According to tradition, God tested Abraham ten times – culminating in the inglorious near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. Our Midrashic commentators note Nes lehitnoses – Abraham unfurled his banner, or showed his true colors, with each test (Bereshit Rabbah). Perhaps God needed to be certain of Abraham’s strength of character, or perhaps God was helping Abraham gain confidence and self-awareness.
This week’s Torah portion (Parshat Ki Tavo: Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8) raises a fundamental question: Who is tested? Are tests for prophets and monarchs, or do they exist for us all with holy potential for self-knowledge?
The Torah portion situates itself as a recapitulation of the opportunities and obligations for the Israelites when they finally enter the Promised Land. They will be required to make offerings of the first fruit in appreciation for God’s role in the harvest; to support the Levite, stranger, and widow; to create a law-abiding society. The reward for fulfilling God’s mandate is a Promised Land of abundance.
Deuteronomy 26:9 more directly describes the situation: “God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” The Tur, an insightful medieval commentator, focuses on the Hebrew spelling of “God brought us” – a single word that is missing the Hebrew letter “yud.” He then uses the alphanumeric system of Hebrew letters to deduce that the missing letter is really the number ten – as in the ten tests.
But there is a key piece of information missing from the Tur’s explanation: whose tests? The Israelites’ ten tests; their travails along the path to the Promised Land? Abraham’s ten tests generations before? Or ten tests yet to be, for all who seek to live in the Promised Land or feel a deep connection to it?
Perhaps we need not choose between these three – or among the countless other options that exist. Tests in our lives and to our characters always reside in the background of our most important work. Consciously, unconsciously, semi-consciously, they enter our thoughts and impact our choices. Tests stand with us on the boundary and link our past to our future, our Diaspora to our Homeland, our minds to our hearts.
They were no doubt with the Israelites as they looked on and imagined their lives in the Promised Land. They were no doubt with Abraham when he imagined the future of his people. They were no doubt with Moses on his trips up and down Mount Sinai. They are no doubt with us all on the boundaries that we navigate today.
We continue forth in a sacred time filled with spiritual tests for us all. May we welcome them to the fore – and engage with them, as have our ancestors stretching back to the very first Jew. May they teach us about ourselves, what we hold sacred, and where we seek to go.
Joshua Stanton is Rabbi of East End Temple in Manhattan and the Director of Leadership Formation at CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He serves on the Board of Governors of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which liaises on behalf of Jewish communities worldwide with the Vatican and other international religious bodies.