“Bechol meodecha”

The Mishna states, “Abraham our patriarch was tested with ten trials, and he withstood them all.”1 It stands to reason that these trials begin with “lech lecha” (or, possibly even earlier, with the trial of the fiery furnace in Ur Kasdim) and with time become progressively more difficult. The trials include famine, domestic distress, and geopolitical crises, each trial more difficult than the preceding one.

It would have been fitting, then, for the series of trials to conclude with the trial of the Akeidah. The trial of lech lecha is certainly difficult, but “your son, your only son, whom you love” is the greatest trial that a person could face, and yet Abraham withstood even that.

However, at least according to Rabbi Jonah Gerondi, Abraham’s final trial is not the Akeidah. Rather, it is the story that appears at the beginning of Parashat Chayei Sarah, namely, the search for a burial site for his wife Sarah and the difficulties that accompanied this search. After G‑d had promised Abraham, “For all the land that you see, to you will I give it,”2 he had to go to Efron the Hittite and bargain with him over the price of a parcel of land.

What is the point of testing a man like Abraham, who already withstood the Akeidah, demonstrating his willingness to sacrifice his only son to G‑d, with such a trial, which at first glance does not even approach the level of difficulty of the Akeidah?

Our sages interpret the verse, “You shall love G‑d your Lord with all your heart (bechol levavecha), with all your soul (bechol nafshecha), and with all your might (bechol meodecha)”3 as follows: “‘With all your heart’ means with both your inclinations, with the good inclination and with the evil inclination; ‘with all your soul’ means even if He takes your life; and ‘with all your might’ means with all your money.”4 Focusing on the third clause, our sages go on to explain, “There are people who value their lives more than their money…and there are people who value their money more than their lives.”5 Indeed, there are people who would rather lose a limb than lose their money, including even great tzaddikim. The Talmud reports regarding Abba Chilkiya that when he would pass through thorns he would roll up his garment because, he said, a scratch on the body heals by itself, but if his garment were to be torn, he would not have the money to buy a new one.6

From the order of the verse’s wording, however, and from our sages’ interpretation, it appears that “with all your soul” is a higher level of devotion to G‑d than “with all your heart,” and that “with all your might” – i.e., with all your money – is the highest of them all. How is this possible?

Drop by drop

In Likkutei Torah, a chasidic work by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, “with all your might” is interpreted as follows: In everything that one does, one must do more, in the sense of “meod,” which literally means “more.”7 This understanding of “meod” makes “with all your might” an even higher level than giving up one’s life; giving up one’s life requires a moment’s decision, and with that the matter is settled, whereas “with all your might,” as the Likkutei Torah understands it, represents unending love of G‑d.

An example of this level of devotion is found in the Talmud: “If Chananiah, Mishael, and Azariah had been lashed, they would have worshiped the golden image.”8 They were threatened and even thrown into the fiery furnace because they refused to bow down and worship the idol, and it is true that they were willing to die. But if they had been lashed, says the Talmud, they would not have been able to bear it. There is suffering that is worse than death, and such suffering is much harder to bear.

In this respect, “with all your money,” while seemingly unimpressive, is no less of a sacrifice than the other two levels of devotion. The meaning is not in the sense of “hand over your money or give up your life.” Rather, the Torah commands us to love G‑d even in the face of oppressive poverty, whose effects are cumulative, gradually piling up. These are not troubles that occur all at once, but troubles that drain the spirit drop by drop, each day drawing out another drop and yet another. In the process known as “Chinese water torture,” water is slowly dripped onto a person’s head, drop after drop. It turns out that this method of torture breaks even people who were not broken by any other method.

Even people who are capable of enduring major tribulations and who proved themselves willing to actually offer up their lives are not always capable of bearing the suffering of small troubles. There was once a Chabad Chossid who eventually apostatized, and toward the end of his life became the chief censor of Russia. It is said about him that even forty years after he apostatized, though he had long since ceased to keep the mitzvot, he would mention the name of the Baal HaTanya (Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi) only with the greatest awe and reverence. This individual, once a pious man and a Torah scholar, was not broken by sudden, momentous tribulations but by smaller troubles. To earn a living, he had to work in a large city, even though, as a Jew, this was prohibited by Russian law. He was repeatedly caught and evicted until the strain of this lifestyle finally broke him.

Thus, “with all your might” does not entail choosing between life and death; rather, it entails withstanding hardships that befall a person little by little. This was the nature of Abraham’s tenth trial. Our sages say that Sarah died just as Abraham returned from the Akeidah.9 After the Akeidah, during which Abraham truly offered up his entire soul, he now had to return to daily life, with all the picayune annoyances of everyday affairs. It is not just the distress of his wife’s death and the need to arrange for her burial, but the very fact that he must deal with the petty process of the negotiations, the purchase, and the burial. After Abraham reached such a high level of intimacy with G‑d, instead of being able to sit down and mourn his wife as people do, he must endure a different type of suffering: He must meet with Efron the Hittite and deal with the business of purchasing land, forcing himself to be polite and to repeatedly bow down before the people of the land.

