How trials bring out our true colors
Note: Right now I’m seriously ill. I strongly believe that we live the weekly parsha, if we look around we can find a message that fits so closely to what is going on in real life. This is one of those seasons where I really need this message, so I’m passing it on to all of you as well hoping you find strength in it too. This is a remix of a lesson I did many years ago while I was living in Mexico.
“And it will happen that if you listen
to these laws
and safeguard them and keep them
Hashem, your G-d will safeguard for you
the covenant and the kindness the He swore
to your forefathers.”
| Vehaiah eikev tishme’un
| et hamishpatim ha’eleh
| ushmartem va’asitem otam
| veshamar Hashem Eloheicha lecha
| et-habrit ve’et-hachesed asher nishba
The title of this weeks parsha is Eikev. Rashi points out that eikev literally means “because.” Though it must be noted that this one word has received an abundance of commentary because the use of this word is uncommon. The Ramban (Nahmanides) is among several Rabbis who understands this world to mean “as a reward, if.” Ibn-Ezra and others understand it as “as a final result, if.” The Septuagint renders it as “it will come to pass, if.”
One of the reasons for so much commentary is that it is clearly evident that this word is similar to the word akeiv, same spelling but different pronunciation, that means “heel.” Therefore I believe the word eikev is akin to the phrase “on the heels of…” meaning as a result of or pursuant of.
Rashi explains, expounding on the word eikev, that through juxtaposition of the word heel (akeiv) the meaning is hinted that if we are careful to observe the commands of Hashem even, the “minor” ones that’s so often people trample under the heel, that G-d would also be meticulously observant in keeping His promises to us.
The Nature of Trials
“Remember the entire path
along which Hashem your G-d led you
these forty years in the desert.
He sent hardships to test you,
to know what is in your heart
Whether you would keep His commandments or not.”
| Vezacharta et-kol-haderech
| asher holichecha Hashem Eloheicha
| zeh arba’im shanah bamidbar
| lema’an anotecha lenasotcha
| lada’at et-asher bilvavecha
| hatishmor mitzvotav im-lo
As difficult as the subject is I feel pulled to discuss the nature of difficulties and of trials in this life. The Rambam (Maimonides) in The Guide for the Perplexed states, “The doctrine of trials is open to great objections; it is in fact more exposed to objections than any other taught in scriptures.”
The first objections should be completely obvious to any critical thinker; why would an all-knowing G-d need to know what is in the heart of a person? G-d knows the hearts of all people, there is nothing outside of His awareness and consciousness. So why does it say “l’da’at / to know?”
The answer can be found in examining this text. It is in the context of the Children of Israel wandering in the wilderness. This was their testing ground. It is here in the desert wilderness that Hashem “sent hardships to test”. The word hardship (anotecha) means an affliction, it is based on the word inah which means to cause pain (in modern Hebrew it means “torture”). Here Moses is affirming that the trials that the People went through were in fact painful and anguish filled.
In order to understand what it means to “l’da’at / to know” we must first define what a trial is. The word used here for trial is nisah, it means; to try, tempt, test, or try out. It is generally understood that nisah means to put to the test in order to know the intentions. However nisah also means to try out how one will put something in practice. The same word, spelled the same way but pronounced differently, nooseh means to utilize experimentally, meaning to utilize in order to examine something through critical analysis as in a laboratory.
So how did G-d determine what was in the hearts of the Children of Israel? It says:
“He made life difficult for you,
letting you go hungry,
and then He fed you the Manna,
which you had never experieced
nor had your ancestors ever known.”
| vaya’achilcha et-haman
| asher lo-yadata
| velo yade’un avoteicha
Here we find the word da’at (to know) used here (in the phrase lo-yadata) as meaning experienced. This is appropriate because da’at means knowledge, wisdom, intellect, understanding, common sense, logic, awareness and consciousness.
However, we should be aware that to l’da’at means more than just to mentally understand, it means to physically know. Such as where we read that Adam knew his wife, it meant to know through physical intimacy. Hashem taught the people to depend on Him in a physical way in order for Him to provide an opportunity to show He provides. He didn’t want them to just merely think that the ways He placed before them worked, He wanted them to know on a deeply physical level so it took a physical need to demonstrate that. G-d was teaching them through experience, so that over time it would build their confidence.
