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Big Tests, Little TestsIt's a Test
"All the affairs of the world, whether for the good or for the bad, are trials (nisyonos) for a person. Poverty on the one hand and wealth on the other. (Mesillas Yesharim, chap. 1)
Free transcription of excerpts from a lecture by Moreinu v'Rabbeinu HaGaon HaTzaddik Rav Zeidel Epstein, zt"l, 5758.
Life is constant nisyonos. How do we define them, what is their purpose?
The Midrash discusses why the tribe of Levi was chosen over the other tribes to serve in the Mishkan:
"Take the Levi'im." The possuk states: (Tehillim 11:5) "Hashem tests the tzaddik…" HaKadosh Baruch Hu does not raise the person up to greatness until He tries and tests him first. When he passes the trial, then He raises him up to greatness. So we find by Avraham Avinu. HaKadosh Baruch Hu tested him with 10 nisyonos, and he passed them all. Afterwards, He blessed him, "And Hashem blessed Avraham in everything" (Bereishis 24:1). So, too with Yitzchak… So too with Yaakov… Also Yoseph was tested with Potiphar's wife, and he was imprisoned for twelve years. Then he was freed and became the king because he had withstood his nisyonos. This is the meaning of the possuk, "Hashem tests the tzaddik…" Even the tribe of Levi in Mitzrayim endured self-sacrifice to sanctify Hashem's name when the rest of the Jewish nation despised Torah and Milah…. But the tribe of Levi were all tzaddikim and followed the Torah and performed Bris Milah. Moreover, when Yisroel worshipped the golden calf, the Levi'im refused to participate.… And when Moshe told them to gird themselves with swords, what did they do? They took their swords and showed no favoritism.… For this Moshe blessed them…. Seeing that they were all tzaddikim, HaKadosh Baruch Hu tested them and they stood up to His test.… As a result Hashem chose them (to serve in the Beis HaMikdash) as it says, "Hashem tests the tzaddik…" (Bemidbar Rabba 15:12)
Chazal tell us that the whole success of the person depends upon his passing tests. If he passes the trial, he is a success. Life is a constant series of trials and tests. This is the simple meaning, and the common interpretation, of the word nisayon. HaKadosh Baruch Hu is testing the person if he is strong enough so that he can be trusted for HaKadosh Baruch Hu's special missions.
Nisyonos - Opportunity for Greatness
There is, however, another way of understanding the term nisayon. The word nisayon stems from the root đń, nes - a flag or a banner: "'And Hashem tested Avraham,' as it says (Tehillim 60:6), 'You have given a banner to those who fear You, that it may be displayed because of the truth. Selah.' Nisayon after nisayon, growth after growth, in order to display them in the world…" (Bereishis Rabba 55:1). (See also the Ramban on Bereishis 22:1.)
Hashem wants to draw the person closer to Him, to grant him the ability to attach himself to the Divine, close to the Borei Olam. A nisayon is a way of becoming elevated to achieve total devotion to the Ribono Shel Olam. According to this, we translate the possuk: "Hashem lifted up Avraham (using the Hebrew term nisa, đńä, indicating raising a banner on high)." The Ramban explains that a nisayon is not to test the person to see if he will withstand the tests. Hashem knows already. He gives nisyonos only to those whom He knows can withstand the nisayon. He does not give nisyonos to someone who cannot handle them. So what is the purpose of this nisayon? To help him, to strengthen him so that he can become raised up and great.
This new concept of the Ramban fits in very well with the Mesillas Yesharim. A person's life is a constant stream of nisyonos. If a nisayon is a test, a test can be given once a year, once a month; but not constantly, without a break! That is not a trial! That is a condition, a form of existence. It appears more compatible to the concept of the Ramban: a nisayon's purpose is to lift the person up and make him greater so that the person can become closer and more attached to HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
There is a practical difference between these two ways of looking at it. If a nisayon is to prove who the person really is, then he would have to be tested with very difficult trials which not everyone could pass. He would have to prove how much he is really ready to suffer and sacrifice. But it does not make sense to test him on the little things. However, if nisyonos are there to help the person and lift him up, then we can understand that Hashem's great compassion prescribes events that can help the person raise himself up slowly, higher and higher. We understand that the little nisyonos are a gentle way of uplifting the person. They are a special chesed from the Borei Olam Who wants to help the person to become closer to Him. Even a light nisayon is beneficial, or even more desirable. It makes it easier for the person to understand that what Hashem is doing for him is good; what is happening to him is a blessing from Above. An easy nisayon leaves the person the free will to think or do differently. Withstanding that light temptation, showing self-discipline and choosing the good allows the Ribono Shel Olam to declare, "This is the people I have chosen."
