Life Tests (Edited Transcript)
This week’s parsha, Re’eh, discusses the case of a false prophet. It says (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 of the commentators say that these were actually real miracles, which G-d enabled him to perform. The question is, why would G-d enable him to do these miracles? The rest of the verse provides an answer: ki menaseh Hashem Elokeichem etchem, “because G-d your Lord is testing you.”
Rav Yerucham Levovitz says we learn from here a major life principle, and that is that G-d comes to test us. In fact, all of life is a test. The Ramchal, Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, talks about this in the first chapter of his well-known philosophical and ethical work called Mesilat Yesharim, “The Path of the Just.”
The Ramchal says that every experience in life is a test. The conventional understanding of a “test” refers to the temptations of our earthly, physical desires which can lead us astray and cause us to do wrong. While these are certainly tests, they are not the only ones.
The Ramchal says that poverty and other forms of suffering is a test of one’s faith in and commitment to Hashem and His mitzvot; but wealth and good times are also a test. A person who has earned a lot of money can easily think he did it on his own, and this can cause him to forget about Hashem. The Ramchal quotes a verse in Proverbs (ch. 30) which says: Pen esbah vekichashti ve’amarti mi Hashem, “Lest I be satisfied and deny, and say, ‘who is G-d?’” When we are satisfied and have everything we need, this can lead to arrogance, which can lead us away from G-d. In the Torah’s worldview, however, there is, for example, no such concept as a “self-made millionaire”; everything comes from Hashem.
Ease and tranquillity can be just as much of a test as suffering and deprivation; health and wealth are tests just as poverty and illness; the test is whether we will allow these circumstances to take us away from Hashem or use them to come closer to Him? This is why in bentching we say ve’achalta ve’savata uveirachta, “You will eat and be satisfied and bless Hashem,” because at the moment of being satisfied, a person can feel arrogant in his or her achievements and forget about G-d, and so at that moment it is especially important to give thanks to Hashem.
Thus, every situation in life – the painful and difficult as well as the easy and joyous – is a test from Hashem as to whether or not we are going to do our duty in this world and use our circumstances to serve G-d.
The purpose of a test
What is the underlying purpose of a test?
In Genesis (ch. 22), the verse says VehaElokim nisa et Avraham, “and G-d tested Abraham.” This is the paradigmatic example of a test, where G-d asks Avraham to sacrifice his son Yitzchak. What was the purpose of this test? What, in fact, is the purpose of any test?
The Ramban, Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman, says on this verse that any test from G-d is premised on the fact that He gave us free will (which is also this week’s parsha – as it says at the very beginning, “Behold I place before you the blessing and the curse,” and it is up to us to choose). The Ramban says further that it is called a nisayon, a test, not from the point of view of the One Who tests us, but from our point of view.
In school or university, the purpose of a test is for the teachers and for the students themselves to assess how well the students know the material. But when G-d tests us, He is not doing so to find out how well we performed – He knows us better than we know ourselves. Rather, the purpose of the test is for us; it is for our benefit.
How does the test benefit the one being tested?
The Ramban says that G-d commands the test lehotzi hadavar min hako’ach el hapo’al, in order to bring the potential into the actual, so that we can be rewarded accordingly. G-d tests us in order to give us the opportunity to pass the test, and to then be rewarded for our achievement. Therefore, He will only give us a test we are capable of passing.
As human beings, we come into this world with pure potential and our lives are one long process of actualising that potential through withstanding tests. When we are tested, we have to draw on our inner resources and bring out of ourselves the latent potential and maximise it. This is the rationale behind G-d-given tests.
Life itself is a test
Taking this one step further, life itself is a test. The Midrash (Tanchuma Pekudei) teaches us that when the soul comes down into this world, it resists coming down because it is comfortable in the heavens with Hashem and wants to stay there. The world up there is perfectly tranquil and serene, without any troubles. But the soul is put into a body against its will and has to struggle with being tested on earth. As the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot says, “we are born against our will and we die against our will”; the very act of living in this world is a test.
There is a well-known passage in the Gemara in Nidda 30b, which says that while a foetus is in the womb an angel teaches it the whole Torah. The foetus has a sense of clarity and understanding about the purpose of life, but when it leaves the womb and enters this world, that clarity is taken away; the baby forgets the Torah it has been taught and the soul has to find its way in the world and ensure its mission is fulfilled. The soul now has a life-long process of actualising its latent potential.
When the soul is with G-d, there is no possibility of turning the potential into actuality. The soul is right next to G-d and so everything is clear; there is no temptation and no free choice. When the soul enters the physical world, the lack of clarity it encounters brings with it the challenges and the opportunities to exercise free will. This world is called olam, from the Hebrew word he’elem, meaning hidden-ness; things are not clear, and so now the soul has to find its way using the Torah as a guide to the right path. This in itself is a test. Only through coming down and living in this world is the soul able to actualise its potential and turn it into something which G-d can ultimately reward.
Life is the process of turning the potential into the actual. Sometimes this will be accomplished through a direct, obvious test – for example, overcoming the temptation to do the wrong thing. But there is a more basic aspect of the process of converting the potential into the actual. Rav Shlomo Wolbe explains that the process of actualising latent potential is achieved by assuming responsibility. When we are born, we have no responsibilities. As we mature and go through the various stages of life, we assume more and more responsibility. Shouldering these responsibilities enables us to bring our potential into actuality.
This is where the secular, Western, philosophy of life differs fundamentally from the Torah’s philosophy. In secular thought, responsibility is a necessary evil which one has to accept but would rather avoid. People structure their lives in such a way so as to minimise responsibility as much as possible – they get married as late as possible, if at all, delay having children as much as possible, if at all. The Torah’s philosophy, however, is that responsibility is not a necessary evil to be avoided but something to be embraced. The more responsibility we take on, the more we actualise the potential of our souls. As we go through life and take on more and more responsibility – honouring our parents, looking after a spouse and children, taking on the responsibility of the community – we are converting the potential into the actual and becoming bigger and better people.
The concept of being tested is about going through life’s various stages, embracing the commandments and one’s personal duties and responsibilities and converting the potential into the actual. And the final test of life, says Rav Wolbe, is death. As quoted above from the Mishnah, against our will we are born and against our will we die. The transition from this world to the next, the ability to confront the end of life, is also part of our growth process.
All of life is a growth process and therefore all of life is a test. When the parsha says Hashem is testing us, it is just a reflection of the much broader tests throughout our lives. We were given free will and as we go through life our free will is tested and constantly exercised. The test is not just about temptation as to whether we will we stay the course, but whether will we be able to develop, grow and give full expression to the awesome potential that lies within each one of us. As we actualise that potential, we accumulate good deeds and merit for which G-d ultimately rewards us when we return to Him after 120 years. The goal is to return to G-d with as many mitzvot and good deeds as possible, to have passed our tests and accomplished our missions.
Especially at this time of year, a month before Rosh Hashanah, what better way to prepare for the Day of Judgment and start the process of introspection than to take time to think about our purpose in life? Let us find ways of converting that potential into actuality through following Hashem’s mitzvot and maximising our potential through our unique circumstances.