If I were to ask you, "What is the wealthiest place in the universe?", what would you answer? You might suggest the banks, the diamond mines, or something along these lines. But in a sense, the wealthiest place in the world is the graveyard. Why?
There, you'll find dreams never chased after, ideas and inspiration never acted upon, music never composed, works of art never created, books never written, companies and organizations never built; endless potential, never actualized. And on our deathbed, these dreams, these ideas, they'll come to us and say: "We came to you, and only you could have given us life, but you didn't; and now, we die with you.
If we died today, what unrealized potential would die with us? What dreams, contributions, and creativity would remain unexpressed? What would we be taking with us to the grave?
Most people we know will probably say: "I'll do it tomorrow". But there's no guarantee we will be here tomorrow. This is why the Mishna in Avos tells us to do teshuva (repent) the day before we die. The Gemara explains this to mean that a person should always be in a process of teshuva, because one never knows which day will be his last. So, if we died today, what dreams, ideas, and potential would die with us?
There are, however, a few rare individuals out there who do act on their dreams and inspiration, who truly live lives of greatness. They maximize their time and actualize as much of their potential as possible. These rare individuals shine a light into this world and serve as an inspiration to all those who are fortunate enough to know them. Their existence alone inspires those around them to become more, to want more, to demand more from themselves, to raise their standards.
Fascinatingly, many of these unique people have undergone tremendous challenge. They've been thrown down, torn apart, and pushed to the brink. And yet, they rose up, stronger than ever before, driven to greatness, serving as an inspiration to others. This begs the obvious question: did they become great despite their challenges, or because of them? What is the secret to their success?
In Parshas Vayeshev, Yaakov Avinu's trouble-ridden journey continues. Yaakov seems to be plagued with challenge after challenge, beginning from his very birth. His battle with Esav regarding the bechora ends with Yaakov running for his life; he then has to deal with Lavan’s trickery; when he finally returns to Eretz Yisrael, he is confronted with the unfortunate events of Dinah and Shechem. If that wasn’t enough, his favored son, Yosef, is now torn away from him. Yaakov is tormented with hardship after hardship, and yet, despite all these challenges, he still achieves absolute greatness. This leads us to our question: What is the spiritual purpose of a nisayon (test/challenge)?
There are several potential purposes for a challenge or test. A test is usually administered to evaluate a person's knowledge or mastery of a given area. However, this cannot be the case in a test given by Hashem, as Hashem is all-knowing and therefore fully aware of exactly how much we are capable of. What, then, is the purpose of a test? Why does Hashem constantly send us challenges and tests?
1: Contrast and Appreciation
On the most basic level, we often only appreciate things once we have lost them. One generally does not appreciate the importance of their hand in their daily routine until they break it, or how much they love someone until they've lost them.The Maharal and Ramchal explain that human beings learn through comparison and contrast. We understand the concept of wisdom by witnessing foolishness, goodness from witnessing evil, and wealth by witnessing poverty. The same goes for our health and quality of life. Only by experiencing the worst of times can we truly appreciate the best of times.
On a slightly deeper level, Hashem may send us challenges in order to be mechaper (atone) for our past wrongdoings.Instead of receiving all of our atonement in the World to Come, which would be far more severe, Hashem sends us yesurin (hardship) in this world.
3: Wake-Up Call
The Ramchal explains that Hashem sometimes sends us a challenge in order to “wake us up”, to help us get back on the proper track. There may be times when we find ourselves on the wrong path, drowning in the physicality of life. In such circumstances, Hashem may choose to jolt us awake, motivating us to question our choices and direction in life. These challenges should push us to realign our values, to regain our desire to live with higher ideals. The Gemara says that if something negative happens to us, our first reaction should be to examine our deeds and try to determine what character trait we can work on. Sometimes, a challenge is the perfect way to jolt us out of our stupor, leading us to reassess our lives, reconnect with Hashem, and commit to living a more spiritual, purposeful life.
