Walking in Seattle yesterday, I smelled one of the most amazing unkosher cuisines I could ever remember smelling. As I stared at my food enemy, I had a thought which I imagine most religious Jews have at one point or another. I wondered: Was God testing me with this great smell? Was this amazing scent a way to bring my downfall?
Pondering this trivial “test” led to a greater philosophical and theological question: What is the religious nature of temptations and tests?
The Torah says, "Remember the entire path along which the Lord your God led you these forty years in the desert, He sent hardships to test you." (Deut. 8:2). We read that G-d has Bnei Yisrael wander in the desert for 40 years as a test.
What is this about? To place a nation (man, woman, and child) through such transient and confused misery for decades as a test? I also often wonder if the Jewish people are being tested today, with our own state in Israel and unprecedented wealth and influence in the US. What will we do with the great blessings we’ve been granted? What does this idea mean that G-d tests us as individuals and as a nation?
It must be more than sachar v’onesh (that God is merely keeping our score card) or that God is merely flexing power in the world.
I also can’t relate to the cynical answer found in the book of Job, where God tests Job because of a disagreement with Satan. My belief in a benevolent and personal G-d precludes the possibility of random tests.
Still within distance of smelling my temptation of the day, I began to ponder answers:
For years, the most compelling answer to me has been that it is through the struggle of these challenges that we truly grow. These temptations are ways of teaching people about God and the incredible human capacity for compassion and depth. The Ramban argues that this was exactly the purpose of the Akeidah (the binding of Isaac) for Avraham.
Alternatively, perhaps there is a utilitarian approach that more people can learn from a test than the one having to undergo the discomfort of the test. The Rambam and Radak argue that the purpose of the test at the Akeidah was not for Avraham to learn but for the future adherents of the Abrahamic faith to learn. This sets a gold standard for others to try to follow.
Rav Kook goes even further, arguing that Avraham was being tested in order to "prove" to the pagan religions that monotheism can match the religious passion of pagan worship through the act of inward sacrifice, without the need for savage and barbaric sacrifices. One is being tested in order to teach others through its example.
Another utilitarian approach is that tests can provide opportunities for others to do mitzvot to help when we are struggling. It is for the moral good of the community at large.
These explanations may be true and all of them are worth thinking about but Rav Tzadok teaches that just as a person needs to believe in G-d so too one needs to believe in oneself. These days many of us (including myself) are struggling less with why we are tested by G-d and more with how we can overcome our obstacles and challenges to live a happier, more meaningful, more successful life. Do we believe in our own capacity to overcome in the face of adversity?
I’d like to share one tool that we can all consider experimenting with: The Gemara says that the Torah is the seasoning for the yetzer hara (personal evil inclination). The Maggid of Mezritch offers a beautiful interpretation that since the yetzer hara is the main dish and the Torah is the seasoning, we must serve God with the full ecstasy of the yetzer hara. The purpose is not to destroy or subdue the yetzer hara but rather to spice it up – to access its energy and channel it towards good.
This is to say that when we experience struggle we should use that temptation and channel that new energy towards good rather than attempt to dismiss or remove the temptation. This is why the Midrash explains that without the yetzer hara there would be no business or procreation. In a complex way, we need our desire for self-advancement to further societal goals.
Rebbe Nachman takes us even one step further in how we can understand the tests in front of us, and radically suggests that God is the test itself. God is hidden within the test, just as God was hidden in the burning bush.
He is proposing a spiritual meditation where we don’t see G-d as the one placing an obstacle before us but rather see the face of G-d within the challenge itself. To phrase this graphically, it seems to me that this provides the opportunity to spiritually blow up the danger and fear found in our challenges and to see a loving G-d in the midst of it.
The Malbim actually suggests that G-d asks more of us than possible (what is beyond the limits of human nature to do God’s will) – and that since such behavior is beyond our normal capabilities, there is no limit to the amount that is possible.
This reminds me of Viktor Frankl’s explanation that survival in the concentration camps was most often not based on physical strength, wealth, political connections, or religiosity. Rather it was about the ability to construct meaning, the ability to make sense of the immense challenge placed before them. Man is ultimately driven by a search for meaning.
When we see every challenge as a test (from G-d, from our boss, of our will) we can fall into the trap of black/white binaries, in which the only possible results are success or failure.
But as a Jewish community, there are more options for the future than just Moshiach (redemption) or galus (exile). And as individuals, there are more options than passing or failing. The deepest learning is not the evaluation of the tester but the self revelation that emerges with every obstacle. By replacing the challenge, obstacle, or test with the face of G-d, we not only grow religiously but learn to persevere, as we re-channel our desires in more productive ways.
So I didn’t eat the delicious cuisine calling my name in the end but I may have picked up a few new tools for addressing temptations and tests.
I’m inspired here by Mother Theresa, one of my greatest 20th century heroes. She changed the position of the nun from a person who primarily studies and prays in the seminary to one who serves the needy in the streets. One day in India, she heard the crying of an old sick woman from a Dumpster. This woman would not pass away, because she said she was so resentful of her sons who neglected her and left her to die alone in the Dumpster. Mother Theresa looked the old woman in the eyes and demanded that she forgive them. The woman took her last deep breath, forgave her sons, and passed away.
This woman was able to locate and remove the obstacle to let herself die – what are the emotional and spiritual obstacles in our lives that we must remove in order to start to live? What is an obstacle that you’re currently facing and what is your spiritual/emotional strategy to overcome it? I hope we can all find partners to work through these together.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Jewish Educator at UCLA, a 6th year PhD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology, and is on faculty at Shalhevet High School.