Parshas Vayeira ends with the story of the final trial of Abraham, the Akeidas Yitzchak - the Binding of Isaac. The Torah introduces this story with the explicit statement that this was a test: "והאלקים נסה את אברהם" - "and God tested Abraham."
What is the function of a נסיון – a “test” from God? Maimonides (Moreh Nevuchim 3:24) says that this topic is “מן הקשיים החמורים שבתורה” – “from the most difficult topics in the Torah.” The primary difficulty, of course, is that God already knows if the person will pass the test, which would seem to make the test unnecessary. Indeed, as the verse in Psalms 11:5 states, "ה' צדיק יבחן" - "God tests the righteous"; God only imposes tests upon those whom He already knows to be righteous.
Clearly, then, a Heavenly trial - a nisayon - is not a "test" in the conventional sense. Rather, it serves a positive function on the person being tested or the people around him.
The Midrash (ב"ר לב:ג and elsewhere) gives three analogies to help us understand the concept of Heavenly trials upon the righteous. As explained by the commentaries, these three analogies describe three different functions that can be found in Heavenly trials. In most cases, such as with the Akeidas Yitzchak, all three functions exist simultaneously.
The first analogy given by the midrash is to a potter who bangs on his pots to demonstrate their durability in order that people should buy. Of course, the potter only bangs on his best pots for this purpose, banging on his worst pots would defeat his purpose. Similarly, God subjects righteous to trials in order to demonstrate their great virtues to the world so that others will emulate them. (This is the approach taken by Maimonides in Moreh Nevuchim.)
|Beating flax in ancient Egypt.|
The second analogy is to a flax worker who beats on flax to improve the quality of the linen made from it. When beating the flax, care must be taken not to break the actual fibers. The fibers in poor quality flax are more susceptible to breakage, and therefore can only be beaten minimally if at all, and are used to produce poorer quality products. The better the quality of the flax, the more the workers beat it to create a finer quality linen. Similarly, God subjects the righteous to great challenges because through these challenges they can grow to higher and higher levels of righteousness.
The third analogy is to a farmer who owns two oxen, a weak ox and a strong ox. The farmer uses the strong ox to do the hardest and most important tasks, while the weaker ox is only used for easy tasks. Similarly, God subjects the righteous to great challenges so that their merit will benefit the entire world.