We are told that Avraham was given 10 tests and withstood all of them. There is no doubt that in Lekh Lekha Avraham has many trials, but it is somewhat of a question of whether he withstood them all or not. Ramban states that when Avraham goes down to Egypt because of the famine, he did a grave sin, for he did not have enough faith in God’s promise to give him the land. Similarly, when Avraham complained – “Behold to me You have not given a son,” it sounds like Avraham is doubting God’s promise. This is too much for Ramban, who reinterprets this as Avraham’s concern that his sins would cause him to lose the blessing that God had promised him. Ramban expects Avraham to have this absolute faith in God, and takes him to task or reinterprets the verse when this seems to not be the case. In a similar fashion, Ramban is bothered by the verse, “He believed in God, and it was accounted to him as righteousness,” stated immediately after God reaffirms the promise to Avraham that he will have a son. Why, asks Ramban, should it be a big deal that Avraham had faith in God’s promise? To answer this question, Ramban reinterprets the verse to not be referring to Avraham’s faith at all.
However, perhaps the issue in all these cases is not faith or lack of faith, but a question of the kind of faith that one has. Ramban wants Avraham to believe that God will sustain him in Canaan even in the midst of a severe famine. Consider, however, Malbim’s approach. Avraham, says Malbim, passed the test by going down to Canaan. He continued to have faith that God would keep His promise, even when all the evidence pointed to the contrary, and at the same time he did not think or expect that God would perform miracles and change nature just for him and just to make this happen.
This approach is the key to understanding these episodes with Avraham. The touch on the nature of faith which, in some way, is connected to one’s understanding of God. What was Avraham’s understanding of God? Consider the debate between Rambam and Ra’avad. Rambam states (Hil. Avoda Zara 1:3) that Avraham spent decades grappling theologically and philosophically until, at the age of 40, he came to the philosophical truth about God’s existence and understood that God was the First Cause of all of creation. Ra’avad comments on this and states that there are those who disagree and say that Avraham recognized God at the age of 3. For Rambam, the rationalist, Avraham’s knowledge of God was a rational one reached at the age of 40. For Ra’avad, the kabalist, it was one outside of reason, and achieved at the tender age of 3.
This is not just a question about how one knows God; it is also a question of the nature of one’s faith in God. For some, to have faith in God is to believe that God can and will constantly work outside of nature and will shape history and events at the macro and micro levels. For others, God is the ultimate Creator of all things, and God’s promises and plans will ultimately be fulfilled, but at the same time we must know that we live in a natural world, governed by laws of nature, and we should expect the world and events to follow these rational laws.
The latter is a type of emunah that can be hard to maintain. If one truly believes in God’s promises but also truly believes in the natural course of the world, then it is often unclear how the promises will be fulfilled. At times, it may even seem absurd. And yet, nevertheless, one has faith. Avraham goes down to Egypt, and still has faith – although it seems to make no sense. Avraham does not know how he will have a son. “Behold You have not given me a son.” He believes, but he cannot understand, so he is torn up inside, and he shares his feelings with God. And because he does believe although he does not understand, “God considered it as righteousness.” If he had been less rooted in the real world, it would have been easier to believe. But he was able to believe in two contradictory things – in God’s promise and in the natural way of the world – and that was a major accomplishment.
If one can embrace the absurd, then such a faith can be made easy. But if one is a realist, then such a faith can cause much anguish. It is for this reason, perhaps, that when God tells Avraham that Sarah will bear him a child, he asks God – “Were that Yishmael would live before you.” Avraham is saying to God, “You have already fulfilled your promise to me that I will have a son. It was hard enough to keep that faith alive when the real world was constantly contradicting this and I could see no way that this could happen within the natural order of things. Please don’t now promise me that I will have a son through Sarah. How – in the real world – can a 100 year old man and 90 year old woman have a son? I will believe it, of course, but it will be a belief of struggle and anguish.”
The flip side of all this struggle, however, is that with such a rootedness in the real world coupled with a deep faith in God, one not only passively sees God working in the real world, but one also see it as his responsibility to actualize God’s presence and God’s promises. This is a faith that leads to action. If things must happen whithin the natural order of things, then we must be the agents to make them happen. When Avraham’s nephew is taken captive, Avraham does not wait for a miracle. He runs after Lot’s captors with his small army and is victorious. And at the same time, because of his faith, he sees this as God’s hand, and gives a tenth of the captured wealth as a gift to God. This is one of the profound messages of the institution of income tithing, of ma’aser kesafim, which is traced back to this event. We must act ourselves to accomplish in the world, but when we act, we must realize that our success and our wealth is not our own accomplishment, and thus the money that we have earned belongs to God as well.
Ultimately, this is a faith that can fill someone with a deep sense of mission and purpose. If one believes in the world, and one believes that God’s will and promise will be realized in the world, but also believes that the nature of the world will not change and that miracles cannot be relied on, then one will realize that it is up to him or herself to be a part of making God’s will become reality. Avraham is the one figure in Torah who is most inwardly driven by a sense of mission. He is the one who goes everywhere, calling out in the name of God, trying to heighten the awareness of God throughout the world, trying to actualize God’s presence in the world. This sense of mission is a product of his faith. Because he believes in God and because he believes in the world as it is, he must also believe in himself. Ayn hadavar taluy ela bi, “The matter is dependant only on me.” It is he who can and he who must call out in the name of God, and thus will God’s promises be fulfilled.