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Retaking Life's Tests

09/09/2021 04:02:56 PM



Delivered at Congregation B’nai Torah, First Day Rosh Hashanah 5782  Watch Video

It’s one of the most common images posted on social media. A 16-year old, smiling in front of the DMV, holding their license. Earlier this summer, with my daughter, we posted a different picture, of a young woman standing in front of the DMV, holding… a square of empty air, not smiling at all. She had failed. Now, the story has a happy ending- later in the summer, after several hours of driver’s ed, we got to post the smiley picture. Also, fun fact, if, during your driver’s test, you run over a cone and keep going, it is an automatic fail, but if you actually hit another vehicle, in the DMV parking lot, there’s apparently still some latitude on that one.

Sometimes we have to take the same tests, repeatedly; traverse the same troubles again. Over the years, I’ve given sermons about addiction, antisemitism, Covid, the breakdown of civility in society, and a hurricane hitting New Orleans the week before Rosh Hashanah.  Somehow, those same topics are relevant again this year! I guess one takeaway is that my talking about a world problem from the Bimah is not all that is needed to resolve it.

But the other is that the same situations repeat in our lives, the same crises recur in communities, the same trends reappear in families, from generation to generation. We take the same tests again and again. I took my 49th Covid test yesterday 50th Covid test this morning! I’ve become a connoisseur. As the nurse inserted the swab deep into my brain, I could not help but but appreciate: “It’s your professionalism that I admire!”

The Torah has a few things to say about tests. In reviewing the events of Abraham’s life, it describes one of them as a test: Tomorrow we will read, about the binding of Isaac, in Genesis 22:1.

וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וְהָאֱלֹקים נִסָּה אֶת־אַבְרָהָם

After these things God tested Abraham.

The commentators, exploring this passage, all ask why God would test us. Doesn’t God already know what we are going to do? Different sages and philosophers give different answers. Ibn Ezra says that in fact, God gains new information by testing us. God “knows” what we are going to do, but actually witnessing our doing creates a different level of understanding. But Ibn Ezra is alone in that. Most commentators say that the tests are for the benefit of the testees. Nachmamindes says that it is so that you can have the reward of doing a good deed. Bereshit Rabba, and many later commentators, says that it so others will observe and respect the person being tested.  The word for test is related to the word for lifting.  Perhaps testing lifts us up. None of these views explain why multiple tests would be useful. Once God knows, God knows!

Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed, gives an answer that speaks most to me today. He says that is for our benefit in a different sort of way. We learn and grow from the testing.  If we learn from the tests that we take, then the more tests, the more we learn!

A classic Jewish text, Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, chapter 5, says Abraham was tested not just once, but 10 times!

With ten tests our ancestor Abraham (of Blessed memory) was tested, and he withstood them all, to show the love of Abraham our ancestor, of blessed memory.”

What’s funny is that different rabbis came up with slightly different lists- everyone had a different idea of what constitutes a test.

The earliest list, though, is found in the earliest commentary on Pirkei Avot, called Avot D’rabbi Natan,  33:2.

It says: “Abraham was tested ten times before the Holy One, and in each he was found complete. They are: two in ‘lech lecha,’ two in his two sons, two in his two wives, one in the war with the kings, and one in the covenant between the parts, one in Ur of the Chaldees, and one with circumcision.”

Avot D’rabbi Natan explains that it’s not just a random sequence of adventures. These ten are actually a series of paired assessments, each building upon the ones that came before and raising the stakes in emotional complexity.

There were two in Lech Lecha. First Abraham was told to leave his land, his birthplace, his extended family. But then just a few verses later, he has finally found a place in Canaan, and the famine forces him to leave. He undergoes the trauma of leaving home not just once, but twice.

Two in Abraham’s two wives: first he loses Sarah to Pharaoh. Then he must cast out Hagar, his other wife.