To be sure, this still may not appear to be the ultimate trial for Abraham. Everyone experiences the slog of daily life, yet it can frustrate some people even more deeply than a life-threatening situation. For many people, it is precisely these small things, which are seemingly easier for a person to withstand, that can become the biggest stumbling block.


Broad generalities are not always perfectly accurate, and are often debatable. Despite this, I would like to attempt an overarching analysis of the ten trials of Abraham. Each of the trials of Abraham represents a different type of self-sacrifice. The trials are not about breaking the body or slaying the evil inclination. They are not about things that are intrinsically difficult to accomplish. The difficulty lies in the fact that self-sacrifice completely transcends the question of bodily limits; the challenge is to break the bounds of one’s self. In each one of the trials, Abraham must prevail not over some external foe, but over himself.

Furthermore, in each of the trials, G‑d presents Abraham with a choice whose different sides do not fall into simple categories of good and bad. In most trials, there is no moral dilemma: The individual knows that what he is doing is right. However, doing the right thing is often difficult, and it is this difficulty that constitutes the trial. In the trials of Abraham, however, G‑d commands him to do things that are sometimes morally problematic, and therein lies the difficulty of the trials.

When a person fights an inclination with which he has no internal relationship, it is relatively easy for him to speak of “overcoming the inclination.” In such a case, a person can stand up, laughing and proclaiming, “An arrow in the eye of Satan.”10 This may not be a simple task, but there is a clear moral path to success. However, when the evil inclination is close to one’s heart, it becomes much more difficult to overcome it. One may know all the considerations that direct him to the proper course of action, and still fail to overcome one’s inclination to act otherwise.

Still, even the most difficult struggle with one’s inclinations and desires cannot compare to the level of inner difficulty that Abraham encountered in his trials. Abraham was tested by G‑d with genuine moral-spiritual dilemmas, with real struggles between G‑d’s will and personal conviction.

Sacrificing morality

Abraham achieved great success through his spiritual work in Charan, as our sages interpret, “‘The souls they had made in Charan’ – they brought them under the wings of the Shechinah. Abraham converted the men, and Sarah converted the women.”11 In Charan, Abraham carries out his mission, proclaiming G‑d’s name in the world, and he is regarded as one of land’s eminent and noble personalities. After all that, G‑d tells him to go away to an unfamiliar place, where he does not know the people, and begin everything anew. Abraham was, after all, seventy-five years old – not a young man, even in those days. What was to become of all his life’s work? What was to become of all the energy he had invested, all of his great accomplishments? G‑d tells him to go and sever all ties with his former life.

Yet here, too, Abraham’s trials continue. Even the war of the Canaanite kings is a trial. Spilling blood is out of character for Abraham; he may be courageous but he is certainly not a man of war. Nevertheless, he must go off with people he does not truly know to a war that barely concerns him. He is charged with saving Bera, Birsha, and all the other kings – characters with whom he has very little connection. Still, he must wage war, endanger himself and all that he has, in order to save a few despicable creatures: the kings of Sodom, Gomorrah, Adma, and Tzevoyim. When a man who fights for his country, homeland, and home puts his life in danger, he at least knows why he is fighting. Here, Abraham goes to save Lot, after Lot had parted ways with him in the wake of the shepherds’ quarrel. Because of Abraham’s lack of connection to the Canaanite conflict, he refuses to keep any of the spoils of war: This money is loathsome to him. Abraham does not want anything to do with these people, does not want to negotiate with them, and does not want their money. When the war is over, all Abraham wants is to go home. He did what he had to do, and now he must leave.

When Abraham has to cast out Hagar and his son Ishmael, he openly expresses his reluctance to do so. How can he bring himself to take human beings – his wife and his son no less – and cast them out into the wilderness? But G‑d tells him that this is what he must do, and he obeys. When he obeys, his problem is not what to do with the child; it is how to come to grips with his own moral persona after such an act.

Not long before the story of Hagar and Ishmael, the Torah relates a different story – that of Abraham and the three angels – which perhaps serves to emphasize the poignancy of what is required of Abraham here. Despite Abraham’s advanced age and frailty, when three people come his way, he immediately runs toward them and does all that he can to help them. He does this for no reason other than “because you have passed by”12 – because they have come this way. By contrast, when it comes to his own wife and son, he must do the opposite: Not only does he not provide them with food, but he banishes them from his home. How should he view himself now? A man whose whole essence is kindness to others must now do something that is entirely anti­thetical to his character – like one who urges others to pursue one course of action and then himself does the opposite.

In the case of the Akeidah, the worst thing from Abraham’s point of view was that he had to slaughter a human being, let alone “your son, your only son, whom you love.” The slaughter of children appears in the Torah itself as an example of the most abhorrent of all acts: “For even their sons and their daughters do they offer up in fire to their gods.”13 And yet Abraham, who knows that it is abhorrent, is commanded: “Take your son, your only son” – and sacrifice him. Before facing the trial of love for his own child, Abraham was forced to ask, “Where is my whole world? Where is my whole concept of justice? Where is my morality?” At the Akeidah, Abraham sacrifices not only his son’s body but his own soul.

