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Reacting to Success and Failure

Vayeira (Genesis 18-22 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

It is readily apparent how the Torah portions involving Abraham reflect his greatness in belief in God and kindness. However, on deeper examination we see more subtle facets of his greatness. Throughout his life, Abraham underwent numerous difficult challenges and setbacks. Some of these tests ended with great success but others did not necessarily culminate in the way that he would have hoped.1 The way in which he reacted to these events teaches us tremendous lessons in how to respond to both success and adversity.

Surely the most difficult challenge that Abraham ever faced in his eventful life was that covered in this week’s Torah portion – the Akeidat Yitzchak (Binding of Isaac) whereby he was commanded to slaughter his only son despite having no understanding of the reason for doing so. Finally, at the end of the arduous test he is told by an Angel that he has passed the test and thereby merited the blessing that his descendants will be like the stars of the Heavens.2

Abraham’s measure of success is further elucidated by a Midrash quoted by Rabbi Yissachar Frand. When Abraham was about to slaughter his son at the Akeida, the Angel called to him, “Avraham, Avraham”3 Why did the Angel say his name twice? The Midrash explains that there are two images of each person - his worldly image and his heavenly image; his worldly image is what he makes of himself in this world, and his heavenly image represents what he could become if he fulfills his potential. Abraham, after he passed the last of his ten tests, finally reached his complete potential and consequently his two images became identical. The Angel mentioned the two ‘Abrahams’ together, the Abraham of this world and the ideal Abraham of the next world, indicating that the two of them were now the same. Thus at this point in time Abraham had reached the pinnacle of greatness indeed he had attained spiritual perfection.

How would a person react after such a momentous event? A little pride in his achievements would be understandable, or at least a feeling of elation and celebration would be reasonable. Yet Abraham’s reaction was very different. The verse immediately after the Akeida tells us: “Abraham returned to his young men, and they stood up and went together to Beer Sheba and Abraham dwelled in Beer-Sheba.”4 The commentaries note the Torah’s wording that Abraham went ‘together’ with the young men, Eliezer and Ishmael. This wording denotes a sense of being on the same level or with the same feelings. Thus, the Torah is telling us that Abraham went ‘together’ with the young men, in that just as they had not undergone any great experience at the Akeida, so too Abraham travelled as if he had not faced and passed the most difficult test that any man had ever faced. He felt no sense of pride and even no sense of celebration, rather he returned to Beer Sheba to continue his holy work of teaching the world about the Divine Presence.5

Abraham’s greatness with regard to the aftermath of the Akeida is further demonstrated by his conduct in the subsequent incident discussed by the Torah; that of his dealings with the wily Ephron in his efforts to acquire the Cave of Machpeila as a burial place for his wife, Sarah. Rabbeinu Yonah makes a seemingly baffling point – the Mishna in Pirkei Avot tells us that Abraham faced ten extremely difficult tests, and most commentators explain that the Akeida was the final test. However, Rabbeinu Yonah writes that Abraham’s difficulties in finding a burial plot for Sarah constituted his final test.6 Rav Yissachar Frand asks how it is fathomable that after the ultimate challenge, that of the Akeida, there could be yet another challenge that Abraham needed face – surely the Akeida represented the pinnacle of human achievement and no further tests were necessary!

He answers that of course the Akeida was the most difficult test that Abraham faced, however the final test offered a different challenge. It is human nature that after a person succeeds in a difficult endeavor he may have a tendency to want to rest on his laurels, and to feel that he has a right to relax a little. After enduring the incredible challenges involved in the Akeida it would have been understandable for Abraham to hope for a little respite. Accordingly, when he was immediately faced with the tragic death of his wife and the subsequent difficulties in acquiring a burial plot for her, he could have easily become frustrated with the course of events and harbored feelings of complaints towards God. However, Rabbeinu Yonah teaches us, he succeeded in this very different kind of test, by accepting that even after he reached his full potential, he was still liable to face new challenges. This teaches us a further dimension in Abraham’s greatness in his response to success. Not only did he remain humble, but he also remained prepared to face whatever new challenges could arise.

We have thus far seen how Abraham reacted to success without letting it affect his humility or hindering his service of God. Yet how did Abraham react on the rare occasions where he did not succeed in his endeavors? One such instance occurred when God informed Abraham of His plans to destroy the city of Sodom because of their evil behavior. Abraham launched into a lengthy attempt to rescue the people of Sodom. He argued that if there were fifty righteous people then God should save the whole city, and so on until it became clear that there weren’t even ten.7 Once this had been determined and the decree had been issued the Torah makes a seemingly superfluous comment. “God departed when He had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.”8 What is the significance of the fact that Abraham returned to his place; what lesson is it teaching us?

The Steipler Gaon, Rav Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, addressed this question in making a vital point to Rav Elazar Shach. On one occasion the Mo’etzet Gedolei HaTorah9 made a certain decision in opposition to the views of Rav Shach and the Steipler. The matter was of such importance to Rav Shach that he felt a great sense of despair and his spirits were broken. Rav Shlomo Lorincz writes that soon after this incident he visited the Steipler who asked him how Rav Shach was faring. He answered that Rav Shach was thoroughly dejected and did not know which way to turn. So great was his disappointment that he said he had no more strength to continue.

The Steipler listened to this sadly and said, “I would like you to go to Rav Shach for me and tell him the following.” The Steipler proceeded to ask the aforementioned question as to the significance of the fact that “Abraham returned to his place.” He answered with the following words. “What this means is that the Torah wants to teach us – tell Rav Shach this – that when one has done everything in order to save a situation and the goal has not been achieved one must implement, ‘And Abraham returned to his place’. One has to go back and resume the activity that one is obligated to engage in, continuing as though nothing untoward has happened. Under no circumstances whatsoever does lack of success justify a person giving way and being unable to carry on his holy work. Repeat this, word for word, on my behalf. He has done everything without missing a single detail therefore he must also fulfill, ‘And Abraham returned to his place,’ and continue leading Klal Yisroel as before.” Rav Lorincz reports that when he conveyed this message to Rav Shach, Rav Shach replied that he accepted this lesson and would return to his work on behalf of the Jewish people.10

The Steipler’s astute observation demonstrates Abraham’s attitude to failure – he recognized that he did his utmost to achieve his goal but when he failed he did not let that failure prevent his holy work. The fact that a man as great as Rav Shach faced great difficulty in overcoming this challenge proves that this is a test that can affect everyone. Abraham’s reaction to his setback teaches us the proper way to react to failure.

We have seen yet another facet to the greatness of Abraham – he excelled in his reaction to both success and failure. Perhaps the underlying trait that enabled him to succeed in all the tests that we have mentioned was his great humility. That taught him not to become haughty or complacent in the face of success, and not to despair when, through events beyond his power, he could not fulfill his goal.


1 For example, the incident where he prayed to HaShem to save the city of Sodom, yet God proceeded with its destruction. This is discussed further later in this essay.

2 Bereishit, 22:17.

3 Bereishit, 22,:.11.

4 Bereishit, 22::19.

5 See Talelei Oros, Bereishis, Chelek 1, 22:19, p.223, in the name of the Brisker Rav, and Taam V’Daas of Rav Moshe Sternbuch. Sternbuch shlita, Bereishis, 22:19.

6 Avos, 5:3. Peirush of Rabbeinu Yonah.

7 Bereishit, 18:23-32.

8 Bereishit, 18:33.

9 This is a group comprising of the leading Rabbis who make vital decisions pertaining to the Jewish people.

10 “Lorincz, “In Their Shadow”, Volume 3, page 284-5.

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