My friend Tzippy owned an antique diamond ring that had belonged to her grandmother. The ring was Tzippy's only family heirloom. When she washed her hands, she sometimes put the ring next to the soap dish in the bathroom.
One day Tzippy's husband David flushed the toilet and reached for the soap. As he did so, he saw a small, shiny object fly in an arc directly into the flushing toilet. He hurriedly found Tzippy in the kitchen and asked her if she had left her ring by the soap dish. Tzippy glanced down at her finger and answered, "I suppose I did. Why?"
"Because I just flushed it down the toilet," was David's alarming answer.
Tzippy felt like screaming, "YOU WHAT? THAT WAS MY GRANDMOTHER'S RING! IT'S IRREPLACEABLE! HOW COULD YOU BE SO CARELESS?!!"
Instead, she stopped herself. If she had lost her heirloom ring, she thought, why should she also lose her shalom bayit [marital harmony]? In soft, measured tones she asked, "Okay, so what should we do now?"
David, feeling dreadfully guilty, had been ready to defend himself against his wife's attack with a self-righteous counter-attack: "HOW CAN YOU BE SO CARELESS AS TO LEAVE YOUR VALUABLE RING IN A PLACE LIKE THAT?" Since Tzippy did not attack, however, he answered humbly, "I'm really sorry. I guess we should call the plumber and ask him to check inside the pipes, but it's a real long shot."
Tzippy suggested that before they called the plumber, they should take a look in the bathroom. Perhaps the ring had fallen next to the toilet, not in it.
"I saw it fly into the flushing toilet," David insisted, but he went with her to satisfy her doubts.
They looked on the floor around the toilet and found nothing. Then they looked into the toilet bowl and could not believe their eyes. The ring was sitting there on a narrow porcelain shelf two inches above the bottom of the bowl.
"If I had screamed at my husband or he had screamed at me," Tzippy told me at the conclusion of her story, "I know the ring wouldn't have been there."
The concept of God testing human beings is as old as Judaism itself. According to the Midrash, God tested the Patriarch Abraham ten times, each test more difficult than the one before. The ultimate test was God's command to Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. The Torah explicitly introduces this account with the words, "God tested Abraham" (Gen. 22:1).
A test is meant to elevate and reveal the innate potential of the person being tested.
What is the purpose of a Divinely ordained test? A student is tested in school so that the teacher can find out how much the student knows. The omniscient God, by contrast, is already aware of a person's capacity before the test. The purpose of a Divine test, therefore, cannot be to reveal any new information to God.
The Midrash points out that the Hebrew word "tested," nisah, is derived from the word nase, meaning flag. As a flag flies high above and identifies an army or ship, so a test is meant to elevate and reveal the innate potential of the person being tested.
A test is always a choice at the upper limit of a person's capacity. Passing the test actually changes the person. Potential becomes actualized. A rose bud contains all the petals of the opened rose, but a rose in full bloom is far more beautiful than a bud. Abraham standing with a knife in his hand on Mount Moriah was a greater Abraham than he had been at the foot of the mountain.
Tests come in many disguises: someone else's ineptitude, a traffic jam, an unexpected (and unwanted) guest, a computer malfunction, a telephone call just as you're falling asleep, a financial loss, a child throwing a tantrum, a gratuitous insult, suggestions from your mother (or better yet, your mother-in-law) on how to raise your children, etc.
God doesn't give us a test we cannot pass.
God doesn't give us a test we cannot pass. When we fail our tests, it's usually because we didn't recognize the situation as a test in the first place.
If only we could see a neon sign flashing in front of our mind's eye, "THIS IS A TEST!" all of us could muster enough patience, forgiveness, kindness, self-discipline, calmness, or whatever other character trait is called for, to pass the test. How tragically often it is only afterwards that we realize the test beneath the disguise, as we hit our foreheads in frustration and regret at a squandered opportunity to outgrow our limitations.
The key to recognizing a test is to remember that everything, everything, EVERYTHING, comes from God. God is the ultimate source of every occurrence, every financial loss, every traffic jam, every tantrum. Although humans have free will to choose between good and evil, what happens to any individual is determined by God. A thief can choose to mug a passerby on the corner of Broadway and 23rd at 2 AM, just as you're on your way there, but if it isn't God's will for you to be mugged, you'll be delayed a block away, a policeman will show up just at that moment, or the thief will run into an old pal who owes him money. That your two-year-old throws his tantrum in the middle of an upscale department store surrounded by well-dressed singles shaking their heads and clicking their tongues is a deliberately scheduled Divine test for you.
So how can we recognize a test before we've blown it? Much of Jewish practice is geared toward recognizing God as the ultimate source 24/7. Cultivating such God-consciousness puts us in the optimum mental posture to field a test when it comes, just as a well-seasoned tennis player assumes the perfect stance ready to hit the ball before it comes flying over the net.
