...he was sent on a kind of ‘hot and cold’ treasure hunt to find the land of Canaan.

What now? The holiday season is over and we have arrived at the Torah portions where Abraham comes on the scene! The third parasha begins with G‑d telling Abraham to go to a land ‘where I will show you.’ Like many of the commentaries, I often wondered why he wasn’t told specifically where to go. Instead, he was sent on a kind of ‘hot and cold’ treasure hunt to find the land of Canaan. There is an intriguing quality to the enigma of an all-knowing G‑d mysteriously hiding the future or consequences from an otherwise willing follower. So much in life seems to raise this question.

Here is one Midrash that brings up this conundrum:
Rabbi Isaac ben Marion said: This verse can teach us that if one is about to perform a good deed, they should do it with all their heart. For had Reuben known that Scripture would record of him, "And Reuben heard it, and delivered him out of their hand" (Genesis 37:21) he would have borne Joseph on his shoulder to his father. And had Aaron known that Scripture would record of him, "And also, behold, he comes forth to meet you" (Exodus 4:14) he would have gone forth to meet him [Moses] with timbrels and dances. And had Boaz known that Scripture would record of him, "And he handed her parched corn, and she ate and was satisfied and had some leftover," he would have fed her with fatted calves.

...nowadays, when a man performs a good deed, who records it?

The Midrash continues: In the past when a man performed a good deed, the prophet recorded it, but nowadays, when a man performs a good deed, who records it? Elijah records it and the Messiah and the blessed Holy One endorses it. This is the meaning of the verse: ‘Then they who feared the L-rd spoke with one another and the L-rd listened and a book of remembrance was written before Him.’ (Malachi 3:16).

This Midrash has always perplexed me: If these three would have acted even more compellingly if they had known how significant their responses were, both for their own soul benefit, and for the impact on the future, why was that knowledge withheld from them? And if it were better not to know, what is the point in informing future generations about their actions, as noteworthy as they were, still not being as great as they could have been?

After mulling over this question, here is my current thinking: There are certain actions whose power lies in the certainty of conviction in the rightness of that choice. But as the certainty lessens, the faith or risk factor increases. All these three people took a risk, since not only weren’t they sure G‑d would approve, but in all three cases they were a minority opinion- even a sole voice- among dissenters who were not light weights, by any means.

Reuben stood out in wanting to save Joseph, since the other brothers had perceived Joseph to be a rodef — a pursuer who strove to usurp their roles as Jacob’s successors. Aaron who had been the leader of the people for forty years, might have been seen by the entire nation of Israel as shirking his responsibilities by abdicating his role to his younger brother. And Boaz, though he was the leader of the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of Israel at the time, was bucking an age old assumption that both male and female Moabites were forbidden to marry into the congregation of Israel.

These three had only the conviction of their deepest soul perspectives.

These three had only the conviction of their deepest soul perspectives. Furthermore, since all three were leaders- Reuben was the first born of the brothers, Aaron was the prophetic authority, and Boaz was the head of the ruling court- with whom could they confer that might be on a higher level than themselves? Even G‑d did not give them a clear directive. It is often lonely at the top!

To me the risk they took is similar to the idea of a nisayon, a trial that is considered even more difficult than resisting a temptation to do something wrong, or resisting the inertia that prevents one from doing something good. The Tzemach Tzedek, the third rebbe of Chabad, elaborates on the nature of a nisayon, a trial. He refers to the verse in Deuteronomy, Parashat Re’eh which speaks about following after false prophets, practitioners of black magic, etc. If someone should ask, why are these folk allowed to have powers of the dark arts, the answer given is: ‘Because G‑d is TESTING you / menaseh, from the same root as nisayon / trial.

The Tzemach Tzedek elaborates. The world is filled, as Kabbalah explains, with trapped sparks of holiness that need to be redeemed. Each person has his/her share of designated sparks, kind of like a spiritual treasure hunt- that is each soul’s responsibility to redeem. Some are released by engaging in the 248 positive commandments, and others are liberated by resisting the 365 negative commandments.

How can you liberate something by avoidance? Chassidic teachings explain that a negative mitzvah involves materials that contain sparks of holiness which may be even higher than those of a positive act. However, the inner force is so strong that to directly engage in than forbidden element, is to be drawn into a negative vortex where escape is impossible except through the dynamic of resistance.

