Chapter 6: Contronting Challenges
We explained previously that a person should always be happy
because everything that happens to him, even difficulties and
undesirable events, is controlled by Divine Providence. Therefore,
a person should always be b'simchah , trusting that there is a
positive, Divine intent in every aspect of his life.
We can accept this explanation with regard to difficulties on
the material plane. When something unpleasant happens to a person,
we can understand that it is disguised good. But what about events
that are spiritually undesirable, that affect a person's soul
as well as his body, something that stands in the way of a person's
observing a mitzvah , or something that holds back a person's
spiritual growth? How can we say that this is really good if it
runs contrary to the Torah and its mitzvos? How can we say that
this is controlled by Divine Providence when it is against G-d's
will? On the surface, it cannot be good, for it conflicts with
the Torah and prevents a person from advancing spiritually.
The resolution of this difficulty involves many profound questions
in Jewish thought. The germ of the answer is the principle stated
previously that everything that takes places occurs only because
G-d causes it to happen. Nothing takes place independently; nature
has absolutely no independent power.
Every entity exists by virtue of the Divine energy invested in
it. Every event that takes place even one that appears negative
has a source in holiness. Otherwise, it could not exist. Therefore,
even experiences that appear undesirable from a spiritual perspective
must be appreciated as disguised good.
To explain: Something that appears to interfere with a person's
spiritual growth and prevents the person from doing good is called
a nisayon, a test. G-d is testing the person to see how committed
he is to the Torah and its mitzvos; as it is written,1 "And
G-d, your L-rd, is testing you to know if you love G-d, your L-rd,
with all your heart and all your soul."
Even when a person feels a challenge to his observance, he should
realize that G-d is behind it. He is responsible for its happening,
and through this challenge He desires to test the person.
What is the purpose of this test? On the surface, it appears
that the purpose is that G-d wants to see how loyal and how committed
the person is. But this explanation alone is not sufficient. When
we are speaking about relations with other people, one person
does not know what is going on in another person's heart or what
is going on in his mind. Therefore, if he wants to know how committed
the other person is, he must experiment. He has no choice.
For example, if one person wants to know whether another has
true love, he has to set up certain circumstances and test how
the other person will respond under these circumstances. He has
no other way of verifying what is going on in the other person's
heart and mind. But we cannot say such a thing about G-d. One
of the basic principles of belief is that G-d knows what is going
on in every person's mind and what is going on in every person's
So why does He need to test us? Without subjecting us to a test,
He can look into our hearts and minds and know how committed we
are. Before the test begins, He knows whether we will be able
to pass the test, or whether, Heaven forbid, we will not be able
to past the test.
There are some commentaries2 that explain that the purpose of
the test is not for G-d to verify the person's commitment, but
rather for the person to know himself. Sometimes, a person might
not realize the strength of his commitment. So G-d puts the person
to a test, and when the person is able to overcome the challenge,
he reaches a more realistic awareness of his potential; he knows
that his commitment is strong.3 Thus, the purpose of the challenges
a person faces is for his own knowledge, not for G-d's.
Chassidus provides a deeper explanation for the purpose of these
tests and challenges, one that enables us to appreciate the G-dliness
contained in these challenging experiences and prompts us to the
awareness that they are in essence hidden good. It explains that
the word l'nasos, which means "to test," also means
"to raise high." The tests and challenges we face are
intended to enable us to reach a higher spiritual level. Indeed,
the way G-d chooses to enable the person to reach this higher
spiritual level is through such tests and challenges.
Why is this? A person has two dimensions to his personality:
a revealed dimension i.e., the aspects of his personality that
he usually expresses and a hidden dimension, inner powers that
do not always come to the surface. These inner powers possess
hidden resources of great strength.
We see this concept expressed in physical terms. Everyone has
a magnitude of weight that he can lift under ordinary circumstances.
Some people can lift 50 pounds easily; others can lift 100 pounds,
and still others can lift 200.
