A physics student entered the lecture hall to take his exam, picked up the test, and read the first problem: "Describe how to determine the height of a skyscraper using a barometer."
The student wrote: "Tie a long piece of string to the barometer, lower it from the roof of the skyscraper to the ground. The length of the string plus the length of the barometer will equal the height of the building."
His exam was returned three days later and this problem was marked wrong. The student went to see the professor, who explained that the answer was wrong because it did not entail using the barometer as an instrument to measure air pressure. “The problem didn’t require that the barometer be used that way,” the student replied.
The professor conceded that this was true and asked, “Your answer did not demonstrate a knowledge of physics. Do you know what answer I was looking for?”
“Certainly,” the student said. “You could use the barometer to measure the air pressure on the roof of the skyscraper and on the ground, and convert the difference into a height of air. But your question didn’t require that I demonstrate a knowledge of how a barometer is designed to be used.”
“So you have other answers?” the professor ventured.
“Absolutely, plenty of them,” the student replied. And he began:
“First, take the barometer up to the roof and drop it off the side. Time how long it takes to reach the ground, and from this calculate the height of the building.
“Or, if the sun is out, measure the length of the barometer and, setting it on its end, the length of the shadow it casts. Then measure the length of the shadow cast by the building. By similar triangles, you can calculate the height of the building.
"Then again, you could tie a short piece of string to the barometer and swing it as a pendulum, first at ground level, then on the roof of the skyscraper. The difference in the pendulum’s period can be used to calculate the height of the building.
“Is that all?” asked the professor.
“No,” replied the student. “You could enter the stairwell and climb to the top using the stairs, marking off the height in barometer lengths. But probably the easiest and quickest would be to knock on the door of the janitor and say: ‘I have this nice, new, valuable barometer. I’ll give it to you if you tell me the height of this building.’”
Since all the students’ responses were legitimate, the professor gave him full credit for his initial answer.
Parshat Shelach-lekha (in Numbers 14) records that the Israelites’ forty-year ordeal in the wilderness is punishment for succumbing to fear and disregarding the favorable report brought by Joshua and Caleb.
Your carcasses shall drop in this wilderness, while your children roam the wilderness for forty years, suffering for your faithlessness, until the last of your carcasses is down in the wilderness. You shall bear your punishment for forty years, corresponding to the number of days -- forty days -- that you scouted the land: a year for each day. Thus you shall know what it means to thwart Me. (Numbers 14:32-34)
Here in parshat Ekev, however, we find a second tradition explaining the four-decade sojourn in the Sinai Wilderness: the Israelites are being tested:
Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that He might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts; whether you would keep His commandments or not. (Deuteronomy 8:2)
This is the not the only occasion that God tests people. Genesis chapter 22 describes the Akedah (the Binding of Isaac) as a test of Abraham. God demands that Abraham offer his beloved son Isaac as a sacrifice. What kind of test is this? It sounds cruel, doesn’t it?
I want to propose that both Akedat Yitzhak (the Binding of Isaac) and the forty years in the wilderness are indeed tests, but not in the way we generally think of tests.
Four decades in the wilderness, facing trials and tribulations, teaches the Israelites what they are made of. It teaches them their strengths and weaknesses. It reveals their fears and priorities. To enter the land and claim their inheritance, they must know themselves. There’s nothing like adversity to do that.
Similarly, God could not be testing Abraham to see if he will truly slaughter his son. That would be a reprehensible thing to do regardless of whether Abraham believes it to be God’s will or not. My colleague, Rabbi Howard Apothaker, makes a brilliant and innovative argument for another viewpoint: The test is whether Abraham has come far enough in his relationship with God to trust that God will stop him. Abraham’s test is to learn about himself: how deeply does he trust God?
It is a truism that “life is a test.” If forty years in the wilderness is a test -- enough time for one generation to die and another to be born -- then all of life is a test. Every challenge thrust into our laps reveals our true selves -- to us. Every decision we make illuminates for us, in the dazzlingly bright light of reality, who we are and what we are made of.
Thinking about life as a test has served me well at the most difficult and painful times of life, when I think the well is empty and I have no more reserves, or when my patience or good will is worn to a thread. I try to remind myself that this is a test: what am I truly capable of? That thought brings a new perspective, a measure of objectivity, and sometimes enough distraction to rally. God administers the test because that is the nature of life in this universe, all of which is contained in God. You know the bumper sticker: It happens. As people say, “Life is a deck of cards, and you have to play the hand you are dealt.” This is not to say that the world is random and without meaning. We control far less than we think and hope; a great deal of life is good fortune or a lack of it. When it’s the latter, it helps to frame the situation (at least in part) as a test for me to learn what I am truly made of and what I am truly capable of.
It means that God is present and potent. At the most difficult times, facing the most difficult decisions, we can call on God, who is the source of existence itself, the animating force of life, for patience, strength, and courage. There is more of each in each of us -- embedded in the divine spark that vitalizes each of us. When we call on God, we call on the best in ourselves and might be surprised to learn that the well is far from empty.
When we took tests in school, there was almost always “the right answer” and everything else was wrong. But life tests are nothing like school tests. In life, there are often multiple legitimate answers -- as the clever student demonstrated to the physics professor in the joke I began with. It helps to keep that in mind. A “right” answer is one that preserves human dignity and avoids causing pain and suffering. This is a much harder test than the worst physics exams we took in school, but for this, you can leave your #2 pencil at home because there are no circles to bubble in.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman