Parashat Ekev - Test of Faith
מרן רה"י הרב שבתי סבתו | כט אב התשעט | 30.08.2019
הרב שבתי סבתו
Rabbi Shabtai Sabato
Test of Faith
לְמַעַן עַנֹּתְךָ לְנַסֹּתְךָ לָדַעַת אֶת אֲשֶׁר בִּלְבָבְךָ...
…to afflict you, to test you, to know what is in your heart (Dvarim 8,2)
The Real Test
The Torah portion of Ekev is a continuation of Moshe Rabbeinu's parting speech to Israel before they enter the Promised Land. Inter alia, he explains why the nation was made to suffer and starve until the Manna was dropped from the heavens:
לְמַעַן עַנֹּתְךָ לְנַסֹּתְךָ לָדַעַת אֶת אֲשֶׁר בִּלְבָבְךָ הֲתִשְׁמֹר מִצְוֹתָיו אִם לֹא
…in order to afflict you and test you, to know what is in your heart,
whether you will keep His commandments or not. (Dvarim 8,2)
This verse raises a very pointed question: Does Hashem really need to test us in order to find out what is in our hearts? Does he not already know whether or not our faith will remain strong even during difficult times?
King David dedicated an entire chapter of Psalms to the wonder of Hashem's creation of man. It also highlights the fact that there is no place in the universe where one can hide from G-d:
אָנָה אֵלֵךְ מֵרוּחֶךָ, וְאָנָה מִפָּנֶיךָ אֶבְרָח. אִם אֶסַּק שָׁמַיִם שָׁם אָתָּה, וְאַצִּיעָה שְּׁאוֹל הִנֶּךָּ.
Where shall I go from Thy spirit, where shall I flee from Your presence? If I ascend up into Heaven, there You are; If I make my bed in the depths [She’ol], You are there.
אֶשָּׂא כַנְפֵי שָׁחַר אֶשְׁכְּנָה בְּאַחֲרִית יָם, גַּם שָׁם יָדְךָ תַּנְחֵנִי.
If I take up the wings of the morning [sun], or dwell in the end of the sea,
there, too, Your hand shall lead me.
Hashem is present both above the heavens and below the depths, as well as at the ends of the east and west (the sea). Nor can one can hide from Him in the darkness:
גַּם חֹשֶׁךְ לֹא יַחְשִׁיךְ מִמֶּךָ וְלַיְלָה כַּיּוֹם יָאִיר
even the darkness will not provide cover from You, and the night will shine like day.
For Hashem, there is no darkness. Nothing in the world is hidden from Him; everything is as clear to Him as the light of day. Even the depths of our thoughts, and our sub-conscious deliberations that we ourselves do not know – they are like an open book before G-d. As beautifully expressed by the Prophet Yirmiyahu:
אִם יִסָּתֵר אִישׁ בַּמִּסְתָּרִים וַאֲנִי לֹא אֶרְאֶנּוּ נְאֻם י-הוה...
Can a man hide himself in secret places where I will not see him? (Jeremiah 23,24)
Why, then, must G-d test a man, or a nation? He already knows perfectly well our potential and that which is in our hearts. What can a test show that He doesn’t already know?
It can only be that the Divine test is not designed to increase Hashem’s knowledge - but rather so that the People of Israel themselves should be aware of their spiritual situation. They will thus learn the areas in which they must improve.
Accordingly, when Hashem says that the purpose of test is “to know what is in your heart,” it means that we should know what is in our hearts. The sub-conscious should become conscious, and to lead our potential strengths to their actualization. We understand “to know” as “to be known;” that which is unknown should become known.
And what is the purpose of this recognition and awareness? It is to prepare our hearts for a deep and genuine connection with Hashem – a bond that is independent of any outside factors, free from the influence of transient factors and ulterior benefits or interests. We wish to attain a faith that stems directly from the recognition of the truth, and forge a bond with the Creator based on His being the source of our soul and our hope for eternal life.
The 40 years of wandering in the desert were not only a one-time punishment for the Sin of the Spies, but rather a profound lesson by which to develop Emunah, belief in G-d. It was not just torment for the sake of torment, but rather, as the Torah says, “to test you, to know what is in your heart.”
