Why Is God Testing The Israelites?
Why Is God Testing The Israelites?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
When the people first enter the wilderness, God withholds water...to test the people? In fact, this idea of God "testing" the nation shows up in every single story of this parsha! What is God really testing, and why test the people? In this podcast, Rabbi Fohrman and Imu Shalev discuss this pattern, and try to get to the bottom of the subtle connection between these stories.
Imu: Hello and welcome to another episode of Parsha Lab, by Aleph Beta. I am your cohost, Imu Shalev.
Rabbi Fohrman: That makes me your other cohost, Rabbi David Fohrman.
Imu: We are super excited to jump into Parshat Beshalach, the parsha best known for the splitting of the sea which we will not be focusing on today.
Rabbi Fohrman: Oh man. Really? I like the splitting of the sea.
Imu: I know that's why we're focusing on the second half of the parsha, the oft looked past stories of the complaints of the Dor Hamidbar. Rabbi Fohrman, I noticed something really interesting in the parsha this week. I don't know what to make of it yet, but I wanted to show you what I noticed and ask you about it.
Rabbi Fohrman: Okay. I am all ears.
God Tests the Israelites in the BibleImu: So right after the people of Israel sing their song of Az Yashir they show up to this place called Marah where they complain about the fact that they have very bitter water. They can't drink it. God provides for them sweetened water. Let me just read this verse with you. "Vayitza'ak el Hashem vayoreihu Hashem eitz vayashleich el hamayim vayimtiku hamayim sham sam lo chok u'mishpat v'sham nisahu." God basically showed a tree or a stick or something that got put in the water, sweetened the water and then here's the part that I want to focus on. "Sham sam lo chok u'mishpat v'sham nisahu." There God placed for them chok and mishpat, some law. V'sham nisahu, and there He tested them.
I'm not exactly sure what is the chok u'mishpat, what's the law there? What was the test – what test is he giving them? Did they pass? I'm not sure, but that word nisahu is actually something of a leading word throughout this parsha. It's a word that shows up again and again and again. Can I give you a few more examples?
Rabbi Fohrman: You can.
Imu: Okay. Great. In the very next story – so we have complaint about bitter waters, in the very next story there is complaint about no food. If you jump with me into Chapter 16, Verse Number 4, God says that he's going to provide them bread from the heavens. "Vayomer Hashem el Moshe hi'n'ni mamtir lachem lechem min hashamayim," bread from the heavens. "V'yatza ha'am v'laktu d'var yom yomo," the people are going out and gather that day's portion on that day. "L'ma'an anasenu ha'yeileich b'torati im lo," so I can test the people to see if they're going to follow my law or not. So there's that word test again.
Then, if you go to the very next story – so they had bitter water, no food and the story after that, again they have no water. Not bitter water, but no water. Chapter 17, Verse 2, "Vayarev ha'am im Moshe vayomru t'nu lanu mayim v'nishteh vayomer lahem Moshe mah t'rivun imadi mah t'nasun et Hshem." Moses says, why are you fighting with me? Why are you complaining about the lack of water? Why are you testing God?
So the last two times you had God is the one who's testing. Here, for some reason, the people are testing God. Then just a few verses a little bit later we get told, "vayikra sheim hamakom Masah U'm'rivah," the name of this place where they didn't have water is actually called Testing and Strife. "Al riv Bnei Yisrael v'al nasotum et Hashem," on their fight and on their testing of God.
Then because there shouldn't be a story in this parsha without this word, right after the battle of Amalek, Moses decides to recognize God. He builds a mizbei'ach, an altar. Chapter 7, Verse 15, "vayiven Moshe mizbei'ach vayikra sh'mo Hashem nisi." He builds an altar and he calls the name of that altar – which is cool. I didn't know that altars get names, but he calls it Hashem Nisi, God is my banner. But that word nisi is the same word of nisayon and nasah, right, to test, which seems pretty on purpose. It doesn't seem like a coincidence in this week's parsha.
So Rabbi Fohrman, we've given you a whole bunch of mentions of this word and a whole bunch of stories that seem like vignettes, a day in the life of the Dor Hamidbar and their various complaints. What do you make of this pattern?