Ur of the Chaldees- this story is not found in the Torah, but is such a commonly told tale that for years I didn’t realize it wasn’t in there. When Abraham was a lad, he challenged the idolatry of his family and his community. The Mesopotamian king, Nimrod, had him cast into a fiery furnace, and he emerged unscathed. Later in the Torah, Abraham goes to war against other kings of Mesopotamia, to rescue his nephew.

Circumcision, brit milah. This test is pretty clear. Every Jewish male, starting with Abraham, would give up something in order to be marked as part of the chosen people. But that covenant was preceded by another form of cutting a deal- the covenant between the parts, where God GAVE Abraham a tip- that he would have the heir that he desired, but that his descendants would suffer many rounds of exile and oppression.

Finally, his two sons. Today we will read how Abraham sends away Ishmael shortly after Isaac is born. Then tomorrow we will read the famous story that God comes to Abraham and demands Isaac as a sacrifice.

So, it’s not just that life is full of tests, it is that we often have to pass the same, or mighty similar tests, more than once. Abraham can’t just leave home one time, he’s got to leave, and leave again; he’s got to lose both his wives, go up against two monarchs, undertake two covenants, and put both his sons at risk.

Each test moves us a little further in our journey.

Avot D’rabbi Natan tells us that Abraham passes each test, but, since he is now on a different level, the correct answer to the test is more complex. When he goes up against the king of Ur, he engages in non-violent resistance- withstanding the flames of the furnace. When he goes up against the other kings, he takes matters in hand and hires mercenaries.

When he leaves his home in Ur, he’s leaving his family, but there’s a promise of a great inheritance in Canaan. Leaving Canaan is harder, because it seems like God might be going back on His word, taking away that inheritance.

Today, we will read how reluctant Abraham was to part with his firstborn, Ishmael, despite Sarah’s demand and God’s reassurance. Tomorrow, when asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac, Abraham complies, it would seem, without a peep. Abraham faces the same challenge, but gives a different response. Giving up Ishamel is “easier” because God had already promised him that there would be a different heir. Giving up Isaac is harder because, just as was the case when Abraham had to leave Canaan, it seems like God is going back on his previous promise.

With each passing test, Abraham is being challenged on a different spiritual level.

Our sages, in their traditional approach, explain that it is not just Abraham, but it is actually baked into the human experience that we encounter the same situations again and again.

Midrash Rabba 55 explains that everything that happened to Abraham would eventually happen to his descendants. Later sages said it more generally “Ma’aseh Avot Siman La’banim”- the experiences of the parents are a sign for the children.

 There are patterns that repeat over and over again- rivalry, infertility, exile. Our ancestors faced the same troubles, tribulations and trials. In just about every generation in Genesis, the younger sibling earned the jealousy of the older, with difficult results. Cain sees God favoring Abel’s offering and murders him. This morning we read about Ishmael being cast out to make room for younger brother Isaac. Esau threatens to kill his brother Jacob. Leah and Rachel fight for the love of their husband. Joseph’s brothers throw him in the pit.

So many of our heroes suffered infertility. This morning, in our Torah portion, we read about Sarah finally being granted a child at age 90; in our haftorah, about Hannah praying for a son. Tomorrow’s haftorah tells us about mother Rachel, crying for her exiled children. Rebecca sought God’s counsel after 20 years of childlessness.

Three times, our matriarchs were taken captive by foreign kings with lascivious intent- Sarah twice, and then Rebecca as well. There are so many other stories that appear multiple times in the Bible, feuding shepherds, a romantic encounter at a well, Israelites complaining about the food (that’s still happening today).

Why would that be? Some modern scholars explain that this is part of a literary style. Just as in fairy tales, the hero has to go through multiple attempts before he can defeat the dragon or the goblin, having the same story appear multiple times creates dramatic tension. I think there is something else going on. The Torah is telling us that sometimes we repeat our mistakes until we learn from them and we get out of the testing cycle. The rivalries  between brothers in Genesis keep going until Ephraim and Menasheh- Joseph’s sons, share their grandfather’s blessing, and banish the ghosts of previous conflict. Then, Moses and Aaron can cooperate to bring the Jews out of Egypt.

