WHO IS TESTING WHO?
The Mishna in Avot teaches us: Ten tests was our patriarch Avraham tested and he withstood all of them – to show the depth of his love (to G-d)… Ten tests our fathers tested G-d in the desert, as it is written: “And they tested me ten times, and they did not heed my voice.” This week’s parasha is split into three, with the last part starting the episodes of puraniut , or sad occurrences, that the Jews experienced in the desert. These episodes are referred to by the Mishna in Avot as tests. These tests were situations in which the Jews encountered some difficulty, and then, they tested G-d by the way they responded to these challenges. The tests of Avraham were also scenarios that presented obstacles difficult to encounter. If this is so, why were Avraham’s difficult encounters considered as tests from G-d, while the difficult encounters of the Jews in the desert were interpreted as our testing G-d? When is a hardship or roadblock in life looked upon as our testing G-d and when is it taken as G-d testing us?
The answer lies in the word “should”. When we decide that G-d should do this or that, then we are testing G-d. When we say – “G-d should do whatever He wills, because that is what He does anyway,” then we are not testing Him, we are testing ourselves. “I” just have to find out how to deal with it. And when we are able to look at it like that, we can pass the test. We change the “direction” of testing from us testing G-d to G-d testing us. As long as we sit back and say how the world should be, how people should be, or any other form of “should”, for that matter, we are taking ourselves out of the “test” and making the subject to whom we are dictating “should” the one to be tested. Allow me to explain.
Here are some famous quotes, all sharing the same root. “Broke is a temporary condition. Poor is a state of mind.” “The City called Happiness can be found in the State of Mind.” The message behind these sayings is one and the same. A change of perspective makes a huge difference. Much of life’s misery or happiness is a result of how we look at life and its content. When times are bleak, and many times they are, there has to be another light in which we can look at things. Even in the darkest of hours, in the Nazi Death Camps 90 years ago, a pair of Gerrer Chassidim got up to dance, tzu machen a rikkud. Others looked on in shock. “For all the nerve! These guys must be insane! We are all going to die – and these Chassidim are dancing!”
The Chassidim answered – “Right now, we are alive. Who said we are “supposed” to live? That’s G-d’s decision, not mine or yours. I am dancing because I am presently alive and that I can rejoice for being a Jew.
Certain things are not our decision. It may be G-d’s decision. It may be the decision of someone else in our life using the free choice that G-d gave him. When we try to take that permission to choose from those who have it then we are in for misery. Misery can be defined as making a decision when it is not ours to make.
So, what does the lover of G-d do when life goes bleak? How does he take it? Why did G-d do this? The Messillat Yesharim (Ch.19) writes : The lover of G-d who attempts to overcome hardships that life offers without lessening his love for G-d must be a master of perspectives, knowing how to change them. He must look at difficulties and bleak times as opportunities and chance. Hardships can be none other than a chance to display and express how deep our passion of love for the Creator is, despite the difficulty at hand. The sufferer can still serve G-d, and by doing so, display his love for his Creator as never before. This is the difference between the tests of Avraham and the tests of our nation in the desert: although they both encountered difficulties, Avraham said that this is the Will of G-d and an opportunity to express my dedication. The Jews in the desert, on the other hand, said, “G-d should be doing better for us.”
A question that Jews ask or are asked is – if G-d chose us as his nation, then why was most of the history of the Jewish People a saga of persecution, of dark times in long, difficult exiles? The answer may be in accordance with the attitude mentioned above. The purpose of this world is to give us an opportunity to serve our Creator, to express our dedication towards Him. We can look at Exile critically, saying to ourselves – “G-d should have managed history differently”, and by doing so, test G-d. But we can look at the tribulations of exile as a gift, affording us with a unique opportunity to define and express our sincere relationship with G-d, and test ourselves.
How do you explain why people playing “Telephone” have trouble passing a simple statement down to the last person in line without distorting the original statement? I have posed this question to a number of people recently, and I would like to share with you what I consider to be the best answer. Each person puts his own perspective into the original statement until you can barely recognize what the first one said.This insight can help us stand in awe at how the Torah was passed on from Sinai down to our generation without the slightest alteration.
When examining this chain of transmission I think the best place to start is the very first mishnah in Masechet Avot. Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin calls our attention to the fact that while this Mishnah speaks of Moshe receiving the Torah at Sinai and then passing it on to Yehoshua, it does not explicitly mention that Yehoshua received the Torah from Moshe. The mishnah takes this for granted and simply goes on to delineate how Yehoshua passed on the Torah to the next generation, and how each succeeding generation passed it on to the next. In contrast, with reference to Moshe, the mishnah does not say that G-d passed it on to Moshe and Moshe passed it further. The emphasis is on Moshe receiving the Torah from G-d. What is the importance of this emphasis on Moshe as a “receiver”?
We find the answer to this question in our parashah. Moshe was different from all the other prophets in that he had much greater clarity of vision when G-d spoke with him. We also see in our parashah that Moshe was the most humble of men -(והאיש משה עניו מכל האדם). These two special qualities of Moshe are very much related. G-d specifically chose Moshe to be the one to receive the Torah because he was the only human being who could preserve the original in its entirety – without the slightest modification. Moshe’s humility and perception of himself as nothing (ואנחנו מה) stemmed from his awareness that none of his successes were attributable to himself. This aided Moshe in receiving the Torah without mixing his own understanding or opinions into it. Once an iota of self-pride exists, a personal perspective will automatically surface. Since Moshe attributed all of his successes to G-d, he was able to attain a “transparency” beyond all the other prophets. For this reason, only Moshe was able to say, “This is what G-d said to me” (זה הדבר) – in contrast to all other prophets who introduced their prophecies with the expression, “So said G-d”(כה אמר ה’).
There is a famous question asked regarding Chazal’s account of how the Jewish People felt in anticipation of receiving the Torah at Sinai. Although we find in the Torah that the Jews demonstrated readiness and willingness when they declared, We will do and we will listen (נעשה ונשמע) , the Talmud tells us that G-d still had to threaten them: If you do not accept the Torah, you will be buried by an uprooted mountain! How are we to explain this seeming paradox? (See Tosofot Shabbat 88a.)
The Zohar explains that their readiness was for the Written Torah. The threat was needed to get them to accept the Oral Torah. What was the difficulty of the Oral Torah that made them so hesitant to accept?
The Alter of Kelm offers this keen insight: The difficulty of passing on the Oral Law is that each person has to take responsibility to pass on the Torah to others as it was given at Sinai and become a נותן התורה – a pure conduit of Torah precision directly from Sinai. There is only one way to overcome the broken telephone problem that we mentioned at the outset: Placing G-d’s values and principles ahead of our personal opinions and wants. And so, one of the key questions one must ask himself is: “How can I make sure that I will be a נותן התורה – able to pass on the Torah the way it is supposed to be passed on?”
The aforementioned concept can be very beneficial in understanding how we can improve our seemingly short-circuited communications with others. When conversing with others, especially our loved ones, a critical mistake would be to understand things from our personal perspective. If we pay attention to the differences in the assumptions, beliefs, and behavior patterns of those around us, we will notice that what seem to be their obvious assumptions (etc.) about any given event or situation are really based on existing subconscious perspectives, values, and even instincts. The most valuable and effective thing we can do when communicating with someone we love is to hear what they have to say and validate their perspective before offering our own opinion or comment. Most communications are short-circuited because what one hears is not what the other meant to say.
Shabbat Shalom, Yosef Farhi
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