On Sept. 18, my wife and I left on our first vacation in 4-1/2 years. We were going to Santa Fe for the first time. We had a 6:30 a.m. flight. I will never do that again. The Uber driver picked us up at a quarter to five. Five hours to Dallas, one hour layover, two-and-a-half-hour delay, two hour flight to arrive at Santa Fe. It’s a tiny little airport. A long line for a car. Finally, I got to the hotel, exhausted. And the altitude is 7000 ft, higher than Aspen. I couldn’t catch my breath and my allergies bloomed. We went on a tour on Sunday, and out to lunch with a friend on Monday. I told him how I was feeling, and he explained to me that altitude sickness was a real thing, so I needed to rest and hydrate, and I would soon acclimate. On Tuesday night, I was still not well, so guess what I did. I tested myself, and I passed. Or I failed. I’m not sure how to define being positive for Covid.
When I saw that second line showing up on the test, I said, “Why me? What did I do to deserve this? Why are You sending me these challenges?” Then I thought, who am I talking to? Am I bitching at God? There is nothing wrong with that. The Gemara says, “A person whose suffering causes him to challenge God is not sinful.” But why does God send us hardships? Bear with me. I know most of you don’t believe there is someone there who sends us these things. I don’t either. But lying in my bed, uncomfortable, unable to breathe, I wanted someone to blame and yell at. Did the universe, or whatever force has things happen (I will use God as a shorthand to represent that) say to herself, what can I send Carl’s way just to make him miserable?
The Chofeitz Chayim, an authoritative treatise on ethics, tells us that the reason God sends hardships is, “…in order to test you, to do good for you in your end.” So these challenges are tests. I am good at tests. I did great on my SAT’s (wow, that was 55 years ago). But about life tests, I found myself wondering why they happen, and how to deal with them. How are they “good for me?”
As a teacher, I told my students that the tests showed me how much they had learned. But for God’s tests, this makes no sense: He is supposed to know everything already. What, then, is the purpose of being tested by God? The Ramban said that the tests we undergo during our lives aren’t for God’s benefit, they are for ours. They give us the opportunity to transform potential into achievements. We can put the emotional, spiritual, and physical resources we were blessed with by God into action. Midrash explains further that God does not elevate a person to greatness until He first tests him – with a small matter. Tests and challenges are a fact of life. Jewish wisdom tells us they are a sign of God’s trust and confidence in our ability to prevail. In other words, we are sent these challenges, we are tested, to show ourselves how much we can really handle.
We are told everything in life can be a test; wealth and health and success can be tests because they can lead to arrogance and smugness. On other hand, poverty and illness can also be tests, because they can cause us to be bitter and resentful. Personally, like Tevye, I would rather be tested with wealth. And as we age, and our bodies break down and people around us die, these tests seem to come at us faster and faster. According to the Midrash, God tested Abraham ten times. Sitting in my hotel room in Santa Fe, I was certain I had been confronted more than ten times.
Is every test, every challenge, is an opportunity to move forward, to grow, to become stronger and more elevated, even for those of us entering our senior years? We are not going to get physically stronger, or mentally sharper. But we can access the power residing in wisdom accumulated over our years, or if you so believe, in the hidden reserves in our souls. We can access new kinds of strengths. A test will push us to the upper limit of our capacity, and maybe raise that limit.
Tests come in many ways: in traffic, zoom shuts down, a screaming child behind you on an airplane, the smoke detector randomly going off in the middle of the night, an undeserved promotion, no traffic so you arrive way to early, a financial loss, an unexpected windfall, your mother, or older sister or your in-laws informing you of the mistakes you are making raising your children. Most of us don’t think to ourselves, yea, a test.
The Talmud describes how Moshe asked God why some righteous people suffer, and some wicked people prosper. God answered: “No man shall see Me and live.” Likewise with Job. When he questions, “Why are you punishing me?” God answered with “where were you when I was creating the mountains?” Those answers are not answers to the questions. They do tell us that the “why” will always be a mystery. Not the scientific why. I know scientifically why I got sick. There is this pesky virus. Focusing on “why me” or “why then,” will just be frustrating. We can instead focus on what to do next, what to learn, how to act, and give the challenges purpose.
It is guaranteed that we will be tested. The most effective way to deal with the tests is to contextualize a purpose: tests help us grow. And they show us, even now, at our advanced age, that we can continue to grow. Knowing that we will be tested, we can prepare, and grow even before the tests start. When you encounter obstacles, you can overcome them. Tests are opportunities to help you become stronger.
Another perspective: you can either be a victim or the cause of everything that happens to you. Most people prefer being the victim, so they can blame instead of being responsible. We can reject or embrace these challenges, these tests. Believing they all come from God would make it easier. But we don’t know why we are tested, or where the tests come from. We are responsible, not for the challenge happening, but for our reaction.
Wealth and poverty, sickness, and health, what to wear and how to speak, all are challenges serving a higher purpose. We have endless challenges, but we can look at them as endless opportunities. Opportunities to prove ourselves, master life, and reach closer to…that thing that is still a mystery. That God space. This is, I think, what being a Jew is all about.
In these tests, there are more options than just passing or failing. The deepest learning is in the knowledge of self that arises with every obstacle. Every challenge, obstacle, shall be reframed as an opportunity to grow, to learn, and to persevere. We must persevere and make meaning. I found purpose with this last test: now I must go back to Santa Fe.
CARL VINIAR has been a lawyer, mediator, teacher, professor, seminar leader, trainer, service leader, pastoral counselor, son, father, sibling and friend. Now he is now an author, having completed A Guide To Premarital Counseling For Clergy Working With People Remarrying or Marrying Later In Life, which has been posted here on Jewish Sacred Aging.
He can be reached for inquiries about this manual and other related topics at RebCarl2022@gmail.com.