I spent Shabbat as a Scholar in Residence at my old shul, the Young Israel of Oak Park. Here's the drashah that I gave.
Eli, imagine that archaeologists in Iran somehow discovered to old report cards of Avraham Avinu – his mother saved everything in earthenware jars. Except back then he wasn’t Avraham Avinu; he was just plain Avram. What would his teachers have written on his report card? You might think that he would have gotten all A’s. After all, he’s one of the greatest leaders and teachers in our national history. And, as we all know, the Midrash teaches us that even from a very young age, he sensed the presence of God. But you’d be wrong. He didn’t get all A’s. The comments would have looked something like this:
“Avram is very disruptive in class. He doesn’t pay attention, especially during idolatry.” (that’s from his Zoroastrianism teacher). And his homeroom teacher would have written: “Avram refuses to pray to the idols like the rest of the class, and instead fidgets uncontrollably during idol worship.” And of course there would be the mark about his suspension from school for damaging school property.
You see, Avram, even from a very young age was different. But that difference wasn’t easy, far from it. It must have been very, very hard to be different than everyone around him. But that struggle, perhaps more than anything else, is what made Avram into Avraham Avinu. By facing difficult challenges, and overcoming those challenges, Avram became Avraham, and unlocked the potential hidden inside him that would ultimately change the world.
In fact Eli, the entire Parshah that you read today is a chronicle of Avram’s lifelong experience of being different. The very first commandment God gives Avram – לך לך מארצך וממולדתך ומבית אביך – “Go forth from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s home” – that command, in the language of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot, represents the first of a series of tests that Avram must pass on his journey to greatness.
עשרה ניסיונות נתנסה אברהם אבינו עליו השלום ועמד בכולם, להודיע כמה [גדולה] חיבתו של אברהם אבינו עליו השלום [על הקדוש ברוך הוא[
Our forefather Avraham was tested with ten tests, and he passed them all, to teach us how great was God’s love for Avraham Avinu.
The first test? Leave your homeland. Leave your comfort zone. Go away, where no one knows you, where your reputation won’t help you, and begin life anew. Avram followed this commandment precisely. For the rest of his life he was known as אברהם העברי – which some think means, “Avraham the Hebrew” – but that’s not accurate. עברי refers to עבר הנהר – from the “other side of the river.” He’s Avraham from “over there” – he’s not from “here” – wherever “here” happens to be. It’s hard to always live life as a stranger. But that’s what he does, always moving from place to place to place.
The entire story of Avram is a series of tests: he leaves his home in חרן and travels to כנען. Almost as soon as he gets there there’s a famine, and he must leave once again. And then his wife is commandeered by the Pharaoh of Egypt. And then he must fight a war to free Lot. The list goes on, one test after another.
Why? Why all these tests? Because, as the Mishnah says, to teach us how must God loved him.
We might have thought the opposite: My grandfather, עליו השלום, used to take us fishing in the canal behind his house in Miami. We never caught a single fish. Not one. But he used to ask us: Do you know what the fish say? They say: "If you like me, leave me alone."
Don’t you think that at some point Avram would have had the same feeling? "God, enough with the tests!" If you really love me, leave me alone and let me spread Your Name in peace." And yet, that’s not what happened. Challenge after challenge, test after test. Why so many tests? Why so many challenges?
Ramban suggests an answer that carries an important message for us all. Introducing the final test of עקידת יצחק, we read: - ויהי אחר הדברים האלה והאלקים נסה את אברהם -"And it was after these events, and God tested Avraham."
Again with the tests. Why so many tests? Why such a difficult one as asking him to sacrifice his beloved son? Ramban explains:
“The actions of man are of his own free choice whether he chooses to act or not; but the “tester” – God – commands him, in order to bring out from his potential into actuality, so that he will have the reward of a good action, and not just the reward of a good heart.
Yesterday I was in a shul in Cleveland, and the rabbi asked an interesting question. Last week, when the Torah introduced Noach, we read that נח איש צדיק, תמים היה בדורותיו – “Noach was a righteous man – a tsaddik, pure in his generation.” Why is there no such verse about Avraham, who must have been far greater?
The answer, I believe, is that Avraham wasn’t born אברהם אבינו. He had the potential for greatness; it was inside him, hidden in his heart. But only through challenge; by passing tests, and overcoming obstacles, did Avram release his hidden potential, and transform himself אברהם אבינו - into the person that changed human history.
People have been asking me about how things are in Israel. Thank God, for us personally – for me and Rena and the children, things are really great, thank God. Busy, but great.
But, as you know, it was a very, very challenging summer. Yad Binyamin, where we live, is 37 kilometers from the Gaza border, and we had about a rocket siren per day. That means dropping whatever you're doing, and running to the protected room in the house. Thank God, they usually fired at us during the day, so it wasn't so bad. But for people living in Ashkelon or Ashdod, it was far worse. The country spent the entire summer on pins and needles – defiant, strong. But the war, which followed the terrible murder of those three boys took a toll, and by the end of the summer the entire country was on edge. It was a very hard summer.
Then again, at the same time, it was perhaps the greatest summer for the Jewish people in decades. On the evening before the discovery of the bodies of those three boys, tens of thousands of Israelis from all walks of life - secular and religious - gathered in Rabin Square for an evening of prayer, and song, and unity. Those mothers – they were the embodiment of the Imahot; giving strength and inspiration to a nation. And then, during the war, people just gave; women made challot and cookies. People made hundreds of sandwiches, and just drove them down to the makeshift army camp outside Sderot. Barbers came down and gave free haircuts to soldiers. It got so crazy that the army simply had to close the area to civilians and say, “Thanks. We know that you love us, but we’ve got a war to fight.” People who had lived in Israel for decades said that they couldn’t remember the country being so united since the Yom Kippur War.
We were tested. And that test, and the painful sacrifices we made during those months brought out something that’s usually hidden and that we forget as we’re fighting the usual fights over budgets, and religious issues, and politics: We are one nation, and when pushed together, our power to love each other gave us a strength we didn’t remember that we have.
What was true for Israel this summer, is true for each of us as well. Most of us don’t enjoy struggle, and trial. We like things quiet. But that’s now how life is – life is about meeting the tests that we face head-on, and using those tests to become better people; better communities; and a stronger nation.
Eli, today might have been one of the hardest things that you’ve ever had to do, and we’re all – your parents, and teachers, and friends – so proud of you for the work that you put in for your Bar Mitzvah. And I’ve got good news, and better news. The good news is that for this week, the hard work is over, and now you can enjoy the Bar Mitzvah. But the better news is that for you, this is only the first test of many that you’ll face in life. And those tests, like the one that you had today, will challenge you – to become better, and different, and stronger, and make you the person that you have the potential to be.
Eli, anyone who meets you can sense your warmth and caring; your sensitivity to others, and your desire to help. In that sense, you’re following in your parents’ footsteps, who spend so much of their lives helping others: both in their professional lives and in the chesed that they do. When your mom isn’t helping the poor with legal aid, she’s working in the community, on shul committees, and with community institutions. And, aside from literally saving lives during his day job, your dad serves the country to ensure national emergency preparedness; he went to New York after 9-11, and spent weeks somewhere in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. So, if you’re wondering where you get that sensitivity and caring from, you don’t need to look that far.
Eli, as we celebrate your Bar Mitzvah together with you, the greatest brachah we can hope for you is that, as you grow, you continue to face your tests head-on; and, like Avraham, each success will make you a greater, more complete person. We will watch with excitement as you unlock and discover the greatness inside you, and become the person you are meant to be.