If the decision is wrong, the person may lose everything.

Yet, there is another category where the test is so severe and painful, that a super ordinary power of resistance in necessary. I believe that the risk taken in by those in the opening Midrash is of such a category, where there is no clear external support system – human or divine-that will guide that decision. If the decision is wrong, the person may lose everything. But if it is right, it will benefit all eternity.

What then is the gain of going through such a trial, even if the person is proven right in the short or long term? The Tzemach Tzedek explains that these trials contain the positive aspects of both types of commandments. One confronts these otherwise forbidden elements with such a powerful directness that the sparks are not only avoided, but released and integrated into oneself. I infer from this that the unique gain galvanizes or even creates an otherwise latent or dormant part of one’s own being.

On Rosh Hashanah, the wording in the Torah refers to not just bringing an offering, but actually ‘making’ an offering- in other words, making oneself into an offering. The sages point out that not only is Rosh Hashanah the beginning of G‑d’s creation, but the beginning of one’s own renewal. I believe that the Torah readings of both the birth of Isaac on the first day, and the near sacrifice of Isaac on the second day, point to this concept of self-creation. The former refers to the addition of something new as is the focus in positive commandments. The latter relates to a painful trial of being asked to give up what is most precious, and resembles the ability to deal with an agonizing challenge in one’s life.

In Pirkei Avot we read that Abraham was tested with ten trials, ‘L’hodia-to make known the love of Abraham our father.’ ‘Make known’ is the operative phrase here. When the term ‘Da'at’ is employed, the sages tell us that this alludes to an intimate relationship, as in the sentence, ‘V’haAdam yada / And Adam knew his wife.’ Just as this kind of relationship leads to the birthing of a new being, so the trials mentioned in resisting the temptation of false prophecy and witchcraft, leads to an enhanced ‘knowing’ and connecting with the ways of authentic Divinity.

So why does G‑d endow these dark forces with supernatural abilities?

So why does G‑d endow these dark forces with supernatural abilities? Because this is part of the test, to be able to discriminate between apparently subtle differences between good and evil. Thus we are taught that if Adam and Chava would have waited till Shabbat, they would have gained the clarity to make these distinctions. And what does this discrimination involve? An evaluation of the cost/benefits, not merely on a material plane, and not merely short term/long term, but in terms of what kind of ‘self’ are we creating with each choice we make.

This is not a matter of seeing directly into the future; in fact, perhaps this is why the idea of G‑d testing the people is written in the context of soothsaying; one goes to a ‘fortune teller’ to be sure of one’s future. There are many nuances to the prohibition but even if the consultation or information came about in a manner that was not prohibited by Torah, it would be discouraged, some sages say, because it is etching permanence into an area which, like quantum reality, should be left open-ended. Otherwise, it could literally be a self-fulfilling prophecy instead of an unfolding from a realm beyond time and space that will bring about a consequence way more beneficial to the individual soul and the world than a mapped-out protocol.

‘Who is wise? One who sees what will be born.’

Back to the opening Midrash: If choices are made in a context of absolute clarity, not only is the question of reward and punishment obviated, but the splendor of moral growth, consciousness and grandeur is emptied of meaning. As the Talmud puts it, ‘Who is wise? One who sees what will be born.’ In other words, the process of determining consequences is not a result of ‘insider information,’ but rather of an inner appraisal and intuition involving both the mind and the heart.

We, like Abraham, are asked to step into the unknown of a new year of our lives- to arrive at a place where G‑d will ‘show us’ ourselves. As we begin the Torah over again in these opening portions of Genesis, let us construct our lives in this coming year with the courage, insight, and integrity that the Ushpizin--the shepherds who were with us during Sukkot were known for. They are still with us in spirit, memory, and perhaps even more tangibly, as long as we remember that the book of Genesis is called, ‘Sefer HaYashar,’ the book of the straight ones.

Some say the bent shape of the shofar is meant to reverse the bent areas and detours that had us stray from the path of straightness during the past year or years. But it is never too late to return. The GPS- G‑d’s Personal Supervision is only as far away as the Pnimiyut HaLev- the deepest core of our heart