Changing how we perceive challenges.
This week’s Torah reading focuses on our Patriarch Abraham, who was faced with many hardships on his way to becoming one of the greatest people in the world; the founder of the Jewish nation. The first challenge mentioned is the commandment of “Lech Lecha.” God instructed him to leave the place where he was born and grew up, and to go to a distant and strange land, that would later become the Land of Israel. On top of that, when he finally reached the land, there was a famine. The Mishnah (Avos 5:4) says that he was challenged with ten tests, and he passed them all. Abraham followed God’s orders faithfully and spread the awareness of God wherever he went. Despite the fact that Abraham was born into a household of idol worshipers, and in a society which detested his philosophies, he persevered and reached high levels of closeness to God.
By contrast, another figure discussed in this week’s Torah reading is Lot; Abraham’s nephew. As Abraham ascended the ladder of success in spiritual achievements, Lot seems to have been heading the other way. Originally, he accompanied Abraham on his journeys, like a loyal student, following the Grand Master of good character. In time, however, he slowly drifted away. It started with a mere disagreement regarding the right to have their animals graze on the pasture of others. Abraham maintained that it was stealing, while Lot permitted himself to do so, rationalizing that God had already promised to give the land to Abraham. Eventually, Abraham told Lot that they must part ways, and Lot chose to live amongst the most wicked population around – in the city of Sodom. Moreover, our Sages tell us that when Lot made that decision, he said to himself, “I have no interest in Abraham, nor in his God” (see Rashi), and he went downhill from there on. Here we have two people who started off so close, but ended up so far apart. What was the cause of such a drastic parting of the ways?
Rabbi Moshe Rabinowitz enlightens us with the following insight: The Torah describes Sodom as being a beautiful place, rich in resources and materialism, with plenty of water, making it easy to produce crops. It was no coincidence that Lot ended up there. The Medrash says (Bereishis Rabboh 41:7) that Lot specifically sought out the most beautiful place in the area. Lot sought the easy way in life. Apparently, up until that point, it was not too difficult for Lot to follow Abraham. But once he was confronted with a difference with his illustrious uncle, he was not interested in yielding his desires. He could have given up on his greed in allowing his animals to graze in the fields of others for the sake of clinging to Abraham. But instead of overcoming the challenge, he said “forget it,” and he went to the place which suited a different kind of lifestyle. He chose a place of materialism, where he was able to live ‘the easy life’, in spite of the repulsive behavior practiced there.
This is where Lot had gone wrong. There is no path for ‘the easy life’ on the road of growth in this world. The program for self-improvement and elevating one’s soul in this world is designed to have challenges. It is precisely these challenges which bring out greatness from within us and bump us up to the next level. We too suffer from the same mistake. Whenever something disrupts our routines and unexpected difficulties arise, especially when we are in pursuit of a good deed, we feel like the challenge was uncalled for and should not have occurred. How wrong we are. It is specifically these unexpected challenges that are tailored for us to overcome and lift ourselves ever higher.
Some time ago, I was experiencing some financial strains which were disturbing my concentration in my Torah study. I was saying to myself, “If only I didn’t have this problem, I would be able to study so much better and serve God better.” Just then, this insight caught my attention, and I realized how wrong I was. These challenges were specifically meant for me to grow and serve God in a greater fashion, specifically by overcoming them. This change in attitude gave me renewed energy and empowered me to overcome the challenge.
It’s not always easy to accept this. But to whatever extent we manage to adapt our mindset, this perspective is a game-changer. If we were running on a race track, and all of a sudden we bumped into some logs laying across the track, and a little further there was a pile of rocks, we would become notably upset and frustrated. On the other hand, if we set off on an obstacle course and we encountered the same situation, we might find it difficult, but we would not dread it the same way, because we would understand that that’s the whole point. Growing in life occurs through challenges. The more we succeed in identifying ourselves as “running on an obstacle course,” the more we will be prepared to overpower our struggles and truly succeed in life.
email@example.com by Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber