THE FINAL EXAM
The date of the final exam was speedily approaching. David had been fully engrossed in continuous study for nearly a month, and the mere thought that the dreaded moment was so close at hand sent shivers up his spine.
The date of the final exam was speedily approaching. David had been fully engrossed in continuous study for nearly a month, and the mere thought that the dreaded moment was so close at hand sent shivers up his spine. Still, he fantasized about the tremendous happiness he would feel when, after turning in the test, he would be free to kick back and relax, basking in the glory of his success.
At the beginning of this week's Torah portion, on the heels of his triumphant return from the test of the akeidah (the binding of Isaac), Abraham is faced with the sudden death of his beloved wife Sarah and the subsequent need to make the appropriate burial arrangements. Rabbeinu Yonah, a classic Torah commentator, writes that the burial of Sarah was the final of the ten Divinely sent tests designed to determine whether Abraham was worthy of being the father of the Jewish people. As such, unlike most other commentaries, Rabbeinu Yonah says that the akeidah was not the tenth test, but rather the ninth test. Those who consider the akeidah to be Abraham's final test do not include the burial of Sarah in the count. We must ask ourselves: Why does Rabbeinu Yonah feel compelled to declare the burial of Sarah as the final test? Although it may have been a significant ordeal, its magnitude does not seem to even approach the challenge of being willing to sacrifice one's own son.
The situation seems comparable to the ultimate weight-lifting contest. Finally, after successfully lifting a remarkable 1000 pounds, the strongest man in the world wins the championship and sets an all-time record never to be approached by any other human being. The years of grueling training finally paid off in a moment of total ecstasy, and the exhausted weight-lifter was basking in the glory of his victory. But before the gold medal could be awarded, the referee pulls him aside and says, "Excuse me, but would you mind lifting those 50-pound barbells? I want to see if you truly deserve this medal." An observer of this scene would declare the referee to be completely out of his mind. The weight-lifter had indisputably proven himself to be the strongest man in the world, so why make him bother with a measly 50 pounds? Similarly, why is Hashem testing Abraham with the death and burial of Sarah - didn't Abraham already prove himself worthy with his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac?
Perhaps the answer, says Rabbi Betzalel Zolty, a great Torah scholar of the past generation, lies in a well-known insight into human nature. When a person is told to do something challenging, he will often view the formidable task as being a test and will make every effort to rise to the occasion. Therefore, upon receiving G-d's direct command to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham was fully aware that Hashem had asked him to do something extremely challenging. He was mentally prepared to push himself to the point that he could accomplish anything.
However, the burial of Sarah was different. It was a catastrophe that could have seemed like just another event in Abraham's life. Since it came without a specific command from Hashem to handle the impending situation properly, the episode could have easily blended itself into the normal course of lifecycle events. Yet, Abraham was still able to rise to the challenge and pass a test that others might never have even identified. It takes a true tzadik (righteous person) to properly handle the burial of Sarah. One can imagine the excitement Abraham must have felt upon returning from the akeidah, only to come home and face the extreme agony and torture of finding that Sarah had passed on. And if her sudden death wasn't enough, Abraham had to undergo the difficult process of finding a proper place for her burial, dealing with a swindler like Ephron who went back on his word. The death of Sarah demonstrated that Abraham was a complete tzadik at all times, someone who lived every moment in total righteousness.
Looking back at Yom Kippur, we remember that for a 24-hour period we recited the verse "Baruch shem k'vod malchuto l'olam va'ed - Blessed is the Name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity" aloud, instead of in an undertone as we recite it the rest of the year. If you examine the passage in the Torah from which the Shema prayer is taken, you'll see that these beautiful words are not a part of the actual text itself. They were added to our daily liturgy by Moses when he heard the angels reciting them as a part of their praises of Hashem. Because of their lofty nature, throughout the year we feel unworthy of declaring this remarkable praise out loud. However, on Yom Kippur, when we ignore our body's physical requirements and involve ourselves only in the spiritual, we are elevated to the level of angels and are therefore privileged to say "Baruch shem" aloud. Once Yom Kippur comes to a close, we return to our regular custom of saying "Baruch shem" quietly.
The remarkable power of Yom Kippur is well-known to all of us. While we enter this holiest of days with all of the past year's sins piled upon us, we are freed of our sins if we do a serious and proper teshuvah (repentance). Hence, when the day comes to a close, we have achieved an even closer proximity to Hashem than on Yom Kippur itself. If so, why don't we say "Baruch shem" out loud on the day after Yom Kippur as well?
Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, the late Torah scholar and leader, explained that although we might be on a higher spiritual level after Yom Kippur, the tendency is that immediately after the shofar is blown and Yom Kippur comes to an end, we are already thinking about the bagels and lox we will be eating in a few minutes. Without pause, we rush back to our regular lives, relieved that the day has drawn to a successful conclusion. "Baruch shem" can only be said aloud when a person is in the perfect state of angels. On the day of Yom Kippur itself, despite our lower spiritual level, we are completely involved in the process of teshuvah. But what happens after Yom Kippur, when the judgment is finished and the pressure is off? Will we still strive to elevate ourselves as close to Hashem as we possibly can? It takes a true tzadik to be the righteous one even on the average weekday. That was Abraham.
Less than two months have passed since Yom Kippur. How far have we fallen from the lofty heights of angels that we achieved? We must not kick back and relax, like we would after completing a test in school for which we crammed all the information and then promptly forgot as soon as we handed in the paper. We should strive to continually grow with each passing day, whether it be calm or loud. One should realize how beautiful life is, and utilize every second to its utmost potential.
Yitzchak Saltz, who hails from Atlanta, is a junior at the Ner Israel High School in Baltimore.
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