It’s very nice to be a tzadik in theory. Choosing to do the right thing over and over again in real-life situations isn’t easy, though. It’s a lot easier just to talk about it.
When we are inspired by a Torah class or article, or even a beautiful piece of music, we often feel as though we have already made it. But at the moment of inspiration, you are only a tzadik in theory. It’s when the going gets tough, and you’re faced with real challenges and choices, that you have the opportunity to translate theory into action.
How deep did your inspiration go? The moment of challenge is the moment of choice, and that is when you determine who you really are. The Jewish People first learned this at Marah.
Just days before coming to Marah, the Jewish People had experienced the splitting of the sea. Talk about inspiration. These were miracles! Wonders! Waves dozens of feet tall had stood still for the nation as they crossed over a sea bed dried and flattened like marble. After reaching dry land, they had watched the waves crash down upon a vicious Egyptian armada bent on their destruction. Wild riches of gold, silver, and jewels that had stocked the chariots of their drowned Egyptian oppressors had washed up at their feet. The palpable presence and love of G-d was unlike almost any other time in history.
The awe, joy, and gratitude welled up inside their hearts and burst from their lips as the Song at the Sea (Exodus 14:30 – 15:19). Yet only three days later the tune had changed completely.
“Moses caused Israel to journey from the Sea of Reeds and they went out to the Wilderness of Shur; they went for a three-day period in the Wilderness, but they did not find water. They came to Marah, but they could not drink the waters of Marah because they were bitter... The people complained against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?” (Exodus 15:22-24)
How could they have complained only days after witnessing some of the greatest wonders in human history? We’re talking the splitting of the sea here! And the pessimism – the Jews could have simply trusted in G-d and prayed for water, but they decided to complain about it instead. All the great awe, joy, and gratitude went out like a flame at the first moment of discomfort and lacking. How? Where was their trust in the G-d they had been singing to only days before?
As the Jews complained at Marah, “[Moses] cried out to Hashem, and Hashem showed him a tree; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet. There He established for [the nation] a decree and an ordinance, and there He tested it” (ibid 25).
In Hebrew, a spiritual test is called a nisayon. The bitter waters the Almighty put in the Jews’ path were a nisayon - an acid test to see whether the Jewish People had truly internalized the miracles they had witnessed. How deeply and genuinely had they been inspired?
Let’s take this a little deeper. What is the point of G-d “testing” people anyway? The purpose of every nisayon the Jewish People went through during the generation of the desert, and all the other spiritual tests in the Torah and in our lives, is one and the same: personal freedom. Nisayon comes to form a man free to give his soul full and unfettered expression. To create a man whose freedom is so complete that it reflects great the freedom of the Creator and Master of the Universe Himself.
The moment of nisayon is the moment a person discovers the gap between his own theories and practices. It’s the moment when he is given the opportunity to actualize his values, and must decide whether he will live up to or fail his own aspirations.
At Marah, the Jewish People learned an uncomfortable truth: they were not yet free. They had left Egypt, but Egypt had not left them. Although their moments of inspiration had introduced them to vistas of joy and greatness they had never dreamed of before, they were still enslaved to their own baser natures. They had not yet developed the freedom to be the people they were inspired to be.
But knowing the problem is half the battle. Though they had failed this nisayon, the Jews looked forward to the next nisayon, and the next, as they slowly broke free of the chains of fear and instinct. They were happy because they knew that every nisayon is practice for the next one. Nisayon exercises spiritual muscles, and they knew that as they exercised and grew stronger, so their freedom to make their inspiration a reality would grow stronger as well.
It’s nice to be a tzadik in theory, but it’s infinitely nicer to be a tzadik in practice. Next time you encounter a nisayon, don’t get upset; get ready. This day is the beginning of the rest of your life.
Translated and Adapted from Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
by Braha Bender