April 14, 2024
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We Do Not Subject Hashem to a Performance Appraisal

Submitting Torah Observance to a Test

The Torah (Devarim 6:16) presents a fascinating prohibition to refrain from testing Hashem. Ramban (to Devarim 6:16) explains that the Torah forbids us to examine whether we benefit from Torah observance. For example, we are prohibited from experimenting with observing the Torah on a higher level for a year and seeing if one’s business and investments have achieved correspondingly higher gains.

The Terrible Test at Masah

We subjected Hashem to a degrading test at Masah—also known as Masah u’Merivah and Refidim—the last stop between Kriat Yam Suf and Har Sinai (Shemot 17:1-7). We said if Hashem provides us with water, we will have verification that Hashem is supporting us. For this reason, Devarim 6:16 cautions us from testing Hashem as we did at Masah.

Ramban points out the absurdity of our testing Hashem at Masah u’Merivah. Hashem had just proven Himself—beyond any reasonable doubt—at Yetziat Mitzrayim and Kriat Yam Suf. Similarly, Hashem has presented subsequent generations with abundant evidence to observe His Torah and forge a relationship with Him. Therefore, testing Hashem is unnecessary and offensive.

Reason for the Prohibition

The Sefer HaChinuch (mitzvah 425) states that a reason for “lo tenasu” is that the reward for Torah observance is reserved for Olam Haba and not this world (Avoda Zara 3a). The Ramban, however, presents a more basic approach. He writes, “it is not appropriate to serve Hashem from doubt or to subject Him to a test.”

As Shir HaShirim emphasizes, the Tanach compares our connection to Hashem to a married relationship. It is the height of inappropriate behavior to test a spouse. When dating, one explores if the person would make a proper mate. Once married, one must undoubtedly desist from such inquiries. Rav Ahron Soloveichik advised his son to keep his eyes open and heart closed when dating, but to close his eyes and open his heart during the marriage.

Hashem provided sufficient evidence during our “dating” period during Yetziat Mitzrayim, Kriat Yam Suf and Ma’amad Har Sinai, which Chazal (cited by Rashi to Devarim 33:2 s.v. MiSinai) viewed as a chuppah for Hashem and us. Now that we are married, we look at Hashem lovingly and do not subject our Dod/Beloved to scrutiny.

This is why Chazal condemned iyun tefilla, which Tosafot (Shabbat 118b) explained as gauging Hashem’s response to our tefilot. Like we do not subject a spouse to a performance appraisal; the same applies to Hashem.

Keil Mistateir

Yishayahu HaNavi (45:15) describes Hashem as Keil mistateir, a hiding God. Hashem likes to hide, so we must seek Him and forge a relationship with Him. Hashem embraces subtlety. We do not discover Him like one assesses an employee, business, or stock.

Ramban clarifies that a Torah-observant Jew may suffer due to his Torah observance. However, Ramban notes that in the long run, the devout are rewarded. I do not think that the Ramban refers only to Olam Haba. I believe he refers to this world as well. VaTischak L’Yom Acharon, the Torah is always in our best long-term interest. Eisav is interested only in short-term gain. The motto of the descendants of Yaakov Avinu is “Hazorim b’dimah b’rinah yiktzoru—those who plant with tears shall reap with joy.”

One concrete and this-worldly example is the radically lower divorce rate in the Orthodox Jewish community. While the broader community suffers a 50 to 60% divorce rate, the percentage for Orthodox Jews is 12%. What dramatic testimony to the benefits of living a life driven by Torah ideals!

The Tzedaka Exception

The Sefer HaChinuch notes that there is an intriguing exception to the lo tenasu prohibition—tzedaka. Hashem even invites us to test Him if He will reward us for donating generously (Malachi 3:10). Sefer Mishlei states, “when one extends kindness to the poor, he lends money to Hashem.” Hashem is a most trustworthy borrower, Who richly repays His loans. I attest to receiving Hashem’s rewards after extending kindness to the needy. Many join me in reporting such experiences.