There is a fundamentally deeper understanding of a challenge, one that reveals the very core spiritual purpose and effect of a test. In order to understand this deep level, we must examine the life of Avraham Avinu and the ten challenges he overcame. The Mishna in Avos tells us that Avraham was subjected to ten tests and overcame them all, expressing his eternal dedication to Hashem. The commentators question the necessity for Avraham to undergo all these hardships. They question as follows: If Hashem already knew whether Avraham could pass these tests, why even conduct them?
The Ramban explains that the purpose of a challenge is to push you to actualize your latent potential, to transform your koach (potential) into po'al (actual). Hashem already knows exactly who you are and what you can become; the purpose of an ordeal is to enable you to realize who you can become so that you can then actualize that potential. Each challenge that Avraham and the rest of the Avos overcame was another step in their journey towards perfection.
The Rambam explains that this is why the word for challenge, nisayon, is based on the word for banner- nes. A group raises a banner or flag to express who they are and what they stand for. When we overcome challenges and achieve greatness, our perseverance and triumph serves as a banner for all to see and learn from.
In order to better understand this concept, consider the following analogy: There was a man who was training to compete in the high-jump at the Olympics. He practiced every day, gaining strength and improving as he went. The first week, he was able to jump the three-foot fence. The next week, he made it over the four-foot fence. After two more weeks, he was able to jump over the five-foot fence. But no matter how hard he trained, he just couldn't clear the six-foot fence. After working on it for another five weeks, he began losing hope. One day, as he was about to head home, he saw a bull stampeding, full speed, straight at him. Seized by adrenaline, he flew right over the six-foot fence - the same fence that, just moments before, he was convinced he was unable to jump over. So, here's the question: was he capable of jumping over the fence until now? If not, what changed?
The answer is profound: for quite some time, he had been capable of jumping over the fence. But sometimes, we need external pressure to help us fully harness our potential. We've all heard the stories of a mother lifting a car to save her child; in any other scenario, this same mother wouldn't even be able to move the car an inch. Our challenges bring out strength buried deep within us, helping us actualize our latent potential that would have otherwise remained hidden.
This idea is powerfully expressed in the following Midrash: After the Chet Ha'Meraglim (Sin of the Spies), the Jews were forced to travel through the desert for forty years, where the 600,000 men between the ages of 20 and 60 died before entering Eretz Yisrael (Israel). The original Chet Ha’Meraglim occurred on Tisha B'Av (The Ninth of Av), and each year on this day, all the men between 20 and 60 would dig their own grave and sleep in it. Every year, 15,000 of the men did not wake up the next morning.
This pattern continued for 39 years, until something miraculous happened: In the 40th year, the last 15,000 men dug their graves, but the next morning, they all woke up. Assuming that they miscalculated the date of Tisha B'Av, they did the same thing the next night. It wasn't until the 15th of Av, when the full moon confirmed that Tisha B’Av had passed, that they realized Hashem had spared them.
The obvious question is, why were these 15,000 men spared? What made them different? Essentially, what changed?
The answer is profound. Hashem did not change His mind, the people themselves changed. The only way to change a gezeirah (decree) is through teshuva (repentance) and tefilah (prayer). These are forms of avodas ha'ratzon- exercises in changing one’s inner will- and therefore result in changing one’s very self. Tefilah does not change Hashem's mind, it changes who we are; once we’ve changed who we are, embracing our higher selves, we are no longer subject to the negative decree. Teshuva as well is a method of reengineering our will, rewiring our “wants”. It’s about the decision to be better, to be great, to become our best and truest self. As the Ramchal explains in Mesilas Yesharim, if we can change what we want (akiras ha’ratzon), we can change who we are. When we make new decisions, we create a new reality for ourselves.
For the previous 39 years, as all the men would dig their graves, each would think to himself: "It won't be me, it can't be me. I'll wake up. This year it will be someone else." And every year, 15,000 people died. No one achieved genuine change, as no one believed that it would be them who would not wake up the next morning.
