Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW
Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead
Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch


In a cache of writings by former President Ronald Reagan, a researcher came upon the following rumination: "Every once in a while, all of us native-born Americans should make it a point to have a conversation with one who is an American by choice. They have a perspective on this country we can never have. They can do a lot to firm up our resolve to be free for another 200 years."

In the 1970s, Uri Zohar was an iconic figure in Israeli culture: movie star, talk show host, and comedian. A celebrity of note, he had all the glitz, glamour, and money he could want. Then one day a Rabbi named Rabbi Silburman posed a challenge to Uri. He claimed that he could intellectually prove to him the veracity and Divinity of Torah. Uri decided to take the Rabbi up on his offer. He was confident that he could disprove the Rabbi and get a good laugh. Although at first Uri chided and mocked the Rabbi’s points, he soon found himself becoming interested. By the time the conversation was over Uri was intrigued. Not only had he failed to discredit the Rabbi’s proofs and arguments, but he was enamored by the conversation. For some time Uri cursed the day he accepted the Rabbi’s challenge. From then on his conscious gave him no rest. Thus began one of the greatest journeys back to a Torah way of life in our time.
The former Israeli entertainer is today Rabbi Uri Zohar, one of the most influential leaders of Lev L’achim1. He lectures worldwide about his great journey and the true joy that he has discovered. In his own words, “For all his fabled billions, Bill Gates is not nearly as wealthy as I. If you were to offer me all of his money in exchange for my agreement not to don tefillin tomorrow morning, I wouldn’t hesitate for one second before refusing. Is he capable of such a refusal?”
These are not empty words. Uri Zohar had all of the luxuries and opulence exclusive to the rich and famous. But he gave it up for a more fulfilling life.  

The Mishna2 states: “With ten tests our Patriarch Avrohom was tested and he withstood all of them, to make it known how great the love of our Patriarch Avrohom was (for G-d).” The commentators disagree about which ten events during Avrohom’s life were officially considered ‘tests’. If one includes all of the opinions there were more than ten trying events during Avrohom’s life that could potentially be considered tests. Yet, he successfully transcended each of them, his faith unshaken. 
The Medrash relates that when Avrohom began denouncing polytheism, and publicly preaching about the Oneness of G-d, his father Terach brought him before the wicked King Nimrod. When Nimrod demanded that Avrohom publicly recant his blasphemous teachings, Avrohom refused, despite the threat of death. Nimrod had him cast into a blazing furnace. Two angels descended and protected Avrohom from the heat of the fire. When Avrohom emerged from the inferno unscathed the people were awed by him and his G-d who had protected him.
It would seem that the confrontation with Nimrod should be counted as one of the most difficult challenges that Avrohom faced. The fact that he remained staunch in the face of death would seem to be an incredible testament to his devotion and faith. Yet, the next challenge posed to Avrohom was that of Lech Lecha. “G-d said to Avrom, ‘Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you’.3” Although uprooting one’s self from one’s home and family at an advanced age4 is unquestionably a formidable challenge, it would seem to pale in comparison with the challenge of having to maintain one’s faith in the face of torturous death. If Avrohom’s tests were to be exponentially more challenging as they progressed, why does the saga of the furnace precede the command that Avrohom leave his family?
Furthermore, Rambam and Rabbeinu Bechayei, two of the most prominent commentators, do not include the ordeal with Nimrod in their listing of the ten tests at all. How can they omit such an epic event?
When the time came for Yitzchak to get married, Avrohom dispatched his faithful servant Eliezer to travel to his brother’s family. Before sending him, Avrohom made Eliezer take an oath that he would not seek a wife for Yitzchak from the Canaanites; he was only to go to Avrohom’s family5.
Avrohom’s brother’s entire family were heretical idolaters. If so, why was Avrohom so adamant that Yitzchak not marry a Canaanite girl? Was it not conceivable that Eliezer would find a Canaanite girl with outstanding character who was from a more noble family than Avrohom’s extended family?
The Ran6 explains that idolatry stems from false ideology. It is based on misconceptions about how G-d runs the world. Still, a heretic can be reasoned with; he can be made to realize why his opinions are flawed. Negative character traits however, are built into one’s genetic makeup. They are part of a person’s identity and persona, and therefore are for more difficult to change. In essence, one is battling his own part of his identity.
Despite the fact that Besuel and Lavan were idolaters, their deficiency was of an intellectual nature; they failed to realize the truth. It was conceivable that their children would not follow their mistaken conclusions. The Canaanites - who are descendants of Chom the son of Noach - on the other hand, are an inferior, cursed people. Perhaps a Canaanites girl may have sterling character, but her negative tendencies are innate. It is inevitable that the progeny of such a union would bear those negative genes. At some point in the future those inborn traits would undoubtedly manifest themselves in their descendants. It was for this reason that Avrohom adamantly demanded that his daughter-in-law not be a Canaanite. It was preferable that his son’s spouse come from an idolatrous home than from a home where negative character traits were inborn.
With this in mind, Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg zt’l explained that one’s drives and emotions, subconscious and conscious, are vital components of one’s character. In a sense, it is far more difficult when one is challenged emotionally than when one is challenged intellectually. Whereas an intellectual challenge can be resolved via logic and rationale, an emotional challenge touches one’s inner core being and therefore requires far greater exertion, resolve, and effort to overcome.
When Avrohom intrepidly entered the furnace in the presence of Nimrod he was personifying his intellectual belief with utmost conviction. To Avrohom, the prerogative between a faithless and G-dless life versus a painful death that would sanctify the Name of G-d, was hardly a choice. Avrohom’s faith was so strong and his belief so engrained in his psyche that he was ready to die on a whim.
The challenge of Lech Lecha however, was a diametrically different challenge.  When Avrohom, the champion and paragon of kindness and goodness, was commanded to leave behind his aged father and the homeland where he had accomplished so much, it was an emotional challenge. It was a test of his mental and psychological endurance for it forced him to subordinate his inner-self to G-d.
In fact, all ten tests that Avrohom faced were emotional challenges. Each time he was compelled to counter his nature and act in a manner that challenged his temperament and personality. Therefore, each time he passed a test he demonstrated complete subjugation to G-d’s Will.
When one is able to serve G-d and feel connected with Him on an emotional level, it is far greater than one who merely has an intellectual and rational connection.

Each of the patriarchs instilled in their progeny certain characteristics that are inherent in every Jew. Avrohom Avinu was not only the paragon of kindness and love of G-d, but he also instilled in his descendants the ability to give up everything for G-d’s Glory. It is no small feat for one who was raised in the permissiveness of Western liberal society to accept upon himself the rigorous demands of a Torah life. But a Jew innately possesses that ability from Avrohom. This point is at the root of the uncanny success of the contemporary Kiruv movement. For one to accept the yoke of Torah and mitzvos entails emotional sacrifice and dedication, which was eternally embedded in the hearts of every Jew when Avrohom left behind his family and birthplace in order to fulfill G-d’s command.  

If we can reword President Regan’s words, "Every once in a while, all of us F.F.B.’s7 should make it a point to have a conversation with one who became a ba’al teshuva. They have a perspective on Judaism that we can never have. They can do a lot to firm up our resolve and commitment towards our daily performance of mitzvos and prayer."

“Go for yourself from your land”
“With ten tests our Patriarch Avrohom was tested.”

1 An extremely successful kiruv movement which has helped bring thousands of secular Jews closer to their faith
2 Avos 5:4
3 12:1
4 Avrohom was 75; Sarah was 65
5 see Bereishis 24
6 Derashos HaRan, derush 5
7 ‘Frum From Birth’, i.e. those born into religious families


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