I don’t usually write about the parsha for this newspaper; I reserve that for my shul bulletin, drashos and Chumash shiurim, and there are many magnificent parsha columns available for every taste and level. But this time I couldn’t help myself. Between last week and this week’s parshiyos, the Torah enumerates Avrohom Avinu’s Ten Tests. Much ink (and lately, computer space) has been spilled and spent on the divine purpose of these tests. Surely Hashem doesn’t need to discover our level of loyalty, fidelity or adherence to our faith.
Indeed, the Ramban (Bereishis 22:1) and the Medrash before him (see Bereishis Rabbah 55:1) have explained that the purpose of a nisayon is to help us grow, not G-d forbid to provide Hashem with information. However, the thorniest question seems to be a contradiction between various sources. On the one hand, we daven every day, “Please do not lead us into nisyonos (tests).” On the other, the Ramchal (beginning of Mesilas Yeshorim) famously declares that “man was created only to fulfill mitzvos, to serve Hashem and to pass tests.” The question actually leaps out at us, not quite subtly, but ferociously: Why must we be tested and are tests good or bad for us?
Before I explain why I had a personal epiphany about this subject, let’s anchor ourselves with the guidance of our gedolim through the generations. Rav Yechezkel Levenstein zt”l (quoted in B’mesilah Naaleh to Mesilas Yeshorim, page 41) explained that there are two types of tests. The first is one that a person could pass with flying colors if he puts his mind and heart to doing so. However, if he fails through his own negligence, he is given a more difficult one that he could fail “by mistake.” This seems to mean that it can be so misleading that he may fall short not so much as the result of this particular trial, but as a kind of punishment for his earlier unnecessary failure. This second test is the one that we pray to avoid and hope not to have to undergo. However, those tests that strengthen us through the process of our struggle and successful triumph are, as the Mesilas Yeshorim taught us, the very stuff of life.
Before we continue with our Torah review, let me return to my story. At some point in life, Hashem grants us the perspective of meeting people we haven’t seen in many years. After the initial shock of how much they have aged (almost everyone says kindly but falsely, “Wow, you look just the same”), we get to discover in an instant what took years to develop. For some reason, boruch Hashem, because of an abundance of simchos, I have been meeting talmidim from three or four decades ago and classmates from high school and bais medrash whom I haven’t seen in years. Some have indeed fulfilled their youthful promise and grown into extraordinary talmidei chachomim, roshei yeshiva and askonim extraordinaire. However, I have been learning the most from those who have lived through powerful personal challenges. These included medical, family, social, religious, financial and other struggles. Although some of these long-suffering people did indeed sustain permanent spiritual or emotional damage, most of them seem to have emerged from their personal battle zones as stronger, wonderful human beings. They have stories to tell, lessons to convey, wisdom to share, and very little resentment or anger toward Hashem or anyone else. How can this be?
I must return to a teaching from my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l (Pachad Yitzchok, Igros, page 217, No. 128) that I carry in my heart, not in my wallet or jacket. He quotes from Shlomo Hamelech (Mishlei 24:16 and see Sefas Emes, Lech Lecha, 5644) that “the righteous one may fall seven times, [but] he will arise.” Rav Hutner declares that “only fools believe that this means ‘despite the fact that he falls, he will arise.’ The wise, however, know that the essence of the tzaddik is through his having fallen seven times. The Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 9) teaches that [when the Torah states] that ‘Hashem saw all that He had made and it was very good,’ the term good refers to the yeitzer tov (the good inclination), but the word very refers to the evil inclination.” Rav Hutner promised his correspondent that he “would lose battles but win wars,” meaning that he should continue to “fight the good fight,” for he would emerge victorious. I have been meeting many of these people lately and they are each inspiring in their own way.
To leave the baalei mussar for moment for the world of Chassidus, the Gerrer Rebbe (Pnei Menachem, Lech Lecha, page 58) reveals that “when someone is given a test, his [lofty] madreigos (levels) are removed and hidden from him.” We might modernize this concept by considering how tests are taken in the contemporary classroom. Students must usually leave all their gadgets and devices outside. With just a number 2 pencil, they must answer with their own brain, memory and ingenuity. For a change, no computers or search engines are allowed in the room. The rebbe teaches us that the same holds true of a nisayon. He seems to be teaching us that this itself is the danger zone and why we should not request nisyonos. Perhaps if the test is actually to demonstrate to us how strong our resilience to sin and bad middos can be, then it is a good thing, for it gives us chizuk and the courage to climb to ever higher levels.
Some of my old friends seem to have found this inner strength and then managed to cultivate and nurture it to the point that they became capable of becoming spiritual role models. In any case, it has become for me a source of intense inspiration.
Rav Dovid Kronglass zt”l adds an amazing point. He quotes the Maharal (Derech Hachaim, beginning of Chapter 5, Pirkei Avos), who says that the word nisayon comes from the word neis, which means miracle. “Just as a miracle is supernatural,” teaches the Maharal, “so is a nisayon supernatural. If the one being tested does not act in a supernatural way, he cannot prevail in the test.” He gives the ultimate example by citing the fact that “it is not natural for a father to be willing to slaughter his son… If the avos had merely been natural people, they could not have risen to the monumental levels that they achieved.”
Rav Kronglass adds, “Avrohom was different than everyone else in the world because he did not bow to the laws of nature at all. In order to differentiate him from all other human beings, he had to leave normative reality completely so that it would be obvious that he was unique.”
We may conclude that according to the Maharal and Rav Kronglass, we are all Avrohom Avinu, because we have inherited and absorbed into our DNA the ability to overcome the mortal and frail limitations of flesh and blood. I believe that this is what I have been seeing in the amazing people I thought I knew but about whose greatness I was clueless.
My rebbi, Rav Mottel Weinberg zt”l (Sichos Mordechai, page 310), offers a similar thought to give bochurim chizuk when the yeitzer hara whispers thoughts of doubt and dejection. “I can’t continue learning,” they suddenly worry. “How will I support my family?” He shared with us that “if you have been tested, it is a sign that you can arise and triumph over your worries. This is the way to become great, although you should never seek these tribulations, since even Dovid Hamelech asked to be tested and then failed. Even though we are not permitted to say that Dovid sinned, by the same token we pray not to be tested at all.”
Two stories that illustrate this approach to nisyonos come to mind. The Steipler Gaon zt”l famously refused to give in to what he perceived as a yeitzer hara when he was conscripted to be a soldier in the Russian army. He was on night duty one Friday night in the bitter Russian winter, where the custom was that the night guard was given a warm coat for the night. The problem was that it was left hanging on the tree, whereas the halacha states that one may not remove anything from a tree on Shabbos. Despite the probable circumstantial hetter he may have had for a life-threatening situation, he kept delaying taking the coat until in fact morning released him from his nisayon, which had certainly passed.
Rav Chaim Tudrus Hershler was one of the great Torah personalities in Shaarei Chesed several decades ago. Even in his old age, he insisted on standing for Shemoneh Esrei despite his frailty. One time, he actually fell down during Shemoneh Esrei, which gave his family the impetus to point out his mistaken policy. He, however, saw things differently. “I have not been falling, because I regularly davened to Hashem that I shouldn’t fall during Shemoneh Esrei. However, this time I couldn’t daven at that moment, because there was an unclean vessel near me that prevented my prayer, causing me to fall.”
The Steipler and Rav Hershler looked at nisyonos as opportunities, not impediments, and were thus able to grow from adversity. May we have the strength, courage and wisdom to do the same.
They have stories to tell, lessons to convey, wisdom to share, and very little resentment or anger toward Hashem or anyone else. How can this be?