Our sages, despite the experiences of our ancestors in Genesis, seem to feel that we are up to passing whatever God throws at us. Nachmanides writes that God only tests the righteous because he knows that they will succeed. But that’s clearly not true. Moses has it the worst. Even though for the most part he gets along with his brother, Aaron, he fails a different test. In Exodus, Moses is told to hit the rock. In numbers God says to speak to the rock, but Moses decides to whack the rock.

Moses failed his test, and the outcome was pretty harsh for him. Imagine a world where you make one mistake and that’s it. That’s the stuff of Greek tragedies- Sophocles, Euripides. You make one mistake, and you end up ripping out your eyes or getting chained to a rock for all eternity. The play Eumenides is so unique because it’s the only tragedy where the hero actually gets forgiven.

But we see it differently. Moses is the aberration. For most of us, failing a test is not the end, it’s the beginning. You keep on taking the test until you get it right. That’s the essence of Teshuvah, repentance, the essence of this season. Teshuvah is not about wallowing in your failures- it’s about overcoming them. Maimonides says that the ultimate measure of Teshuvah is when you take the same test again, with different results.

“[Who has reached] complete Teshuvah? A person who confronts the same situation in which he sinned when he has the potential to commit [the sin again], and, nevertheless, abstains and does not commit it because of his Teshuvah alone and not because of fear or a lack of strength. His language is quite colorful- if someone committed a sin of lust, their repentance is complete only when they can be with the same object of their desire, with the same urge, the same circumstances, but this time resist that temptation.”

Teshuvah, repentance, is about getting the chance to take the same test over and score higher.

You can learn from your mistakes. Sometimes, getting the wrong answer is a blessing. In a former life, I did neuroscience research. I won’t tell you what university I was at, because people always get all annoyed when I mention I went to Harvard. Anyway, we were looking at how the brain learns, using neural networks (a form of artificial intelligence). What we realized in studying the brain and these computer systems that try to work the same way, is that you don’t learn nearly as much from your successes as you do from your failures. If you just always have the right answers, you never grow, you never get better.

What’s nice is that God gives us do-overs. We are tested again so that we have a chance to improve. And, in fact, it is necessary.

If you never have the feeling of failure, of being flawed, of having made a mistake then, either you are, in fact, as perfect as your mom told you you were or more maybe it’s just the opposite. Without being aware of your failings, you never develop humility, you just stay puffed up with your own ego.

I’ll admit something here: Wendy and I were secretly happy that our daughter failed the driving test the first time. Not just because we saved two months of insurance premium, but because this is a kid who has aced every other test she has ever taken. It wasn’t a bad thing for her to start her driving career with a greater sense of how hard it really is.

Tests and trials are an opportunity for us to grow.

That’s why so many rabbis love the movie “Groundhog Day.” Bill Murray plays a self absorbed weatherman. He is reporting on the Feburary 2 festivities, until he is trapped in Punxsutawney by a blizzard. All he wants to do is leave central Pennsylvania, which is like the Alabama of the northeast, but he wakes up every day and it is February 2nd all over again. We only see him repeat the day 38 times, but one blogger calculated that he relived the same day for 34 years or 12,395 consecutive days. He never does get to enjoy a lasagna, learn to think like a gopher, or become a champion bowler, but he learns to play the piano, sculpt ice, and speak French. He saves people from deadly accidents and misfortunes.

Finally, he wakes up and it is February 3rd, because he has passed the test of becoming who he is supposed to be and, after all he has experienced, he realizes that he wants to stay in Punxsutawney.

At every moment, we have a chance to break the patterns that hold us back. We get to take the test again. Sometimes, we don’t get the hint.

