Until now, we’ve spoken about the empowering nature of challenges, discussing how the purpose of a challenge, as the Ramban1 explains, is to push us to actualize our latent potential, to transform our koach (potential) into po’al (actual). However, there is one last level of nisayon which requires clarification. To address it, we must ask an important question: Why do ordeals sometimes seem impossible, far beyond one’s ability? There is a well-known principle that Hashem only sends someone a test they can overcome. But is this true? Does Hashem ever send us a test which is simply too hard to overcome? If so, how are we expected to overcome such a test?
According to the Ramban’s explanation, an ordeal is beyond our current level, but within our capacity to overcome. The nisayon pushes us to actualize our potential, helping us achieve a level we would otherwise not realize we are capable of.
While the Ramban suggests that a test is within one’s capacity, the very Hebrew word for a test suggests otherwise. The root of the word nisayon is neis, the Hebrew word for miracle. A miracle is that which is beyond the realm of the natural, requiring Divine intervention. We are therefore left with two seemingly contradictory views. Either a nisayon is within one’s capacity, which means that it is not truly a miracle if one overcomes it, or it does require a miracle to overcome, in which case it is not within one’s capacity. Furthermore, if a challenge is beyond one’s capacity, thus requiring Hashem’s miraculous intervention, how can one be expected to overcome the challenge? How can Hashem give us an ordeal which we cannot (naturally) overcome?
Achieving the Impossible
There are three levels of potential ability, and understanding these three levels is the key to understanding the true nature of a nisayon:
- The first level of ability is the level you are currently on, what you are capable of at this very moment, without any external or internal pressure.
- The second level is what you are capable of reaching, but only if you are pushed to your fullest potential. While this level may seem out of reach to your current self, in truth, it isn’t, for when pushed to the extreme, you realize that it was there all along, waiting to become expressed. This is the level the Ramban refers to.
- The third level goes beyond this, into the realm of the impossible. This is the level that we cannot reach, regardless of how much we are pushed or the degree of pressure. Even if an entire herd of bulls was stampeding towards the high jumper, he would not be able to clear a fifty-foot fence.
This third level is the deepest expression of nisayon, where the spiritual challenge is truly impossible. On our own, we cannot overcome this level of nisayon, no matter how hard we try. But our job is not to overcome the challenge, our job is simply to push ourselves as hard as we possibly can, to the borders of our personal limit, and trust that Hashem will carry us the rest of the way. Our job is to put in maximum hishtadlus (personal effort) and trust that the miraculous results will come from Hashem.
Let us illustrate this idea. Imagine that Hashem tells you to walk to the edge of a cliff, and then jump across a chasm to the mountain on the other side. Even when pushed to your fullest potential, you can only jump nine feet, and the mountain is ten feet away. Under natural circumstances, you would fall short and tumble into the abyss. But Hashem says, “Jump the nine feet and trust me; I will carry you the last foot.” The challenge is not about making it to the other side – it’s about taking the courageous leap. Your job is to walk to the edge of the cliff and jump; Hashem will carry you the rest of the way.2
This is the meaning behind the Ramchal’s statement in Mesilas Yesharim3, “techilaso avodah v’sofo gemul“- the beginning is toil, but the end is a gift (from Hashem). In reality, no amount of work that we put in entitles us to the results and rewards we receive.4 But this is how Hashem designed the world: when we put in the effort and connect ourselves to Hashem, Hashem gives us with the rest, giving us more than we could ever imagine. Similarly, the Gemara5 explains that every day, our yetzer hara (evil inclination) tries to overcome us, battling us with renewed strength, and if not for Hashem’s help, we would not be able to resist it. On our own, we cannot overcome our yetzer hara, but once we commit to battling our lower drive, Hashem intervenes and allows us to overcome it, “carrying us the rest of the way”.6
A True Banner
What results when such an impossible nisayon is overcome, when you arrive on the other side, having successfully made the ten-foot jump? The people around you bear witness to someone who lives by faith, who has absolute bitachon (trust) in Hashem.7 They see your willingness to take an impossible jump for the sake of Hashem, trusting Him to carry you through. By putting your life in Hashem’s hands, you express your belief that your life is always in Hashem’s hands.
When an onlooker perceives this event, in addition to seeing your faith in Hashem, they witness a revelation of Hashem in this world. Not only do they see you jump into the unknown and amazingly overcome this impossible test, but they also see Hashem miraculously carry you through. Your act has brought a manifestation and revelation of Hashem into this world, the ultimate kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name). By seeing your willingness to take the jump, and then witnessing you succeed, they see the miraculous Yad Hashem (Hand of God), and your very existence now proclaims Hashem’s existence and hashgachah (providence) in this world! The Gemara8 explains that this why we associate Hashem’s Name with the Avos; three times a day in Shemonah Esrai, we say: “Elokei Avraham, Elokei Yitzchak, v’Elokei Yaakov” (The God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak, and the God of Yaakov). Avraham passed his ten tests, Yitzchak overcame the akeidah, and Yaakov lived a life of constant challenge and hardship. By undergoing and passing their impossible tests, they brought an awareness of Hashem’s presence and hashgachah into the world. They therefore merit to be identified with Hashem’s Name, a testament to their greatness in revealing and manifesting Hashem in this world.
The Rambam builds upon this idea and explains that ordeals give leaders, such as Avraham Avinu, the opportunity to reveal their tremendous potential and greatness to the world around them. This inspires others to look deeper within themselves, to consider what potential they have yet to fulfill, and to work towards achieving their own greatness as well. When we undergo a challenge, we have the opportunity to become a leader, to inspire others10, and to reveal Hashem’s presence in this world. We can use the challenges we overcome to help inspire others to persevere and fight through their own trials and tribulations. Through Avraham’s success in overcoming his own challenges, he inspired generations upon generations of people to emulate his emunah (faithfulness) and come closer to Hashem. The world looks to those of spiritual greatness to learn how to overcome their own challenges.