It would seem that the life of Avraham Avinu reaches it’s crescendo in last week’s parsha with the Akaidas Yitzchok. Overcoming all doubts, preconceived notions and beliefs, Avraham Avinu manages to reach a level of complete attachment to Hashem so that even a request that seems to defy everything his life has stood for becomes an unquestioned observance.
And yet, Rashi provides us with what appears to be a postscript to this incredible encounter at the beginning of this week’s parsha. Avraham returns home from the Akaida to find that his beloved wife Sorah, his advisor and partner for over a century, has passed away. According to Rabbaynu Yonah this event is even harder than the Akaida and serves as the tenth test. One can only imagine the letdown Avrohom experienced after having climbed to the heights of Har HaMoriah and then come home to this unexpected tragedy. But, if this was not the tenth test, as Rabbaynu Yonah maintains, and in fact Avraham had finished his work, what is the connection of the death of Sorah and the Akeyda?
Rashi, of course, (I say of course because everyone is of course learning the parsha with Rashi every week. If not, this would be a great time to start so the next time I quote an obvious Rashi you can nod your head as you’re reading this instead of saying to yourself “Rashi says what?”) brings the Chazal that says that the Sotan told Sorah about the Akayda and she died from the shock. The Akaida, which served as Avraham’s zenith would prove the source of Sorah’s holy neshoma departing from this world.
Now this poses many problems. Can the Sotan just fly around scaring people to death? Let’s answer simply that it was Sorah’s time to go and the Sotan needed some way to take a tzaddakis who as Rashi tells us “was like a twenty year old without sin”. But perhaps the bigger question is the one posed by Reb Chaim Shmulevitz, the Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva. We know from the story of the sending away of Hager and Yishmoel that Hashem felt that on some level Sorah was greater than Avraham. How exactly she was is for another discussion, perhaps at your Shabbos table. But if Sorah was greater than Avraham, how is it that Avraham hears about the Akayda, wrestles with the Sotan for three days as they journey to Har HaMoriah, climbs the mountain and passes the test, but Sorah dies from just hearing about it. If she was greater than she should have been able to handle it as well as Avraham.
Reb Chaim gives three answers and I want to focus on the third. The reason Sorah couldn’t handle it was because it wasn’t her test! Hashem never gives us a test without giving us the strength to pass it. Avraham had the strength to do what needed to be done because it was his test. Sorah could die from just hearing about it.
In Yiddish they say everyone has their own pekela, their own special bundle of problems. And if everyone would sit around the table and take out their pekela and put it on the table, after you looked around, you would pick up your own package. Not necessarily because yours is easier, but because you know inside that you have the strength to handle your problems. But you could die looking at someone else’s problems.
Years ago on an Eruv Yom Kippur I got a phone call from a young man I knew. He asked if I had any time to meet with him. I told him it was Erev Yom Kippur and my schedule’s kind of tight. What is it about, maybe I can tide you over till after Yom Tov. He tells me he’s out of faith. Now Erev Yom Kippur is a bad time to be out of faith, so I asked him why he felt that way. He told me a story which was perhaps one of the saddest I have heard in my whole life. He was adopted by his grandparents after his father had been institutionalized and his mother tried to kill him. His grandparents weren’t well off so he had to help them during most of his free time in his grandfather’s store. That’s why he was there when the robbers shot his grandfather. He was the one who had to clean up the blood. He had one or two other relatives who all passed away during a short period of time.
Eventually he made his way to Eretz Yisroel and became frum. He had a very hard time finding a shidduch because he had health problems. Finally, he found a wonderful frum girl, got married a few years before and now, Eruv Yom Kippur, he got the results back from the doctors that he and his wife could never have children. He was out of faith. I told him I needed a little time and would call him back.
They tell a story with Reb Moshe Feinstein that once while he was speaking with an almana, there were some Yeshiva Bochurim waiting to speak to him. Since the door was ajar, they ended up eavesdropping on the conversation. They heard her telling Reb Moshe a tale of woe that had them all in tears. When she finally left, it was their turn to go in, but how could they face Reb Moshe knowing the emotional pain he had just experienced? Finally they entered, only to find Reb Moshe waiting for them with his usual pleasant and unperturbed countenance. They were stunned and it wasn’t difficult for Reb Moshe to deduce what had taken place. First, he upbraided them for listening in on the conversation. Then he explained to them that if you are to succeed in Klal work you must have one part of your heart that is closed and that no one can enter. Otherwise you will burn out and lose your effectiveness.
I have managed to maintain that standard through most of my career and my wife has at times been surprised how I manage to pull myself together almost instantly after a difficult meeting or conversation. So when she saw the look on my face when I hung up the phone she knew this must have been something pretty bad. I summed up the conversation for her and she said “Oh no, what are you possibly going to tell him?” I said “I already know what to tell him, I just need the strength to say it”.
When I finally called back I said to him, “I really don’t have a right to tell you what I am about to say, but I’m telling it to you because you know it’s emes. Rashi at the beginning of Parshas Toldos says that Yitzchok and Rivka were childless for ten years because Hashem loves the tefillas of tzaddikim. You and your wife must be very special people, because Hashem is pushing the two of you pretty hard. But you know that you have the strength inside to handle this.” He said to me that he already knew that, he just needed to hear it from someone.
I felt comfortable saying what I said, because I knew what Reb Chaim said, no one gets a nisayon without also getting the strength to pass it. But the rest of us can die sometimes from hearing the pain other people have to endure. Let’s hope that Moshiach comes soon and “אז ימלא שחוק פינו”, we’ll finally be able to fill our lives with joy because we’ll have seen all the tests passed and the Name of Hashem one in the world.