Life is a test by Rabbi Yissocher Frand
Life is a test. We struggle to make a living, to raise our children, to build up our communities. Nothing comes easy, and our test is to deal with the hardships and frustrations in the best way possible.
But what if our livelihood were served up to us on a silver platter? How wonderful that would be! No more worries about how to pay for the children’s tuition or the new roof. What if everything we needed came to us like manna from heaven? Would we consider this a test? Hardly. We would consider it a blessing. The Torah, however, seems to say otherwise.
No sooner had the Jewish people come forth from Egypt that they complained (Shemos 16:3), “If only we had died by the hand of G-d in the land of Egypt when we were sitting beside the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread; now you have brought us out into the desert to let the entire congregation starve to death.”
“Behold, I will rain down bread from the heavens on you,” Hashem replied (ibid. 16:4). “The people shall go out to collect their daily portion every day, in order to test whether or not they will follow My Torah.”
The commentators wonder what kind of test this is. What could be better than having everything you need delivered to your doorstep every day? This is a test? This is a blessing!
Rashi explains that Hashem was referring to the laws that govern the manna. One could not store away any manna for the next day. One had to collect a double portion on Friday. And so forth. This was the test. Would the Jewish people observe the laws of the manna scrupulously?
This test is also mentioned in Parashas Eikev, “The One Who feeds you manna in the desert . . . in order to test you.” Sforno explains that the test is to see if the Jews would still follow the Torah when they do not have to worry about their livelihood.
Yes, there is a great test in “bread raining down from heaven.” Affluence without effort is a dangerous thing. It comes with a great amount of leisure time and freedom of action. What do we do with that leisure time and that freedom of action? Do we use our leisure time and freedom of action to taste the forbidden? This is the great test of the manna.
We are all aware of the test of poverty. We are all aware of the trials and tribulations of being poor. However, says Sforno, affluence also comes with great temptations. It puts a tremendous responsibility on a person. This is the test of the manna, and it is the test for many Jews in these affluent times.
The Chovos Halevavos writes in Shaar Habitachon, the Gate of Trust, that one of the reasons people, unlike birds and animals, must make a great effort to earn their livelihood is to control the yetzer hara. If we had too much time on our hands, we would be unable to resist the temptations he puts before us. As it is, we are either too busy or too tired most of the time. And even then it is a struggle to resist temptation.
The Maggid of Mezritch once said that when people face troubles, sickness or mortal danger, Heaven forbid, they all become religious. They all come to shul. They pray fervently. They say Tehillim with tears streaming down their cheeks. They give charity generously. But when things are going well, when they are going wonderfully, do they give much thought to the Almighty? This is the test of the manna.
The Mezuzah: The Silent Witness
The mezuzah stands like sentinel at the door; we pass it whenever we enter or leave the room. What are we to think as we look upon the mezuzah? What are we to contemplate when we see the letter shin on the case and are reminded of the holy scrolls within?
The Rambam, at the end of his presentation of the laws of mezuzah, tells us to think about the eternal nature of the Almighty. This will inspire us to awaken from our slumber and come to the realization that nothing in this world is permanent other than the Almighty, His Torah.
Why does the mezuzah remind us of these concepts?
Perhaps it is because the mezuzah is a silent witness to the ebb and flow of history and human events. Think about the mezuzah of an old shul or some other venerable edifice. It has been hanging there for decades if not centuries. It has seen infants brought into the shul to be circumcised, and it has seen these same people grown old brought into the shul to be eulogized and buried. It has seen generations come and go. It has seen empires rise and fall. It has seen the birth of ideologies and their demise.
In the last century alone, our hypothetical mezuzah would have seen humanism, capitalism, materialism, existentialism, each embraced as life philosophies and then discredited. It would have seen the rise of the Soviet Union and Communism and their ignominious collapse. It would have seen the creation of the Third Reich, the Thousand-Year Reich, its perpetration of the Holocaust against the Jewish people and its ultimate defeat and destruction. It would have seen the birth of Israel and it growth to maturity.
When the railroads were introduced in the 19th century, people thought the new technology was so perfect that it would never change. The railroad companies sold corporate bonds for centuries in advance. And where are they all today? On the scrap heap, along with their rusting trains.
Human beings are always seeking immortality. This invention, this idea, this building, this book, this one will capture that elusive immortality, this one will stand the test of time, this is one for the ages, this one will make me immortal. But it doesn’t work.
The Torah tells us (Bamidbar 32:42), “And Novach went and captured Kenas and its suburbs, and he named it (lah) Novach in his name.” According to the rules of Hebrew grammar, the word lah should end with a mappik heh, a mark of emphasis, but it doesn’t. It ends with a weak heh. The Midrash tells us that the weak heh lets us know that the city did not last. It was eventually destroyed.
Why does the Torah consider it important to let us know this information? It is meant to teach us the futility of immortalization. Novach wanted to immortalize himself by creating something permanent — an entire city, no less! — and crowning it with his own name. But he failed. The city was destroyed, and his name would be forgotten if it were not mentioned in the Torah.