The last year, there were only 15,000 people left. No longer could they look around and say "it won't be me." They knew, with absolute certainty, that unless they changed, unless they did teshuva gemurah (complete repentance), they were going to die. And that is exactly what they did. They were pushed to their limits, beyond their comfort zone, and the impossible occurred. The tefilah they said that night was different from any other tefilah they had ever said before. They knew that unless they reached into the very depths of their souls, davened with all their heart, and changed their will completely, they would not wake up the next morning.
This story relates to a famous rule of battle: never close your enemy off; always leave them room to escape. If you entrap them completely, they will fight with complete abandon, with more ferocity and passion then even before, for you have pushed them to their limits, and they know that they are literally fighting for their lives. This same idea is encapsulated in the quote: “If you want to take the island, burn the boats.” If you are going to war and you thirst for victory, leave no possibility for retreat. Burn your ships, burn you way out, and your only option is to fight with everything that you have.
The ideal, of course, is not to wait for Hashem to challenge us, but to initiate the growth ourselves. Avraham Avinu is the exemplar of this model of growth, pushing himself to grow. After Avraham overcame all ten of his challenges from Hashem, he says "Anochi afar v'efer", which, literally translated, means "I am but dust and ashes". As we previously explained, ashes represent an elemental breakdown, the most basic particles of an object. Dirt is the starting point of growth, the place where seeds are planted and given life. In a deeper sense, Avraham was saying that every day he would "ash" himself, breaking his very “self” down into its elemental, root form, and he would then plant himself anew. In other words, Avraham recreated himself every single day. Each and every day, he looked deep within himself, examined and broke down every character trait and value, and then recreated himself for the better, taking the next step in his spiritual growth. Avraham never continued living the same way simply because it was comfortable, or because he was used to it. Avraham challenged himself daily, constantly pushing himself to become the very best he could be. Once Avraham learned the value of a challenge firsthand, he proactively pushed himself to achieve his fullest potential.
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?
There are three levels of potential ability, and understanding these three levels is the key to understanding the true nature of a nisayon:
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 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.
This is the meaning behind the Ramchal’s statement in Mesilas Yesharim, "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. 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 Gemaraexplains 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”.
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. 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 Gemara 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 others, 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.
Often, when we are in pain - whether physical, emotional, or spiritual - we beg Hashem every day, with all our heart, to make the pain go away. We imagine how wonderful life will be when the challenge finally passes, and each day we hold on to that image, cherish it, and hope for Hashem to make that day come faster. We cry, we suffer, we push, and just when we think we cannot take it anymore, just when we think we may not make it another day, when every last ounce of strength and hope has faded, the pain begins to subside.
However, we must ask ourselves: Is this the best way to handle an ordeal? When we face challenges, how do we act during these moments of pain and discomfort? Most people simply want to get through it as quickly as possible; every night they’ll go to sleep hoping for a better tomorrow. In other words, we sometimes throw away our present lives during times of challenge, just waiting for the pain to pass. Instead of taking full advantage of our tests as an opportunity to grow, achieve our greatness, and connect with Hashem, we try to hide until it's gone. We say: “I'll start to do things once this challenge goes away!” But the whole reason this challenge was given to us in the first place was to push us and help us grow.
This is obviously easier said than done and is not meant to diminish the genuine pain and anguish of challenges. But consider it this way: you're already in pain. So use it! Don't be used by the pain; use the pain. Push yourself to the max, see what you're capable of becoming. Growth occurs only in the face of resistance and pressure. There is no growth in the comfort zone. You can only grow muscle when you rip your muscle fibers; you can only grow existentially when you rip yourself out of your comfort zone. Growth in your life, learning, middos (character traits), career, and relationships only happens when you push yourself to the limit. While the ideal is for us to push ourselves, like Avraham exemplified through “afar v'eifer”, quite often this does not happen. In such cases, Hashem may try to help by challenging us to grow. If we try to "sit out" the challenge, we are missing the point. We need to "ride" the challenge, to ask ourselves: "How can I use this challenge to help me grow".