Giving up the World to Come

Abraham’s trials present us with an opportunity to discuss self-sacrifice in our own lives. When is self-sacrifice required of us? What is the challenge of self-sacrifice in today’s world?

Throughout our lives, we must often give of ourselves for G‑d’s sake, but that is only a minor sacrifice. The prospect of giving up our portion in the World to Come, however, is a much weightier matter. It would be short-sighted and even animalistic to give up the World to Come for the sake of this world. But from Abraham’s narrative we learn that for the sake of Heaven, we must sometimes renounce even the World to Come. Deciding not to go to a nightclub when one’s ticket to the Garden of Eden is at stake is simple. It is much more difficult when one is required, for G‑d’s sake, to walk into Gehenna of one’s own volition, into the fire.

The Talmud interprets Esther’s statement to Mordechai, “and if I perish, I perish,”14 as follows: “As I am lost to my father’s house, so will I be lost to you.”15 But Rabbi Tzadok ­HaKohen of Lublin offers another interpretation: “As I am lost in my worldly existence, so will I lose the next world.”16 Until now Esther had associated with Achashverosh under compulsion, but now she must continue their relationship of her own volition. To do such a thing, Esther must go beyond her ordinary limits. Until this stage, Esther had preserved her innocence, for her entire relationship with Achashverosh had been under duress. The moment it ceases to be under duress, she forfeits her moral and spiritual high ground. Though all she does is for G‑d’s sake, she nevertheless seemingly loses her portion in the World to Come.

There are various stories that deal with this difficult subject. The Midrash relates that when Elisha ben Avuyah died, Rabbi Meir thought that he died in a state of repentance. However, when Rabbi Meir was later told that a fire was burning in Elisha ben Avuya’s grave, he visited the grave, covered it with his tallit, and gave the following interpretation of the verse in Ruth17: “‘Stay for the night’ – in this world, which is like the night – ‘and it shall be, in the morning’ – regarding the world that is wholly good [i.e., the World to Come], ‘if the Good One’ – G‑d – ‘would redeem you, let Him redeem. But if He does not want to redeem you, I will do so myself’.”18 Rabbi Meir avows that if G‑d does not take Elisha ben Avuyah out of Gehenna, then he will do so himself.

“If you seek it like silver”

The stories that we have been discussing are not simply “deeds of the patriarchs,” what people call “Bible stories”; rather, these are guidelines that teach us how to act. But where can we possibly find the strength to emulate Abraham and our other biblical role models? Children draw strength from their parents, and disciples from their masters. In the Talmud there are several stories that convey this notion. For example, a woman once came to Rabbi Meir’s beit midrash and said, “Rabbi, one of you [i.e., one of your students] betrothed me by way of ­intercourse” – but she did not know the identity of the student.19 In order to avoid ­embarrassing a student who may have engaged in the unseemly practice of betrothal through intercourse, Rabbi Meir rose and wrote out for her a bill of divorce. Thereupon, all the students stood up and did likewise, and as a result the woman was released from the betrothal. The Talmud then explains that Rabbi Meir learned this mode of conduct from Samuel the Small, who in turn learned it from a tradition going back to Joshua and Moses.20

In order to act in an ideal way, one must truly care with one’s whole being. When a person is suffering from physical pain, he immediately goes to the nearest doctor. A person who suffers greater pain will rush all the more quickly to find a cure for his ailment. Similarly, one who suffers from hunger – real hunger, not the hunger one experiences after fasting on Yom Kippur – and wonders where he will find bread to eat and water to drink will not first organize a symposium to discuss the question of poverty and unemployment. The acute sensation of hunger creates in him the readiness and urgency to act. One who is not experiencing pain or hunger personally may be tempted not to come to the aid of those who are needy, thinking, “What can I do? I am only one insignificant person.” This line of thinking, however, implies that the matter is not his concern – it does not truly affect him. Others may rationalize their actions, saying, “I agree that in principle I should help, but in practice it is difficult for me.” If he can help without expending much of his time or resources, he will not object to doing so, but this person will never go out of his way to help others.

This phenomenon occurs in other areas as well. Someone who has a love for Torah will find a way to study it even if he does not know “how to learn” in the conventional sense. He may have to work ten times harder than someone who has more experience in the world of Torah study, but in the end he will succeed. Proverbs states, “If you seek it like silver and search for it like hidden treasure, then you will grasp the fear of G‑d and discover knowledge of G‑d.”21 If you identify Torah as something that is missing in your life, and you search for it as one searches for treasure, you will undoubtedly find it.

At the beginning of the parshah, G‑d shows kindness to Abraham, as it were. It is hot outside, and G‑d arranges that no guests arrive at his tent, allowing Abraham to rest. But Abraham does not want to rest – he wants to perform acts of kindness for others, and he cannot be at peace until guests arrive. When the guests finally come, in the form of angels sent by G‑d, Abraham must rush about and attend to them in order to put himself at ease. When one’s soul yearns for something and it affects him on a deep, personal level, he will always find a way to achieve his goal.