For we must not forget the great miracles that befell Israel in the desert! Who supplied the People of Israel with fresh clothing? Who gave them new shoes? The Torah doesn’t forget these little details, and makes sure to tell us: There was no need for new clothing and shoes, because the same clothing and the same shoes miraculously accompanied them for 40 years, without ever wearing out:
שִׂמְלָתְךָ לֹא בָלְתָה מֵעָלֶיךָ וְרַגְלְךָ לֹא בָצֵקָה זֶה אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה
Your clothes did not wear out, and your feet did not swell, all these 40 years…
(Dvarim 8,4, similar to 29,4)
Just as G-d brought about this miracle, and just as He enabled Moshe to go without food for 40 days on Mt. Sinai, He could easily have brought about a miracle to ease our hunger and thirst. But He did not! These "small" miracles of the shoes and clothing emphasize that He wanted us to feel tortuous hunger and thirst for a purpose, namely, that we pass through the Divine testing ground.
If we notice the series of events in the desert, from the day Israel left Egypt and until they entered the Promised Land, we will see that their spiritual status was reminiscent of the ups and downs of the waves of the ocean. As the Medrash teaches:
- Avahu said: Even though Israel believed in Hashem before they entered Egypt (Shmot 4,31), they later reverted to lack of belief, as written: "Our forefathers in Egypt… did not remember Your manifold deeds of kindness" (Psalms 106,7). After they left Egypt and saw G-d's miracles at the Red Sea, and how he brought the evil ones to justice, again "they believed in G-d" (Shmot 14,31). And in the merit of this faith, the Holy Spirit dwelled upon them and they sang G-d's praise. (Medrash Shmot Rabba 23,2)
That is, first they believed, then they didn't, then they did, etc. When Moshe first appeared on the scene to the Children of Israel, their faith was strong. But after Pharaoh came down hard on them and forced them not only to make bricks, but to gather their own straw for the purpose, they lost their faith. After the Ten Plagues, they regained their trust in G-d – but lost it again as they arrived at the foreboding Red Sea. Hashem then brought them through dry land in the sea, and their faith was revived once again; they even sang the Az Yashir song of praise to Hashem, which we recite in our prayers every morning.
Every time it appears to a person that he is a believer, a test comes to show him that he still has more work to do. The same with the Nation of Israel: Each test led to a deepening of their faith, purifying it from foreign, impure thoughts.
In Hebrew, the word nes, which usually means ‘miracle,’ is also a tall pole, such as a flagpole. In Parashat Chukat, we read that the people of Israel were discouraged by the difficulties of their journeys, and also complained about the lack of bread and water. Hashem then punished them with lethal serpents; many Israelites died, and the nation repented and asked Moshe to pray to have the serpents removed. He did so, and in accordance with G-d’s instructions, Moshe “made a serpent of brass and placed it atop the pole” – the nes. As the Medrash teaches, the nisayon (test) comes to uplift the person to a high nes (pole); both of these words come from the same root.
Similarly: "You gave to those who fear You a nes (trial) to be tested to beautify…" (Psalms 60,6). The Medrash (B'reshit Rabba 55,1) explains that it means that Hashem gave us test after test, and repeatedly uplifted us, to raise us up in the world like a streaming pennant (nes) on a ship.
Difficult physical conditions clarify and purify one’s faith, and turn it into something increasingly pure, totally independent of any material benefits. Just as one cannot graduate from one school class to another without a test, so too we cannot climb the ladder of spirituality without a test – the nisayon of which the Torah speaks here.
Do Not Test Hashem
On the other hand, it is gravely forbidden for us to test G-d, as the Torah tells us: Do not test Hashem your G-d, as you tested Him in Masah. (Dvarim 6,16) Before we discuss the details of what happened in Masah, let us ask: Is it fair that G-d is permitted to test us, while we may not do the same to Him?
The answer is simple: His purpose in testing us, and our purpose in testing Him, are total opposites. The goal when He tests us, as we said, is to prove that we can do it; He believes in us, and wants us to believe in ourselves as well. But when we test Him, it is because we do not totally believe in Him; we expect Him to prove His strength to us so that we will believe that He exists and is all-powerful.
An example of a forbidden test is that which occurred in Masah u'Merivah, which was given this strife-ridden name because of --
... רִיב בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְעַל נַסֹּתָם אֶת יְ־הֹוָה לֵאמֹר הֲיֵשׁ יְ־הֹוָה בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ אִם אָיִן
…the quarrel [riv] of Bnei Yisrael and their testing [nasotam] of G-d, saying,
"Is Hashem in our midst or not?" (Shmot 17,7)
It happened shortly after the splitting of the Red Sea, when the Children of Israel were thirsty and demanded: "Water!" It was as if they were saying, “If Hashem gives us water, that’s a sign that He exists and is leading us. But if He does not bring us water, then Hashem is not in our midst.” Essentially, the People of Israel were saying that the burden of proof of G-d's existence is upon G-d Himself.