One of my favorite stories is about two hunters who went every year to hunt moose in the backwoods of Alaska. They hired a pilot and a private plan to take them to a remote airstrip. Two days later they returned with the carcass of a magnificent creature, which they wanted to bring back with them on the plane. The pilot was reluctant: “This moose is too heavy, we will never be able to take off!”  “Nonsense,” they said, “we took an even bigger moose in a similar plane last year, and we’ll do it again!” The pilot refused, but they were insistent: “Come on, we did it last year. There’s an extra thousand dollars in it for you.” The pilot, against his better judgement, helped load the moose into the cabin and started the takeoff. As he expected, the carcass was too heavy, and the plane couldn’t gain altitude; the pilot struggled heroically to bring it down, barely in one piece, in a clearing. As they emerged from the crumpled, smoking fuselage, one hunter asked: “Where are we?”  The other replied “Looks like about 100 yards further than we made it last year!”

When you look at the world, there’s still war, antisemitism, and a world-wide plague (which it is only a matter of time until someone blames us for). In some ways the main difference between the 14th century and the 21st is that we can do this on Zoom.

Most of us have not experienced a real plague before this. Swine flu and H1N1 were both kind of a bust. Most of us don’t really remember polio. It’s been a long time since there were iron lungs or FDR wheeling around Hyde Park on the Hudson, but also, it was a constant part of life, not a sudden crisis or a political foottball. The whole summer camp movement started to get kids away from polio. The last great pandemic was Spanish flu of the early 1900s before any of us were born. We have my grandmother Frances’ diaries and letters, and you can read how her brothers, my great uncles, were off at war, and my great aunt, Nelly, who was just a teenager, succumbed in days. There were communities that made some tough choices: St. Louis cancelled a big parade and saved lives, and Philadelphia didn’t.

Last year, with Covid, the whole world was given a pop quiz for which we were unprepared. Were we supposed to wipe down our groceries? Plexiglass or no? What kind of masks? Let’s grab pills out of the medicine cabinet at random and see if they help!

Last year, there was a fair amount of luck as to whether we passed or failed. Some of us learned how to be careful when we needed to. Doctors and scientists created vaccines using the technology of the mRNA helix. These nuts are still taking horse medicine and hoping for the best. We’re now living the consequences of a lot of people failing that test the second time, even though the test is basically open book. It’s one thing not to learn the lessons of 1918. It’s another not to learn the lessons of 2020. I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but this is not the last test. By Hanukkah the Delta Variant will be done with. But this may not be the last wave. After Delta there could be Mu, Gamma, Lambda,, Sigma, Ligma, Delta comfort plus. One way or another, we will all end up with our antibodies. There will be other maladies, other plagues and pandemics. Will we, as a society, make the investments to be able to get through those as well?

We learn from our mistakes. But only the ones that aren’t fatal.

Sixteen years ago Hurricane Katrina raged through New Orleans, and over 1,800 people perished. The Impact was much broader: the breakdown of social order, billions of dollars in damages, entire communities were devastated. We took a group to help do recovery work. We were doing mold remediation and putting up drywall. We witnessed the impact on the survivors, whole neighborhoods whose social fabric was disrupted.

Now we are seeing that again. The Army Corps of engineers knew that a 100-year-flood was now a once-a-decade event, and built the levees way higher than they needed to be. There was terrible property damage, but the death toll was 6. Any life is too many, but overall, we passed the test.

But we missed the Bonus question. The Northeast wasn’t ready. More rain fell in Central Park in one hour than had ever been seen before. New York had the worst flooding it has ever had. More people died from Ida in New Jersey than in NOLA.

We can prepare for weather we’ve seen before. We can learn the lesson, but there’s a bigger problem.  It’s not just about getting warmer..  The weather is getting weirder, storms getting more severe. We may get better at preparing for the results of that weather, build bigger levees or prepare to live the life aquatic. but are we thinking about how our actions are changing the climate?

