In fact, each generation has its own unique test. In the times of the Temple, there was a tremendous desire to worship idols. In the last century, the lure of communism pulled many Jews from the path of Torah. Today, nobody is swept away by paganism or communism. What is our test and how can we pass it successfully?
Please Take the Money
The answers are revealed in a novel interpretation of a puzzling midrash. Right before the Jews are to leave Egypt, Hashem says to Moshe, “Daber na”- Please speak to the Jewish people and plead with them to accept and take the Egyptians’ wealth with them when they leave.
Why would there be a need to plead with them to take the money? The default human impulse is to pursue money, not to protest taking it. Maybe you have to plead with your kids to perform drudgeries, like brushing teeth or doing homework, but receiving money?
The gemara goes even further. It says that that Gd was particularly concerned that they accept the Egyptians’ money, because of Avraham. Gd was “worried” that Avraham would have a claim against Him: “You fulfilled only the first part of Your promise; You brought them to slavery in Egypt. But You didn’t fulfill the second part about of being redeemed with great reward.”
This is also difficult to understand. How can Avraham complain to Gd? It’s like taking the Chief Justice to court, but it’s his court! And why did Hashem care so much about what Avraham might say? Moreover, since when do saddikim like Avraham care so much about money?
This midrash becomes clarified when we understand a very basic insight: We live in a world of nisyonot -tests. We may think that if Avraham faced ten tests, then maybe, people on our level will have to face only five or six tests in our lifetime. Not true. The Mesilat Yesharimwrites that we are constantly being tested – every day, all day. Every decision, “Should I say it or not; should I look or not; should I wear it or not” is a test. When we speak about Avraham’s ten tests, we refer to the major life challenges, akin to status of the SATs in school, but we are constantly faced with quizzes and minor exams.
Rabbi Shimshon Refael Hirsch explains that our souls enter this world like a diamond in the rough. Each time we overcome our urges, desires, and temptations, we pass that test and polish a facet of the diamond. Our job is to return the diamond in better condition than we received it.
Ultimate Stain Remover
On a deeper level, the saddikim reveal that our tests purge and clean our soul from its toxins and contamination that originate all the way back to the sin of Adam in the Garden of Eden. Overcoming our tests extracts these imperceptible imperfections at the deepest level. If we want to know what detergent to use to clean our neshama, it can’t be bought in a store. The stain remover is overcoming nisyonot. The minor day-to-day tests clear the superficial dirt, and the big tests, like Avraham’s ten major nisyonot, release the deep stains.
We can ask: Our souls originate from the Kiseh Hakavod – The Heavenly Throne of Glory. So why didn’t Gd just take us straight to olam habah? It would be a short “domestic flight.” Why do we have to come all the way down here, light years away, to this world, where we get these “spots” on our souls?
The answer is that we have to earn it. Gd says to us, “If you can return it better than the way you got it, you deserve to enter olam habah.”
Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk taught the secret of overcoming our tests. He pointed out that the test is hardest at the beginning, when we are breaking our natural habit. After repeating the new behavior for thirty or forty times, a new nature sets in, and it becomes easier. The key is to be strong in the beginning, knowing that it will become easier.
Let me share with you a personal confession, as an example. I used to be addicted to Coca-Cola. Every time I would give a class, they knew that the Rabbi gets a glass of Coke – not water. One day, someone anonymously sent me an article detailing all the adverse effects of drinking that beverage. Originally, I dismissed it, but the Torah instructs us to protect our health, so now it became my test, and as Rebbe Elimelech taught, the beginning was the hardest.
On my first day, I found myself on a Jet Blue flight on my way to give a derasha in Ft. Lauderdale. I got to my seat, took out my gemara and set myself up to prepare the daf hayomi. Then the stewardess approaches: “What would you like to drink, sir?” For years my automatic response to that question was, “Coke, please.” But I controlled myself, and I told her, “I am a recovering addict. Water please.” And she hands me a plain bottle of the dullest of beverages.” I passed the test – so far. Right then, the fellow sitting next to me turns to the stewardess and says, “I’ll have a Coca-Cola with ice.” She proceeds to bring a beautiful clear cup of ice with the reddest can of Coke you ever saw in your entire life. He takes the can and opens it. With a swish, the foam explodes right into my nose. So now I started to rationalize: My resolution doesn’t apply in this case. I made the resolution on earth – now I’m at 30,000 feet, in the sky.Lo bashamayim hi – the Torah is not in Heaven, and so on… Thankfully, I stopped myself, thinking, this is exactly what Rebbe Elimelech taught: the first time will be difficult. If I persevere now, I’ll advance myself a lot. The whole flight, he kept drinking his Coke. I didn’t look, but I heard every swallow. Now, ten years later, drinking Coca Cola doesn’t even talk to me. Even if it would be the only drink in the refrigerator, I’d rather go to sleep thirsty.
While overcoming Coke may be a trivial example, the story exemplifies the pattern of challenges in overcoming our personal tests.
The generation of slaves in Egypt faced the test of poverty. In fact, the reason we eat massaon Pesah is not because that is the food we ate when we left, but because that was the bread of our affliction, given to us by our taskmasters. Even jails give bread to the prisoners, but the Egyptians gave us massa. Nevertheless, although the beginning was hard, we were eventually able to overcome this challenge and adapt to the dismal conditions, continuing to serve Hashem without bitterness. We passed the test.
