Head in the Clouds, Feet on the Ground – Lech Lecha


There are at least eight different shitot regarding the Ten Trials of Avraham. In this shiur I will use the shita of the Rambam.  According to the Rambam, Avraham’s ten trials (mentioned in the Mishna, Avot 5, 3) are as follows –

  1. Leaving the land of his birth
  2. The famine in Eretz Canaan
  3. Sarah being taken captive by Pharaoh
  4. The war of the 4 kings
  5. Marriage to Hagar
  6. Brit Milah
  7. Sarah being taken captive by Avimelech, king of Gerar
  8. Divorcing Hagar
  9. Sending Yishmael away
  10.  Akeidat Yitzchak

Avraham’s ten trials serve as a foundation for Am Yisrael. Chazal say that the nisyonot that the Avot experienced and endured, provided the genetic infrastructure that would enable Am Yisrael, throughout their history, to endure the very same trials. We have it encoded into our DNA! I jokingly referred to it in last week’s shiur, that each Jew is at least 1/3 Sefardi and 2/3 Israeli (Tzabar). Avraham was an Iraqi Jew, born in Ur Casdim and Yitzchak and Yaakov were both Tzabarim, born in Eretz Yisrael.

The main question I would like to address in this shiur, is “Why are they called the “Ten Trials of Avraham” and not the “Ten Trials of Avraham and Sarah”? As we will soon see, the ten trials above were no less trials also for - Sarah. In some cases the trial was more difficult for Sarah than for Avraham.

Sarah, also named ישכה, was in fact Avraham’s niece. She was the daughter of Haran and sister of Lot. Avraham (aged 25) married Sarah (aged 15) in Ur Casdim.

I would like to examine each trial in turn and its impact on both Avraham and Sarah.

The first trial was לֶךְ לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ. When Avraham left Charan, he was 75 and Sarah 65. For whom was the leaving more difficult? Leaving the familiarity of culture, language etc. of one’s country of birth and homeland was equally difficult for Avraham and Sarah, but what about leaving your parents?

Sarah’s father Haran died in the furnace in Ur Casdim, but what about Sarah’s mother? She may well have been alive. Similarly it says (Breishit 11, 32) that Avraham’s father Terach died in Charan, but what about Avraham’s mother Amatlai/Edna? She may also have been alive.

In Breishit (2, 24) it says עַל כֵּן יַעֲזָב אִישׁ אֶת אָבִיו וְאֶת אִמּוֹ וְדָבַק בְּאִשְׁתּוֹ.  It says יַעֲזָב אִישׁ and not תַעֲזָב אִשָׁה, in other words, the “severing” of the bond applies to the man, not the woman. Therefore (halachically) it was more difficult for Sarah to leave her mother than for Avraham to leave his.

When Avraham and Sarah arrive in Eretz Canaan a famine begins. Chazal say that until then the concept of a famine never existed. Avraham was internationally famous as a “believer in Hashem” - the leader of the “movement”. You can just imagine the press that must have received in Canaan. “A day after the Chief Rabbi of the Jews arrived in Canaan yesterday, a famine started!” That must have been a tough test for the “Chief Rabbi”, but no less a test for the “Chief Rebbetzin”. Not having any food to eat was equally tough on both Avraham and Sarah. We will call this trial a tie.

They are forced to go down to Egypt. Avraham hides Sarah in a box so that the Egyptians will not see her beauty. For who is the journey more of a nisayon? Avraham, who is riding on the back of a donkey or for Sarah cooped up in the box? For all we know Sarah could have been claustrophobic! Yes, Avraham has to deal with border control and customs as they enter Egypt, but Sarah has to deal with the oppressive heat in the box.

When they discover Sarah, she is taken captive and brought to Pharaoh’s palace. Pharaoh is so taken by her that he wants to marry her. Pharaoh gives Sarah his daughter Hagar as a maidservant and the land of Goshen as a dowry. Who suffers more, Avraham or Sarah? Yes, Sarah is living it up in the palace, maidservants, dowries, etc., but so is Avraham וּלְאַבְרָם הֵיטִיב בַּעֲבוּרָהּ וַיְהִי לוֹ צֹאן וּבָקָר וַחֲמֹרִים וַעֲבָדִים וּשְׁפָחֹת וַאֲתֹנֹת וּגְמַלִּים (בראשית יב, טז). Both the spouses suffer the separation from one another equally. They are both equally fearful that Pharaoh will sleep with Sarah, thereby negating her status as one of the Imahot of Am Yisrael. Another tie on this one.

Lot is taken captive by Nimrod and Avraham battles the four kings to rescue him. Yes, Sarah misses Avraham and is fearful for his safety, but actually being in the battlefield is probably more of a trial than “pining” back at home. Although, the war with the 4 kings was miraculous – Avraham threw sand at them and Hashem turned it into arrows, Avraham was never really in any real danger. In this one the judges are probably more in favor of the trial being more difficult for Avraham than Sarah.

