The Reward is in Proportion to the Hardship
The Sages say, “Any man who has no wife lives without joy, without blessing, and without goodness…. In [Israel] it was stated: Without Torah and without a [protecting] wall” (Yebamot 62b). The Talmud supports this teaching by basing each of these characteristics on a verse in the Torah. Even if a man is completely pure and holy, he will only have joy and blessing if he is married. This is also the reason why man was created alone. It is only when he sensed the absence of joy, blessing, and Torah that Hashem put him to sleep and presented the woman to him, after which it is stated: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). As long as a man lives in his parents’ home, single, he is incomplete. However once he marries, he achieves fulfillment, as it is stated: “He called their name ‘Man’ on the day they were created” (ibid. 5:2), for woman is included in the term “Man,” for she is his partner.
Even if a man feels great joy in leaving the home of his father and mother to get married, he should realize that it is only then that hardships will begin, such as the obligation to provide for his family’s needs, as well as other problems that he must overcome.
It is written, “Go for yourself from your land…from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). In other words: “From your father’s house,” go from the home of your father and mother, leave your parents and go “to the land” – to your wife – who is symbolically represented by the earth, as the Sages have said: “Esther was as the ground of the earth” (Sanhedrin 74b). She is also called “a field” (Shabbat 118b), “that I will show you.” Such is your destiny, and it is for your good, for she is your other half – destined to you by Heaven – and you shall live with her.
It may be that a man prefers not to marry at all, as was the case with Ben Azzai, who devoted himself entirely to Torah study and said: “But what shall I do, seeing that my soul is in love with the Torah? The world can be carried on by others” (Yebamot 63b). As Rabban Yochanan asked, “With a millstone around his neck, will he learn Torah?” (Kiddushin 29b). The Talmud recounts that King Hezekiah, who did not marry, “Planted a sword by the door of the schoolhouse and proclaimed, ‘He who will not study the Torah will be pierced with the sword.’ A search was made from Dan to Beer Sheba, and no ignoramus was found…no boy or girl, man or woman was found who was not thoroughly versed in the laws of cleanliness and uncleanliness” (Sanhedrin 94b). G-d would have even made King Hezekiah the Messiah if he had not renounced marriage due to his fear of having wicked children (Berachot 10a) and being subjected to the hardships of marriage.
However a man cannot avoid this. He must understand that it must be beneficial to him. Only marriage enables a man to attain perfection, even if the difficulties involved are many.
How can a man actually achieve eternal life through marriage? It is because of the light that envelops them – husband and wife – under the wedding canopy. G-d’s Name rests upon them at that moment, as the Sages have said: “When husband and wife are worthy, the Shechinah abides with them” (Sotah 17a). This is due to the letter yud in the word ish (man) and the letter hei in the word isha (woman), which together form the Name of G-d (Yud – Hei). The letters vav and hei are contained in the word chuppah (wedding canopy), and these four letters combined form G-d’s Name, which protects them from all harm. This happens when they marry with the intention of observing the mitzvot and building a home founded on Torah and the fear of G-d. It is then that G-d’s light envelops them, and thus in the word chuppah there remains only the letters chet and peh, which form the word chap (void), meaning void of all sin. When they are under the chuppah with the intention of building a home in holiness and purity, they are saved from a pach (trap), the inverse of the word chap, which represents what is rejected, and thus the celestial light envelops them and gives them joy for the rest of their lives. This is the meaning of “they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). The hardships of marriage are great, but G-d showers all His blessings on those who overcome them.
Look at how great a man our father Abraham was, “the greatest man” according to the Sages (Bereshith Rabba 14:6). When he heard G-d’s command to “Go for yourself from your land” (Genesis 12:1), he was prepared to give up all his undertakings and activities without protest or hesitation, as it is written: “So Abraham went as the L-RD had spoken to him” (v.4). He “journeyed on, journeying steadily toward the south” (v.9), without knowing where his steps would lead. Thus he arrived in the Holy Land, which he walked through from north to south and from east to west, receiving a reward for each of his steps.
