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Avraham's Very Hard Day

Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18 )

by Rabbi Yissocher Frand

According to tradition (Avos 5:3), God put Avraham to the test ten times, and he passed them all with flying colors. It is generally accepted that the ten tests were progressively harder, that once he proved himself in a lesser test, Hashem presented him with a more difficult test until he proved himself to have the highest level of faith. It is also generally accepted that the tenth and most difficult test was the Akeidah. After all, what could be more challenging than to be commanded to sacrifice the treasured child born to him in his old age?

Rabbeinu Yonah in Avos (ibid.), however, lists the Akeidah as the ninth test. What was the tenth? When Avraham could not find a place to bury Sarah, he was forced to buy a plot from Ephron for an exorbitant sum.

The question springs out from the pages. True, it must have been exceedingly frustrating for Avraham to be forced to pay anything at all, let alone an exorbitant sum, for land Hashem had promised him as an everlasting birthright. True, it must have been difficult to deal with this frustration in his bereavement over the death of his wife Sarah. But still, is this at all comparable to the test of the Akeidah? Does this even begin to come close to being asked to sacrifice a son on the altar?

There is tendency among people to look forward to the golden years of retirement. They work very hard. They struggle to be successful, to build a reputation for themselves and to provide their families with a good standard of living. Then there comes a point in a person's life when he steps back and surveys all he has accomplished, and he says, "Enough! I've done all that could be expected of me and more. It's time to stop, to ease up on the pace, to sit back and enjoy life. After all, I've earned it!" And indeed, he has. There is no reason he should not enjoy his golden years of retirement.

But in the realm of spirituality, it is not so. There is never a point when a person can sit back and say, "I've done enough!" In the realm of spirituality, a person either moves up or he moves down; he never remains in one spot. If he "retires," he immediately goes into decline. The struggle for spiritual growth does not end until a person draws his very last breath.

When Avraham came back from the Akeidah, he had reached a level of achievement so exalted that the Jewish people throughout history are sustained by its merit. It undoubtedly took every last ounce of spiritual courage and fortitude he could muster to withstand such a horrific ordeal. And he did it! Avraham found those hidden reservoirs of strength and faith, and he showed himself ready to sacrifice his son if Hashem so commanded. And in the end, everything had worked out for the best. He had proved himself, and his son's life had been spared. Avraham returned home with a sense of boundless relief, ready to share his experience with his wife. One can imagine his shock when he found her dead, and his frustration when he encountered so many difficulties in bringing her to eternal rest.

Avraham could easily have raised his voice in righteous indignation and complained. "Enough already! How much do I have to go through? Isn't it enough that I have just gone through the ordeal of the Akeidah? Do I have to go through this as well? I have put in so many years of effort. I have glorified Hashem's Name in so many places for so many years. I have made so much kiddush Hashem. Don't I deserve a little respite to sit back and enjoy the golden years of my life?"

This was a very subtle test, the ultimate test, and Avraham could easily have reacted instinctively, as most people would. But he did not. He realized that he had one more important lesson to teach the world. By his example, he could demonstrate that there is no retirement from his service, that being a faithful servant of God is literally the work of a lifetime. There is no retirement. But the years are certainly golden.

Rav Eliahu Dessler, in Michtav m'Eliahu, offer a different explanation. He sees in this tenth and final test the demonstration of two of the most critical aspects of Avraham's personality.

Consider the situation. Avraham finds himself forced to conduct business dealings with the wily and duplicitous Ephron. He is exceedingly frustrated both by his own circumstances and by Ephron's opportunistic behavior. How does he conduct himself?

Imagine you set out to purchase a used car, or perhaps we should say a pre-owned car, and you run into the proverbial used-car salesman. He is wearing a loud checked suit and a fluorescent smile, and he bombards you with an incessant stream of high-pressure sales pitch. He turns a deaf ear to your stated preferences in price and model and does his best to persuade to buy the high-priced clunker that you absolutely do not want. After five minutes, you are gnashing your teeth and clenching your fists.

How do you speak to this man? Do you treat him with the respect and deference due any human being formed in the image of the Lord, the tzelem Elokim? Or do you respond to his crudeness with a crudeness of your own? Do you allow external frustrations get the better of you?

And how about internal frustrations?

I was recently at a supermarket, and I asked the person bagging my groceries not to make the bags too heavy.

"If you don't like the way I do it," he barked at me, "do it yourself!"

I was taken aback, to say the least. "Excuse me," I said. "Did I say something nasty to you? Why did I deserve such a response?"

The man gave me a sheepish grin. "Sorry. I had a hard day."

I guess that explains it all. He had a hard day, which gives him the right to give me a hard time, I suppose.

Having a "hard day" is obviously not a justification for rude behavior. But how about something that goes beyond your ordinary "hard day"? Imagine you have just come off an overseas flight. You have spent a solid hour watching the luggage circulate around the carousel until you have each piece memorized down to its smallest details, but your own luggage seems to have disappeared into thin air. You go to the ticket office to report your loss. Are you justified in snapping at the agent because of what you are going through?

Let us take this a little further. You are in the hospital attending a relative who is in serious condition, perhaps even in mortal danger. A doctor or nurse or some other hospital functionary gives you a hard time, and you respond with a sharp retort. Does your anxiety about the health of your relative justify such behavior?

Now let us consider Avraham's circumstances. He has just come back from the Akeidah, where he narrowly escaped slaughtering his own son. Can you imagine his mental and emotional state? Then he comes home to discover that Sarah, his wife of a century, has died and that he has to go through some difficult negotiations in order to secure a burial plot for her. I suppose one could safely say that Avraham was having a rather "hard day." To top it all off, he must contend with Ephron, who may not have been wearing a checked suit but was certainly no better than the sleaziest used-car salesman.

This was Avraham's test. He could have played hardball with Ephron. He could have wiped the floor with him. But he didn't. He treated him with the respect and deference due every human being. Just because he was having a hard day, he did not have to make Ephron suffer.

On the night Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach's rebbetzin died, he was standing in the hall of the hospital trying to deal with his profound grief. A student of his, whose wife had just given birth, was also in the hospital at the time. The student noticed Rav Shlomo Zalman in the hallway, and he ran over to give him the wonderful news. He was so excited that it did not even occur to him to ask what his rosh yeshivah was doing in the hospital at that time of the night.

Rav Shlomo Zalman gave the student his warmest blessing and graced him with his famous smile, so full of love and sheer joy. The student walked away with his heart singing, completely unaware that his rosh yeshivah had been told just a few minutes earlier that his wife had passed away.

Following the example of his forefather Avraham, Rav Shlomo Zalman saw no reason to diminish his student's joy in the very least just because he himself was suffering.

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