There are a few types of situations in life that require such an instinctual reaction that they reveal a little bit of who we really are. I’m talking about those situations where thinking doesn’t seem to help, or those moments that happen before thoughts can take place. Tonight, I’m talking about slamming an iron gate shut on my finger.
While immensely painful and temporarily debilitating, I couldn’t help but smile while I nursed my throbbing finger back to health under a bag of frozen broccoli (I’m out of ice and there aren’t ice packs, gotta be creative). For a large part of my life, it was one of those silly things that would have immediately drawn out a four-letter expletive. The last few years, I’ve sufficed to react with a sharp breath in and, in tonight’s case, throwing my keys onto the futon and running for the nearest bag of frozen veggies to stop the swelling. I would call that progress.
Why do I call a change in my response to a small injury ‘progress’?
The human intellect is a powerful tool. If it’s well-exercised, the possibilities are limitless. I’ve noticed over years that people (myself included) can be convinced into or out of something in a matter of minutes if they encounter someone they deem “intellectually superior.” I’ve also noticed that we can even convince ourselves... A small lie that we convince ourselves is true until it becomes part of a modified memory… A social norm that we convince ourselves is desirable… A good decision that we convince ourselves out of because it doesn’t fit with “the plan.”
Over the last several years, I’ve made huge changes in my life. What I like to think of as good changes, positive changes. Corporate ladders, club scenes, and fashion line-ups fell out of my daily thought patterns, replaced by things like family connections, charity, and becoming closer to G-d. But the question is this: How do I know that I haven’t convinced myself into these patterns? That I can think my way into giving charity when I don’t want to, and I can think my way into treating my family nicer, and I can intellectually convince myself that I’m trying my hardest to get closer to G-d… how do I prove it’s not just a facade? How do I prove that some of it has actually sunk in beyond my conscious thought processes?
It’s a hard thing to prove, and many times it takes a gut reaction to put our internal workings clearly on display.
Forgoing a four letter word may have been a small victory, but it was a subtle proof that these character changes are a result of something deeper than conscious thoughts.
There is a well-known story in the Torah that debuts this week. You may have heard of it: the Akeida. It’s the story where Abraham takes his son Isaac and brings him up to a mountain (what would later be the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) to sacrifice him on an altar. Why? Because G-d said so.
To make any sort of sense of this story, more than a little background is necessary. I can’t begin to cover all of the wisdom and commentary that the Sages bring on this story, but in a few places they point out that this is actually the final one of ten different tests that Abraham was put through by G-d before being officially chosen as the forefather of the Jewish people. What made this task so different that the commentator Rashi would say that failing the Akeida would have proven all other tests insignificant? Why was this test more difficult than waging war against four kings or circumcising himself at the age of 99?
It turns out that it all comes down to motivation.
At the tender age of three, our forefather Abraham had already reached the logical conclusion that there could only be One G-d. He spent the next 72 years of his life traveling the world and making others reach the same decision, all before he ever heard a single word from G-d Himself. Then, from the second G-d made Himself known to Abraham on a personal level, there were nothing but challenges. One test after the other, Abraham pushed through them with ease. In his mind, they weren’t tests of faith at all; they were challenges standing in the way of the goal he had been working towards for almost a century: make others call out in the name of G-d. It made logical sense to complete these tasks which would show the world how powerful G-d is and how complete Abraham’s dedication was. And so, while Abraham’s intentions were only for the most holy of goals, there was still an ulterior motivation. Abraham was convincing himself.
Then, we suddenly find ourselves at the Akeida. Logic no longer applies. The goal that Abraham has been working toward his entire life, the spreading of the knowledge of G-d in the world, is dependent completely on having an heir to continue his work for the later generations. That heir is lined up to be the next sacrifice. Abraham could no longer find a place in his thoughts for this scenario to make sense. His own motivations had no choice but to fall to the wayside.
This was crucial. It was a choice that had to be made, an option presented by G-d with the request of “please.” Abraham could have said no… it wasn’t a commandment after all. No one would have blamed him, and no punishment would be waiting. Yet it was time to abandon the logic that had gotten him so far. It was time for instinct, for a gut reaction.
Abraham’s reaction was, of course, for G-d. Despite that all of his other decisions were based on reason, his faith had permeated beyond thought, beyond intellect, and beyond consciousness. His very being was aligned with the will of G-d, and even at a time when every ounce of his logic would have demanded the opposite action, his essence came through and revealed that he was the forefather the Jewish people needed.
Abraham didn’t just pass his own personal test that day. He blazed a path that countless Jews would follow throughout the millennia. He opened a new spiritual channel that allows each of his descendants to connect to G-d in that same selfless way without having to fight those difficult battles. He enabled us to take what makes logical sense in our relationship with G-d and, over time, internalize it. He allowed us to make small changes not just out of convincing our conscious selves that it’s the right thing to do, but as a humble effort to reconnect simply because that’s what G-d wants, without all of the ulterior motives.
If I was able to react without a four letter word tonight, it was due to Abraham’s perseverance. So the next time we face an impossible challenge, or the next time we need our instinctual reactions to align with a higher purpose, just know that the path is there for us. Abraham cleared it out and G-d is right there walking with us the whole time. And if it’s a little painful along the way… well, that’s what bags of frozen veggies are for.