The Mishnah in Avot specifically, and Jewish tradition generally, instructs us that our father Abraham was constantly challenged with great tests in life and was able to survive and surmount all of them. There is an underlying difficulty to this narrative regarding the testing of Abraham. God after all is omniscient and knows well in advance what the reaction of Abraham will be to all the challenges that are placed before him. This being the case, then one can easily ask why bother presenting those challenges in the first place.
This fits in to the general question that Maimonides deals with when he attempts to reconcile God’s omniscience with the presence of human free will and free choice. His answer is that both exist and coexist and that is part of the secret of the fact that human beings and human logic can never truly understand the Infinite and the Eternal. So that is undoubtedly true in the case of Abraham and his challenges.
Even though ultimately we will be unable to arrive at a definitive answer to this question – almost all questions that begin with the word ‘why’ are never completely satisfactorily answered – nevertheless I believe that we can attempt to arrive at some sort of understanding as to the purpose of the tests that Abraham endured and overcame. The Torah would not have devoted so much space and such detailed descriptions to these events in the life of Abraham if there wouldn’t be eternal moral teachings present in the narrative that are relevant and true to all humans in all generations.
I think the obvious answer that jumps forth from the pages is that the tests are not meant to prove anything to Heaven as much as they are meant to prove the potential of greatness of Abraham to Abraham himself. It is our nature not to realize how great our potential is, how strong we really are, morally and emotionally, and to our surprise what we are capable of accomplishing.
It is one thing to profess that one has faith and is willing to make sacrifices on behalf of the preservation of that faith, whether personal or national. However, it is another thing completely to make those sacrifices, and to experience the emotional difficulties and even tragedies that life often visits upon us. A person never really knows what one’s true makeup is unless tested over a lifetime, with the Talmud’s graphic phrase that we are ultimately tested regarding our final resting place.
Abraham becomes great and stands erect after having successfully dealt with the challenges to his faith and to his vision that life and the environment in which he lived set before him. That is perhaps what the Torah indicates to us when it says that Abraham’s faith was of such power in nature that the Lord deemed it to be the paragon of righteousness. Righteousness is achieved only when challenges are overcome.
Rabbi Berel Wein