One of the things that I find most delightful about Midrash is its unpredictability. And yet it is rare for a midrash to leave me as puzzled as one I recently noticed, comparing the tests of Avraham and Iyov. In this midrash (Tanchuma, Shelach 14), God intends to test Avraham one more time after the akeidah (the reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah). And had Avraham not been prescient and made God swear not to give him any more tests, before He could get to it, that test would have been the test of Iyov.
There are many things about this midrash I find disconcerting. More than anything else is the notion that there was a harder test than that which Avraham was actually given. I have always thought that every detail of that test was specifically designed to make it as difficult as possible. And most difficult of all was that Avraham would have to relinquish everything that he had become, namely the human model of Godly kindness. In that regard, he was being asked to actively destroy his own soul. Though no one would ever want to go through what Iyov did, I cannot see it as more difficult than destroying one’s soul. For whereas Iyov was a passive witness to the antithesis of the divine order to which he so fully subscribed, Avraham was commanded to be an active participant in its overthrow.
There is another major issue I have with the midrash – its showing Avraham’s desire to avoid more tests because he feared that he would not have passed them. Yet after passing the akeidah and understanding the reward that accrued to his descendants as a result, why would he choose to prevent God form giving him any more tests?
There are several ways to explain this midrash nevertheless. One is that while true that Avraham’s test was more difficult than Iyov’s as a whole, it does not mean that there were no aspects of Iyov’s tests that would be beyond what Avraham experienced even at the akeidah. Any given event is made up of many different facets. Hence if a person has worked themselves up to running marathons, it does not mean they will be able to swim for even a hundred meters. The latter is certainly much easier than the former, but it does not rely exclusively on the same strengths and skills.
Another approach is that Avraham was so drained by the akeidha that he did not have the energy for any other serious test, even if were to be less strenuous than what he had just endured. To go back to our marathon runner, don’t ask him to run another 10 kilometers right after he has just run a marathon. Obviously a shorter run is less strenuous, but there is a need to recuperate from the previous one before he can go start another one. Moreover if one pushes oneself too far, the needed recuperation may never occur.
In either case, the midrash is pointing out something very important about our moral development. And that is that no matter how hard we work on ourselves, we can never be totally prepared for the challenges ahead. And that is actually a good thing. Not only would life be less interesting, but a great deal of its meaning would otherwise be taken away. For as Rebbe Nachman said, “If you are not a better person tomorrow than you are today, what need have you for a tomorrow?”
And one does not have to be on the level of an Avraham for the above teaching to be relevant. In these days of introspection, it is important to realize that whatever we have accomplished in the past will not necessarily protect us from future mistakes in the same area. Hence the importance of examining not only our past failures but even our past successes. In the case of the latter we are well advised to look at what aspects of these accomplishment still needs shoring up. Moreover, how sustainable was it? If it was something I was able to do just once but can’t bear the thought of doing it again, maybe I should look to accomplish things that I will want to repeat and build upon, rather than on herculean tasks that have no real future.
Indeed one wonders about Avraham’s life after the akeidah. What was left for him to accomplish? The answer is as long as there is life, there is something significant to accomplish.