Why Does God Test Us?

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This article originally appeared on Torahmusings.com.

The notion that the all-knowing God needs to test us to determine whether we will follow His command is absurd. He knows the future and therefore gains nothing from the exercise. Yet the Torah discusses in multiple places God’s tests. For example, regarding the man (manna) that fell in the desert, God states: “So that I may test them, whether they will follow My law or not” (Ex. 16:4).

The midrash (Tanchuma, Vayera 23) expresses the question aptly:

Avraham said to God: Master of the Universe, a man tests his friend because he does not know what is in his heart. But You, who knows what is in hearts and what the kidneys advise, You need to test me? He answered: Now I know that you fear God.

The question is clear but the answer is not. What does God gain from testing people?

I. Personal Growth

The Kuzari (5:20), followed by the Ramban (Gen. 22:1; Ex. 16:4; Deut. 13:4; Toras Ha-Bayis in Kisvei Ha-Ramban, vol. 2 pp. 272-273), explains that God tests people in order to actualize their potential goodness. He knows people will succeed and only poses challenges that people will people. The test is for their ultimate benefit. Rather than reward them for the good in their hearts, God will also reward them for their good deeds.

In applying this to the man, the Ramban must address multiple questions. What, exactly, is the test? And how does passing it demonstrate fulfillment of the Torah? Rashi (Ex. 16:4) explains that the test is whether the people will finish each day’s portion on that day and refrain from gathering on Shabbos. The test is not on the entire Torah but the laws of man. Ramban (ad loc.) rejects this explanation and instead suggests that the test is whether they will follow God throughout the wanderings in the desert during which they must eat man or they will deviate from this path and enter the cities where “real” food is available. For Rashi, Torah means the laws of the man. For Ramban, it means God’s travel instructions in the desert, following the pillars of fire and smoke.

II. Education

Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 3:24) takes an entirely different approach. He sees divine tests as a way to publicize, and thereby teach, the righteousness of an individual. The man taught future generations that those who are devoted to studying and fulfilling the Torah will be sustained by divine assistance. The Rambam strains the definition of the word “test” but utilizes the full meaning of the word “Torah.”1 Rambam would be the last to support the Kollel life (see Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Talmud Torah 3:10). However, the lesson of the man is that someone dedicated to learning Torah can work a short time and receive a divinely ordained sustenance (albeit minimal).

Rav David Luria (Radal, Commentary to Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer 31:2) provides midrashic precedent for both approaches. For the Kuzari and Ramban, Radal points to Shemos Rabbah (31:3) that God tests every creature and those that pass are rewarded double (than those that aren’t tested on it). Radal does not address this but the idea that God only tests the righteous, that he only poses to people challenges that He knows they can handle (an idea commonly repeated today) is based on Psalms 11:5: “God tests the righteous.” Bereishis Rabbah (34:2) expands on this and serves as a precedent for Ramban and the common view.

For the Rambam, Radal quotes Bereishis Rabbah (55:1) that explains Avraham’s test as justification for God’s choosing him. The test is publicize his righteousness. Radal could not quote Rambam’a midrashic source for his explanation of the man test because the manuscript had not yet been published. However, in R. David Tzvi Hoffmann’s edition of Mekhilta De-Rashbi (Beshalach 16:4) we find: “It is a test for you and all the world that whoever fills his heart to worship God with all his heart will find sustenance from some place.” It seems clear that Rambam had this midrash in front of him.2

III. Adult Education

I believe that, aside from midrashic sources and textual cues, Rambam had a more fundamental reason for taking a path different from that of the Kuzari and Ramban. The Gemara (Makkos 10a) says that Heaven takes you in the direction you wish to go. Similarly, another Gemara (Yoma 39a) says that someone who wishes to become pure (i.e. do good) is divinely assisted. Apparently, the Ramban takes this literally.

Someone with good intentions may, as a test, be drawn to act on his intentions. This is like a school teacher. His job is to enable his students to maximize their potential. He uses all his skills, all the educational tools in his chest, to stimulate this potential within his students. However, a teacher of adults does not usually do this. He puts the information out there and lets the students take it if they wish. He may use his skills to make things interesting, to capture the attention of busy and tired adults. But ultimately growth is the job of the adult students, not their teacher.

Rambam sees God as an adult educator. In his commentary to the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:1, ed. Kafach, pp. 138-139), Rambam says that the way God helps us fulfill commandments is by removing external hindrances. God smooths the path for us, making it easier for us to turn on our own our good intentions into good deeds. God does not draw out our potential but enables us to do it ourselves. To the Rambam, God would be going too far to give us a test so that we fulfill our potential. He expects us, as responsible adults, to take that step ourselves.

IV. Self-Discovery

Radal (ibid.) offers a third approach to understanding divine tests.3 Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer (31) says that the test was for Avraham to know his heart. God certainly know whether we will pass a test but poses it so that we learn our own abilities. Like a good coach, God pushes us farther than we think we can go. This, too, applies to adults who often underestimate their capacity for strength. God only tests those who will pass and by doing so teaches us the extent of our faith and endurance.

1. See also Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Shemitah 12:13.

2. See R. Menachem Kasher, Torah Shelemah, Ex. 16 n. 37.

3. Rav Ya’akov Tzvi Mecklenburg, Ha-Kesav Ve-Ha-Kabbalah, Ex. 16:4 takes this approach, as well.

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