Our tradition teaches us that Abraham faced ten tests from G-d from the opening command of this weekís Torah portion to the climactic and ultimate faith-testing binding of Isaac in next weekís Torah portion.
The Torah states: "There was a famine in the land, and Abraham went down to Egypt to live there, for the famine was severe in the land" (Genesis 12:10). The Ramban, one of the leading Torah scholars of the MIddle Ages, faults Abraham for taking his wife down to Egypt and exposing her to danger from the Egyptians. Instead Abraham should have demonstrated more faith in G-d in His protecting Abraham and his family.
Consequently, according to the Ramban, the Jewish people were punished with an extensive painful sojourn in Egypt. Ideally, Abraham should have remained in the land of Canaan, relying on G-dís grace to protect and sustain him and his family.
In stark and explicit contradiction, the Netziv, a 19th century Lithuanian Torah giant, lauds Abrahamís decision to move to Egypt. As the Torah states, "for the famine was severe in the land" ó the repetition of the severity of the famine informs us that so long as Abraham could sell his belongings, he relied on G-d until the famine directly impacted him. Then he determined on his own to leave Canaan.
In fact, this was Abrahamís test. He was not obstinate. Abraham understood this was G-dís message and intention and not, as the Ramban wrote, that Abraham sinned in going to Egypt revealing deficient faith in G-d. Certainly, Abraham acted out of faith to the extent possible, but his going down to Egypt was G-dís plan.
The two perspectives diverge in one way, but find common ground in another. The Ramban criticizes Abrahamís departure from the land that G-d had previously commanded him to travel to. Although Abraham felt compelled to leave, the Ramban argues that he should have been more steadfast and risky, feeling secure in G-dís protection. In contrast, the Netziv commends Abraham for his flexibility and taking responsibility for his decisions.
Along the spectrum of faith in G-d and personal perseverance (not relying on a miracle), this story relates to the ambitious position. While the Ramban expected Abraham to hold tight to the extreme of perfect faith in G-d by remaining in the famine-struck land risking his family, the Netziv found that Abraham struck the complex and subtle balance between demonstrating faith in G-d and personal effort.
After trying to neutralize the dangers of the famine by selling his property, Abraham realized the magnitude of the danger and, responsibly, with perfect faith, led his family out of G-dís land. Both positions reveal their high expectations of Abraham. The Ramban walked away disappointed, but the Netziv was proud of Abrahamís decision.
Micah Gimpel, a native Atlantan, writes from Israel.