Tests and Miracles — By Ben

I have a friend who recently got back from leading a trip to Israel. A tremendously inspirational and committed person, she, like me, is a baal teshuvah. Her dedication to learning, growing, and being involved in this community makes my growth look incremental. But even the strongest and most graceful among us have hard days as she texted me this morning.

“Ok so lately, I’ve been really ‘on track’ but my way to work this morning was extremely frustrating to the point of being painful.”

She told me about how after waiting for 40 minutes for the bus in the rain, she was forced to take an Uber. But, of course, her phone stopped working so she had to go back home to call the ride share. Things kept going wrong after that. Between that event and some other personal frustrations, she ended her talk saying, “Most of the time I love my lifestyle but sometimes I’m like, ‘Is this truly what God wants from me?'”

It is a plea that every single one of us has said at one time or another. And it is that very question that this Torah portion, parsha Beshalach, is all about.

Getting Testy

Pirkei avos 5:4 ends with the following;

“Ten times did our ancestors test God in the wilderness as it is said, ‘Now they have tested Me ten times, and have not listened to My voice.”

Though the rabbis differ slightly on the specifics of the ten, by all accounts the vast majority of the complaining happens in Beshalach. Twice at the splitting of the sea, twice when they get thirsty, and a few times when they get hungry. Their discontentment with God gets so distressed that they eventually say, “If only we had died by the hand of God in the land of Egypt, when we had sat by pots of meat and ate our fill of bread.”(Shemos 16:3) Essentially saying, We wish we could go back.

It’s like my friend’s words are being channeled by our ancestors.

How can the Bnei Yisrael say this? After the year of plagues that ravaged their oppressors, the Jews have come out of Egypt rich, empowered and with a dignity not felt in over two hundred years. They witnessed the sea split. They have a cloud of comfort surrounding them during the day and a pillar of fire guiding them at night.

But they do get thirsty and they do get hungry. Just as they test God, God tests them. After He gives them water in Marah it says, “There He set before them statutes and ordinances and He tested them. ” (Shemos 15:25) Then when God is about to give them the quail and the mana He says, “Behold, I will make bread rain from heaven for you and the people shall go out and gather enough for each day, that I may test them [to see] if they will walk in [the way of] my teaching or not.” (Shemos 16:4)

Between God testing the Jews and the Jews testing God, it escalates so much that when they need water again, Moses names the location Massah and Merivah, “Because the Bnei Yisrael had quarreled and because they had tested God, saying, ‘Is Hashem among us or not?'” (Shemos 17:7)

After experiencing the miracles, why do the Jewish people need to be tested to such an extent that it makes them question God?

The Connection Between a Test and a Miracle

There is something very interesting about the word for test נסיון in Hebrew. All Hebrew words have a two or three letter root known as a shoresh. As letters are added to make new words from that shoresh they maintain some sort of connection to that root. For instance the word for dog in Hebrew is כלב K’lev. The shoresh of that word is לב or heart. The כ makes the word literally mean “like heart,” giving a deeper understanding of why we call a dog man’s best friend.

The shoresh of test נסיון, is נס or nais which is the Hebrew word for… miracle! Pretty odd right? What’s the connection between a miracle and a test? Well what other words come from the shoresh of נס? Banner or flag, the verb to lift up, and the verb to flee. What do any of those have to do with one another?

Rabbi Denbo gives over the following insight. A test is nothing more than an evaluation of what you are capable of doing at this moment. When a test comes our way, we either run away (flee) or fight it. If we choose to fight, it lifts us. If we don’t meet that challenge it breaks us. And a flag is nothing more than a statement of that identity.

The only one that doesn’t fit is a miracle. So what is a miracle exactly? Does it have to be the splitting of a body of water or surviving being thrown into some king’s furnace? What about getting a parking space in the middle of Manhattan when you’re almost late for a job interview? What about opening a book to the exact page of the quote you were looking for?

What about being alive? It’s the most extraordinary thing in the world yet also it is so common we take it for granted. The cynic among us might say sarcastically, “Well if being alive is a miracle then I guess EVERYTHING is a miracle.” But they’d be exactly right.

You see the only difference between the miracles that strike us with awe and the miracles we take for granted is based on our understanding of reality. If we believe a phenomenon to be ordinary, it is nothing. But when a phenomenon occurs outside what we think is possible, it redefines our reality. That’s why it is the shoresh of test, because tests define our realities.

Failing the Test, but Still Passing

Our daily struggles are opportunities to be lifted and to redefine our perspectives of what’s possible. So whether it is my friend with her difficulties in the rain, the Bnei Yisrael in the desert, or anyone of us who feel at times like going back to their own Egypt, know that we are all in the middle of a test.

If you lose clarity and start to wonder if God is with you, you open yourself up to doubt, and that’s exactly when Amalek, the enemy of the Jewish people, attacked. But if you remember that God is with you, has always been with you, and certainly didn’t bring you to the place where you are struggling just for you to fail, then remember that it is all a miracle and the test will lift you. Regardless of whether you succeed or fail, as long as you go to meet it, you’ll be uplifted.

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