As August wanes and the summer is disappearing over the horizon, the unspoken words are whispered once again. School, homework, tests are returning. We wrote earlier in the summer about parents doing their homework. Now, let’s talk a bit about our tests.
The Mesilas Yeshorim says at the very beginning that life is all about nisyonos, tests. Now that the occasionally illusory world of summer is almost over, with the blazing clarity of Elul looming ahead, it is a good time to remind ourselves that the toughest exams of life, some of which are always with us, will soon be administered officially. The end of one year and the beginning of another are marked by the same finals our children dread. The difference is that the students are prepared by professional teachers who know the material and what needs reiteration. They issue reminders, give reviews, and issue modified versions for those who are specially challenged by the subject. We adults are not always so fortunate. However, for those of us who think we have graduated and will no longer be tested, the Ramchal sends out a clarion call: the Yomim Noraim, when we will all receive our personalized interrogation, are coming. So, before it gets too hectic, in this lull before the storm, let’s sharpen our pencils and go over the rules.
First of all, like all good teachers, let’s motivate ourselves a bit to take our exams. No one wants to take a test, but everyone would love to experience a miracle. However, in Lashon Hakodesh, the holy language that defines us, the word nisayon and the word neis come from the same root. In fact, Dovid Hamelech (Tehillim 60:6) says, “To those who fear You, You gave neis – a banner – to be raised high.” Both tests and miracles are ultimately for our benefit, but although the miracle is much more welcome, the test is an even greater bounty, for it brings out our own greatness and worthiness, not only the gift of something extraneous to us and undeserved.
A somewhat hapless bochur once asked the Chazon Ish for a brachah that he should no longer be bothered by the yeitzer hara and would therefore not have to undergo daily tests. The Chazon Ish responded sharply, “Are you so foolish as to wish to die? A live human being has an evil inclination. Man was created to overcome and pass this test. Only the dead are not tested, but of course you must be wise enough to know how deal with this force within you” (Rav Yaakov Edelstein, B’ikvei Todah 2:67). Taking a test is sign of life, and for this we must not only be grateful. We must remember that we live and breathe for those paramount moments.
Nevertheless, we should take note that it is not unnatural to wish to avoid tests. Just like their medical version, our spiritual assessments can be painful, embarrassing and much more revealing than we would like. Even Yaakov Avinu, who seemed to think that he had passed so many difficult trials and tribulations that he was “done” wished to “live in tranquility” (Rashi, Bereishis 37b). Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi (Birchas Mordechai, page 198) asks: What was wrong with Yaakov’s wish for serenity? Weren’t the troubles with Eisav sufficient? Once the shevatim were set on their proper road – not a simple or easy task – why shouldn’t he ask for a bit of quietude and calm?”
Rav Ezrachi answers that “this world is the world of tests…one should not even seek a respite from them…if one is not being tested, the end must be near.” Even if our yearning for peace is as pure as that of Yaakov Avinu and we seek escape from adversity because we think that will better serve our haggard soul, the calculation is wrong. As the Chazon Ish taught the young man, to be tested is to breathe.
There is another optimistic reason not to overly fear being tested. Students sometimes think that a test has been tilted against them or that the questions are sneaky and deviously misleading. Their first glance elicits a (sometimes quite audible) cry: “I’m going to fail this miserably.” Yet, most teachers are simply seeking to see if the student has studied and understands the material. They will be happy if most pass, ecstatic if everyone does well.
Rav Yerucham Levovitz (quoted in Even Sapir, page 86) reminds us that Hashem, the Greatest Melamed, is even more anxious that all of his children pass with high marks. In fact, he points out, we have all been created with a default position of success. It is ours to ruin and fail, only if we try hard to do so. He teaches that man is just like a compass. Just as the compass always points north unless man forces it in a different direction, so does our holy neshamah always point us toward kedushah and in the right direction. It is only because we have free will that we can force it out of its natural mode into the wrong orientation. The yeitzer hara wrenches us away from our innate tendency toward virtue, but all we need to reset is to return to that which comes to us inwardly and intrinsically.
This is incredibly good news for all of us who hate tests. If test-taking, as we have learned, is as natural as breathing, we must remember where our breath of life comes from. When Hashem gave us that sacred first breath, He blew into us of Himself (see Bereishis 2:7; Iyov 31:2). The Zohar teaches: “one who blows, blows of himself; Hashem gave man His very essence.” This means that not only is Hashem with us when we are being tested, if we allow Him, he is legitimately and legally taking the test for us. All we need to do (admittedly easier said than done) is let go and allow our better inclinations to take over. In fact, if anything, a test is just a fleeting moment in time, and we need only focus briefly on being at our best.
Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu 4:306) characterizes the three phases of life as “the past is but memories, the future just fantasies, the present is all tests.” If we can concentrate on the importance of the moment, who we are, where our breath of life is coming from, and what we truly want, every one of us can ace our exams with our inherent spiritual brilliance.
All of this is not to minimize the difficulty one could have with test-taking in this world without the proper attitude and preparation. Rabbeinu Tam (Sefer Hayoshor, Shaar 16) declares as an utter fool someone who does not treat these matters with the utmost gravity. Another Rishon (Chovos Halevavos, Yichud Hamaaseh 5) reminds us that life is a constant war (see also Mesilas Yeshorim 1) for which we must train and prepare because our lives do depend upon it.
In fact, the Lakewood mashgiach, Rav Nosson Wachtfogel zt”l (Leket Reshimos, Chanukah), sees the entire human obsession with war and competitive sports as reflecting man’s inner realization that life is all about a spiritual war. Of course, most people sublimate the important war and substitute false or trivial encounters because they cannot or do not wish to engage in the most crucial conflict of all. Rav Yisroel Salanter (Ohr Yisroel 17) even adds that “one who has not accustomed himself to struggle against his evil inclination is doomed to lose the battle for he is unready for war.” In fact, Rashi (Bamidbar 23:24) points out that a Jew is faced with the wiles of the yeitzer hara from the moment he gets up in the morning. The Chofetz Chaim was overheard well into his nineties chastising his own yeitzer hara, “Don’t try to convince me to sleep a bit longer. You are older than me and you are already up bothering me, so I can get up as well.”
All in all, we must take a balanced attitude toward the test-taking ahead. We must remember that Hashem is on our side and has endowed us powerfully with His Divine soul, so that we can prevail. At the same time, we dare not become complacent that victory and triumph are easy, for the enemy is vigorous and tireless. Let us therefore look forward to Elul and Tishrei beyond as opportunities to show our best. We should do so with trepidation and awe, but also with the knowledge that we are infused with the kedushah and taharah of our Father in heaven Himself, Who wants us to pass with flying colors.