This perspective can fundamentally transform the way we experience hardship. After going through an extremely painful birth, a mother might say, "don't feel sorry for me; this wasn't suffering, it was pain. Suffering is meaningless, and this was the most meaningful pain I have ever experienced in my life." When we can give meaning to our pain, it becomes bearable.
Imagine a man who must travel thousands of miles through a jungle, a journey full of danger, pain, and ordeals, in order to be reunited with his wife. He gladly accepts every challenge that comes his way, excitedly overcoming them one by one, knowing that with every step he takes he comes closer to reaching his goal, reuniting with the most important person in his life. But what if, instead, this man was in the jungle with no idea why he was there and no idea where he was going. He will likely feel more and more depressed with every challenge that he faces. Eventually, he'd rather just sit down and die than to keep on fighting. The same is true for every challenge we face; if you are living with a higher purpose and you know where you are going in life, challenges make the journey meaningful; they push you to achieve your goals. But if you have no idea why you're here, then challenges will break you down and make you want to give up. You choose how to view your nisayon.
At this very moment, you are "who you are" because of all the challenges you have faced. Every decision and experience you have ever had has led you to this very moment. Some turns were bigger than others, but they have all led to your unique path in life. One day, you will realize that the challenges you faced were in fact the best things that ever happened to you. You will realize that everything you've managed to become is not despite your challenges, but because of them. The greatest people among us are great because of their challenges, not despite them.
While it is difficult to see the positive aspects of a nisayon while it is still underway, it is easier to look back in retrospect and see how past challenges shaped you into the person you are today. This is why the Ba'alei Machshava (Jewish thinkers) suggest writing your own personal megillah. In Megilas Esther, there is no open miracle; only by putting all the pieces together do we see the Yad Hashem (Hand of God), how everything fit together so perfectly. Megillah shares the same root as the words ligalgel (to roll) and migaleh (to reveal). When we roll through the scroll of the megilah, we reveal the presence and hashgachah of Hashem.
The same is true of our own personal story. Each individual piece seems insignificant and happenstance, each challenge bearing little consequence. However, if we put all the pieces together, connecting the dots, we begin to see the beauty manifest in our own personal megillah. We begin to see the turning points in our lives; we retroactively see the life-changing impact our challenges had on our lives. Whether it was a physical illness, a difficult relationship, losing someone dear, or a personal struggle, our challenge-streaked past becomes a masterpiece ready for us to read.
We must learn to embrace our challenges, to see them as an opportunity to achieve our unique greatness in this world. And as we push past our physical, emotional, and mental shackles, well aware of the impossible leap we are asked to take, we must look up to Hashem and put our complete trust in Him. As we close our eyes and take that leap of faith, we find ourselves on the other side, now a banner of greatness and a partner in revealing Hashem’s presence in this world. In doing so, we not only achieve our own greatness, but we inspire others to strive for more as well.
Never stop dreaming, never stop pushing past your boundaries and limitations. Be happy with what you have become, but always remain hungry for more. Like the Avos, you will constantly be challenged, but remember: challenges are opportunities in disguise. Don't waste your time, don't waste your life, but most importantly, don't add any wealth to the graveyard.
 Avos 2:15.
 Shabbos 153a.
 Brachos 5a, Erchin 16b.
 Mishna Berurah 222:4.
 Derech Hashem 2:3:5.
 Brachos 5a.
 Avos 5:3.
 Ramban Al Ha’Torah, Bereishis 22:1. See also Maharal, Gevuros Hashem, perek 22.
 See chapter on Parshas Tetzaveh for a full discussion on the purpose of actualizing our potential and the reason why Hashem created us in this world.
 Rambam- Moreh Nevuchim 3:24.
 See chapter on Parshas Va'Yeira regarding the mental shackles that we must escape in order to achieve our potential.
 Quoted by Rashi, Taanis 30b.
 See chapter on Parshas Vayishlach for an extensive discussion on the Chet Ha’Meraglim.
 Except for Yehoshua, Kalev, the Levi'im, and the women.
 40x15,000= 600,000.
