The New York Times recently published an article interviewing a former captive of the notorious ISIS terror organization. Describing harsh conditions and cruelty that only the sickest minds can conjure, the former captives goes on to reveal that all the westerners that were held as hostages by the terror group, converted to Islam. Some out of the hope that it would diminish their captor’s cruelty towards them and others even anticipated that it would by them their long sought ticket to freedom. Some captives only practiced their new religion on the outside, while others really took it serious. Sadly, it didn’t achieve its desired affect and most of the hostages didn’t survive, except those few that their country managed to bail them out. But what’s interesting, notes the former captive is that there was one captive that didn’t convert, not even for an external display, and that was a Jew by the name of Steven Sotloff. The former captive goes on to describe that Steven even went so far as to observe mitsvot in private, when possible. He fasted on Yom Kippur, prayed every day facing Jerusalem and many more mitsvot.
It sounds amazing that the only one that didn’t convert under those harsh inhumane conditions was a Jew. Steven portrayed great courage and strength, as well a deep commitment to torah. Not converting even when that could be your only way to stay alive is giving one’s life al Kiddush Hashem!
Not downplaying what Steven did in any way, however, when most of us hear about Steven we don’t get too excited. We are definitely awed and proud of the tremendous strength and courage that he displayed yet we are not taken by surprise. Unfortunately, and for no fault of our own, our excitement has been dimmed by the repetition of this scenario. Sadly the age old option of ‘’convert or die’’ has been posed to us in basically every generation. Whether it was facing a crowed of blood thirsty Spaniards in 1492 or a band of wild ruthless Ukrainian peasants in 1648, and even the locals of York in the early middle ages.
For the last millennium we’ve been faced with this undesirable predicament time and again. We performed outstanding, gladly choosing the cruel death our tormentors managed to come up with, then to give up our Judaism. Time and again shocking our tormentors with strength they thought humans couldn’t possibly posses. The reality is, Sadly we’ve been numbed to appreciate the greatness of giving one’s life to sanctify G-d’s name.
Steven definitely performed outstanding, but not unprecedented. To our great dismay we have many such heroes in our bloody history. (Among the religions that preach love)
Avraham Avinu is praised for withstanding ten vigorous tests. In order to be the progenitor of the people that are destined to make a covenant with God, he had to prove himself. If he was chosen out of all humanity in his day, we can surely assume that those tests wore of high caliber, none precedented and perhaps none repetitive. For if not, what was so special and unique about him withstanding those tests? If anyone can do it why is he so praised for it?
Let’s take a look at the first nessayon,test.
Avraham was presented with the age old infamous choice of ‘’convert or be thrown to the flames’’. Mustering all the strength and courage that he possessed, Avraham chose the raging tongues of fire. Giving up his life to sanctify G-d’s name is no small achievement, perhaps the greatest of deeds. But we must ask ourselves, is he the only one that managed to withstand a test of such magnitude? Aren’t there others that managed just the same? And seemingly without so much effort. We previously pointed out, that sadly our history is decorated with these kinds of heroic personalities. Every generation had its opportunity to sanctify G-d’s name in such a manner. So, why is Avraham avinu credited so immensely for something that so many have achieved and perhaps with less difficulty?
In his commentary on perkiy avos , R’ Chaim vallaszon raises this question. He suggests the following. For Avraham avinu to overcome the nessayon it took a tremendous amount of strength and effort on his part. But once he succeeded and emerged victorious, it became a part of him, a component of his genetic code. In turn Avraham avinu passed it on to his descendents, for them it became an inborn trait. The relative, superhuman effort that was necessary for him to apply in order to overcome is no longer needed for his children, for they inherited this wonderful gift, they already have it in them. All they need to do is reach inside their vast reservoirs and retrieve the necessary strength, that is already theirs.
Based on this above R’ Chaim goes on to explain an interesting phenomenon that we are witness to every so often. It’s not very common but surely not unheard of, for a person to suddenly drop everything pick himself up and move to Erets yisroel, leaving everything behind, from family to friends and many times a flourishing business, all this in order to tread on holy soil. The strength for this explains R’ Chaim, is taken from the nessayon of lech lecha. Avraham left everything behind to dwell in Erets yisroel.
He cites another example whereas a Jew experiences a difficult situation and emerges with his faith unshaken, exclaiming ‘’I don’t know why Hashem did that, but I trust him that it’s for the best’’. The strength for this stems from the nessayon of going down to Egypt.
After leaving everything behind and traveling for days on end, Avraham avinu finally makes it to Erets yisroel only to discover that the land is plagued by a severe famine, which forces him to wander even further, down to Egypt. Instead of wondering what happened to all those blessings he was promised. He silently makes his way to Egypt. All this he does with a pure and unshakable faith- in the one that has commanded and guided him till then. Nothing changed.
As his descendents, we have to realize the wonderful gift that we inherited. Each and every one of us has in him a vast reservoir of strength, the kind that we never dreamed possible. Throughout life we are all tested with various different nissyonos. Some seem doable, whiles others seem designed for angels to handle. When a nessayon that seems beyond us comes our way, we have to realize that we can withstand it. With Hashems help, we can reach beneath the surface and realize our yet untapped potential. It’s in our grasp.