Torah portion: One night in Tokyo
Although I was just a kid, I still remember my walk to synagogue on Feb. 12, 1990. It stands out because I passed a newspaper, and on the front page was something I had never dreamed of seeing.
There he was, laying on the floor, out for the count — the unbeatable Iron Mike Tyson, KO’d in Tokyo by an unknown boxer named Buster Douglas. How could this happen? How could a 37-0 undisputed heavyweight champion of the world take such a fall to such a nobody?
The answer actually can teach us something about our forefather Abraham. Tradition says Abraham faced 10 critical tests in his life. According to the most commonly accepted order, the final test was the biggest: the binding of Isaac. Abraham is asked to offer his beloved son on the altar and kill him. At the last moment, divine intervention stops Abraham. An array of creative thinkers has grappled with this scenario, from Maimonides to Soren Kierkegaard to Arcade Fire.
But there is another way to count Abraham’s 10 tests. The 13th-century Spanish scholar Rabbeinu Yonah places the binding of Isaac as the ninth test. He said the final test was whether Abraham would find the most sacred burial plot for his deceased wife, Sarah.
Wait a second … if Abraham has already passed the test of the binding of Isaac, what’s the point of following it up with something that, while meaningful, seems relatively minor-league? If you follow Rabbeinu Yonah’s count, shouldn’t God have stopped after nine tests?
I’d like to suggest two possible resolutions. The first is the zone of proximal development. Developed by Lev Vygotsky, who was admitted to Moscow State University in 1913 under a “Jewish lottery” when there was a 3 percent quota on Jews, the theory posits that recognizing a subject area where a child is challenged — just above the level they are comfortable with — is the sweet spot for child development. Information that is too easy for the child is below the range of optimal development, and information that is too challenging is beyond the normal mode of development. But if we can place that lesson in the perfect spot between too easy and too hard, then we have struck developmental gold.
Applied here, the test of the binding of Isaac was simply too hard. It was larger than life and, in some ways, didn’t truly assess the level Abraham was at. There are many people who step up when the tragedy is a huge one, but often, the response is less forthcoming when the tragedy or the pain of a friend is at a more moderate level. We are less likely to go into “battle mode” when the situation isn’t as dire.
The same could be said for Abraham. It’s important that he stepped up at the binding of his son, but what is Abraham really like when the challenge is not as dramatic? Finding a burial plot for his wife is deeply important but it is a natural part of life. How committed will he be and how far will he go to secure one of the holiest spots in the universe? With this test, Abraham has found his zone of proximal development.
There is a more important explanation to the quandary posed by Rabbeinu Yonah, however, and that goes back to Iron Mike. He was, without a doubt, the greatest boxer of the 1980; fights would end in record time as his legendary uppercut made a mockery of his opponents. But then it all changed with one fateful Shabbos night in Tokyo when the young legend lost to the epitome of all underdogs.
What happened? Sometimes, when you have done it all, you let your guard down. The real test comes only after you have reached the top.
Abraham had faced the greatest test that mankind would ever know by offering to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah. But would Abraham have the fortitude to stay strong? Or would he let his guard down?
We say in Psalms 24:3, “Mi ya’aleh B’Har Hashem” — who can ascend the mountain of God? And subsequently, “Mi yakum bimkom kodsho” — who can stay in His holy abode? It’s one thing to pass that great test. It’s another thing to stay at that same level.
Our lives are an aggregate of peaks and valleys, although we hope there are more peaks. We need to keep in mind that the goal is not to reach the summit — that’s just the beginning. When we accomplish a significant goal that we’ve been striving toward, it is at that moment that our real work begins.
May God give us the strength to climb the mountain, and may God give us the ability to stay there in victory.
Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn is rav and dean of Yeshivat Yavneh and the author of “Judaism Alive” (Gefen Publishing, 2015).