It is written, “There was a famine in the land, and Abram descended to Egypt to sojourn there” (Genesis 12:10). Despite G-d’s promise, Abraham found Israel to be an arid land that produced nothing. However its neighbor Egypt – “steeped in immorality” (Shemot Rabba 1:18) and filled with witchcraft and impurity (see Menachot 85a) – was awash with food. Yet Abraham did not complain, and contrary to his will he descended into Egypt, into that impure land, for he accepted G-d’s commandments with love and overcame all the hardships he encountered.
This is the way to serve G-d. The evil inclination instills doubts into a man’s hearts, precisely when he must, without apparent reason, confront numerous hardships. In fact if we wholeheartedly obey G-d’s commandments, yet are afflicted by suffering and tragedy, this will naturally lead us to question G-d’s ways. We must know how to resist the suggestions of the evil inclination as it tries to sweep us up in doubt. On the contrary, we must confront these hardships and overcome them, for it is in this way that we will be counted among the King’s soldiers, for G-d does not send a man trials that he cannot overcome. One who accepts such trials can definitely overcome and conquer them, enabling him to rise to spiritual levels beyond comprehension.
It is a good idea to cite the advice of the Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian, of blessed memory, in his book Lev Eliyahu concerning Abraham’s war against the kings: “This war is surprising, for it is clear that it progressed in a supernatural way, and it was only due to miracles that Abraham was victorious. According to one opinion, he went out to war accompanied only by his servant Eliezer; according to another, with only 318 servants (Nedarim 32a). However it may be, this small number of men conquered the armies of four kings, whose powers are indicated by their spectacular victory against the five kings that had destroyed all the peoples in their way. Among these people were the Rephaim, so-called because whoever saw them became weak (rapheh – Zohar III:160b) and the Emim, who terrorized (ayem) everyone (Bereshith Rabba 26:7). How did Abraham manage to conquer them? ‘The dust that he threw at them turned into arrows and projectiles’ (ibid. 43:3). It is obvious that all the surrounding peoples witnessed the miracles performed by Abraham. We should therefore be surprised that these very same peoples became so guilty of sin. It is possible that they really forgot that a Judge and justice exist? How did they manage to arrive at such extreme wickedness after having witnessed such miracles?”
The answer is that it is precisely a person who is given the opportunity of knowing the truth and standing on the path of repentance that risks being subjected to difficult trials. Instead of receiving good and blessing from G-d, that person is liable to experience only tragedy and suffering. Therefore despite the blessing and promise connected with “Lech Lecha,” a person may experience hardships and suffering meant to improve his character traits and perfect him. These are meant to put his strength to the test, as it is written: “So as to test you, to know what is in your heart, whether you would observe His commandments or not” (Deuteronomy 8:2), and “In order to afflict you and in order to test you, to do good for you in your end” (v.16).
Having witnessed such miracles and wonders with his own eyes, as well as Abraham’s complete victory, the king of Sodom said: “Give me the people and take the possessions for yourself” (Genesis 14:21). He abandoned every treasure and all the spoils of war, yet in the end he fell back into his terrible heresy. He oppressed his own people to the point that history records the name of his land as being a symbol of cruelty and tyranny, one of humanity having lost the image of G-d.
It is astonishing that the people of Sodom and Gomorra, despite having witnessed such great miracles, fell so low (Hagigah 5b). Why did that happen? It is because they did not overcome the hardships inflicted on them by G-d, and consequently they did not elevate themselves. The affection that the king of Sodom expressed for Abraham was selfish in nature. It was based on miracles, and it is in man’s nature to fall back into heresy when miracles cease or are forgotten. Thus the love of the king of Sodom disappeared “when that consideration vanish[ed]” (Perkei Avoth 5:16).
One who has returned to G-d must be careful not to fall back into doubt or to let it seep into him. He must realize that if he is to love G-d, it should not be by considering past miracles or by hoping for future ones, for such love risks disappearing along with its cause. On the contrary, he must strengthen his connection to G-d with renewed vigor, with no preconditions, and without seeking personal gratification.