This view of a nisayon is novel, but it makes it easier for us to understand a difficult episode in the Torah, the parsha of the complainers (Parshas Beha'aloscha):
Onions and Garlic
And when the people were like complainers of evil in Hashem's ears, and the Lord heard it; and His anger was kindled; and the fire of the Lord burnt among them, and consumed those who were in the outlying parts of the camp…. And the mixed multitude that was among them had a strong craving; and the people of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us meat to eat? (Bemidbar 11:1,4)
Rav Zeidel pointed out that numerous questions arise from these possukim. First of all, what does it mean, "the people were like complainers"? Were they complainers or not? Why say, "they were like complainers"? The Siforno draws attention to this problem and comments that they really did not have anything to complain about; they were merely trying to complain.
Next, we have to understand the phrase "evil in Hashem's ears." Was it evil, or not? Why does the Torah specify that it was "evil in Hashem's ears"? The implication is that really, it was not evil, but the Ribono Shel Olam heard it as evil.
"…and the fire of the Lord burnt among them, and consumed those who were in the outlying parts of the camp." The possuk does not explain who these people were in the "outlying parts of the camp." But they cried out to Moshe, and Moshe came and davened for them, and the fire died down, and then all was forgotten. We move on to a new parsha and a new problem. The Torah was so terse here, not describing what happened, and to whom it happened.
Rashi mentions a disagreement as to who were the "outlying parts of the camp." Some say it was the worst of the people, the erev-rav, the great multitude of Egyptians that accompanied the Jews out of Mitzrayim. R. Shimon ben Menasia disagrees. He says that really it was the best of the people, the leaders, the officers of rank.
Nevertheless, the Torah was so secretive about what exactly they said, and what was wrong with it. If this incident is discussed in the Torah it most certainly was mentioned to teach us something. These people were guilty of a crime punishable by death. And yet we do not even have any inkling of what they did! Very puzzling.
If we do some research, we can discover who these "leaders" were. Later on in possuk 16, it states, "And the Lord said to Moshe, Gather to Me seventy men of the elders of Yisroel, whom you know to be the elders of the people, and officers over them; and bring them to the Tent of Meeting, that they may stand there with you."
Rashi asks why Moshe had to gather a new seventy elders. Where were the elders who led the people out of Mitzrayim? They had died in the fire that consumed the people. Rashi here tells us that the "outlying parts of the camp" were the best of the best of Klal Yisroel. They were the leaders in Mitzrayim, and they were the ones who helped Moshe Rabbeinu during the entire Exodus until now!
However, Rashi explains, they were punished with the death penalty due to a previous incident.
"Then went up Moshe, and Aaron, Nadav, and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel; and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet a kind of paved work of a sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And upon the nobles of the people of Israel He laid not His hand; and they saw God, and ate and drank." (Shemos 24:9-11)
At the time of the giving of the Torah the elders went up to Mt. Sinai with Moshe Rabbeinu and they gazed at the Divine Vision. What does it mean that they "ate and drank"? What does eating and drinking have to do with gazing at the Divine?
Chazal explain that these leaders were granted a vision and "saw the God of Israel." This means that they had attained a very great and lofty level of prophecy. However, being on such an elevated plane, Hashem found a blemish, a tiny, miniscule critique. During the vision, they had a slight lightheadedness as if "they ate and drank." They did not take the situation seriously enough. It was considered as if they were standing in front of a mighty king, eating and drinking and having a good time. They couldn't find a better time than the occasion of the Giving of the Torah to, so to speak, grab a sandwich and have lunch? On their lofty level of being able to view Hashem, they were criticized for the attitude which was labeled "and they ate and drank." There was too much joy at this very serious and earth-shattering event.
However, the Torah explains that Hashem waited, "And upon the nobles of the people of Israel He laid not His hand." They deserved the death penalty. They should have been stricken down immediately. But Hashem held Himself back, so as not to spoil the joy of the Giving of the Torah, and waited for a different opportunity to mete out justice.
But what was the connection of the above transgression to the incident of the complainers? Here also we do not really understand. Perhaps in the event of the "complainers" there was also a very slight repetition of "they ate and drank." So slight, we do not know exactly what it was. Nevertheless, it was enough to allow the Divine justice to use this opportunity to mete out the previous decree. (We shall offer an explanation of the connection further on.)