On the other hand, when Hashem tests us, it is precisely because He believes in us, and in our strengths and potential abilities. Therefore He raises the bar of the hardships He places before us, in order that we try even harder, and thus extract and actualize the best of our potential.
This is a fundamental concept that we learn elsewhere in the Medrash, which analyzes this verse: “G-d will test the righteous, but His soul hates the evil man” (Psalms 11,5). The Medrash teaches in the name of R. Yonatan:
A weaver working with low-grade flax should not hit it strongly in order to separate the fibers, because the flax could break apart. But when his flax is of high quality, he may hit it again and again, because that will improve it. Similarly, Hashem does not test the wicked people, because it is clear that they won’t be able to succeed. Whom does he test? The righteous ones, the tzaddikim, as is written, “Hashem will test the righteous.” (B'reshit Rabbah 55,2)
"…Please Test Me"
With this, let us turn to the Talmud (Tr. Taanit, p. 9a) and listen in on a dialogue between the young son of Resh Lakish and his great scholarly uncle, R. Yochanan:
- Yochanan met Resh Lakish's young son, and asked him: 'What verse have you been studying?' The boy answered, ‘You shall surely tithe’ (Dvarim 14,22), and asked R. Yochanan, ‘What is the meaning of these words?’
- Yochanan answered, ‘Give tithes so that you may be enriched’. The boy then asked, ‘Whence do you adduce this?’
- Yochanan replied: ‘Go test it [for yourself]’. The boy thereupon asked: 'Is it permissible to try the Holy One, blessed be He? After all, it is written, 'Do not try the Lord' (Dvarim 6,16).'
- Yochanan replied: Thus said R. Oshaia: The case of tithe-giving is excepted [from the prohibition], as written (Malachi 3,10), "Bring the entire tithe to the storehouse, that there may be food in My house, and try Me with this, says the Lord of Hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven and pour for you in abundance…"
The boy thereupon exclaimed, 'Had I reached this verse [in my Bible studies], I should need neither you nor your teacher R. Oshaia."
Why is the case of tithe-giving excepted from the prohibition of not testing G-d? Why should one be permitted to test G-d in this area? To answer this, let us return to the prototype of the forbidden type of test – that which Israel tested G-d in Masah and Merivah. As written: "Do not test Hashem you G-d, as you did in Masah and Merivah" (Dvarim 6,16). What happened in Masah? They wanted to see "if Hashem is in our midst or not" (Shmot 17,7).
As we explained above, the forbidden test stems from lack of trust in G-d. But the contrary is true regarding the test being waged here with the tithes: It stems from full trust in Hashem! As the verse states: "Try Me with this, says G-d, if I do not open you the windows…" It does not say, "see if I open or not"; the assumption is that G-d will open the windows and bring us blessing! The only problem might be the tithe – and so we are challenged to remove the obstacle, give the tithes, and see that there is no possibility that G-d will not open the windows of the heavens for us.
It is like a teacher who gives his students a test to show them how much they know. In introducing the test, he says, "I'm checking you to prove that there is no chance that you don't know the material!"
We can now understand why tithing is the only area in which we may test Hashem – because only tests that are based on full trust in Him are permitted. Thus, if a person gives the required tithes not with trust in G-d, but with doubts as to the wisdom of such an activity, this will become a test of the forbidden type – just as in Masah and Merivah, where the people asked, "Let us see if Hashem is in our midst or not."
The Test of the Binding of Isaac
Of all the Divine tests written in the Torah, the test of Avraham Avinu in the famous Akedat Yitzchak, the Binding of Isaac, stands out clearly. The Torah introduces the story by telling us straight out: G-d tested Abraham (B'reshit 22,1). When Avraham Avinu withstood the test successfully, an angel from Heaven was sent to him at the critical moment and commanded him: Do not touch the boy… for I now know that you are truly G-d-fearing. (verse 12)
The question jumps out at us: Only now Hashem knows this?! Was it not clear to the all-knowing G-d before today that Avraham was G-d-fearing?
The answer lies in a true understanding of the word ידעתי, I knew, and two other related words. The word לדעת means “to know, to be aware,” and from the same root come two other words: להודיע, which means “to inform, to impart knowledge,” and ליידע, which is an even stronger form of informing; it means “to bring others to awareness.”
