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Friday, 20 October 2017

Living a testful life

Daf Yomi Sanhedrin 94

Sancheriv, King of Assyria, was incredibly successful as he forged along the path of imperialist conquest.  Having vanquished the Northern Kingdom of Israel, exiling the ten tribes to Africa and beyond, he pushed his armies southward.  Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, a righteous king, Chizkiyahu, had ascended the throne.  Reversing his wicked father’s idolatrous policies, he reinstituted proper Torah study and observance throughout the land.  During his tenure, there was not a child to be found who was not an expert in the minutiae of the laws, all the way down to the details of purity and impurity!

But now, Sancheriv was getting closer and closer to the Judean capital, and Chizkiyahu cried out to Heaven.  Certain of imminent victory, the Assyrian king returned home and left the culmination of his conquest to his foremost commanders.  Jerusalem was surrounded and the end appeared nigh.  But suddenly, the night before they were planning to conquer the city, G-d sent an angel to smite the Assyrian camp.  On one night, 185,000 soldiers mysteriously died.  Those who remained alive, fled the scene, confused and terrified.  And Chizkiyahu’s Jerusalem was spared.

“After these matters and this truth, Sancheriv, king of Assyria, came and entered Judea and encamped against the fortified cities and sought to breach them for himself” (II Chronicles 32:1).
The Gemara asks: Is this gift, the invasion of Sancheriv, appropriate compensation for that gift, Chizkiyahu’s restoration of the Temple and the worship of G-d in Judea?
Ravina says: The Holy One, Blessed be He, took an oath that He will deliver the spoils of the army of the king of Assyria into the hands of Chizkiyahu. And this was because He had said: If I say to Chizkiyahu: I will bring Sancheriv and I will deliver him into your hands; he will then say: I neither want him delivered into my hands nor do I want the accompanying fear of him.
Immediately, the Holy One, blessed be He, pre-empted Chizkiyahu and took an oath: I take an oath that I will deliver him, as it is stated: “The Lord of hosts has taken an oath, saying: Is it not as I imagined it, so has it come to pass; and as I have proposed, so shall it arise, that I will break Assyria in My land, and upon My mountains subdue him; then shall his yoke depart from them, and his burden depart from its shoulder” (Isaiah 14:24–25).
Rabbi Yocḥanan says: The Holy One, blessed be He, declared, ‘Sancheriv and his entourage shall come and be transformed into a feeding trough, a source of sustenance, for Chizkiyahu and his entourage.’

King Chizkiyahu was rewarded for rededicating the Holy Temple and restoring the glory of Torah to the Jewish people with the miraculous defeat of Sancheriv’s army.  But as Ravina teaches, had you asked Chizkiyahu if he wanted such a reward, he’d have told you, ‘How about you spare us the trouble and just keep Sancheriv in Assyria?!  I don’t need the deliverance if You don’t send me the headache!’  So why indeed did G-d allow Sancheriv to reach the walls of Jerusalem if, at the end of the day, He was planning to foil their plans?

According to Maharsha, the point of the exercise was to publicize the power of Heaven.  The faith of any person bearing witness to such an open miracle would most certainly be fortified.  We find a similar phenomenon at the Exodus from Egypt.  Hashem declares that the goal of the ten plagues is to exalt His Name throughout the land.  But does G-d really need His reputation enhanced?  What, does He have self-esteem issues?!

Expounding the verses in Isaiah, Rabbi Yochanan sheds light on this bemusing question.  G-d is not the one with the problem; it’s us.  He sent Sancheriv as a “feeding trough” to Chizkiyahu.  That doesn’t mean we cannibalized their remains, Heaven forfend!  It means that the experience fed our spiritual needs.  How so? 

In life, G-d never says that He will remove challenges from our lives.  If He wanted us to avoid challenge, He would have kept us in Heaven.  The point of coming down into this physical world is to be faced with earthly challenges and, in spite of it all, to maintain our faith in Hashem.  When we do so, we grow spiritually stronger and our souls soar to ever higher plains of existence.  Chizkiyahu might have responded to Sancheriv’s siege of Jerusalem in two possible ways: either he could have said, ‘Okay, it looks like we’ve reached the end of the road for the nation of Israel.  Clearly the Torah’s promise of an eternal covenant is bogus.  It’s time to throw in the towel.’  Or, he could have – and in fact did – respond, ‘Okay G-d, you promised an eternal covenant with the nation of Israel.  I’m not seeing it quite now, but I have complete faith that Your salvation is imminent.’ 

In other words, Chizkiyahu was faced with this massive spiritual test, which he passed.  And so, while he would have never requested such a challenge, once he was given it, it became a ‘feeding trough’ for him to develop his spiritual strength.

Nobody wants to be tested in life.  But ultimately, it’s a major part of our mission on Earth.  Some of us will be challenged with health issues.  Others will face parnassah (livelihood) struggles.  And others will have to deal with difficult children.  The key is never to despair of the Almighty’s providence.  He loves you deeply and would never forsake you.  He has given you these challenges because He knows that you have the power to overcome and pass the test!

Each day we wake up and ask Hashem in our morning prayers, “Please don’t test us!”  But much as we aren’t thrilled about the challenges, our Father in Heaven is sending them our way for our good.  May you forever maintain your faith in the Almighty and thank Him for giving you opportunities to soar to higher and higher spiritual worlds!