“Here’s $100 million. I’m BEGGING you to take it. I’m PLEADING with you.”
These words were probably never spoken since the beginning of time. Why would anyone have to beg somebody to accept an enormous fortune? Nobody would ever need to be begged to become rich, right?
At the time our ancestors left Egypt, however, this is exactly what happened.
As we read this month, Gd informed Moshe of the impending tenth and final plague which would be brought upon Egypt, and he presented a series of instructions in preparation for that night. These included, “Daber na be’ozneh ha’am – Speak, please, to the people,” that they should ask their Egyptian neighbors for their riches before leaving the country (Shemot 11:2). Already the Gemara, in Masechet Berachot (9), noted that Gd seems here to “plead” with the people to take the Egyptians’ riches with them, adding the word “na – please.” The Gemara comments that Gd was telling the people, “I am asking you, request from the Egyptians their silver and gold utensils.” He actually “begged” them to take the Egyptians’ riches!
The Gemara explains that Gd had warned Avraham that his descendants would endure a period of slavery and persecution in a foreign country, from which they would emerge with a huge fortune. Gd “begged” Beneh Yisrael before the Exodus to ask their Egyptian neighbors for their riches, so that Avraham would not “accuse” Gd of fulfilling only the first part of the prophecy – about the slavery and oppression – but not the second – the promise of great wealth.
This Talmudic passage seems very difficult to understand. Would Avraham, the bastion of unquestioning faith in Gd, who was prepared to slaughter his beloved son to fulfill Gd’s command, ever “accuse” Gd of anything? Additionally, as mentioned, why would Beneh Yisrael need to be begged to receive wealth? After so many years of suffering, would they not be overjoyed to become rich?
Partnering With Gd
Let us begin answering this question by going back to the very beginning of the Torah, to the time when Adam was created.
The creation of the first human was introduced by Gd’s proclamation, “Na’aseh adam betzalmenu kidmutenu – Let us make man in our image and in our form” (Beresheet 1:26). Surprisingly, Gd here speaks in the plural form – “Let us make man” – as though He “partnered” with somebody in this process. Indeed, our sages taught that by formulating the verse in this way, Gd knowingly ran the risk of pagans misinterpreting the story as indicating that there was more than one creator, Heaven forbid. The sages explained that Gd “consulted” with the angels before the creation of Adam, in order to teach us the importance of humility, and this is why He proclaimed, “Let us make man.”
However, the Ba’al Shem Tov offered an additional interpretation. He explained that in this proclamation, Gd is speaking to man himself, to us. He turns to each and every one of us and says, “Let us partner together to make you. I’m supplying a physical body, as well as vast potential. I’m giving you intelligence, skills, talents, and intuition. You have to do the rest. Together, we are going to create an outstanding being.”
We come into this world with a ton of potential, but it is up to us to maximize it. We are to “partner” with Gd in the process of our own creation by taking what we have been given, all our capabilities and talents, and harnessing them to become the outstanding person that we are each meant to become.
And the way we maximize our potential, the way we grow and achieve, is by overcoming challenges, by withstanding difficult tests.
We know this from the story of what might likely be the most difficult test ever withstood by a human being – the test of akedat Yitzhak, when Gd commanded Avraham to sacrifice his beloved son. Avraham lifted the knife to slaughter his son – and just then,
an angel called out, instructing him to withdraw the sword, as this was but a test. When the angel called to Avraham, he announced, “Avraham! Avraham” (Beresheet 22:11). This repetition of Avraham’s name has been understood to mean that the real- life “Avraham” at that moment was identical to the potential “Avraham.” Having withstood ten difficult tests, including the hardest test of all, the test of the akedah, Avraham had fully maximized his potential. There was no gap whatsoever between the Avraham who existed and the Avraham who could have existed. This is the deep meaning of the angel’s cry, “Avraham! Avraham!” – that he had reached the greatest level he was capable of reaching, by withstanding ten such difficult tests.
This is how we “partner” with Gd in our own creation – by withstanding the tests and challenges that He sends our way.
I have yet to meet a person who has no challenges in life. Every person, no matter who he is, no matter how much money he has, no matter how healthy he is, no matter how beautiful a family he has, faces difficult tests of one sort or another. And no two people’s sets of tests are the same. Gd sends each person the specific tests that he needs to confront in order to perfect his unique soul. Since each soul is different from all others, each person’s challenges are different from those faced by all others. We are given precisely the tests that we need to overcome in order to maximize our unique potential.
The Tests of Wealth
With this background, let us return to Beneh Yisrael’s preparations for the Exodus. For over two centuries, Beneh Yisrael
faced the difficult test of suffering and deprivation. They were persecuted, humiliated, tormented, and starved. They endured harsh conditions that none of us have ever experienced or will ever experience. Intuitively, we might assume that Beneh Yisrael would have been excited over the prospect of achieving wealth, that they would have relished the opportunity to now suddenly become rich. But Gd knew that this was not the case, that the people would actually be reluctant to take the Egyptians’ possessions. After enduring the challenges of poverty, they would not necessarily welcome the challenges of wealth.
All people dream of wealth, but it comes with its own set of difficult tests. We know even in our own time that many lottery winners ended up ruining their lives. Wealth brings with it many different lures, posing the risk of falling into dangerous or addictive behaviors, of wasting time on vanity, and of loneliness, as wealthy people often look disdainfully on others. And, attaining wealth often feeds the urge for more wealth, sending a person into a destructive, never-ending cycle of discontentment.
And so, after withstanding the very difficult test of oppression and poverty, Beneh Yisrael might not have wanted to bring upon themselves the test of wealth. They may have preferred to celebrate their newfound freedom without rushing into a new set of hardships with the sudden acquisition of a great fortune.
If this sounds strange, we need only to look at what happened three months after the Exodus, on the 17th of Tammuz – the
worship of the golden calf. Beneh Yisrael took some of the vast stockpiles of gold which they had taken with them from Egypt and used it to rebel against Gd. Just weeks after beholding Gd’s revelation and committing to observe the Torah, they worshipped a graven image. Can we find a starker example of the dangers of wealth? Do we need to look any further to understand why the people might have been hesitant to take the gold of Egypt?
Let Them be Great!
Gd therefore “begged” the people to take the Egyptians’ riches with them, so that Avraham would not complain. Avraham might have otherwise said to Gd, “You gave them the test of poverty – You must also give them the test of wealth. Let them be great! Let them reach their fullest potential! If they withstood the great test of poverty, then they can withstand the great test of wealth.”
Gd insisted that the people bring with them the riches of Egypt precisely because tests are for our long-term benefit. It is how we grow, how we refine ourselves, how we perfect ourselves, how we move closer to realizing our full potential. When our ancestors left Egypt, having been relieved of the test of destitution, they would now have to face the test of wealth, because this is how people become great – by withstanding tests.
This insight should not depress us. To the contrary, it should encourage us, and invigorate us.
This insight means that whenever we face a difficult situation, we are given a precious opportunity to become great. Every challenge we confront causes us to free some of our latent, hidden potential from its cage, to discover
some strength, some power which we never knew we had. These opportunities are precious!
This also means that Gd never gives us a test we cannot pass. When He gives us a challenge, it is precisely the challenge we need to help refine our unique soul at that moment. And so, by definition, it cannot be too difficult for us to pass. If Gd tests us, it is because He knows we can pass – and because He knows that we become greater by passing.
When we confront difficult challenges, let’s stay strong, optimistic and positive. Let us embrace these opportunities, recognizing that these are the times when we can partner with Gd in creating ourselves, in turning ourselves into the truly remarkable creatures that we are capable of being.