The life of Abraham, the first Jew, seems to be a series of tests; indeed, the Mishnah states: “With ten tests our father Abraham was tested, and he withstood them all.”1 Abraham’s tests culminated, at the conclusion of this week’s Torah portion, with the binding of Isaac. As the Torah says:

And it came to pass after these things, that G‑d tested Abraham, and He said to him, “Abraham,” and he said, “Here I am.” And He said, “Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go away to the land of Moriah and bring him up there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains, of which I will tell you.”2

Why was Abraham continuously tested?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of the word “test” is a means of testing, such as:

  1. Something (such as a series of questions or exercises) for measuring the skill, knowledge, intelligence, capacities, or aptitudes of an individual or group
  2. A procedure, reaction, or reagent used to identify or characterize a substance or constituent

A conventional test, then, is a means of learning something about the person or object being tested. Presumably, G‑d, the Knower of all things, knew the magnitude of love and the depth of commitment in Abraham’s heart. Why then did G‑d need to test Abraham?

The answer lies within the multiple meanings of the Hebrew word nes, the root of the word nisayon, the Hebrew word for “test.”

Nes also means a banner, as in the verse, “I will raise my banner.”3 A test, then, includes more than measuring the qualities of the subject of the test. A test is also “raising a banner,” displaying and showing the world the amazing qualities of the one being tested. Thus, G‑d tested Abraham in order to display to all the world Abraham’s great commitment to G‑d.

There is, however, another layer of depth to a test.

Nes also means “miracle.” What possible connection can there be between a test and a miracle?

There are two words for “test” in Hebrew: bechinah and nisayon. Bechinah is used for tests such as those offered in school, where the test is designed to determine how much the student knows. A bechinah, then, gives insight into the ability of the student. The purpose of a nisayon, on the other hand, is not to determine the ability of the person being tested, but rather to see if the test itself, the obstacle and struggle, could propel the person to grow beyond his or her natural ability. The test offers an opportunity for the person to perform a miracle, to achieve the impossible and to grow into something greater.4

The test of Abraham was not merely a test to measure his commitment to G‑d (nisayon as in “test”), and not only to demonstrate his commitment to G‑d to the world (“raising a banner”) but, most importantly, it allowed Abraham to break out of his own personality constraints and become something he never thought possible (“miracle”).

The story of Abraham’s test is the story of the journey of each and every soul. The Kabbalists teach that the soul’s descent from the tranquility of heaven to the chaos here on earth is, first and foremost, a test for the soul. The descent is designed to test the soul, to see how strong its connection to G‑d is, to see whether the soul remains true to itself in the face of tremendous challenge and temptation, to see whether or not the soul has what it takes to overcome the spiritual darkness of the world and transform it to light.

Yet, just as with the test of Abraham, the test of the soul is not merely for the purpose of discovering the existing properties of the soul. The descent into this world is the soul's opportunity to experience a miracle. This test “raises the banner” and demonstrates to the soul and to the world that by being presented with and then overcoming the obstacles and darkness of the world, one can achieve the miracle of exponential spiritual growth. On this earth, one can achieve a bond with G‑d that is far greater, far deeper, and far more profound than is possible when the soul is in heaven.