Pharaoh and his people went through 10 plagues. At any time they could have changed course. They could have gotten out of it with some frogs and flies. By the eighth plague, even the Egyptians were telling Pharaoh it was time to change course, but they chose not to until Egypt had been brought to ruin, crops destroyed, animals shattered by hail, firstborn killed.

Ultimately, though, this is not about the Bible or about the world’s problems. This is about how we approach the tests that we face in our own lives. Abraham faced so many tests in his life- tests of autonomy and authority, of kings and countries, but he also faced challenges of family and faith.

The tests we face are not so different from those that Abraham faced.

Some people think being married means getting just one answer right- saying “yes” under the chuppah, or ‘yes, dear” thereafter.  But anyone who has actually been married successfully understands that there’s a lot more than that. Being married is actually a daily test. In a real relationship, the answers change as we evolve and grow.

Addiction is one of the toughest tests in life. Someone who is battling addiction never gets a day off. Every time they hit a rough patch in life, the temptation is there. The circuits in the brain light up; the arm reaches for something to get through it. Every time there is a celebration, and everyone else is having a ball, lighting up or throwing back a beer, who wants to be left out?

We’re being tested in our observance and obedience to God every day. I love Shabbat. I love the guarantee of dinner with my family, of a nap. But sometimes it’s tempting- it’d be a lot of fun to go to this concert on Friday night or get to that Saturday night party. The thought of getting another few minutes of sleep can be tantalizing, and I’d rather not have to apologize to my first appointment for being a few minutes late, because I’m taking the time to pray and put on tefillin in the morning. Your tests and temptations may well be different- but every day, every week, you have the opportunity to choose.

There’s one other place in the Torah where it says that God tested someone. In Deuteronomy, Chapter 8, it says that God tested the Israelites by giving them the manna. How could it be a test? Getting delicious bread from heaven, every day, and twice on Fridays! Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno a 16th century commentator, explained that luxury is also a test. If you have everything you need, will you still respond to God with gratitude? It’s easy to pray, to be observant, when you need something, but what about when you are living comfortably, the big house, the Mercedes, the fancy vacations, the kids who have everything going for them? When everything seems to be going right for your family? Affluence and success are tests in their own ways.

We can’t avoid life’s tests. Sometimes we can’t avoid going through the same tests more than once. It may seem like a curse, like having a bird peck out your liver every day. There are some tests we don’t want to take again, even if we passed. The stakes are too high. Abraham may have passed the test of listening to God, but it didn't turn out so well for Ishmael and Hagar who were sent off into the wilderness, or for Isaac. Or Sarah, for that matter, who died just after the conclusion of this test. Even when the stakes are not quite as high, we’d still rather not. Last year, we had something like 10 A/V guys here to create our High Holiday broadcast. My parting words of thanks to them last year were “You guys were amazing. Let’s never do this again.” And yet, here we are again; this year, except we’re trying to make do with 3.5  guys. And, we are probably broadcasting our services forever now.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the choice of whether we are going to experience a test again. The same challenges are going to recur in our society, in the lives of our communities, in our families, in our own experiences. Sometimes we have to take the same tests again and again until we pass- or even after that.

But we have a choice- we can see these tests as an opportunity. When we are faced with repeated tests, sometimes the goal is consistency. Can we prove that we are able to keep up Sometimes the goal is growth. We can learn from the tests that we fail and engage in the process of Teshuvah. We can show that we are capable of finding new answers.

I wish I could promise you success in all of life’s tests.

I hope you pass often.

I hope that, if you do fail, that it gives you the drive to move to further success.

Fortunately, there's a study guide that you are welcome to bring with you and the tests are open book.


Bonus Bill Murray Movie references:

  1. Ghostbusters
  2. Little Shop of Horrors
  3. Hyde Park on the Hudson
  4. Groundhog Day
  5. Kingpin
  6. CaddyShack
  7. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou


Fri, June 14 2024 8 Sivan 5784