The above is true for modern-day Hebrew, but in Biblical Hebrew, the third form, ליידע, is not used; לדעת, the first form, is used in its place. Thus the words לדעת and ידעתי, etc. can sometimes mean the simple form “to know,” and sometimes the more complex “to make one aware.”
As an example, let us consider this verse in which G-d uses the word ידעתי, which usually means "I knew," to say the following about Avraham:
כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת בָּנָיו...
For I have known him, that he will command his children and his household
and they shall keep G-d’s way… (B'reshit 18,19)
G-d is explaining here why He wishes to tell Avraham of His plan to destroy S'dom. It is awkward to translate ידעתיו as “I have known him.” Rather, the explanation is “I have made known to him My ways of justice, in order that he will teach them to his household. I will show him that there are not even ten righteous people in S'dom, so that he will be able to teach his descendants that G-d is just and righteous.”
Another example: At the end of the Torah, Hashem says about Moshe,
וְלֹא קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל כְּמֹשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר יְדָעוֹ ה' פָּנִים אֶל פָּנִים
No prophet ever arose in Israel like Moshe, whom G-d knew face to face. (Dvarim 34,10)
Again, the explanation is not that Hashem knew him, as in "was acquainted with him," but rather, “Hashem made him know - imparted the knowledge - of His will and His law, via clear and lucid prophecy, as if it were face to face.”
Similarly, when Moshe asked to be exposed to more of G-d's essence, he said:
וְאַתָּה אָמַרְתָּ יְדַעְתִּיךָ בְשֵׁם וְגַם מָצָאתָ חֵן בְּעֵינָי
You said [about me], "I have known you by the Divine Name,
and you have also found favor in My eyes" (Shmot 33,12)
He is saying to G-d: "When You told me, 'This is My Name forever' (Shmot 3,15), You were saying that You made me aware via Your Name …'"
And this is the explanation here as well, in the case of Akedat Yitzchak. When Hashem says, “Now I know that you are G-d-fearing,” He is actually saying this (as the Rambam explains in his Guide to the Perplexed 3,24):
“Now I have made you know, and the whole world as well, that you are a G-d-fearing man. With your act of sacrifice, I have imparted your righteousness to the world’s consciousness, and have made it clear why you have received My trust.”
What this means is that via the test, it became actively clear to the world that which was always known to the One Who knows the secrets of our hearts.
The Mt. Sinai Stand
Another seemingly incomprehensible type of test that demands our attention took place at Mount Sinai.
Immediately after the intensely powerful presentation of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the Children of Israel responded with fear and trembling. They came to Moshe in hysterics, and said, “Please speak with us yourself, and we will hear; and have not Hashem talk to us, lest we die” (Shmot 20,16). They wanted Moshe to be the intermediary. Moshe’s response was soothing, yet also somewhat strange. He said, “Do not be afraid; for Hashem is coming to test you” (verse 17). What test was this?
The situation can be compared to a jumper’s training course. His trainer constantly lifts the bar higher, so as to encourage the jumper to work harder and extract the maximum from his muscles. The level at which he jumps at any one time is not necessarily the best he can do; he keeps jumping higher and higher until he can reach no more. This is his maximum capability, and here the trainer must stop raising the bar.
The Children of Israel at Mount Sinai are standing before the greatest prophetic experience ever, an intense one-time revelation. Hashem, the Divine trainer, gradually raises the bar – i.e., the power of the lightning flashes, the intensity of the flames of fire, and the thickness of the fog around the mountain – higher and higher. Whoever would strive for a higher level of prophecy had to display great personal courage and lack of fear. Moshe encourages them not to break and not to fear, for this is the only way they would merit hearing more of the Voice of G-d.
But at a certain point in this Divine training session, the nation broke down and said to Moshe, “Enough! We have reached our highest point, and we cannot continue anymore.” The tension and pressure upon them had reached an intolerable level.
Moshe calmed them down. “You’re not going to die,” he told them. “All Hashem wants is to test you, i.e., to give you the opportunity to actualize your maximum abilities. By increasing the outside audio-visual pressure, G-d simply wants to give you the option of setting for yourselves your level of prophecy, each one of you according to his abilities.”
Tests are a normal part of our lives. Every one of us experiences many Divine tests throughout his life, for the purpose of encouraging us to use our abilities to their maximum. Sometimes, we do not pass the test the first time around – but this does not mean that we have failed. We must learn our lessons from the experience, fix that which needs fixing, ensure that we are acting in a just, ethical and logical manner, and then continue onwards with strong faith in He Who "gives strength to those who are tired.”