There are times, however, when these ordinary limits are of no
significance. We see that in an emergency a fire, a flood, or
the like a person will jump great distances, bend bars, lift weights,
and do other things that would be impossible for him to do under
A story is told of a man who was repairing his car. He had lifted
the car on a jack and his little daughter was sitting next to
him with one foot underneath the car. The jack snapped and the
car fell on her foot. With one hand, my friend lifted the car,
and with the other hand, he gently pulled his daughter out from
beneath the car. Afterwards, he rushed her to the hospital; all
she needed was a cast.
Later, when he calmed down, he was quite puzzled. How was he
able to lift the car? He tried to lift the car with both hands.
Even with both hands, he was not able to lift it as high as he
had previously been able with one hand. In biology, there is an
explanation for this phenomenon. When we feel an emergency, the
hormone adrenaline is released into the bloodstream, and this
enables us to show far greater strength than usual.
Is this extraordinary strength created during the time of the
emergency or is it there all the time? The answer is that it is
there all the time. But until an emergency, it remains concealed.
It does not surface in ordinary circumstances. When does it surface?
When a person feels danger or challenge.
A parallel also exists on the level of emotion. A mother, for
example, has tremendous love for her child. What would happen
if, G-d forbid, that child would be kidnapped? Besides the fact
that the mother would do everything within her power to find the
child and to get him back, the mother would experience far greater
feelings of love and yearning for her child than she does under
Does this mean that the kidnapping of the child generated new
feelings of love? Of course not. The love the mother feels always
existed, but under ordinary circumstances deep love of this nature
does not surface. Because her relationship with her child is being
threatened and challenged, this deeper and more powerful feeling
of love comes to the surface.
Indeed, this is the only way a love of this nature will be expressed.
Under ordinary circumstances, no matter how much the mother would
try, she would not experience such powerful feelings of love.
We also find a parallel on the level of intellect. For example,
when a person studies, he comprehends the material according to
his capacity. There are times when a person's mind is challenged;
he is confronted with questions and difficulties, and this arouses
a deeper level of understanding.
In this context, we can understand a famous statement of the
Talmud,4 "I received a lot from my teachers; I received even
more from my colleagues. And from my students, I gained more than
from anyone else." The students would challenge their teacher
with questions. These questions would force the teacher to conceive
of the subject in a different way than usual (for the students'
minds worked differently than his did). By struggling to find
a framework of reference with which to explain the concept to
them, he penetrated to a deeper and more complete understanding
of the idea himself.
We see a similar pattern in all three examples. Under ordinary
circumstances, what surfaces is the external, superficial dimension
of one's personality. And the only thing that will get that deeper
dimension to surface is a challenge.5
This is the purpose of a test. When a person serves G-d under
ordinary circumstances, he develops a love for Him, but the love
is limited, reflecting only the external dimensions of his personality.
Every one of us contains a potential for much deeper love. But
that deeper love does not surface under ordinary circumstances.
It is only a challenge to a person's commitment to G-d that can
spur this deeper dimension of love to surface.
When a person experiences a challenge in his observance of the
mitzvos, or something happens that appears to hold him back from
the study of the Torah, two things are happening simultaneously.
On one hand, his relationship with G-d is being confined. Nevertheless,
the inner motivation for this challenge is G-d's desire for the
person to experience a deeper dimension of love, for him to be
elevated to a higher rung. For as mentioned, the word l'nasos
"to test" in Hebrew also means "to raise high."
This conception also enables us to understand a thought-provoking
statement of our Sages,6 "In the place that a baal teshuvah
(a person who repents and returns to G-d) stands, a perfect tzaddik
(righteous man) is incapable of standing."
How can a baal teshuvah stand on a higher level than a tzaddik?
A tzaddik is a person who never sinned in his life. His life has
been very pure; throughout his lifetime he has been striving upward,
going from good to better.
The baal teshuvah, by contrast, has overcome his evil inclination,
and at present is an example of good. But what about his past?
His life had been tainted by sin. After he turns to G-d in teshuvah,
G-d erases all those sins; it is as if they had never existed.
But how can we say that this person stands higher than the tzaddik,
a person who has devoted his entire life to personal development?