Rabbi Fohrman: Well, it certainly seems to be a pattern. Let's start off by suggesting that it doesn't seem to be coincidence. You don't get a word like neis used over and over again in all these different contexts unless it is doing something. I think the most ground floor level of a theory that we can develop is that these stories are connected. As you're kind of suggesting, the proper way to learn these stories are not as individual anecdotes that first this happened, and then oh look that happened and then something else happened, but there's a larger story developing and the word nisayon is going to be one of the threads that's going to tie through the story.
I think the challenge that faces us is what's the larger story. As part of the larger story it feels to me like the word nisayon is developing. It could have positive, it could have negative connotations and it could mean entirely different things. It seems to mean at least three different kind of things, two kinds of tests and then a banner that seems in some way to be related to that, but a kind of test which seems to have good connotations, or at least potentially positive connotations where God –
Imu: How do you mean that it has good connotations? A test has good connotations?
Why Does God Test Us?Rabbi Fohrman: Again, the question is how we define test, but if we look at just in its very first context, what was the first test? It's "sham sam lo chok u'mishpat v'sham nisahu," there God provided them some sort of law and some sort of test. It could be negative, but there's, at least, the possibility that there's a positive test here too. Again, it gets into what we mean by a test, or what we mean by a trial. If you think about trials in the Torah, are they negative? Are they positive? Of course the classic trial of all is going to be the Akeidah, is going to be the Binding of Isaac. The question is what is the nature of the trial? I think you and I, I feel we must have discussed this in Aleph Beta videos somewhere, but the notion of the Binding of Isaac as a kind of trial is –
Imu: One second, just for our viewers who don't know why we're saying the Binding of Isaac is a test. I'm just pointing out the fact that the text introduces the fact that "Hashem nisah et Avraham," that's one of the classic cases of this word.
Rabbi Fohrman: Right. The challenge of course is that when we think of God trying Abraham, "Hashem nisah et Avraham," that God tried Abraham what does that mean? Theologically, it creates a big conundrum, right? Which is that here's God who is supposed to know everything and he's testing you and doesn't God what's in your heart? If God knows what's in your heart, why is He testing you? This is something which Rishonim, earlier commentators, Nachmanides talks about this famously. And so there is the notion of a test that God sorts of imposes on people that has positive connotations test that is designed to sort of bring out a latent potential.
If I'm not mistaken, Nachmanides' theory is that the purpose of the test is to bring something from potentiality into actuality, which is it's one thing to have the potential to serve God in a certain. It's another thing to actualize that into real life. Sometimes we do that through tests. In other words, there are even moments in our own lives which we find as sort of crucibles, moments that try us in some way. When we look back on our lives and say, you know in some way as much as the trial was uncomfortable, as much as it was painful, but it was a crucial aspect of my growth as a human being what we really mean is getting back to Nachmanides' idea that there was something latent within me that I had a chance to actually encounter some sort of difficulty in life and through that I changed as a human being.
It reminds me of Aaron Sorkin, in his master class, where... so far I haven't actually taken any of those master classes, but I keep on seeing them on Facebook, just my little 30 second Facebook Aaron Sorkin thing. You know, he talks about in order to work on a script, he's going to have what I think he calls intention and obstacle. Intention is I got to do something. I got to do something. I got to get the girl. I got to get the money. I got to get to Philadelphia. It doesn't matter what my intention is, but there has to be something I want really, really badly. But in order to start a script I need an obstacle. There's something that's formidable, that's getting in the way of me actually actualizing that intention. The encounter between intention and obstacle is the beginning of a script. That's what makes a story. That's what makes something exciting, and that's what allows a character to change and to grow.
Basically, intention and obstacle is what it's about when you think of trials. The nisayon is a trial. There is something I want and then it's like, oh my gosh. How do I get past this obstacle? If I can surmount that somehow and deal with it, then somehow I 'm a changed person. That's one possibility when we talk about this.
Imu: Just to summarize here, sounds like what you're saying is that this word nisayon doesn't mean just to test someone traditionally, to see whether or not they're going to be doing the right thing, but that the test, as you're saying, brings some latent potential in a person out. Maybe that kind of explains why the word nisayon which is classically translated as a test could also mean a trial and maybe even mean experience, right. If someone has nisayon in life it means that they've had a lot of experience. Perhaps because their potential has, through their life experience, has begun to become actualized.