Let us remove from our minds the idea that these trials were intended to inform G-d of anything. The trials Hashem placed upon the People were to 1) show them what they were made of, and 2) show others what they were made of. You see the Bachaya (Rabbi Bachaya Ibn Pachuda) understands the context of the word da’at in chapter 8 verse 2 to mean “to show others.”
Showing Our True Colors
Over the years I have learned a lot when it comes to the nature of hardship in life. First, in my own life; facing illness, poverty, homelessness, and emotional brokenness. Several years ago when I first was learning this lesson from the parsha I was living in Mexico. At times the poverty was extreme in the immigrant towns that it was beyond imagination. I had ample opportunity to see how people reacted under difficulty. It has been my observation that it is in times of hardship that people really show who they are and their true colors come out.
One day as I was learning this parsha an American came to me for help. He begins to tell me his story of how he came here to Mexico as a missionary and quickly acquired a day job, but fell on to financial hardship and for what ever reason lost his job that kept his family afloat. To make a long story short, I started hearing things from the locals about him. He had been asking for charity all over, showing that he had a 9 month old baby. Not only had he had turned to begging, but also to stealing and selling drugs. What’s even more shameful is out of generosity people would buy him a gallon of milk, for instance, and he would take it back to the store and return it and pocket the money. In his time of need instead of rising to the challenge he crumbled under the weight, and so did his reputation.
I have become of the opinion that in difficult situations is where people show the depth of their character; if they are inclined to theft, they will steal. If they are cruel, their cruelty will surface. But if they are honest and true at a heart level they will remain honest and true; even in face of adversity.
Our trials therefore are a testing ground, that everyone goes through without exception. So when we see a very similar verse in the next weeks parsha were it says G-d will “afflict you, testing you (meh’naseh) to know (l’da’at)” we should understand it as opportunities to show “whether you would keep His commandments or not.” (Deut 8:2) It’s easy to believe when everything is just peachy and comfortable, but how about in times of hurt and necessity? We need keep our personal values and not toss in the towel in the face of difficulty. The Torah tells us with a positive statement, knowing that we can do it, “You shall safeguard and perform them, for it is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the peoples, who shall hear all these decrees and who shall say, ‘Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation!’ For which is a great nation that has a G-d Who is close to it, as is Hashem, our G-d, whenever we call to Him?” (Deut. 4:6-7) Our trials are the playing field upon which we win our honor and dignity. Furthermore, it shows with living and empirical evidence to others that the ways of Hashem are genuinely sufficient.
Let us examine another verse from Deuteronomy that shows this principal, by looking at another example of the word nisah, meaning trial or test. In Deut. 28:56 we read “The tender and delicate woman among you. Who has never tried to set her foot on the ground, because of delicacy and tenderness, will turn selfish and against the husband of her bosom, and against her son and daughter.” The words “never tried to” (lo nistah), mean to not be accustomed to. The context here is the descriptions of what happens in times of misery because the people have abandoned the ways of Hashem. It is a picture of someone who is unfamiliar with any form of hardship or complexity in their lives. That when things become difficult they lash out animalistically and completely reactionary; only in desperate desire for their own preservation.
Too often people who are too good to get their hands dirty in this world lose all their dignity when hardship comes their way. Individuals that are too cultured to be bothered with the everyday concerns of life often have no composure in times of distress.
JPS translates the words “lo nistah” as “would not adventure.” I like that a lot. What I wish to convey is that these trials in our lives are not so much tests, as they are adventures. They are for our growth and experience. There is nothing about this Torah, despite what people of some persuasions believe and preach, that is to show us what is impossible for us; but to show us what we are capable of. And as we begin to try out our legs on this adventurous path of life and we gain confidence through success we will love the Divine and life with all our heart and soul.
Truly the Children of Israel had the ultimate wilderness adventure. However we read in chapter 8 verse 4 “uraglecha lo batzeyka / your feet did not become bruised / zeh arabayim shana / these 40 years.” You see if we keep this Torah then the trials of this life will strengthen us, but not bruise us; they will harden our bodies with resistance, but not callus us.