This week’s parsha contains the story of the purchase of the Cave of Machpela and the burial of the Matriarch Sarah. The Mishneh in Avos says that Avraham experienced 10 tests, which are listed or alluded to in the previous two parshios.
According to most commentaries, the commandment to sacrifice his son Yitzchak was the tenth and final test. According to most opinions, Avraham reached the apex of his spirituality when he passed that test.
The Rabbeinu Yona, in his commentary to Pirkei Avos, disagrees. Rabbeinu Yona lists the incident in this week’s parsha related to Sarah’s burial as the tenth and final test. The fact that Avraham has to buy a burial plot for his wife from Ephron, in the land promised to him by G-d, constitutes the tenth and final test. Avraham successfully passed this test when he had no complaints against the Almighty concerning this incident.
The Rabbeinu Yona’s opinion is based on a Gemara [Bava Basra 15b] which puts the following words into the mouth of the Satan: “Master of the Universe, I have traversed the whole world and found none so faithful as thy servant Avraham. For You told him ‘Arise, walk through the land to the length and the breadth of it, for to thee I will give it’ and even so, when he was unable to find any place in which to bury Sarah until he bought one for four hundred shekels of silver, he did not complain against thy ways.”
It is difficult to explain this Rabbeinu Yona. In past years, we have pointed out the “anti-climactic” nature of such a test. It certainly does not seem to fall into the same league as being prepared to sacrifice one’s son to the Almighty.
One of the approaches we have used to explain this difficulty is to give a “baseball analogy”. There is a difference between a regular game and the final game of the World Series. When a person knows that “this is it — crunch time!” he may be able to conjure up within himself great reservoirs of stre ngth. When a person knows that he is on the spot, he can sometimes act for a short time, on a supreme level that far surpasses his normal capacities. When Avraham was given the command to take his son and go with him to Mt. Moriah, he sensed that this was a big test. With that sense of the drama of the moment, he gathered in his entire spiritual might and power of concentration. The adrenalin flowed and he rose to the occasion.
The incident with Sarah’s burial plot was just another day of the week. He was faced with this distressing situation in a moment when he was not expecting a test. The adrenalin was not pumping. There was no voice in his head telling him “It is ‘nisayon’ [test] time – this is it!”
When a person rises to the occasion even under such circumstances, it proves his true nature -– to some extent -– even beyond what might be demonstrated in a test such as ‘Akeidas Yitzchak.’
This is what we have explained in past years. This year, we woul d like to take a different approach.
The word nisayon comes from the word ‘nes’, which means to demonstrate something, like a flag. The tests that Avraham passed are supposed to be lessons to us in terms of how we should act for all eternity. The only value then for us is when it is evident how Avraham acted under the circumstances of his tests.
What behavior of Avraham’s does the test of Sarah’s burial model? The behavior is the fact that Avraham did not have complaints or questions for the Almighty, when he experienced the frustration of having to pay a high price for a small plot of land in a country that G-d promised would belong entirely to him. He did not protest: “G-d, what are you doing to me?”
But how do we know that Avraham did not have complaints or questions? How can this story teach a lesson in how to act if we do not see anywhere that “Avraham did not question His Attributes”? Maybe he WAS thinking the whole time “This is not fair! This is not right! You promised me the whole land. Why do I have to deal with an Ephron here?” Maybe that was what Avraham WAS thinking.
True, it is a teaching of Chazal. But how do we know Avraham’s reaction? Where is the ‘nes’ – the flag flying to demonstrate all this? If we do not see it, then the whole point of the test -– that it should be a lesson for all future generations –- is lost.
The answer is based on an interesting terse comment in the Medrash (Bereshis Rabbah 58) on the pasuk “And Avraham prostrated himself before the members of the council” [Bereshis 23:12]. The Medrash states: “From here we see that thanks are offered on good news”. Why is the Medrash using this incident to teach about gratitude?
This is the second time Avraham is bowing down. Earlier, when he first appeared before the sons of Ches, he also bowed down [Pasuk 7]. The Medrash is pointing out that the second bowing down is not a civil greeting to the sons of Ches. That was accompli shed earlier. The second bowing down is bowing to the Almighty! It was an expression of thanksgiving at having received the “good news” that he finally has a gravesite for his wife.
If Avraham’s attitude was “I had it coming”, he would not have felt gratitude. Clearly, if he was moved to bow down to express his gratitude to the Almighty, that is a clear sign that he had no complaints and that he did not feel any resentment at the trouble he had to experience in order to acquire the grave. So this is where we see the ‘nes’ – the demonstration of the appropriate behavior that we should try to emulate. Despite the fact that perhaps he could have felt “it was coming to him,” he had no complaints. On the contrary he hastened to fully prostrate himself in gratitude to the Almighty.