The events leading up to the miracles of Chanuka were enormously testing for Klal Yisrael. It took great courage to stand up to the mighty Greek Empire and defend Torah values. In the spirit of the great Mattisyahu and the Hashmonayim, the flames of Chanuka, remind and inspire us to bravely face the tests of life with loyalty to and clarity of our Torah principles.
Every situation in life, explains the Ramchal (Mesilas Yesharim ch.1), presents challenges to our faith, commitment, values and basic integrity, as defined by our Torah principles. Poverty, illness and suffering, for example, challenge a person’s faith and ability to be close to and have faith in Hashem without bitterness and resentment. Wealth and health, on the other hand, test a person’s ability to remain humble, without smug satisfaction, and to recognise that all success and achievement are blessings from G-d which need to be used for the good.
Rav Yerucham Levovitz (C.M. 2:49) cites the Torah case of a false prophet (Devarim 13: 2-4): “When a prophet or a person who has visions in a dream arises among you, he may present you with a sign or miracle and on the basis of that sign or miracle, say to you, let us try out a different god.’ Do not listen to that prophet or dreamer.” This is indeed a strange scenario: a false prophet comes to lure us away from the path of Torah and mitzvot and uses signs and miracles to prove his authenticity. Where did he get the power to perform these miracles? Were they simply optical illusions? Many commentators say that these were actually real miracles which G-d enabled the false prophet to perform. Why would G-d enable him to do so? The rest of the verse provides the answer: “because G-d your L-rd is testing you.” From here Rav Yerucham gleans a major life principle and that is that every situation can be viewed as a test. Rav Yerucham says: “The secret of the entire Creation is in order to be able to withstand a test [of our faith], for this is everything”.
It is, however, important to accept that we can never fully understand the rationale behind Hashem’s workings in this world. The Gemara (Berachos 7a) describes how Moshe asked Hashem why some righteous people suffer and some wicked people prosper. G-d answered by saying “no man shall see Me and live,” which means that human beings, constrained by the physical world, can never fully comprehend the depth of the Divine plans for our lives. Despite these limitations, our Sages guide us to view everything we experience – success or failure, bereavement or celebration, achievement or setback – in the paradigm of a test from Hashem.
Conventionally, the purpose of a test is to assess the abilities of the one being tested. In the context of G-d, however, this makes no sense: G-d knows everything, and does not need to give us a test in order to find out more about us. He knows us better than we know ourselves. What, then, is the purpose of being tested? The Ramban, explains (in his commentary on Bereishis 22:1), that life tests from G-d are for the benefit of the person being tested; to give the person being tested the opportunity to transform his or her inherent potential into actual good deeds, thus ensuring he or she can be rewarded not only for having good intentions but also for good actions.
If we are successful in rising to the challenge, we emerge stronger, more elevated and with greater merit for our good deeds. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says that the Hebrew word for test, nisayon, is related to the word נ.ש.א, spelt nun, sin, aleph, which means “to raise” or “to elevate,” as well as to the word נ.ס.ע, spelt nun, samech, ayin, which means “to travel” or “to move forward” (see his commentary on Bereishis 22:1). Every challenge is an opportunity to move, grow and become stronger and more elevated, as one draws on the latent powers within his or her soul.
Journey of the Soul
The idea of converting our inner potential into good deeds is fundamental to understanding our Divine mission and purpose in life on earth. The Torah calls the first human being adam, which comes from the Hebrew word adama, “the ground.” The Maharal of Prague asks, why this name refers to the earth, when the essence of human beings is, in fact, the Divine soul from Hashem? He answers that humans are similar to the ground in one important respect: they are both pure potential. Whether or not a piece of land will produce fruit depends on what is done with it. Even the most fertile piece of land will not produce fruit if it is left to lie fallow; only if the land is ploughed, fertilised and developed will it produce fruits. So too, the human being is pure potential, and to produce the fruits of good deeds and other accomplishments, requires great and continuous efforts. We come into this world as pure potential and through the process of life we actualise that potential. What we do with that potential is up to us; we have been given free choice to turn that potential into good deeds and a life of mitzvos or the opposite.
Thus, the paradigm of tests is crucial to understanding why the soul comes down into the world in the first place. Prior to its descent into the physical world, the soul dwells in a place of purity and clarity, with no possibility of sin. However, there is also no free choice, and therefore no opportunity for the soul to do mitzvos either, and consequently, there is no opportunity for the soul to be rewarded by G-d. The soul comes down into this world to exercise free choice and thereby convert its heavenly potential into actuality, so that it can eventually be rewarded in the next world for its actions in this world.