So now imagine, after 210 years of slavery, they are offered to divide all the wealth of Egypt amongst themselves. Every family would become multi-millionaires overnight, literally from rags to riches. Who would be against that?
Upping the Ante
But the Jews said, “We just finished the test of poverty, and now you want to give us a new nisayon of wealth? That is an even more difficult challenge.” Shlomo Hamelech said: If I become poor I am tempted to steal, but if I become rich I am likely to deny Gd. So they said, “Keep us poor; we got used to it. We don’t want to up the ante.” Many times, we see people whose sudden wealth was their undoing. One Mosa’eh Shabbat, I was having melave malkawith my family, and my kids were excited about the massive Powerball lottery. They urged me to go out and buy a ticket. So I asked them what they would do with the money if we would win. The first child said, “I would move out of the house and get my own place.” The second kid said he would drop out of school. The third child answered, “I would buy a new car and park it wherever I want – at bus-stops, fire hydrants…” I asked them, “Did you hear what you’re saying? We didn’t even get the money yet, and your dream of riches was to become a delinquent or a parking criminal.” It didn’t lead them to want to give seddaka or help. It led them to want to do what they please.
So that is why the Jewish people were not going to want to receive the Egyptians’ wealth. Hashem said, “I understand, but someone is not going to be happy – Avraham Avinu.” His life embodied the principle that to grow and perfect yourself, you have to go from one test to the next. After each of his ten nisyonot, he was prepared to rise to the challenge of the next one. If you retire and rest on your laurels, then what’s the point of living? Why did you come to the world? Each nisayon enables us to climb another step up our own personal Mount Everest. That is why Avraham would not want them to be satisfied with passing only the test of poverty. He would claim to Gd, “You taught me that tests have to keep on coming. Why don’t you give them the next test – the challenge of wealth?” He didn’t care about the money; he was worried about what was going to elevate them and bring them to the next level.
In Your Thigh Pocket
Our previous generations moved forward from tests of poverty to tests of wealth and everything else. The test of our generation is dealing with the threat of modern technology. When the angel smote Ya’akob on the thigh, he created a spiritual weak point there for future generations. In our generation, we understand a deeper significance of that spot. Where do we keep our cell phones? In our pockets, near our thigh. The impurity of that angel did not affect Ya’akob. He didn’t need a cell phone. It affected his offspring, us.
As we mentioned, the original source of this impurity in our souls is the sin of Adam in the Garden of Eden. That could very well be why, when you take out your iPhone, you are reminded of this when you see the logo of the apple with a bite taken out of it, representing the world’s most famous supplier of these devices.
So today, in the last generation, we continue to wrestle with the final test of the Satan. While many have succumbed to the magnetic pull of their gadgets, there are unsung heroes who overcome the angelic foe. I had the privilege of addressing a group of young Bet Ya’akob students in Montreal who were celebrating the protective measures they had taken upon themselves to preserve their kedusha and prevent digital deterioration. Here were these students, with no military training, no boxing gloves, or karate belts, dealing the Satan a major blow. They had him in a choke hold. The Satan was probably in shock that these little girls were waging the same war that their grandfather Ya’akob did so many thousands of years ago. After the battle he began in Bereshit, he met his match in Montreal.
Today, we must fight the battle of kedusha. It’s not just about dressing with kedusha and sniut, but living with kedusha in our eyes, minds, and hearts. Having internet filters and kosher safety features may make using your device somewhat more inconvenient, but every time the filter blocks a word or a site, know that you are continuing the struggle of Ya’akob Avinu and are blocking the Satan.
Hands of the Tongue?
Shlomo Hamelech said, “Mavet v’haim beyad halashon – life and death are in the hands of the tongue.” Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky once explained what “in the hands of the tongue” means. Does the tongue have hands? Shlomo Hamelech was so wise he foresaw a time when the tongue would have hands! That is, people would communicate and speak with their hands. Not sign language, but texting. Life and death are in the hands of our text messages and social media posts.
A girl from our community recently went out on a date. It didn’t work out, and she informed the shadchanit that she did not wish to continue. Afterwards, the girl was not getting any more shidduch offers. After a long period with no dates, she called the shadchanit to inquire what’s going on. The shadchanit told her, “First take your pills!” The girl was stunned, “What pills?” She was then told that the boy from the last date was insulted that she broke it off, so he posted on his Facebook page that the girl was mentally ill. With her name ruined in an instant, she became depressed, on the verge of suicide. Life and death are in the hands of the tongue.
This social media culture is not a problem just because of religiosity; it’s because of the stupidity. What’s the sense in a couple going out to eat and taking a selfie eating spaghetti and meatballs to send out to the whole world?
That may be innocuous, but consider the time a woman came crying to me on Sukkot, showing me a text message she had received from an acquaintance. The sender’s message wished all her contacts, “Hag Sameach,” showing her wearing the new ring her husband had bought her for the holiday. The woman cried, “Has she no feelings?” At first, I didn’t understand why it bothered her so much. Then she continued, “What? She wants to flaunt to everyone that she has a husband!! What do I do now? I’m a widow. She’s putting it in my face.” Even though it wasn’t the sender’s intent to hurt the widow, the culture of social media is causing pain with the swipe of a hand. Consider the new norm of sharing photos from vacations. Does everyone have money to travel? We aren’t even talking about exposure to all the inappropriate material so readily available to leave a scar on our souls.
Technology wasn’t the test of our grandparents; nor was it the challenge of our parents – but it is our test, and history will judge us on how we overcome this nisayon.