Rabbi Fohrman: No, no, no. I think it's kind of interesting when talk of Modern Hebrew I think we talk about nisayon literally to mean experience, and that you want somebody a handyman with experience because through experiences you learn. It's one thing to go to school and learn how to be a handyman. It's another thing to have actual life experience that teaches you how to become the best handyman you could be. We want somebody with experience, that's encountered trouble and managed to find their way around it.
Imu: I wonder if there's an interesting pedagogic point here, for all you teacher listeners, is that there's a major difference between a test that you give in class that simply assesses whether your students have knowledge, and a test that you can actually learn from, a test that brings out potential?
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, and you think about a teacher. A teacher is the classic non-omniscient authority figure, right. Whereas God knows everything, and there's no reason for God to test you, the challenge with being a teacher is you could say that look I don't know everything. It's my job to test a kid. Or you could say, no God in the Torah establishes another kind of test, a different kind of test, a test which is not designed for the teacher, but designed for the student. A test which is designed to get some potential that's latent into actuality and those kinds of tests are actually kind of gratifying to take as a kid.
Imu: So Rabbi Fohrman, I want to ask you based on this theory, at least in the first two instances of this word it does seem like God is testing the people or perhaps bringing out their latent potential. So how would you read those first two stories?
What Is Being Tested By God?Rabbi Fohrman: So, you know, I agree with you that the notion of the test in the first story having to do with the water is highly cryptic. It's unclear. My instinct in just reading it quickly it seems like it's connected to the very next test with the food almost as there's a water and food challenge which go back to back and the food challenge comes with laws. Hence the test is, will you keep the laws? Which sort of give broad context to water and food which is God's going to give water. He's going to give food and yet there's going to be law that comes with it along with the test will you keep the law. It almost feels to me like those perhaps go together.
The challenge then is, you know, what's the nature of these laws. What's the nature of the test. This is something that you and I have touched on before in researching our, I think our last year Shavuot video, if I'm not mistaken, where we talked about the nature of law with the manna. You want to maybe bring us up to date on that. Because that might have, I think, some kind of resonance over here.
Imu: Yeah, sure. I'm not sure we can go fully into it this podcast, but if you haven't listened to our last year's Shavuot video we cover pretty heavily Parshat Beshalach strangely, but yeah along with the manna there was law given. Specifically the laws of Sabbath, but also some other laws that were specifically manna related, and those laws seem to be designed to make sure that the people understand that they're getting their bread from God.
Rabbi Fohrman: What do you mean by that?
Imu: Good question. I'll try to and cover it quickly.
There are three laws that we get with the manna. One is omer lagulgolet. Each person could only collect enough manna for their family. You couldn't collect an extra portion. You couldn't leave it over for the next day. You had to eat that portion for that day. You couldn't hoard the manna and save it for future days. And on Friday there'd be a double portion and you wouldn't be allowed to go out and collect on Sabbath. There wouldn't be any manna on Sabbath, but you weren't supposed to go out and collect.
Seemingly the common denominator between all three of these is you have to recognize that you're not in control of the food. Can't take extra. You can't hoard. You can't leave it over for the next day and create a stockpile, and you shouldn't expect that it's going to come out on Sabbath. The idea here is that you can't be the one to control your food source. You have to rely that it's going to come from God. God's going to take care of you. He's going to make sure there's just enough for you every single day and don't worry about it. Don't be so greedy and take more than you need because God's going to provide for you.
Rabbi Fohrman: So keeping that in mind, Imu, I want to go back to this notion of test, and this test as a way of gaining experience and bringing something from actuality into potential because if you're thinking about that, it's one thing to sort of intellectually know that your bread comes from that. It's another thing to experience it and live by that in a way in which your actions live up to what's in your head. You know, it's one thing to philosophize about bread coming from God. It's another thing to live by it. It's a kind of tricky thing if you're telling me not to control one of the most basic things in my life that I require for my existence when I'm in the desert and there is no other way getting sustenance. There is something challenging about it. There is also something benevolent about it.