The answer is that a tzaddik never faced the challenges that
a baal teshuvah confronts. A tzaddik is always serving G-d and
has never felt distanced from Him. His love for G-d has become
ingrained into his nature and part of his personality.
Although this is a great achievement, it reflects a certain limitation,
for the powers of all mortals have certain bounds. When, by contrast,
a person who feels cut off from G-d and very distant from Him
labors to establish a bond with Him, he will experience far greater
feelings of love than a tzaddik could possibly experience.
Why? Because he is confronting an inner challenge. He senses
that he is separate from G-d, and must strive to reestablish his
connection. Through these efforts, he activates the deeper dimension
of love that every Jew possesses within his heart.7
We see a parallel in many situations. When a person undergoes
a negative experience, it makes him appreciate the positive much
more. In fact, it is impossible to have that same sense of appreciation
without having first undergone the negative experience. For example,
if a person, G-d forbid, lost his eyesight for two or three years
and then regained it, he will regard the gift of sight far more
preciously than others. Everyone who thinks seriously about the
gift of sight realizes how precious it is. Nevertheless, there
is no way he can have the same feelings of appreciation as a person
who had been blinded.
Or take another example: a couple who was married for many years,
but, G-d forbid, was not blessed with children. All couples love
their children; but there is no way that the love felt by parents
who have children shortly after marriage can approximate the love
felt by a couple who was finally blessed with a child after many
years of childlessness. Again, it is the negative experience that
has made the couple more sensitive.
The same motif applies with regard to the baal teshuvah. His
love for G-d and his commitment to the Torah and its mitzvos are
much deeper than that of a person who did not go through a negative
experience of this type.
The above explanation also sheds light on another concept we
find in the Talmud. Our Sages teach8 that a person who says, "I
will sin and later I will repent," is not given the opportunity
On a simple level, this means that the person is in effect saying,
"I want the best of both worlds. I want to have my cake and
eat it. First, I will sin and enjoy the pleasures of this physical
world. But I will not have to worry about G-d, or my reward or
punishment in the World to Come. I will repent, and then I will
have a clean slate. Indeed, my sins will be considered merits."
To such a person, our Sages issue a warning, "You may never
be given the opportunity to repent." Since the person relies
on teshuvah, and only because he knows that he has that option
does he sin, G-d removes the opportunities for him to repent.
(It must be emphasized that if such a person strives hard, and
seeks out repentance, G-d will accept his teshuvah as well.9 What
our Sages are saying is that in contrast to others who are helped
in their path to teshuvah, such a person will not be granted such
assistance. Indeed, he may even be hindered. Nevertheless, if
he seeks to overcome these obstacles and repents with a full heart,
his teshuvah will be accepted.)
Chassidic thought gives us a different way of understanding this
passage. We are not necessarily speaking about a person who wants
to sin because of his inability to control his natural desires.
The passage can also be referring to a very spiritual person.
But this person has a difficulty. He is a tzaddik, a perfectly
righteous man who has never sinned. And this person is envious
of a baal teshuvah. He also wants to develop the deeper connection
to G-d and more powerful love that comes forth from the teshuvah
experience. But he does not understand how he can, for he has
And so he thinks, "Perhaps I will commit a sin." Not
because he wants to sin, Heaven forbid, but so that through the
cycle of sin and teshuvah, he will have the opportunity to develop
that deeper connection to G-d.
When a person desires to sin for these reasons, his intention
is good, but his thoughts are underdeveloped. It is as if a person
were to say, "I will put myself in circumstances where my
life will be threatened, and then the adrenaline will start flowing.
I will be able to jump great distances and perform awesome feats
of strength." Heaven forbid that a person should commit a
sin for these reasons.
A Jew should want to do only what is right and should not invite
any challenging situations, as we pray each morning,11 "Do
not lead me to sin or to challenge." Nevertheless, our conduct
is not always appropriate, and, if a person sees that he has indeed
committed a sin, he should not be disheartened. On the contrary,
he should realize that the sin was intended to give him the possibility
of turning to G-d in teshuvah and developing a deeper love for
And therefore, as we have said before, there is nothing that
is truly negative. Everything, even those acts that are against
G-d's will, can lead to good and G-dliness; it is just that they
Therefore, when something negative happens, even if it is spiritually
negative, we should not become depressed. That is a misinterpretation
of the dynamic at work; one has not realized the true purpose
in these events.