Joy - Not Complaint
What exactly was this "complaining"? The commentaries do not really explain this. From the Siforno and others it appears that they were "like complainers." They lacked the joy they should have had from the unending supervision of the Ribono Shel Olam. The Torah seems to be trying to give us this message: we have to feel joy that Hashem is here with us; He is taking care of our every need. Their lack of joy stemmed from a small hidden attitude of complaint, and "in Hashem's eyes" this was considered a sin.
This transgression of "complaining" was not isolated to the leaders; it involved the whole Klal Yisroel. Here it does not explain what exactly they complained about. However, a little later on we find that those who survived this incident were still complaining. They whined about the lack of meat, and they missed the cucumbers and onions they had in Mitzrayim! It was much better for us there! What was so bad about Mitzrayim? We remember the fish we ate in Mitzrayim - free! They did not want to journey any further.
This monologue is totally incomprehensible. We are talking about people who for over two hundred years were not just slaves, but slave labor. The Egyptians gave them some fish and onions to eat so they should keep on working. But which fish did they get? According to one commentary, they received the Egyptians' leftovers; fish that had already been out five days and were beginning to rot. These were the fish the Jews received. And now they're nostalgic about some rotten fish?
They complained that they remembered the onions and garlic of Mitzrayim. How many people were lacking onions and garlic? Most of them could taste onions and garlic in the Mann if they wanted to. The whole Klal Yisroel has to make a tumult just because a few individuals couldn't taste onions and garlic in the Mann?! They made a demonstration, they went on strike. "We are not going until everyone gets garlic and onions!" This was Klal Yisroel's nisayon? It doesn't make sense. The rest of the Yidden should have argued back, "What are you complaining about? What do you want? For a few onions you want to go back to Mitzrayim?"
It seems that the best of the Jews, even the leaders, were "like complainers." Not that they complained. They were only "like complainers." They didn't protest, "Kinderlach, what is bothering you? Why are you making such a ridiculous protest? You're talking nonsense. You want to stop because of rotten fish with some onions and garlic?" We should have heard something from them. But we do not hear anything. This acquiescence made them "like complainers," and this was considered "evil in Hashem's ears." The Ribono Shel Olam wanted them to rise above this petty quibbling, and they failed.
Until now, we thought we understood why the Creator gives a nisayon. The recipient now has a choice whether or not to do Hashem's will. If he chooses correctly, then he develops a close relationship with the Ribono Shel Olam. This then elevates his stature, consequently granting him an even stronger attachment to the Divine. Here, however, we observe a nisayon that doesn't make any sense. There isn't any reason for a sensible person to think like this. They should have discarded the complaints right away. "What is all this nonsense about onions and watermelons?" It seems that the essence of this nisayon was to see if their joy would resist this complaint. Or would their inner doubts prohibit their ability to feel simcha?
A Bissele Kavod (Honor)
It states in Avos (4:21): "Jealousy, honor, and lust take a person out of this world." What does this mean, "takes him out of this world"? It means we have to understand how much we give away for a little honor. How much do we have to give away for a little lust. This can be illustrated by the story in Tanach (Melachim II, chap. 5) about Na'aman the general of Aram. He was a metzora (lepor). We know that tzoras is a very contagious disease and almost incurable. Being the great general of his country, Na'aman probably called in all the best doctors. They all tried to cure him, but to no avail. Nothing worked. He remained a metzora.
Sometime afterwards, a Jewish girl was captured. Upon seeing the condition of the general, this captive girl mentioned to Na'aman's wife, "If you want to help your husband, send him to Israel. Over there is a Navi (prophet) Elisha who can certainly heal him." "Ach, nonsense! He's been to the best professors. If the best doctors can't get rid of this, no one can."
"Listen," said the girl, "I don't know what these doctors said. One thing I do know, send him to the Navi, and it will go away."
The wife told Na'aman.
"Certainly. If there is any chance, we have to try it."
So Na'aman went to Eretz Yisroel, accompanied by the great national army of Aram. As he stood outside the Navi's house, Na'aman expected to receive a royal welcome. But no one came out to greet him. The Navi remained inside. Instead, he sent his talmid to tell him, "Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall come back to you, and you shall be clean."
Na'aman, the greatest general in the entire nation of Aram, perhaps the greatest general in the entire world, is treated like this?! He blew up. "I thought he would come out and wave his hands over me and cure me. Instead, he tells me to go take a bath in the Jordan River. What's so special about the Jordan River? We have plenty of rives in Aram!" With that, he turned to his army, "There is no one to talk to over here. Come. We are going home. Pack everything up and let's go."
