Abraham’s Trials: The Famine


Regarding the famine the Torah says as follows:

There was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land (Gen. 12:10).

Rashi comments:

Famine in the land: In that land only to test him whether he would be suspicious of God’s commands in that He had bidden him to go to the land of Canaan and now forced him to leave it (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 26).

Rashi makes the problem more difficult, saying that was the only land struck with the famine. God tells Abraham to travel to this place, and now that is the only place suffering a famine. So, what was the trial?

The idea of a trial here is the same as in all other instances. A person under a command from God [leave your home town and go to a new place] naturally feels “All will now go smoothly.” People seek to feel that God is guiding their lives. This is why people tend to say, “This is min hashamayim” [God’s will].

The trial for Abraham here was that, although traveling to a new place under God’s command, that place suddenly suffered a famine. An ordinary person would, at that moment, lose his complete faith in God’s command as the ultimate life, since things went wrong and not as anticipated. When events go against a person’s emotions, one does not feel comfortable. One desires that all progresses according to his wishes. He wants to feel that he is in line with a “super force” [God]. It is every person’s desire that as he follows God’s dictates, that he experience no mishaps or disturbances. This provides an egotistic satisfaction.

Maimonides alludes to Abraham’s trial as he says that God told him that He would make him into a great nation, and suddenly a famine hit. Maimonides says this was a great trial for Abraham: to follow God’s command when events do not unfold the way Abraham had perceived they should. People desire a sense of security that life is working out as they wish, and that God is watching over them. But this is a regression towards the infantile psychology and has nothing to do with perfection.

There are 2 types of trials here. One type is where one must act, like the war Abraham waged against the 4 kings, or circumcision, as Abraham was old and weak, and one is afraid regarding his health. Maimonides says in his Guide that this fear is great and difficult to overcome, as seen regarding Job. The pain of one’s body is most intolerable.

There is also a second type of trial—a passive trial, one of suspicion—as Rashi says, “To test Abraham if he will become suspicious of God,” whether one will detract from his relationship with God. And when Abraham took Hagar as a wife, the trial was not to marry her. Rather, taking her represented the final act of losing hope of having children with Sarah. The completion of losing hope was the trial. His life was not progressing as he desired. Under God’s providence, one desires that all works out perfectly. But regarding the famine, Abraham thought, “Wait...what is happening?” A mystical thought entered his mind that he felt all should go well while following God’s command. But Abraham conquered that thought [and passed that trial].