Sarah is barren. Repeated attempts to get pregnant fail. Finally Sarah tells Avraham to take Hagar as his wife and have a child with her, on the premise - בֹּא נָא אֶל שִׁפְחָתִי אוּלַי אִבָּנֶה מִמֶּנָּה (בראשית טז, ב). Avraham dearly loves Sarah and such a prospect is repulsive to him but think about Sarah. Night after night she has to live with the knowledge that her husband is sleeping with another woman. I believe the judges would score this trial as being more difficult for Sarah.

Then Hashem commands Avraham to have a brit milah ….. at age 99. This trial seems clear cut - in favor of Avraham. However, consider this – who suffers more, the one who is incapacitated, or their spouse? To illustrate I would like to bring a (humorous) משל from the sefer ברוך יאמרו.

A man was told by his doctor that he had 24 hours to live. He decided to use his remaining time to do all the things he had dreamt of doing but never got around to and he spent the night compiling a comprehensive list. At 3am he told his wife “I have never experienced a sunrise at Metzada”. So they took a taxi down to the Dead Sea and climbed Metzada, just as the sun was peeking over the horizon. “I would like to make peace with my sister Soreleh before I go” was the next request. Soreleh lives in Kiryat Shmoneh, so they schlepped up north and peace was made. Next, “I have always dreamed of riding the “Cliff of Death” rollercoaster at the Luna Park in Tel Aviv”. After a stomach churning tossing and turning, the next request was to go all the way to the top floor of the Azrieli building (49 floors) - by climbing the stairs. This was followed by a 2kg steak lunch, with all the trimmings, at El Gaucho restaurant on Netanya beach. After Birkat Hamazon, the next request was “I would like to scuba dive just before sunset in Eilat”. “Yankel, are you serious?” asks his wife. “Rocheleh I have only a few hours left. Let me enjoy them!” And Rochel says “Yankel, it’s OK for you. Tomorrow you will no longer be here. I still have to get up tomorrow - for a funeral!” So, who suffered more in this nisayon, Avraham or Sarah? The judges are still out on that one.

Then we have a fast action replay of the Pharaoh episode, when Avimelech takes Sarah captive and with the same tied result.

Avraham is told by Sarah to divorce Hagar and banish her and Yishamel. This is a no-contest. Both trials were obviously harder for - Avraham.

The final trial was the Akeida. Avraham did not want Sarah to find out about it so he concocted a ruse that he was taking Yitzchak to the Yeshiva of Shem in Hevron. Undoubtedly this nisayon began as being more difficult for Avraham, but it ended the opposite, Sarah found out about it and paid the ultimate price! She died believing that her husband had sacrificed their only son.

So if we tally up, we have Lech Lecha, Hagar and the Akeida being more difficult nisyonot for Sarah, the war with the kings, divorcing Hagar and banishing Yishmael being more difficult for Avraham and the rest …. a tie. The end result is therefore an equal tie. Both Avraham and Sarah suffered equally from these ten trials, so why are they referred to as the Ten Trials of Avraham, with no mention of Sarah?

To understand this we need to go back to the creation of the first couple, Adam and Chava.

Already at the dawn of time we see a pattern begin to emerge. Adam Harishon has his heads in the clouds – literally. Chazal tell us that he towered from the earth all the way up to Heaven. Chava on the other hand, is down here on earth, involved in more practical matters - like having worthy children (which Adam seems to have neglected). This is what it means עזר כנגדו – the male and female are opposing vectors and thus they balance each other and in fact are an עזר to one another. If not for the counterpoint, they would spin out of orbit. I discuss this concept in the shiur on Eikev. The balance between the attribute of Gvura (male), which represents the חכמה of the Torah, focused on Olam Habah, and the attribute of Chessed (female), which represents kindness and practicality, focused on olam hazeh.

As long as the two vectors are in balance they are symbiotic. When one breaks free of the other, both spin out of orbit. This is what happened with the sin of the עץ הדעת. Chava became so obsessed with the practicality that she lost contact with the opposing vector (Adam) and tried to solve the problem on her own (aided/hampered by the נחש). Similarly, Adam was so self-absorbed in his spiritual vector that he lost sight of the “mundane” things, like procreating.  Instead of admitting their error and reacquiring balance, each vector blamed a third party and failed to assume personal responsibility. Adam blamed Chava, Chava blamed the נחש. This led to a dysfunctional catastrophe. Adam’s punishment and tikkun was בזעת אפיך תאכל לחם – no more head-only-in-the-clouds, from now on you are going to be spending most of your time bogged down in the mundane. Chava’s punishment and tikkun was she would no longer be allowed to go “solo”, that her vector would be controlled by the opposing vector וְאֶל אִישֵׁךְ תְּשׁוּקָתֵךְ וְהוּא יִמְשָׁל בָּךְ, that Chessed would be controlled by Gvura, by the Torah, until the tikkun.

The Avot and the Imahot were a tikkun for this sin. For the first two generations the pattern repeats. The man has his head in the “clouds” and the woman has her head in the “practicalities”.

