Two kinds of tests

By Rabbi Michael Kushnick
Parashat Ekev

As a rabbi I often find myself working with people who are experiencing hardships. During these situations I am asked, “Why did this happen to me? Or, “What did I do to deserve this? I am a good person; this should not happen to me.” This is the basis of the nationally bestselling book by Rabbi Harold Kushner, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” In this book, Rabbi Kushner says, “Whenever bad things happen to good people, there is likely to be a feeling that we might have prevented their misfortune if we had acted differently.”

When these moments of misfortune strike us, many turn to religion. I am sure every one of us knows someone who fits into this situation. Perhaps it was even us. Why in times of tragedy or hardship are we drawn to religion?

This phenomenon happens in some degree to all of us. When we want something to change, we turn to religion and God in hopes of a different reality. We believe that by coming to shul or lighting Shabbat candles, things in our life will change and get better.

It is especially easy to fall into this way of thinking right now. The pandemic has greatly impacted our lives and the hope was that this summer would bring dramatic improvements. However, the recent news of the Delta variant raises fears about the future. Despite the challenges and uncertainty, there is so much to be thankful for, and we cannot lose sight of the blessings that still take place.

This week’s Torah reading makes us aware of how easy it is for us to fall into this so-called trap and forget about God and Judaism. This week we read parashat Ekev, which warns us of the human inclination to forget about God when life is going well. The Torah says, “When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God…and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’”

The Torah recognizes how easy it would be for our ancestors, who witnessed firsthand the awesome powers of God, to forget about God at the first moment that they live in the land of Israel. The Torah is aware that even our ancestors, who lived through such powerful miracles, could have such a quick change of perception. Therefore, they are warned before crossing into the land of Israel not to forget God when life is good. God is not present for you only when there are needs to be fulfilled; rather, God is equally present during the good times.

Sforno, the 16th-century Italian biblical commentator, said that there are two types of tests given to human beings. One is a test of riches, and the other is a test of poverty. The tests are whether humans will recognize God when they are prosperous, and will they recognize God when they are impoverished? He said the Israelites faced both tests in the wilderness and the Torah offers us advice on how to respond to each test.

Sforno imagined that these tests may happen at separate times. Throughout life every one of us will experience good and challenging times. The essence of Sforno’s teaching is incredibly meaningful today as we experience both tests simultaneously. Both tests are challenges of our faith. Within the challenging moments, can we turn to God and find the blessings that exist in life; and when we experience happiness, are we able to thank God for the blessings during these joyous moments?

Judaism is a religion that infuses every part of our life. It brings us joy as we dance at a wedding, and comforts us as we mourn at shiva, as we dance on Simchat Torah and cry during Tisha B’Av. We can receive the most from Judaism when we are in a continual relationship with God during both the good times and the difficult moments.

This coming week, pause from your routine, take a break for a few minutes from the news and recognize the blessings in your life at this very moment. Find the joy, find the blessing and let God fill all parts of our life, the good and bad.

Rabbi Michael Kushnick serves Congregation Anshai Torah in Plano. He is the immediate past-president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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