“Lose a Battle, Win the War”
The Torah is Hashem’s guide for us to successfully accomplish our Divine mission of converting the potential goodness of the soul into actual faith and good deeds. This mission is often accompanied by severe tests and tribulations. Through struggle and even failure, a person can transform their inner potential into actual greatness.
In response to a student who had written to him complaining of the challenges he faced in his personal development, Rav Yitzchak Hutner wrote the following (Igros Pachad Yitzchak 128):
“… A failing that many of us experience is that when we focus on the lofty level of accomplishments of great people, we only focus on how they are complete in this or in that area. At the same time, we omit mention of the inner struggles that had previously raged within them. A listener would get the impression that these individuals came out of the land of their Creator in ideal form.
Everyone is awed at the purity of speech of the Chofetz Chaim, considering it a miraculous phenomenon. But who knows of the battles, struggles, and obstacles, the slumps and regressions that the Choftez Chaim encountered in his war with the yetzer hara [evil inclination]? There are many such examples to which a discerning individual such as yourself can certainly apply the rule. The result of this misconception is that when an ambitious young man of spirit and enthusiasm meets obstacles, falls, and slumps, he imagines himself unworthy …
“The English expression, “Lose a battle and win the war,” applies to this phenomenon. Certainly, you have stumbled and will stumble again (a self-fulfilling prophecy is not intended), and in many battles you will fall lame. … [King Solomon,] the wisest of all men, has said, “A righteous man falls seven times and rises again” (Proverbs 24:16). Fools believe that the intent of this verse is to teach us something remarkable: the righteous man has fallen seven times and yet he resiliently rises. But the knowledgeable know that the source of the righteous person’s ability to rise again is precisely through his seven falls…
“When you feel the turmoil of the yetzer hara within yourself, know that by experiencing that feeling you resemble great men far more than if you were to experience the feeling of deep peace, which you desire. In those very areas where you feel yourself failing most frequently – particularly in those areas – do you have the greatest potential for serving as an instrument of distinction for the honour of G-d … Had your letter told me about all your mitzvot and goods deeds, I would have said that I have received a good letter from you. Now that your letter tells about the slumps and falls and obstacles, I can say that I have received a very good letter from you.” (translation based on Artscroll ‘Great Jewish Letters’.)
Another aspect of converting potential into actuality is found in the writings of Rav Shlomo Wolbe (A.S. 1:4), who explains that throughout life a human being goes through the process of assuming more and more responsibility, thereby expanding one’s horizons and spirit. A child is concerned only with him- or herself. As the child grows older, he or she takes on more and more responsibilities. From a secular point of view, adulthood is about achieving freedom. From a Torah point of view, however, adulthood is about embracing responsibility. The term “bar mitzvah” or “bas mitzvah” connotes the status of adulthood, namely, accepting the commandments. Our Sages teach that, ironically, following the commandments and taking on responsibility brings the greatest joy in life because when we live in accordance with the Torah we are in harmony with the deepest purpose and mission of our souls.
Rav Wolbe explains that the whole process of life is an expansion of the spirit, converting the potential into actual through accepting more and more responsibility. Earning a living tests our faith and principles: will we follow the Halacha’s principles and standards of business ethics? Will we adhere to the laws of tzedaka? Marriage, too, expands our horizons and responsibilities; are husband and wife able to remain forever committed to each other in a spirit of love and kindness? Raising children further expands our horizons, as it requires a tremendous amount of dedication and self-sacrifice. Old age is a test as to how we confront increasing physical weakness and the fragility of life.
Our final test is death itself. When a person moves on from this world onto the next, he or she is presented with a great challenge of how to cope with the transition. Rav Wolbe explains that death is an opportunity for a vast expansion of the spirit if the challenge is properly embraced. He quotes from Rabbeinu Tam, who describes the process of death as follows:
This world is like a cave in the desert beneath the ground. One who dwells in this cave thinks that there is no world beside it because he does not see what is outside. If he were to go outside of the cave, he would see expansive lands and heavens, great luminaries and stars. So too man in this world thinks that there is no other world, but if he were to leave he would then see the expansiveness of the next world and the precious, glorious greatness of it.
Death is the final journey of life, the point when a person expands to see reality from a very broad perspective.
The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 55:6) relates the word nisayon also to the Hebrew word nes, which can means either a miracle or a flag. The miraculous, superhuman strength exhibited by the Hashmonayim and the followers who withstood severe tests with faith and resolve, is a sign and a flag to the world, hoisted high to inspire us all. This Chanuka let us all renew our faith in Hashem to give us strength and guidance to withstand our tests, but also to have faith in ourselves and the inner power and potential of our G-d-given souls.