Sometimes all of life seems like a test. Friendships drift away, loved ones die, we find ourselves fighting a serious illness or falling victim to corporate “downsizing” and either having our salaries cut or losing our jobs altogether. It’s remarkable how quickly even the most positive of people can suddenly find themselves haunted by questions of “Why me?” as their lives seem to undergo one blow after another.
Earlier this week I counseled a woman who was wrestling with her fears and anxieties over what the future will hold for her four-year-old son. He is suffering from Asberger’s Syndrome, which is on the highly functioning end of the autism scale. She is haunted by images of her son growing up unable to achieve independence, seeing herself and her husband locked forever in the parenting role of caretaker and provider. And the image frightens her.
“How do I keep myself positive?” she asked. “How can I keep myself focussed on the things I have and the things my son can do, instead of dwelling all the time in my mind on what he lacks and what he can’t do?”
In a sense, the same question can be asked about each and every one of us. I am reminded of the story of the man who wandered across Eastern Europe from town to town wearing the world’s most magnificent coat. The coat was so spectacular that everywhere he went people would invite him to eat and sleep in their homes, just so they could bask in the radiance of that remarkably splendid coat.
There was only one thing about the man that always seemed a bit odd – he never, ever took off his coat. No one in all of Europe had ever seen the coat anywhere except upon that man’s body.
So one day he was staying overnight in the large home of an important merchant who had many children. All night during dinner, the children stood in a corner of the room, pointing to the magnificent coat, whispering to each other and dying to see it up close. So it was that during the night while the man was sleeping, the oldest son of the rich merchant sneaked into the guest bedroom and found the coat hanging over a chair. He quickly grabbed it and ran out into the light of the family room to show off the coat to all his brothers and sisters who were hiding there eager to see the magnificent coat up close.
Instead, they all stared at the coat and gasped – now that it was off the body of the man who wore it, every one could see that the entire lining of the coat was ripped to shreds, filthy with dust and sweat and dirt and so disgusting that no one wanted to even look at it.
We are all like that. Every one of us walks around with our own beautiful external coats, and every one of us has our own torn linings that we never show the world. All the rest of the world ever sees is the beauty and magnificence of the outside of our coats. Our pains are ours, our sorrows are our own, and our losses and longings and shattered dreams lie mostly hidden in the torn linings of our lives. And when we look around at others we only see the external beauty of their coats as well, and we imagine that everything must be perfect in their lives.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses tells us that the forty years in which we suffered and wandered in the wilderness searching for the land of milk and honey, was a divine test. It was an opportunity for God to “to learn what was in (our) hearts; whether we would keep (God’s) commandments or not.”
For the Torah, life itself is a test of faith, a test of our willingness to go on in spite of our pains, in spite of our sorrows, in spite of our losses, in spite of our shattered dreams, and discover what is truly in our hearts. The real spiritual challenge is for us to experience holiness in our lives even when clouds dim the sun and the rain is falling. After all, anyone can be positive at the first light of spring. It is in the dead of winter that our true character is revealed.
Perhaps that is why this week’s portion contains one of the most famous phrases in the entire Torah. In Chapter 8, verse 3 we read that this test that God put us through in the wilderness for all those years was to teach us, “that human beings do not live by bread alone, but by anything that God decrees.” Our lives are not meaningful only when there is plenty. Our lives do not matter only if we are experiencing abundance, the “bread” of life. Indeed, the more profound spiritual challenge is to be able to experience God’s presence with whatever circumstances “God decrees” for us in our lives.
That is the ultimate challenge, and that is where spiritual character is discovered and we realize that if we have enough faith in our own higher spiritual selves, every one of us has within the ability to pass every test that life has to offer.