 See Ta’anis 30b. This is one of the reasons we celebrate Tu B'Av.
 The “address” of the decree no longer applies. It was delivered to the person we used to be, but since we have existentially changed, we have a “new address”. In a deeper sense, teshuva is not about becoming someone different, it is about becoming who we really are, returning to our true selves. For more on this topic, see chapter on Parshas Nitzavim, section: “True Teshuva: Returning to Your Higher Self”.
 See previous chapter on Parshas Vayishlach, where we discuss the concept of ratzon (want/desire) in depth.
 This does not mean asking Hashem for a test, but rather working for growth without requiring a “life-shattering” challenge as stimulus. Asking for a test is forbidden, as it reflects an assertion ego, regardless of how slight; Dovid Ha’Melech was reprimanded for asking Hashem to test him (Shabbos 56a).
 Bereishis 18:27.
 See chapter on Parshas Vayeira for a detailed explanation of this concept.
 See chapter on Parshas Bo for more on the relationship between the natural and the miraculous. After you make the ten-foot jump, you will look back and realize that the first nine feet came from Hashem as well. For Who gave you the power and ability to jump in the first place? Nothing in this world is “natural”, and once we realize this, every aspect of our lives becomes miraculous.
 Mesilas Yesharim, Chapter 26.
 No rule of nature is absolute or necessary. All rules, including logic itself, were created by Hashem.
 See chapter on Parshas Vayechi, section: “The Highest Order,” where we discuss Rav Dessler's 3rd level of order, where Hashem gives you something that transcends the pieces. See chapter on Parshas Behar, where we discuss how the 50th (transcendent) arises when the 49 pieces (physical) are put together properly.
 The world was created with middas ha’din (judgement and justice). As such, we get what we deserve. But this itself was created on the foundation of chesed (Olam chesed yibaneh- the world is built on kindness). Thus, our very ability to receive anything for our actions (din) is actually a gift from Hashem (chesed). For more on the topic of the world being created with midase ha’din, see chapter “Creation Mysteries: When Contradiction Creates Clarity”.
 Kiddushin 30b.
 Similarly, once we embark on the journey to our ultimate selves, willing to walk into the unknown, Hashem will help carry us the rest of the way. (See chapter on Parshas Lech Lecha for more on this topic.)
 See Chazon Ish's sefer, Emunah U'bitachon, for the difference between believing in Hashem and being faithful to that belief in times of struggle.
 Additionally, and perhaps equally important, they witness someone who fully negates their ego, someone who recognizes their dependence on Hashem. Such an expression of trust proclaims for the world to hear: “I am unable to do this alone, I am fully dependent on Hashem.” This is a true eved Hashem (one who devotes their life to God).
 Sanhedrin 107a.
 The Akeidah, in particular, was perhaps Avraham’s most impossible test. It defied rational morality (murder), it contradicted Hashem’s promise that he would be the father of nations (Yitzchak’s death), and it conflicted with Avraham’s middah of chesed and ahavah (kindness and love), forcing Avraham to transcend his nature and connect to the middah of gevurah and yirah (restriction and awe).
 The Ramchal (Da’as Tevunos 46) and Rav Chaim Volozhin (Nefesh Ha’Chaim 2:2) explain that a name is never the essence of a thing itself, but only how it is expressed and revealed into the world and experienced by others. A shem (name) reveals essence, as it shares the same root as neshama (soul), but it is not the essence itself. Your name is the means through which others relate to you, but you are far more than your name. In the same sense, Hashem’s names reflect how Hashem reveals Himself into the world; each name has its own unique meaning and connotation related to how Hashem reveals Himself through that name (Elokim, Yud Keh Vav Keh, etc.). The Avos helped reveal Hashem to the world; as such, they became connected to Hashem’s “name”, how Hashem reveals Himself in the world.
 Moreh Nivuchim 3:24.
 Both overcoming the challenge and connecting our shem to Hashem serve as an inspiration to others.
 Usually due to laziness, misplaced values, or lack of clarity and focus.
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