You know, I think you asked me before how a test can be benevolent. One of the things we explored when we actually did that Shavuot video and if you haven't seen it yet, go take a look. We'll put a link for it in the description to this podcast. One of the fascinating things about these laws is that they're like, we called them I think training wheel laws, in the sense that you can't break them. With all of these laws there was something miraculous that happened, that made it actually impossible to break. Almost as a father lovingly hold on to your back of your tricycle and it's like, I'm here and I'm here and there's no way you can lose, right.
If you hoarded in the desert, what would happen? The Torah comes out and says it. If you hoarded, it doesn't make a difference if you collected more than an omer, when you got home there was just an omer in the sack. If you collected less than an omer, there was an omer in the sack. There was the same amount no matter how much you collected. If you tried to go out on Sabbath, you would find any manna there. You could try to collect on Sabbath it just wouldn't work. These laws were designed in a way that you couldn't fail. Almost as if what God is doing is ushering us into a new kind of life.
One of the differences between the old life and the new life is that we're on our way to Sinai, and the new life comes with law, but law is something you got to get used to. The notion that law can be benevolent, that God could love you and take care of you and provide for you, and yet there be laws and rules for that, and that it's helpful to follow those laws. It's like a whole new thing for slaves that where laws are a way where a king takes advantage of you and beats you down. The people are getting training wheel laws. They're getting an experience of law that changes them as people, that helps them make the transition from in my head there is God and my bread comes from God, to what does that mean in real life, and their experience with that. Maybe something that builds them up.
Imu: That was really interesting. We're going to be right back, but take a listen to this riveting commercial for Aleph Beta.
Imu: Okay. Wow, that's really powerful. Sounds like the People of Israel are really going on this experiment. I like that analogy you said about the training wheels, because the People of Israel are in their infancy stages in their relationship with God. So I kind of like that imagery of the people on their bike, with the training wheels, with the loving God kind of helping them along and providing for them.
Let's take it to the other mentions of this word. The first two episodes are God testing the people, but if we go to the 17:2, the episode where there's no water again, there there seems to be a fight. The people are fighting with Moses. "Vayarev ha'am im Moshe." Moses says they're testing God. God is the one who's testing them, but here the people, seemingly according to Moses, are testing God. What's that about?
Rabbi Fohrman: So look at that verse a little bit more carefully. There's actually a little disconnect inside of it. Over here Imu's pointing us to Verse 2 in Chapter 17. "Vayarev ha'am im Moshe," and the people argued with Moses. Vayomru, and they said, "t'nu lanu mayim v'nishteh." Give us water so that we can drink.
"Vayomer lahem Moshe," and Moses says, "mah t'rivun imadi?" What are you fighting with me for? "Mah t'nasun et Hashem?" Why are you testing God?
To me the disconnect is, and what I would ask you to consider Imu, is how do you see those last two phrases of the verse as connected to each other? Phrase number one Moses says, "mah t'rivun imadi," why are you fighting with me? Phrase number two, "mah t'nasun et Hashem," why are testing God like this? How do those two things go together?
Imu: Well those seem disjointed because Moses is saying that their fight here is with him, but he's saying that their fight with him seems to be a test of God. Like there's two different subjects, right. Are you fighting with Moses? Are you testing Moses? Or are you fighting with God and testing God?
Rabbi Fohrman: Exactly. Or, to put it another way, the fact that you are choosing to fight with me is an affront and in essence a test of God's patience. Which is, the whole point here, the whole point of training wheels is to learn how to ride a bike. But if you come along and say I'm not interested in riding a bike, I want to take the elevator instead, that's an affront to dad who's trying to help you ride a bike. You could say, well I want to ride this kind of bike. I want to ride that kind of bike. I want to go slower. I want to go faster, but I have to interact with dad trying to help me ride the bike. I can't go saying, dad, let's do elevators instead. That's an affront to dad who's helping you drive the bike.
Similar here, what this is all about, this whole experience is learning to live with the notion that God provides food. What's the great affront to that? The great affront to that is that if you argue, if you're scared, what does Moses want? If you're scared, what should you do, People of Israel? If you don't have water and you don't know where water's coming from and you're trying to get used to the notion that God is giving you water, what should you do next?