Take, for example, a person who is instructed by a doctor to
exercise. If the person just listens to the instructions without
trying to appreciate the purpose of what he is doing, he will
see the exercise as a burden and a trial. Why should he work so
But a person cannot remain healthy without exercise. And when
a person realizes this, he does not see it as a burden. He understands
that every bit of exercise he does makes him stronger and healthier.
Let us take an everyday situation: In a department store there
is a staircase, and right next to it, an escalator. When a person
understands what exercise does for him, it is as though there
is a sign there saying, "If you want to have a healthy heart,
walk up the staircase." The escalator is easier; it is quicker,
while the staircase requires more exertion. But climbing the stairs
develops a healthy heart.
Let us take another analogy. A child comes home from school and
tells his mother, "I do not want to do my homework. Please
do it for me." A mother might think she should be pleasant
and kind and do the homework for the child. And it would be far
easier to do that than to convince the child to do his own homework.
But if the mother takes this alternative, she is handicapping
her child. He will never develop his thinking processes this way.
Only when the child feels a challenge and is forced to sit down
and work the answers out on his own will he be able to grow intellectually.
If he never expends any effort, he will grow up thinking very
The same is true with regard to the nisyonos , challenges, that
we face in our Divine service. They help us develop a deeper and
stronger bond to G-d and His mitzvos.
On this basis, we can also explain another concept about which
people have often wondered. Why does the soul descend to this
world? Our bodies are conceived by our parents, but for a body
to live, it needs a soul.
The soul existed in the spiritual realm before the person was
born. Conception develops a connection between a soul and a body,
but even before that connection was established the soul existed
in the spiritual realm. Indeed, its existence in the spiritual
realm is more vital than its subsequent corporeal existence.
In the spiritual realm, the soul only sees, hears, and experiences
G-dliness. There are no physical limitations and there is no evil.
Nothing negative exists there.
In the physical world, by contrast, it is impossible to appreciate
G-dliness directly. And the limits of the body confine the soul's
power. Moreover, we are forced to confront challenges and trials.
Why is it necessary? Why can?t the soul merely remain in the spiritual
realm and "derive pleasure from the radiance of the Divine
Presence"?12 Why must it descend to our material earth?
To explain the purpose for this, it is useful to borrow out of
context a concept from our Sages. Our Sages explain13 that a descent
for the purpose of an ascent is not considered a descent. Although
no one can deny that a descent is taking place, since that descent
has solely one purpose the ascent that follows it is not considered
a descent, but rather a phase of the ascent.
Similarly, the descent of the soul to our material world has
but one purpose: that the soul rise to a higher spiritual level.
Certain strengths and potentials, and a deeper level of love,
do not surface when the soul is in the spiritual realm.
Why does it not surface in that realm? Because there is no challenge.
It is only through the soul's descent into this physical world,
where its love for G-d is threatened by all the temptations of
material existence, that the soul can reach this higher peak.
Because it is being threatened, the soul strives to bring out
its inner resources, and in doing so taps a deeper and more powerful
source of love than could be revealed in the spiritual realms.
In this way, the descent of the soul brings it to a higher rung.
The same applies with regard to the concept explained above:
Even something that is spiritually negative, something that appears
to be in contradiction to the observance of the Torah and its
mitzvos, can serve a positive purpose.
When one realizes that everything that happens comes about because
G-d wants it to happen, we can appreciate that it has a purpose
and that purpose is good. Everything that exists and every event
that transpires has G-dly energy vested within it; otherwise,
it could not exist. This applies even to those experiences that
appear negative; they exist because of a positive Divine purpose.
This leads to the awareness that an occurrence that appears negative
is merely a test. Its negative dimension is only a disguise; what
it really is, is a medium to enable one to reach a higher spiritual