The following is adapted from Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed.
The concept that God puts people through trials is the most debated idea in the entire Bible. Most people assume (incorrectly) that God afflicts individuals not in response to their own sins but to provide them with an opportunity to earn reward. Trials are discussed six places in the Torah but only one of them supports such a hypothesis at face value (Deuteronomy 8:16, which we’ll discuss shortly). Rather, the Torah’s teaching dismisses such an understanding as “He is a faithful God; there is no injustice in Him” (Deuteronomy 32:4). The Sages taught likewise that “there is no death without sin and no suffering without transgression” (Shabbos 55a). A thinking person must therefore not attribute any wrongdoing to God by suggesting that He has afflicted a righteous person with undeserved suffering. Rather, in the six instances of trials in the Torah, we see that trials are the tests through which God demonstrates the faith of individuals or nations.
This idea may be a little difficult to process. After all, no one witnessed the binding of Isaac except for God and Abraham, and God even said, “Now I know that you fear God…” (Genesis 22:12). Elsewhere, the Torah says, “Hashem your God tests you to know whether you love…” (Deuteronomy 13:4). This makes it seem as if trials are for God’s benefit, which is baffling as God already knows all. So what is the real meaning of the tests we endure?
We see from the Torah that the sole purpose of trials is to teach a person what he should do or what he should believe. The trial itself is not the goal, it’s the means to an end. The verb la’daas doesn’t mean “to know” in such verses as Genesis 22:12, it means “to make known.” This is clearly its meaning in some other places, like Exodus 31:13, “to make it known that I am God Who sanctifies you” – surely God already knows that He is the One Who sanctifies them! Rather, it is for the benefit of others. Similarly, our tests make it known whether those tested love God and defer to His will.
In the case of the false prophet (Deuteronomy 13), the Torah says outright that when such a person arises, it is a test through which we can prove our dedication to God (verse 4).
This meaning of la’daas applies wherever the Torah discusses the purpose of trials. This includes such verses as Deuteronomy 8:2, “to test you and make known what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.”
But what of Deuteronomy 8:16, which says regarding manna that it was “to test you in order to do good for you in the future?” This verse appears to support the idea that God does indeed put people through trials so that they might earn reward. Again, the Rambam tells us that a verb doesn’t mean what we might think it does. In this case, the verb nasosecha doesn’t mean “to do good for you,” it means “to get you used to it.” (A similar use occurs in Deuteronomy 28:56, “She has not accustomed the sole of her foot to tread on the ground.”) The idea of Deuteronomy 8:16, then, is that God put the nation through trials in order to get them used to hardship, which was a skill they would require upon entering the land of Israel. Had they spent 40 years in luxury and comfort, they would have been ill-prepared for the hardships of combat that awaited them.
Abraham’s binding of Isaac reveals two important principles. First, it shows the extent to which we must take our reverence for God. Abraham was asked to bind his own son as a sacrifice, something that goes against human nature in general and Abraham’s merciful nature in particular. Not only had Abraham longed for a son, only to finally receive one after abandoning all hope, he had been promised that a nation would descend from Isaac. The command to bind Isaac must have been utterly incomprehensible but Abraham subordinated himself – emotionally, logically, and in all other ways – to God’s will. To further this, Abraham was commanded to do so after a three-day journey. His mind wasn’t reeling from shock and he wasn’t acting impetuously. Rather, he had ample opportunity to contemplate the gravity of his undertaking. Nevertheless, he saw it through without hesitation.
The second thing we see is the degree of faith that the prophets placed in the messages they received. Whatever a prophet saw in a vision, he knew to be true; there was no doubt or confusion in his mind whatsoever. We see this from the fact that Abraham consented to undertake this mission; had there been anything less than perfect clarity, he would not have had the strength to see it through.
This is the correct way to understand trials. We must not delude ourselves that God tests us in order to discover something that He did not know before. (This is an impossibility, given that He knows all.) Rather, it is to lay the groundwork for our faith and practice, as we see from the trial of Abraham binding Isaac.
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A note from Allison:
This article is excerpted from Rabbi Jack Abramowitz’s new book, “The God Book,” which you can purchase here. Rabbi Abramowitz, who we have been blessed to call a member of our team for several years now, gave me the honor of writing the foreword for this book. A book about God. A subject strangely not present enough in Jewish education. Rabbi Abramowitz not only has an incredible knack for tackling some of the most challenging topics in the Torah and Talmud – I go to him when I am personally perturbed by something – he is extremely patient. Besides his articles, which we regularly publish on JewintheCity.com, Rabbi Abramowitz has responded to countless emails from our readers over the years and responds and responds until the questioner feels satisfied. We as an organization and we, the Jewish people, are blessed to have him around. May Hashem grant him many long and healthy years to continue making Torah palatable for all who are searching.