed, or for the tester himself, who will gain some knowledge about the one being tested.
  • As God is omniscient and knows in advance how any individual will fare when tested, he claims that this could not have been the purpose of Avraham's trials.
  • Ralbag disagrees. See his Beur HaMilot on Bereshit 22:1, the story of the Akeidah. What does Ralbag say about God's omniscience? What does Hashem know and what is He unaware of?
  • What appears to be motivating Ralbag to take this somewhat radical position and limit Hashem's knowledge?
  • According to him, what was the goal of the test of the Akeidah (and perhaps the other trials as well)? How might Bereshit 22:12 support his reading?

7. Benefit the One Tested I

  • Ralbag challenges the commonly held notion that Hashem is completely omniscient, suggesting that until the Akeidah (and perhaps each of the other tests) Hashem was truly unsure of the extent of Avraham's devotion.
  • As expected, many are uncomfortable with this stance, and like Abarbanel, posit that God's tests might instead somehow benefit the one being tested himself.
  • Turn to Ramban on Bereshit 22:1. According to him what was the goal of testing Avraham?
  • What does he mean when he says that Hashem sometimes tests individuals in order, "להוציא הדבר מן הכח אל הפועל"? What is gained by this?

8. Benefit the One Tested II

  • According to Ramban, Hashem tested Avraham so that he could actualize his potential, thereby meriting reward not only for his good intentions, but also for his positive actions.
  • The Ran takes this a step further, writing, "ואני מוסיף בו דברים והוא כדי שיתחזק אמונה בנפש המנוסה, עד שיהיה יותר חזק בעבודת השי"ת. כי אין ספק שכל מענה חזק יוליד תכונה בנפש מתיחסת אליו".
  • According to him, how does being forced to act on one's beliefs strengthen those beliefs?
  • According to this understanding of the goal of Avraham's trials, are there any tests that some have included that you would omit?
  • For example, would receiving news of the upcoming exile and bondage or being imprisoned when a baby count? [See the second paragraph of the Rashbatz, about a third of the way through, "ועוד מה שנאסר כשנולד"].
  • In your own life, how have personal trials made you a better, stronger person?

9. For Witnesses

  • Let's now delve into a third way of looking at Avraham's trials, that they were meant primarily for those who witnessed or heard about them.
  • See the last paragraph of R. Wessely's commentary, Yein Levanon, on our Mishna ("טעם שלישי"). What does he say that the world was supposed to learn from Avraham's tests?
  • Compare Shadal on Bereshit 22:1. Begin about a third of the way into his comments with the words, "ולפי דעתי".
  • What does he say was the purpose of the Akeidah specifically? What did Hashem want to prove to both other nations and Israel herself?

10. Merit for Others

  • R. Wessely and Shadal note that Avraham's trials were meant to prove his worth and devotion to the outside world.
  • Now, return to Avot and see Midrash Shemuel, who agrees that the primary target of the test was outsiders, but with a very different goal.
  • Begin a few lines into the commentary, from the words, "ואפשר עוד כי אמר אבינו להודיענו" until "היא שעמדה להם".
  • According to him, what was the goal of Avraham's tests? How does he use the larger context of the Mishna (see Mishna 4) to support his point?
  • How might the Mishna be playing off the verse "וַיְנַסּוּ אֹתִי זֶה עֶשֶׂר פְּעָמִים" (Bemibdar 14:22).

11. Encouragement to Others

  • Midrash Shemuel suggests that sometimes the righteous are tested to earn merit for their children. Avraham's ten trials served to counter the ten times that the Nation of Israel "tried Hashem".
  • R. Wessely brings one last way to understand how Avraham's trials benefitted those around him. Return to his commentary, Yein Levanon, this time looking at the third to last paragraph, from "לכן כשרואה נפש יקרה" until "על כל המעשים".
  • What one can learn from watching the righteous deal with hardships in life? How does knowing that Avraham suffered, yet persevered, help people deal with their own suffering?

12. Concordance Work: "נסה"

  • Let's close our study with an analysis of the root "נסה" itself. It is often translated as "to test."
  • See Abarbanel (begin several lines before the end of the commentary, from the words "ולכן נקראים נסיונות מלשון נס"). What other two meanings does he suggest the word might sustain?
  • Are these valid readings of the root? To check, open the concordance, type "נסה" in the input box, choose "verb" from the drop-down menu, and press "search".
  • Scan the various appearances of the root. Note entry #3 (and access Rashbam on the verse by clicking on the link to the Mikraot Gedolot), 11, 20-21, 24, and 32. What might the verb mean in these cases?
  • How might each of the three meanings posited by Abarbanel correspond to one of the three understandings of the purpose of Avraham's trials?

13. Summary

  • We have seen differing opinions regarding both what should be included in Avraham's ten trials and why they were necessary.
  • Ralbag challenges the assumption that God is omniscient, suggesting that Hashem tested Avraham because otherwise He could not be sure of Avraham's dedication.
  • Ramban and Ran, instead, suggest that the trials were for Avraham's own benefit, so that he could both gain reward and grow by actualizing his potential
  • A third position posits that the target of the trials was neither Hashem nor Avraham, but the onlookers. The various ordeals served to prove Avraham's devotion to the outside world, earn merits for the nation of Israel, and present Avraham as a model of perseverance for others to emulate.
  • These various approaches might explain not only why Avraham was tested, but also why the righteous throughout the generations often appear to suffer.
  • May we all merit to overcome whatever challenges Hashem sends our way, to persevere throughout, and to grow from the experience.

14. Additional Reading