Saying blessings that acknowledge God as the source before eating food and drinking, seeing the ocean, or hearing thunder is a sure-fire practice to sustain God-consciousness when the test comes flying at us. Twice-a-day recitation of the Shema, the affirmation that the transcendent God is also the director of nature from moment to moment, is a better test-prep than crib notes.
My favorite method for remembering Reality when I'm about to lose it is to recite the first line of a laminated prayer I keep handy: "I believe with a firm belief that this trouble and distress that I am undergoing is ordained by Divine Providence, and I accept it upon myself with love." Remembering that the computer crash, the late-night phone call, or the gratuitous insult comes from God, Who loves me, does not render the bitter test suddenly sweet, but it could give me the right mindset to swallow the bitter medicine rather than spitting it out.
In the above story, Tzippy perceived that the ring was still there, in seeming defiance of the laws of physics, as a Divine reward for her husband and her passing their test. But surely God does not reward humans in the same way that a parent rewards a child who brings home a good grade.
Because Tzippy went beyond her nature and didn't yell, God's response was also "beyond nature."
Rewards for tests are similar to prayers fulfilled. When God grants our prayer, it's not because we have succeeded in convincing the Almighty to give us what we want. Rather, earnest prayer transforms us and makes us into bigger vessels, able to contain the blessings that God is always eager to bestow on us. Similarly, tests passed make us into bigger vessels, more able to contain even "supernatural" levels of Divine beneficence. Because Tzippy went beyond her nature and didn't yell, God's response was also "beyond nature."
A couple years ago, my family was vacationing on the Golan Heights, near the Sea of Galilee. One day we found an isolated beach, pulled our car over, and went swimming. In the water, my husband commented that he was nervous about losing the car key, which he had put into the pocket of his bathing suit.
"Are you kidding?" I upbraided him. "Your pocket is no place for the car key. Give it to me." I had zippered pockets and safely inserted the key.
The next day, we did a hike through one of the streams that feeds into the Sea of Galilee. This hike, popular in the heat of the Israeli summer, involves walking in waist-high water past lush, overhanging vegetation. At intervals, the stream forms delicious pools, where the hiker can dunk down and cool himself.
I was walking ahead with one of our children. Suddenly my husband, pale and distraught, caught up with us and announced, "I lost the car key. It must have happened when I dunked down a way's back."
"Where did you have it?" I asked, horrified.
"In my bathing suit pocket," he replied simply, as if I hadn't, just the day before, warned him about putting the key in his shallow pocket.
"Well, let's go back and look for it," I suggested with dawning desperation.
"No, we'll never find it in the mud, and I don't even remember exactly where I dunked."
I stood there staring at him, my mind quickly calculating the ramifications of his carelessness. My set of car keys was in my purse, locked inside the car. To open the car, we'd need to call a locksmith from Tiberias, but the cell phone was also locked inside the car. And even if a fellow hiker lent us a cell phone, how would we find a locksmith? How much would he charge to come all the way out here into the wilderness? How many hours would we have to wait?
I felt like screaming, "HOW COULD YOU?" Then I remembered Tzippy and her ring. I knew, in a flash of clarity, that I was being tested. And I hoped that if I passed the test, perhaps God would get us out of this mess. So I flashed my husband a reassuring smile and said, "Let's just enjoy the rest of the hike. When we get back to the car, maybe one of the other hikers will know how to break into the car."
An hour later, we emerged from the stream onto the bank. Two trails led back to the parking lot. Our chosen trail led us through a Eucalyptus grove where a group had been making a barbeque. I saw people bidding each other good-bye and driving off in their cars. One vehicle, a Renault, caught my attention. The back doors were open to reveal some kind of technical equipment, but I couldn't make out what kind. Perhaps, I thought, he has a tool we can use to pry the car door open.
As I approached, I saw that the car's hood was up and a man was working on the engine. His wife was standing beside the vehicle. In my best Hebrew, I tried to explain to her what had happened, and asked her if her husband had any tools that could help us.
She replied that their car wouldn't start, so her husband had been trying to fix it for the last half hour. When he finished, she would ask him to help us.
No more than three minutes passed when I heard the sound of the engine turning over and purring. The wife apprized her husband of our plight. He came to where I was standing at the rear of the vehicle. I repeated my request, that perhaps he had some kind of tool to pry open the car door. He looked at me as if I were crazy, exclaimed something in Hebrew, and slammed one side of the rear doors shut, revealing a sign that read: "URI LOCKSMITH."
Two minutes later, he was at our car. We watched with fascination as he deftly used his state-of-the-art tools to open the car door. As he walked away, he called over his shoulder: "You folks sure are lucky. If my car hadn't broken down, I'd have been gone from here half an hour ago."
Divine rewards, indeed.