Imu: You got to turn to God.
Rabbi Fohrman: Exactly. So you want to scream at God, scream at God. You want to complain to God, complain to God. My problem isn't the complaint, my problem is who you're complaining at. Don't look at me.
"Vayareiv ha'am im Moshe," they are striving with Moses and they're saying, give us water Moses. No. The whole point is I'm not the one who gives you water. God's the one who gives you water. Look over there. You see the one holding the training wheels? So Moses says, "mah t'rivun imadi." You're breaking the rules of test. The one rule of the test is at least engage around the notion of the test. Talk to God. What are you arguing with me for? The emphasis is on me rather than argue. What do you arguing with me for? By doing that you are flipping the test around. You're rejecting the test. In essence you're taking a loving test where God is trying to help you get used to an idea and you're flipping it around and you're testing God's patience, right. Because you're saying, no, it's all nonsense.
Imu: In light of that can you, you want to read Verse 7, which I think supports what you're trying to say.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah and I think it really does. Let's take a look at Verse 7. "Vayikra sheim hamakom Masah U'm'rivah," and therefore they called the name of the place Masah U'm'rivah, Testing and Strife. "Al riv Bnei Yisrael," because of the strife of Israel with Moses. "V'al nasotum et Hashem," and they're testing God by saying, "hayeish Hashem b'kirbeinu im ayin?" Is God really with us or not?
The question I would ask you, Imu, is what do you mean by saying is God really with us or not? They didn't say it. The people never said, "hayeish Hashem b'kirbeinu im ayin." Point me to the verse where they said that. So how come they're being accused of saying that?
Imu: Their actions seem to be saying this. Which is actually kind of neat because if you're not sure that there really is a God you might be acting in a way in which – I'll say it this way. If you're not sure that God is really with you and that He's caring for you and He's taking care of you, then your recourse is to act as if He's not. Which is you're going to argue with your leader, you're going to argue with Moses instead of dealing with God. Once you're dealing with God, you're not concerned if He's with you or not. I don't know if I said that –
Rabbi Fohrman: Exactly. It's precisely as you said. Their actions are speaking louder than their words, and their actions are saying, we're not dealing with God. We're dealing with Moses? Why?
The answer is that they're so scared that they're succumbing to cowardice in this test and the succumbing of cowardice is that I'm not going to engage around the fear that comes with having my everyday, mundane needs in the hands of a transcendent, loving God. Because what if He doesn't love me? What if I let Him down? Will He still be there? Instead let me ignore Him and flip the test, and try His patience by ignoring Him.
How do I ignore Him? Because what am I saying? The way I justify to myself why I'm looking to Moses and not God is I say, look, "hayeish Hashem b'kirbeinu im ayin?" I don't know. Is God really there? Can't touch Him, can't feel Him, I don't really know. Yes, it's true I'm getting manna. It looks like it's coming from heaven. It's true I'm getting water miraculously, but let me close my eyes to the obvious truth around me, deal with Moses and wonder, is God really there and can I really trust putting myself in His hands. If I feel I can't trust it, then I can justify to myself my cowardice or my inability to engage Him.
Basically that's why the story is such a letdown at this moment. Right at this story who should show up, but the great nemesis of the Jewish people Amalek. It almost seems like the external enemy at this point that confronts us is nothing but an externalization of a kind of internal enemy that we're struggling with, this feeling is God really with us or not.
I'll quote something my tenth grade Rebbi, Rabbi Kalman Weinreb, used to say about Amalek. That the numerical value of Amalek, the gematria, if you add up the numerical values of all the letters happens to equate with the word safek which is to be unsure.
Imu: Rabbi Fohrman, (inaudible).
Rabbi Fohrman: I know. I was not such a kabbalist. What can I tell you? This is cute so I'm throwing it in. There's something about Amalek that plays with our insecurity. It's you know it's one thing to be insecure because what's objectively around you is unknowable, but sometimes it's knowable. Sometimes when you're getting manna from heaven, you're just getting manna from heaven. That's the way it is. Sue me. The transcendent God is actually giving me stuff. It's right here. It's objective and it's there. If in the face of that, if I retreat into safek, into uncertainty, I don't know, I don't know where God is, I don't. It's really an act of cowardice and at that point somehow that opens yourself up to this confrontation with an external enemy. So I think this is someway beginning to build the larger story that is woven together with this notion of nisayon that you're beginning to talk about.