One of his soldiers came over and asked him. "What did the Navi say? Did he tell you to do something hard? If he had come out and charged you $100,000 for the visit, wouldn't you have paid it? If he would have said that the cure might take half a year, wouldn't you have gone through with it? If he would have said to come in three times a week, wouldn't you do it? What is the question? Of course. So what did he say? He told you that you do not have to do anything of the sort. He didn't ask for money, he didn't ask for anything hard. He didn't hesitate in giving you his prescription. Just go to the Jordan River and dip seven times and come out. Is that such a difficult thing? Where are you running?" The logic finally penetrated. "Listen, I don't hold of all this. I don't hold of him and his prophesy. But you know what? I'll go. It's worth a try."
So Na'aman went to the Jordan River, entered the water, and dipped himself seven times. "Ooh! What's this? My skin, smooth and soft like a baby! Wow! Do you see this? It can't be! Where's the pimple that was here? Where are all the wounds and scabs? What's this? It's so smooth." Now he went back to the Navi singing a different tune.
What changed? What was the difference between then and now? Why is it that when he first came, he was so incensed at the Navi, and now he treated him with the greatest respect? Because at the beginning his honor was insulted. He admitted it: "Behold, I thought, He will surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over me, and cure the leprosy." "He refused to speak with me! What do you think, I came to hear a chazan? Did I come to hear a rabbi's speech? I came to receive a cure. At least give me the respect due me and come out and take a look!" Only when his servants spoke a little logic to him did he finally listen. "Our honored general, we are not too far from the Jordan. He's not asking much. Let's go and try." He went and it worked. His servants had said such a simple thing: plain, simple logic. Why couldn't he hear it before they said it? The answer is, "But he didn't come out and speak with me! I thought he would come and talk to me! Do you think I can stand such an insult"?" This is the way a person's mind works. Na'aman was willing to forgo his life's dream - being healed - because of a little kavod, a little honor.
If we would think about this, we would see that this is what we do our entire lives. We make decisions about everything, from the insignificant to the most important issues, based on a little kavod. This is true of Yidden as well as goyim, and even talmidei chachomim.
A Bissele Gelt
The story continues: Elisha's gabbai was Geichazi. He saw the incident unfolding before his eyes and his boss, the Navi, didn't take any money! "What? He didn't take any money! Why didn't he ask for a little money? It's a mitzvah!" So he ran after Na'aman to get a little mitzvah gelt.
When he came back the Navi was waiting for him. "Where have you been? To get a little gelt? Okay. You are now going to be the metzora. All of Na'aman's leprosy shall be transferred onto you!" For the rest of Geichazi's entire life he remained a metzora. Why? A little money - a bissele gelt. That is what the Tanna meant by "Jealousy, honor, and lust take a person out of this world."
In summary: Even the easy things can be nisyonos. Everything is a nisayon for the person, and a person has to make choices even in things that appear like nothing. Even so, he has to know that the Ribono Shel Olam gives such nisyonos to give him the opportunity to make a decision and declare, "I want the Borei Olam!" Even if you'll answer, "But what's the question? It's so easy. Of course I'm going to choose that!" It doesn't matter whether it is a question or not. He now has a chance to declare, "I want Hashem." You now have the opportunity to declare, "I have choice, and I am choosing. I am choosing to do the will of Hashem Yisborach." This alone creates a relationship with the Creator. You are thanking Him for, "The chesed of Hashem never ceases, and His compassion does not fail" (Eichah 3:22). His mercy is boundless. It is unbelievable. Hashem puts so much significance into a little nothing of a nothing that one has done, something that doesn't really deserve reward, and credits the person as being a "chooser." For this, He draws you closer; you become His good friend. Kiruv, kiruv, kiruv.
But if not - if the person fails to choose - then in place of the kiruv comes a distancing. Being "like complainers" turns into "evil in Hashem's ears." You didn't recognize Hashem's great chesed to you. That is considered an evil.
This is the rule: everything is a nisayon. And the definition of nisayon is like the Ramban - to uplift the person to become closer to Hashem. Everything. Davening, for example. Beg Him. Tell Him that you want to be strong and make the right decisions. Ask Him to help you. "Ribono Shel Olam. It's hard." True, it isn't easy. But always remember, "The chesed of Hashem never ceases, and His compassion does not fail."
We pray that the Ribono Shel Olam should help us. "Open our hearts in Your Torah," we should have the real love of Torah. "And put in our hearts Your love and fear. To do Your will with a full heart." And we should merit a complete redemption with the coming of the Moshiach soon.
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