The Greatest Test of All

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12 Jan 2011

A RICH CHASID came to his Rebbe for a blessing. “What is the conduct of your household, and what table do you set from day to day?” asked the Rebbe.

“My household is conducted with great simplicity,” said the rich man. “My own meal consists of dry bread and salt.”

Full of indignation, the Rebbe looked at him and asked, “Why do you not favor yourself with meat and wine, as becomes a man of wealth?” He then proceeded to berate the rich man until he finally promised that henceforth, he would partake of more elaborate meals.

When the Chasid departed, the pupils asked the Rebbe: “What matters it to you whether he eats bread with salt or meat with wine?”

The Rebbe promptly responded: “It surely matters. If he enjoys good fare and his meals consist of fine delicacies, then he will understand that the poor man must have at least bread with salt. But if, being wealthy he renounces all enjoyment and lives so stingily, he will believe that it’s sufficient for the poor to eat stones.”

Is it a greater nisayon, a greater ordeal, to be wealthy or to be poor? Being wealthy creates possibilities of haughtiness, arrogance, vanity, egotism. The rich may very well swell, bridle, and become cavalier and condescending. The impoverished on the other hand, feel inferior, want, insolvency and constant dependence upon others. But which position presents a greater challenge – readily available cuts of prime ribs or the continued dependence on God’s manna? A divine question, indeed.

Soon after crossing the Red Sea, as the Jews began their long trek in the desert, Jews wondered where their next day’s nourishment would come from. Jews complained; they wished to have rather died in Egypt, where they could at least “sit by pots of meat and eat our fill of bread.” They berated Moshe and Aaron for bringing them out to the desert “to kill the entire community by starvation.” They were just unwilling to face up to poverty and misery. God listens, and showers them with water, quail and manna, covered with dew, while simultaneously declaring: Yes, “I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and collect a certain portion every day, l’maan anasenu- so that I may test them, whether or not they will keep my law.” Just imagine – no double coupons, no price wars, and no inflationary food prices. The price is just right plus free delivery. What kind of nisayon is that? What does God mean saying, “So I may test them?” For God to provide the manna was a chesed not a nisayon, exclaims the Abarbanel. It would seem that the deprivation caused by the desert travails was the test; and the manna was the Divine solution to the problem.

The Chatam Sofer once spent time as a house guest of a member of the Rothschild family who was not only a wealthy man, but also a very pious Jew. As the great scholar was about to leave, he was asked by the host: “Please tell me if you find any aspect of my household which is not in conformity with the Torah, if so, I will immediately rectify the situation.”

The Chatam Sofer pondered for a moment and then replied: “Everything that I see within your household is contrary to Torah thought.”
The pious philanthropist was aghast at the response, but soon enough the Chatam Sofer smiled and explained: “The Torah grimly foretells, vayishman yeshurun vayivat – when the Jewish people accrue wealth, they will rebel. Your home, however, is clearly an exception to this prediction. You have passed the test of plenty. May God grant that all who prosper follow your noble example.”

When Reb Mendel of Kotzk was seven or eight years old, he was reported to have asked his teacher in cheder: “When the Israelites were in the desert, and they each received the exact measure of manna necessary to sustain each member of the household, not more and not less, how were they able to fulfill the mitzvah of tzedakah?” The teacher is reported to have remained speechless. What an unbelievable test – having everything I need, yet not being able to share. Sharing, after all, is what makes one human. What a nisayon – what a test!

On a deeper level, however, there are mefarshim among them Sforno and Orach Chaim, who view the test of manna as the test of wealth. The possession of plenty affords one the means to develop spiritually, intellectually and religiously. When burdens and anxieties of providing daily bread are removed, the test then becomes of what to do with the time, energies and peace of mind now leisurely available. What is to substitute for agony and hardship otherwise spent on one’s daily sustenance?

Rashbam, Ibn Ezra and others, view the test of manna not as the easy rider’s challenge, but rather as the insecurity and anxieties resulting from daily dependence upon a Higher Being – God. Manna only came down in the quantity required for the day. None was to be left for the following day. Ramban aptly comments in Beha’alotecha, “That even the manna on which we live is not in our possession…but we desire it and are dependent upon it at all times… thus we have nothing at all save our hope for manna.” What a way to live – from hand to mouth. Is it any wonder that Chazal teach: “One cannot compare a person who has bread in his basket with one who does not have bread in his basket?” It takes enormous faith and then some to overcome tests of dependence and anxieties of reliance. Thus Reb Yohoshua suggests that an individual should go out and work everyday and not depend on miracles, just as the Israelites gathered their manna daily, and even on Erev Shabbat worried about the next day’s portion. On the other hand, Reb Eliezer Hamodai concludes from the very same manna report, that “Whoever has enough to eat today and says, ‘What will I eat tomorrow?’ such a person is lacking faith.”

Wealth, poverty, health, sickness, happiness, sadness – each brings its own set of challenges and tests. There are no escapes from nisyonos. The Magid of Mezritsch said that the nisayon of the manna was meant to test one’s genuine faith in God. How so? Because to have been assured of one’s daily needs without any worries and concerns and still remain ever cognizant of our dependence upon Him, is a much greater nisayon than being poor and having faith in God.

Well, is it a greater ordeal to be wealthy or to be poor? The answer is personal. The answer must reflect each individual’s level of understanding of the nisayon facing them and their ability to cope with their own personal manna.

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Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s Vice President of Communications & Marketing.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.