Avraham had his head in the clouds – literally. He was constantly following a cloud. How did he know where to go when Hashem told him Lech Lecha? He followed the cloud, which was constantly on the move. Finally it settled in one place, during the Akeida, on Har Hamoriah. Sarah was more focused on the practicalities. How do I have children? OK, let’s try giving Hagar my maidservant to Avraham as a wife, perhaps in merit of that sacrifice I will bear children -practical considerations and solutions. Interestingly enough Avraham is considered to be the midda of Chessed, but that is relative to Yitzchak who is considered Gvura. In the context of Avraham/Sarah, Avraham was Chessed while Sarah was חסד שבחסד – she was the Chessed (practical) extension of Avraham’s Chessed, which was a “heads in the clouds” kind of Chessed, unbridled by practicalities. Avraham told Sarah to make bread for the angels using שלש סאים קמח סלת. Why did he say קמח סלת and not simply קמח? The Yalkut Shimoni (בראשית יח) says that had he simply said קמח, Sarah would have used the lower quality flour קמח to make the bread and not the higher quality סלת, because the woman’s mindset is on practicalities and saving expenses. Avraham’s modus operandi was “head-in-the-clouds”, all out Chessed and things like practicalities (cost) did not feature at all. Avraham and Sarah fixed the sin of Chava, the sin of unbridled Chessed.

Yitzchak had his head in the clouds. He was totally focused on the ethereal and the spiritual and could not see the practical reality under his nose, that his firstborn was an evil swindler. Rivka, on the other hand was the sister of Lavan and she was focused on the mundane practicalities like ensuring that Yaakov got the material blessing as well as the spiritual blessing. While Yitzchak was conducting a spiritual Pesach seder, oblivious to the undertones in his home, Rivka was busily and practically making sure that the “head-in-the-clouds” approach of her husband would not cause disaster for her descendants. If Yitzchak was Gvura (total immersion in the Torah), Rivka was חסד שבגבורה, the practicalities behind the Torah, like slaughtering two goats (one for a Korban Pesach and the other for a Korban Chagiga). Yitzchak and Rivka fixed the sin of Adam, unbridled Gvura.

The culmination of the tikkun was achieved with Yaakov who is the midda of Tiferet, a combination on Chessed and Gvura. On his own (without his wives), Yaakov reflected the ideal balance of the opposing and symbiotic vectors of Chessed and Gvura, as was originally intended in Creation. Yaakov’s life is a balanced combination between “head-in-the-clouds”, איש תם יושב אהלים and “practicalities”, working 14 years for his wives, planning his confrontation with Eisav on a practical level, descending to Egypt on a practical level to achieve the גאולה according to the prophesy. This is why Yaakov is the fourth leg of the Merkava, not Avraham and Yitzchak, and why his children, the Twelve Tribes that are Am Yisrael also reflect this balance between Gvura and Chessed, Levi-Yehuda, Yissachar-Zevulun, etc.

Getting back to the Ten Trials:

It goes without saying that Avraham and Sarah were a unit, they perfectly complemented each other. Avraham converted and taught the men and Sarah the women. They shared and lived the same dream and mission. Sarah endured and triumphed over the same trials that Avraham did. However, despite their love for one another and their perfect unity and symbiosis, they did not manage to complete the tikkun for Adam and Chava. This had to wait until Yaakov and the Twelve Tribes were born who stood at Har Sinai in complete unity and symbiosis. Only then was the world restored and reset to its state before the sin of the עץ הדעת. Again, after חטא העגל, we took a step backwards and are are still trying to complete that tikkun, thousands of years later.

Until the tikkun is complete, the punishments of Adam and Chava remain in effect, including וְאֶל אִישֵׁךְ תְּשׁוּקָתֵךְ וְהוּא יִמְשָׁל בָּךְ. As part of this punishment, even though there is equality and symbiosis between husband and wife and they are considered an integral unit, the reference to this unit is under the affiliation of Gvura, the male, the Torah. An example of this is Kiddush on Shabbat morning - לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה כָל מְלָאכָה אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ עַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתְךָ וּבְהֶמְתֶּךָ וְגֵרְךָ אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ. Where is אשתך in this list? It is not that the wife is allowed to do מלאכה on Shabbat chas veshalom, rather that אַתָּה includes the integral unit that is husband and wife, but under the male affiliation.

In reality Sarah underwent the same trials as Avraham, but because the tikkun was not complete, they are referenced under Avraham’s affiliation and not Sarah’s, as part of Chava’s punishment.

Today we live in troubling times, where the concept of opposing vectors working in symbiosis and balance to create an עזר is no longer “politically correct”. Our “progressive” modern culture seeks to jumble the vectors and equate them, not only in value, but also in direction. The result is a lack of balance and the vectors are spinning out of orbit. It is Am Yisrael’s destiny to restore this balance, to realign the vectors in their appropriate directions and to achieve the symbiotic balance between them. The fact that the vectors do not share the same direction does not mean they are not equal in value, but rather that each has a different purpose, of equal value.

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