You may be familiar with the old story of a group of four college friends who decide to take a holiday weekend before a big exam they have on Monday morning. Despite their best intentions, they realize Sunday night that they haven’t studied one lick all weekend, and so they devise a plan. Early Monday morning they will call the professor, and tell him they’ve had a flat tire while traveling back to school, and won’t be able to make it back for the test. This way they’ll have extra time to study. The professor says OK, not to worry, you’ll take the exam Wednesday morning, and she gives them a time and a room to come to for the test.
Wednesday morning precisely at 9 AM they arrive and find the room set in an unusual way. There are only 4 desks in the room, one in each corner. On each desk is a single piece of paper, turned upside down hiding the writing on its front side. The students sit down at their desks, take out their pens, and the professor says ‘you may begin!’ The students turn the papers over and are surprised to find just a single question each sheet – which tire was flat?
This is a time of our year when we begin to think quite a bit about exams and being tested, not because soon students will be going back to school, but instead because the HHDs are coming, and one of the metaphors we use to understand the importance of those days is the idea of being examined, of being tested. Certainly the most powerful prayer of the holidays is the Unetane Tokef, where God is imagined as a sort of austere professor, grading our exam books, in which are written the deeds we’ve performed during the past year, both good and bad. The sense of the metaphor is very much that we are being tested, and even graded, even if it is a pass/fail course, passing meaning our names are written in the Book of Life.
The truth is the idea of God testing us is much older than the HHD liturgy. It is a concept that appears often in the Torah itself, our oldest text, most prominently known from the story of the Binding of Isaac which begins ‘And it was after these things that God TESTED Abraham…’ That is obviously an individual test, but there is another kind of testing in the Torah that grows more prominent in the Book of Deuteronomy, namely the idea of God testing the entire Jewish people, en masse. And there is a reference to that kind of testing in this morning’s Torah portion, Parshat Eikev, where we find the following passage from Deuteronomy 8: “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past 40 years, – למען ענתך לנסותך that God might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts.
And then the text gives a series of things which it seems to understand as part of that test. But two of the things in the list – one, the manna, the food they were given to eat every day, and the other, that fact that their clothes would not wear out, are puzzling. Why? Because they are positive things. How can something that is positive be a test? Think of it like this – if you want to test someone’s physical endurance, you do that by making them run, or walk uphill. You don’t do it by telling them to go take a nap!
So the commentators on the text are puzzled, and they try to understand how something positive – food to eat every day, and clothes that don’t wear out – how those things could be a test. And the answer that they seem to settle on, that they find most acceptable, is this: the Israelites didn’t know for sure whether or not the manna would appear every day, and they didn’t really know that their clothes wouldn’t wear out, so they worried about it! Every morning when they woke up they didn’t know if they would have food to eat that day, and so the test was to see if they would have enough faith to go out and look for the manna, to see if their belief was strong enough in the idea that God would provide for them, and they would survive. In other words, the test was a hardship – when things were tough, when things were difficult, when they were afraid they might not have food – would they still have faith?
But there is another possible explanation of the test – sort of the reverse side of that coin – that I’ve always found compelling, which is this: would they remain faithful to God even when they knew that every day that manna would be there, and there was no question in their minds that they would have food to eat and clothes to wear in the wilderness, it didn’t matter how long they wandered. That test is almost exactly the opposite! It is a test that comes from things being good, things being easy, and the question is, when everything is great, when you have absolutely no problems, when life looks like easy street – will you still look to God then?
If you think about it, we have the answer to situation number 1, the hardship test. The answer comes from Jewish history. I am about chest deep now in Simon Shama’s Story of the Jews volume 2, and any broad read through of Jewish history immediately reminds you of how difficult it has been historically to be Jewish. It didn’t matter where the Jews lived, it didn’t matter when, it didn’t even really matter if it was a more tolerant culture or a less tolerant one – it was enormously difficult to be Jewish. And yet generation after generation after generation, those Jewish communities and the Jews that lived in them kept their faith. That is the test of hardship, and the Jews always passed.
We have a lot less information about the other kind of test, the test of a good and easy life. That experience has been so rare for Jews, particularly in the modern period. It has really just been the last 40 or 50 years when the doors have fully opened for Jews here in the States. And that goodness, that openness, that opportunity, is testing us, no question in my mind. And whether we will pass this test or not I think is a very open question at this point. We can minimally say that this test of the good life is not an easy one. Because when every opportunity is open, we take fewer Jewish ones. When we can study any subject and work in any profession, we spend less time studying our tradition and thinking about our Judaism. When we can belong to – almost – any country club, we spend more time of the golf course and the tennis court and less time in shul. When our bubbies and zaydies are no longer around to remind us of the old country and the importance of traditional observance, we forget where we’ve come from, and do fewer Jewish things in our homes.
The final results are not in yet, but in terms of the test of a good life, the mid term results have not been very positive for the Jewish community so far. The good news is I think there is still time to study. The professor will give us a couple of extra days, or we might say a couple of extra generations, to prepare. The real question is will we be able to identify which tire is flat?! Shabbat Shalom –