Imu: Wait, but then help me understand Moses's altar? Why is that Hashem Nisi? Which seems to be not at all a test, right. The word Hashem Nisi is God is my banner.
Rabbi Fohrman: Don't know the answer to that, but I'll give you a quick speculation, which is what does a passed test look like? If I manage to pass the test, if somehow I manage to pass the test what does it look like?
Rabbi Fohrman: So then what does it look like? What does victory look like? It's interesting that victory looks like a banner being waved in the air, a victory banner. The victory banner in this case is that yes there is God there. God is my banner. I've somehow vanquished this question mark of my own cowardice, and I'm happy to proudly wave this notion that God is here in my life and God is my banner.
Then it comes back to that notion of how did they defeat Amalek at this point. They defeat Amalek. If you look at the war – isn't this the war where they defeat with the hands raised? It is. If you think about the Gemara, what the Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah actually says about those hands, it really fits into the story in a beautiful way.
The Mishna says, so when Moses's hands are raised they win the war and when his hands aren't raised they don't win the war. So what? Moses's hands win the war? It's about Moses's hand? What's the hands?
Yet when the hands are raised it's like you're looking above the hands and you see God. When you choose to see God, you win the war. When you choose to ignore Him then you lose the war. The challenge that allows you to win the war is are you going to make the choice to see the transcendent God in heaven that provides the food? Or, are you going to bury your head in the sand and look down to the ground where bread usually comes from and just say no there is no such thing as bread that comes from the sky. There's only bread that comes from the ground. This must be it. I just have to figure out how. In which case, you are blinding yourself to the truth of the reality that you're living in.
So if you can be courageous enough to accept the challenge of the relationship with a God that provides you with bread from heaven, then you can be successful in the war. If you're successful in the war, God's your banner.
Passing God's TestsImu: That's really incredible. So Moses's building of the altar somehow is the expression of the passed test. It somehow he lays out the victory at God's feet and says Hashem Nisi, God is my banner and he is the one who has provided this victory.
It actually reminds me of a line in Adon Olam. "V'hu nisi u'manos li," where we say about God that He is our banner and also our refuge, which is actually a really cool play on that word. V'hu nisi, He is my banner, u'manos, and my refuge. So if you are able to rely on God, then He can, you know, at once be the banner of your victory and the place that you will always be able to flee to, a Being who will always take care of you.
Rabbi Fohrman: Good. That's beautiful. Actually, if you think about it that it is through accepting that God is my manos, that God is my refuge, that I win the test and God becomes my banner and I stand for God. So ironically that great sort of masculine victory in war, that where you raise the banner like in that Iwo Jima victory photo of the marines. What that is in our own spiritual war is – if you think about refuge, refuge is a solider trying to escape overwhelming odds. When I can't win and I'm able to take refuge in God that is the kind of victory moment where I can raise the flag aloft and say that I've won.
I think you’re right. That's exactly where Adon Olam comes from. Hashem nisi probably is a playoff of this verse in Adon Olam. God is my banner and maybe manos Li is a kind of explanation along the lines of what you've suggested here, of what's happening in the story. Maybe Adon Olam tells the story in two words.
Imu: Beautiful. Thank you Rabbi Fohrman for helping me see these little episodes in Parshat Beshalach that have always kind of bugged me as one larger story. It's really inspiring.
Rabbi Fohrman: Thank you Imu for helping me to see it too. One of the fun things about these podcasts that Imu really tries to do is insist on not telling me what he's going to talk about before we record so we could actually do this and think it through in real time. Guys, until next time this is Rabbi Fohrman and Imu Shalev. We'll be signing out and we'll see you next week.
Imu: Thanks so much for joining us. Please make sure to rate us in the iTunes store, share this podcast with all your friends, and as always visit us at AlephBeta.org for some incredible Torah insights and videos that you will love.