Abraham was the antithesis of the perverted inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorra. He loved G-d with an unselfish love, and each time that he received a command from G-d, he obeyed it without ulterior motives or thinking about the benefits that he would derive from it. He knew that G-d alone is the “owner of the building” (Bereshith Rabba 39:1). It is to Him that a person must address his prayers, and He is that One that a person must serve. He alone is the Creator of light and darkness. He makes peace reign, nothing is hidden from Him, and nothing escapes His view. He alone rules the world. When Abraham achieved this degree of deeply rooted faith, nothing in the world could detract him from it, as it is written: “You selected…Abraham. You found his heart faithful before You” (Nehemiah 9:7-8). In all circumstances and at every occasion, Abraham remained pure in his faith, in the sense of “be perfect” (Genesis 17:1).
Abraham’s last trial, the sacrifice of Isaac, was the most difficult of all. “G-d said to Abraham, ‘I implore you, do not disappoint me in this trial’ ” (Tanhuma Vayera 22). Why such a plea? Did Abraham need for G-d to, as it were, beg him?
How could Abraham – who assembled and increased the number of Torah followers, brought them under the wings of Divine protection, accustomed them to proclaiming G-d’s Name (Sotah 10b), converted numerous people to Judaism, and explained to everyone that they must abandon their idols and serve G-d alone – how could he sacrifice his son? Would Abraham have to destroy, with his own hands, the future of the Jewish people by sacrificing his only son, his beloved?
In his book Lev Eliyahu, the Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian writes, “This is like a king who tells his prime minister, the one who loves him and who educated and raised his sons: ‘Here, I am giving you a sharp sword as a gift, but only on condition that you decapitate all the king’s sons, the ones you take of. If you do not obey me, this sword will pierce your heart.’ It is certain that this minister will reply to the king: ‘I am willing to die prematurely in order not to harm the king’s sons. In addition, my refusal proves to the king that I love him, and perhaps the king is only giving me such a directive to test my faithfulness. Thus if I fail by actually carrying out the king’s command, he will cut off my head and say, “It’s like this that you love the king!” ’ It is the same for Abraham. How could he sacrifice his son with his own hands, thus depriving himself of descendants and causing tremendous anguish to those around him?”
However it was the evil inclination which insinuated that the trial of the sacrifice was destined to reward Abraham if he disobeyed G-d. However Abraham, G-d’s servant, did not go through all the calculations involved in acting against G-d’s directive, and he rejected such apparently justified and obvious arguments. On the contrary, he hastened to obey it and placed his trust in G-d, knowing that He did not want to make him fail by commanding him to do something that was contrary to His will. G-d, Who knows the depths of the heart and mind, knew that Abraham only wanted to sanctify His Name in the world. G-d was aware of his faithfulness, and He did not actually command him to “sacrifice” his son, but only to “bring him up there as an offering” (Genesis 22:2), as it is written: “You have taken him up. Now take him down” (Bereshith Rabba 56:8).
To conclude, we may say that the Mishnah (which details Abraham’s tests) conceals a profound idea: “With ten tests was our father Abraham tested, and he withstood them all – to indicate how great was the love of our father Abraham for G-d” (Perkei Avoth 5:3). Since “the deeds of the fathers are a sign for the children” (Sotah 34a), we must model ourselves on Abraham and overcome hardships as he did. In addition, G-d knew that the Satan would accuse the Children of Israel later on at the Sea of Reeds by saying that they too, like the Egyptians, were idolaters (Shocher Tov 15:5). It was in this way that G-d introduced the cure before the illness (Megillah 13b) by testing Abraham ten times, with the goal of having his children benefit from his merit through the miracles that occurred in Egypt and at the Sea of Reeds. Abraham had to be tested, not for himself but for us, in order to preserve our future. This is the meaning of “to indicate how great was the love of our father Abraham for G-d,” for G-d tested him to prove to the accusers how much He loved him. By stating, “he withstood them all,” the Mishnah wants us to realize that it is in man’s nature to want to avoid hardship and flee from it, and it wants to highlight the fact that Abraham did not feel that his trials weakened him, but rather that they strengthened him. This is the sense of the word nissayion (test), which has the same root as the word neis (banner), as in the verse “Raise a banner over the peoples” (Isaiah 62:10), and “Stand up, be glorified” (Zohar I:140a,b). Similarly, all the trials that each man undergoes are meant to raise him higher, to ever-greater levels of spirituality.