“And it was after these things, and G‑d tested Abraham, and He said to him, ‘Abraham,’ and he responded, ‘Here I am.’”1

Isn’t that an intriguing sentence? It’s more than a cordial formality—because why would the Torah bother to record that? It’s like eavesdropping on an intimate dialogue between G‑d and Abraham. Can you hear the love in their words?

Isn’t that an intriguing sentence?



Hineini. I am here.” Fully present. Mindful of this moment, this divine dialogue.

And then the Torah launches into the dramatic story of the binding of Isaac. “And He said to him, ‘Take your son, your only son, the son that you love, and bring him up as a sacrifice on the mountain that I will show you.’”

The story would read the same without that first verse. But that verse sets the tone for the subsequent dialogue.

The binding of Isaac was the last of ten tests with which G‑d tested Abraham’s faith,2 beginning with the time Abraham was thrown into a fiery furnace for his monotheistic beliefs—and miraculously survived.3 His faith, like a muscle, grew stronger with each challenge.

Note that every other test is described by the Torah4 without any introductory remarks about G‑d’s intentions. For example, when Abraham was 75, G‑d challenged him by asking him to move to Canaan: “And the L‑rd said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you.’”5

The Torah doesn’t say, “And G‑d tested Abraham and said, ‘Go forth from your land . . .’” Likewise, when G‑d told Abraham to circumcise himself,6 and when He told him to send away Hagar,7 the Torah jumps right into the dialogue without a lead-in sentence.

Yet when G‑d tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, we need an opening remark, a framework for this shocking request. Heads up—it’s just a test. It’s not really going to happen. The previous nine tests were experiences that Abraham actually endured—and emerged at the other end a better person. But this time around, it was just a test. Abraham would not be killing his son.

It is in this story that the Hebrew word for “test,” “nissah,” makes its debut in the Torah. (For the prior nine tests, the word “nissah” was not used.)

The power behind any object or phenomenon can be traced back to the Hebrew letters that make up its name. G‑d created the universe with words.8 Each Hebrew letter is a thread of divine creative energy. When G‑d spoke the words “Let there be light,” the letters aligned to produce the specific formula for light.

It is for this reason that Kabbalists consider homographs, words that are spelled the same but have different meanings, to be quite significant. In English, a word can have two meanings that are not at all connected; for example, the word “can” means “cylindrical metal container” and “be able to.” But in Hebrew, a word that has two meanings is very telling, because both meanings share the same energetic root and therefore must be interconnected. Studying their underlying similarity exposes the true nature of both words. For example, the Hebrew word “nissah,” “test,” shares the same root letters as the Hebrew word “nes,” a word that has two alternate meanings: “miracle” and “banner.” (In the Amidah prayer, we say, “V’sa nes l’kabetz galuyoteinu—Raise a banner to gather our exiles.”)

Studying the interconnection of these three homographs clues us in to one of the most perplexing questions of all time: Why does G‑d test me? Why didn’t my car start this morning? Why is my spouse so difficult? Why can’t I make ends meet?

Is G‑d looking to trip me up? Is He punishing me? Ignoring me? Am I just plain old unlucky?

Is G‑d looking to trip me up?

Nachmanides asks this question: Why would G‑d test Abraham? Why would He test anyone? The test, he explains, is a character-builder. A challenge in life can force us to flex a new character muscle, pushing us to develop parts of ourselves we never would’ve otherwise developed. A parent with a special needs child tends to build incredible patience—more patience than he ever thought himself capable of. A person in a financial crisis can become much more resourceful in order to make money again. A law student may not know how hard she can study until she is forced to take the bar exam.

People who are tested will often say, “I never thought I could do that!” They are amazed at their own strength as they overcome the challenge. They look at their accomplishments as miraculous: “I’m naturally an impatient person; the fact that I became a patient parent is miraculous.”

Why does G‑d test us? The answer lies in the very word for “test,” “nes,” a word that means “miracle” as well. The test is there to bring out the miracle in you. To elicit strength that is uncharacteristic and unfamiliar. G‑d’s not ignoring you, He’s training you to be miraculous.

The Malbim9 notes that this test was much more difficult than the previous nine, hence the introduction “And G‑d tested Abraham.” The purpose of a test, he writes, is not to evaluate a person’s courage as much as to push him to take action that is completely out of character for him. Abraham’s commitment to doing G‑d’s will pushed him to do something that was completely unnatural to him.10

The Midrash brings several fascinating analogies to explain why G‑d would test Abraham so intensely. One analogy compares G‑d to a hackler, a person who refines flax seeds. The process of refining flax is arduous and lengthy: first, they’re put in water for a prolonged period of time to break down the sticky pectins, then they’re crushed and scraped until the fibers are soft and refined, transforming the dark seeds into a luscious linen fabric.

But the Midrash offers another analogy to explain why G‑d tested Abraham. This one compares G‑d to a marketer who is looking to sell pots. He brings them to the marketplace and bangs on them, boasting of their durability. “This pot doesn’t bend under pressure,” he advertises. “It’s solid.”11

This excruciating challenge was an opportunity to expose all of Abraham’s strength, courage and faith. “Hineini. I’m present. I’m not afraid. What can I do for You?” The beauty in that surrender brought dignity to his identity.

Abraham’s response to G‑d went viral. He became a hero, a legend. We read about him on the holiest day of the year, and the binding of Isaac is the only biblical story included in our daily prayers. G‑d hammered on Abraham’s equilibrium, threatening to shatter what Abraham had spend a lifetime building.12 G‑d banged and music emerged—Abraham’s unique melody, “Hineini.” Abraham’s melody became an immortal song of true faith.

If G‑d tests you, you have a song to sing

If G‑d tests you, you have a song to sing. It’s tender music that only you can play, and only in a challenging circumstance. And it’s a song that will uplift all who hear it.

“Nes” means “test,” and it means “banner.” When we're tested, we advertise our faith. Our reaction to the challenge makes a statement about who we think is running the show of our lives.

A child spills orange juice on a clean floor. He wasn’t supposed to pour it for himself. The mother notices, and she’s angry. “I told you that you’re not allowed to pour by yourself. You never listen! I’m so angry at you! Go to your room.” Quite an understandable reaction. As for the child, he’s probably learned one important lesson: when someone disappoints you, it’s okay to lash out at him. Suppose the mother has the self-control to speak with dignity to her child, even though she is pent up with frustration. The child will learn, even when you are disappointed with someone, you can still speak to him with respect. And perhaps that is the whole reason that G‑d challenges her with the spilled juice. It gives her the opportunity to teach her children more about self-control than a long lecture would.

Rabbi Yitzi Hurwitz is the executive director of Chabad of Temecula, CA. He was diagnosed with ALS and now is unable to speak or move any part of his body, except for his right thumb. Before Yom Kippur, he wrote: “Teshuvah (return) doesn’t ask me to become someone new, but invites me on a journey to uncover my deepest self. Being infinite, the soul is actually a part of G‑d, hence there is infinite depth and always there are more layers to uncover.”13

A man with a devastating disease is thinking about uncovering his deepest self?! To me, he is a banner of heroism and faith. When I look at his reaction to his challenge, I am deeply inspired. He’s taught me so much about the value of life and the power of the soul despite the limitations of the body.

Abraham’s reaction to his tenth test made him a banner of faith for all time. Every time we keep the faith in spite of the challenge, we inspire faith in others as well.