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Va’etchanan 5767-2007

“May We Test G-d?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, the Torah focuses on the proper relationship that people should have with the Al-mighty.

In Deuteronomy 6:16, we read: “Lo t’nah’soo et Hashem Eh’lo’kay’chem, ka’ah’sher nee’see’tem ba’Ma’sah,” You shall not test the Lord, your G-d, as you tested Him at Massah. The reference to Massah harks back to the events described in Exodus 17, which occurred soon after the Jewish people fled the land of Egypt. The former slaves stopped in Rephidim, where there was no water for the people to drink. The people impatiently demanded water. Moses pleaded with them (Exodus 17:2) not to be contentious: “Mah t’ree’voon ee’mah’dee, mah t’nah’soon et Hashem,” Why do you contend with me? Why do you test G-d?

Ignoring Moses’ pleas, the people demand to know why Moses brought them up from Egypt, to kill their children and their livestock through thirst. Fearing for his life, Moses cries out to G-d. G-d then instructs Moses to take his staff and hit the rock in Horeb to make water come forth. Scripture tells us that Moses called the place “Massah and Meribah,” because of the contention of the Children of Israel and because they tested G-d saying: Is G-d among us, or not?

Our rabbis maintain the actual test at Massah was that the Israelites, in effect, said to G-d: If You give us water, we will follow You. If not, we are free to leave You.

The Ramban (Nachmanides, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) maintains that the sin of the people can be attributed to the fact that G-d had already proven Himself to them many times over. The people of Israel, therefore, had no right to doubt His promises or the words of the prophet.

Although our sages understood that fear and anxiety can weaken a person’s ability to believe and result in a person’s desire for concrete evidence on which to base his faith, they regard the testing of G-d as a form of arrogance, which is to be severely condemned. Similarly, with the prophets, our rabbis maintain that once a prophet has been designated, the people are forbidden to ask that prophet for additional signs and miracles in order to validate his prophetic utterances.

R’ Saadiah Gaon (882-942, Saadiah ben Joseph, great Babylonian leader, scholar and philosopher) agrees that it is forbidden to question whether G-d can do something. However, he maintains that it is, nevertheless, permissible for people to ask G-d for signs indicating whether they themselves are righteous enough in G-d’s eyes to be worthy of blessing.

Rabbeinu Bachya (1263-1340, Bachya ben Asher, Biblical commentator of the Golden Age of Spain) views the question from a different perspective. Rabbeinu Bachya maintains that a person should not test G-d by acting righteously merely for the sake of expecting a reward from heaven, because no one really knows what will ultimately prove to be a blessing. After all, what is presently perceived as being good may ultimately turn out to be evil. This inability to know the end result, is the reason why, in the prayers announcing the new moon that are recited on Shabbat, we ask for “life in which the prayers of our heart shall be fulfilled for good, rather than asking G-d to fulfill all the prayers of our heart. Sometimes the things for which we pray are not for our benefit. We therefore ask G-d to reject those prayers that are not for our good and answer only those prayers that will ultimately be beneficial.

The author of the Sefer Ha’Chinuch (the classic work on the 613 commandments, their rationale and their regulations, by an anonymous author in 13 th century Spain) declares that there is no point in asking G-d’s prophets to show heavenly signs. After all, this is not the prerogative of the prophet. Only G-d may decide when to show miracles.

The Radbaz (David ben Zimra, c. 1479-1573, spiritual leader of Egyptian Jewry for over 40 years) concludes simply that no one has the right to test any of G-d’s prophets who have fulfilled the requirements of being a prophet and sage. Those who do so are violating G-d’s Torah. It is probably for this reason that a clear statement prohibiting the testing of G-d is pronounced in Tractate Ta’anit 9a. Citing the verse in Deuteronomy 6:16, “You shall not test the Lord, your G-d,” the Talmud asserts forcefully that testing the Holy One, blessed be He, is prohibited.

Despite the clear prohibition of testing G-d, there is one instance where G-d actually encourages His mortal creations to test Him. In Malachei 3:10, the prophet states: Bring all the tithes unto the storehouse and prove Me now by this, says the Lord of hosts: If I will not open to you the window of heaven and pour you out a blessing. G-d, in effect, promises any Jew who sincerely and honestly brings his tithes, that he has the right to expect that G-d will shower blessing upon him. G-d promises that those people who give charity from the wherewithal that G-d has given them will be rewarded for that charity.

G-d in effect says, “Go ahead, test Me.”

The Shabbat after Tisha Ba’av is traditionally known as Shabbat Nachamu, in deference to the first of a series of seven Haftarot (prophetic messages) of consolation, drawn from the book of Isaiah, and read between Tisha Ba’av and Rosh Hashana. “Nachamu, nachamu amee,” be comforted My nation, are the opening words of Isaiah 40.

May you be blessed.