Rejecting Haran and Iyov’s Wife

Haran’s poor attitude helps us appreciate the “lo tenasu” prohibition. Haran was watching the episode of Nimrod—casting Avraham Avinu in the fire for rejecting idolatry—unfold and was unsure of whom to support—his brother or Nimrod. He decided that if Avraham Avinu emerged unscathed, he would tell Nimrod that he supported Avraham. If Avraham died, he would side with Nimrod. Avraham Avinu was thrown into the furnace and came out unharmed. When Nimrod demanded that Haran pledge his allegiance, he said he supported his brother. They threw Haran into the fire, and he was burned to death (Bereishit Rabba 38:13).

Why did Hashem not save Haran, as He had saved Abraham minutes before from Nimrod’s fire? After all, Haran did express his support for Abraham. The answer is that Haran hardly deserved a miracle due to the shallow nature of his commitment, which was immediately preceded by an expression of agnosticism. Hashem expects unwavering commitment, just as a spouse demands and deserves unconditional loyalty, not one born simply of crass opportunism.

The “lo tenasu” prohibition utterly rejects an opportunistic relationship with Hashem. We find the same in sefer Iyov. Iyov’s wife pushes her husband to curse Hashem at the depths of her husband’s suffering (Iyov 2:9). For eishet Iyov, our relationship with Hashem is transactional. If one does not benefit, he ends the connection.

“Lo tenasu” champions Iyov’s poignant response. He repudiated his wife’s ideology saying, “you speak as a vile person; we accept the good from Hashem but not the bad?” Our relationship with Hashem should mirror Rut, who commits to Hashem through thick and thin (Rut 1:16-17). The “lo tenasu” prohibition summons us to achieve this sort of relationship.

Conclusion—The Legacy Of Naaseh V’Nishma and Lechteich Acharei BaMidbar

Sadly, Masah u’Merivah/Refidim marks a spiritual low-point for our people. Fortunately, to counter that negative episode, there is a very different part of our grand legacy. Namely, our pre- Ma’amad Har Sinai response of na’aseh v’nishma without asking for a sample (in sharp contrast with Bnai Yishmael and Bnai Eisav; see Rashi to Devarim 33:2). Similarly, we consented without question to enter Midbar Sinai upon leaving Mitzrayim with very limited supplies. Yirmiyahu HaNavi unforgettably quotes Hashem proclaiming, “Zacharti lach chessed ne’urayich … lechteich achrai bamidbar,” (Yirmiyahu 2:1-2).

The lo tenasu prohibition beckons us to live up to our grand heritage of “naaseh v’nishma” and “lechteich acharai bamidbar.” We aspire to relegate the memory of Masah to the dustbin of history.

Postscript—Pascal’s Wager

Based on Ramban’s explanation of “lo tenasu et Hashem,” we reject a Jewish version of “Pascal’s wager.” According to this calculation, one reason is that if the Torah is true, he will receive considerable punishment in the afterlife if he fails to observe its statutes. Since there is no significant downside to observance—the Torah way of life is meaningful and enjoyable—he chooses to act as if he believes because the risk of punishment, if he does not believe, outweighs the possible advantages of thinking otherwise.

We could argue that one who lives an Orthodox life due to this calculation is better off than one who does not observe Torah. After all, we believe in the potential of “mitoch shelo lishma ba lishma” (by doing something from impure motives, one may come to do it from pure motives). If a person observes the Torah for flawed reasons, this may eventually lead to his or his child’s observance of the Torah for noble motives.

Nonetheless, Haran’s tragic death sounds a jolting alarm for those who observe the Torah out of doubt. Unfortunately, such an attitude did not save Haran from Nimrod’s fire and may not motivate children, who will inevitably notice their parents’ shallow commitment to live observant lives as adults.

A healthy connection with a spouse cannot emerge when one marries due to a “Pascal’s wager” reckoning. So too, a healthy and life-affirming relationship with Hashem is possible only when one is fully committed.

As Eliyahu HaNavi said on Mount Carmel (Melachim I, 18:21), “Until when will you vacillate between the two poles? If Hashem is the true God, then fully commit to Him, but if Ba’al is the true god, follow him.” Eliyahu suggests that worshiping idols may be preferable to serving Hashem half-heartedly. There is abundant reasoning to support a full commitment to the observance of the commandments. As did Haran’s brand of vacillating spiritual commitment, a Torah life lived in doubt will, ultimately, fail. “Lo tenasu” leads us to a better and more wholesome spiritual path.


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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