Thursday, November 02, 2006

Is God Just? Nissayon - Test or Demonstration?

The idea of God testing someone to see if he is as pious and true as it appears outwardly, or to afford an opportunity for greater reward in the future or the world to come, is quite accepted in contemporary traditional circles. I would like to spend a few posts exploring this idea. I would like to not only analyze Rambam’s view but also try to address Ramban’s objections to it and his own view. The issue of Nissayon (test) is an important component of what are Providence and reward and punishment. It is also quite timely as the Parshyot we are currently reading deal with Avraham’s Nissyonot and tribulations.

My understanding of reward and punishment is that it is the natural consequence of a person’s actions. It is also quite clear to me that it is Rambam’s position as I have posted many times. (I know Tafkaa you disagree. Just bear with me. It took me a while to become convinced too.) It is my idea of a just God. That being the case, I would have to assume that a test means that God is going to interfere in the normal flow of events. He would have a person, whose actions would under all circumstances result in a good outcome, end up suffering just to prove that he is genuine. Prove to whom? To God? Doesn’t God know anyway? Is this justice from a just God? Sounds much like the capricious gods of Greek mythology. Rambam in MN 3:24 considers this idea as illogical. As to the idea that God sends afflictions to afford opportunity for greater reward Rambam argues:

People have generally the notion that trials consist in afflictions and mishaps sent by God to man, not as punishments for past sins, but as giving opportunity for great reward… The principle taught in Scripture is exactly the reverse; for it is said:" He is a God of faithfulness, and there is no iniquity in him" (Deut. xxxii. 4). The teaching of our Sages, although some of them approve this general belief (concerning trials], is on the whole against it. For they say," There is no death without sin, and no affliction without transgression." Every intelligent religious person should have this faith, and should not ascribe any wrong to God, who is far from it; he must not assume that a person is innocent and perfect and does not deserve what has befallen him…”

And as to the idea that it is a demonstration of fidelity:

We must not think that God desires to examine us and to try us in order to know what He did not know before. Far is this from Him; He is far above that which ignorant and foolish people imagine concerning Him, in the evil of their thoughts.”

Rambam understands Nissayon not as a test but rather a demonstration. It demonstrates and teaches how one should behave or think.

The sole object of all the trials mentioned in Scripture is to teach man what he ought to do or believe; so that the event which forms the actual trial is not the end desired: it is but an example for our instruction and guidance.”

When I checked the Concordance it lists two separate roots Ness and Nissah. Ness refers to a pole, a standard (as in flag) or a sign (as in miracle). Nissah is a test. Rambam apparently sees the two words as having a much closer relationship. I am not sure whether his position is that in all Nach and even in the Torah every time the word that is a derivative of Nissah means demonstration. I have also not analyzed each one to see if that meaning can be read in each context. The word Nissah or its derivatives in the context of demonstration appears six times in the Torah and Rambam addresses those specifically. It appears three times in the context of the Mann, once by Avraham and the Akedah, once with regard to a false prophet and once at Sinai. In all four episodes that Rambam understands the word to mean demonstration rather than test.

Chazal expanded the list. They say in Avot chapter 5 that Avraham had ten Nissyonot; he demonstrated ten times how one serves God. The greatest demonstration was the Akedah. I will address that in my next post.


  1. Is the test demonstrating to the subject just how devoted they are to Hashem. demonstrating to later generations what scale and type of devotion to Hashem is appropriate, both, or neither>

  2. >demonstrating to later generations what scale and type of devotion to Hashem is appropriate

    This is the only reason for the story being told. I will be posting about the specific (4) cases Rambam discusses. I am not sure he reads the word Nissayon as test . I rather think he reads it as demonstration in this context.

  3. Rambam understands Nissayon not as a test but rather a demonstration. It demonstrates and teaches how one should behave or think

    So if someone fails a test, could this demonstrate (in your estimation) how (not) to behave or think or serve G-D? The examples above appear to contain favorable outcomes, usually attained by righteous individuals. Also, are these meant as individual or communal demonstrations? We may need to differentiate between types of test, as not every test we experience is a test like Avraham's demonstration. In every day life, we are tested each day. And when I fail or pass a test, do I always know it (i.e.: has the demonstration always been detected by me or someone else?). Perhaps we are talking subconsious detection (at times)? Just what is the 'satan' (i.e.: the tempter/tester) up to, one wonders. Perhaps we need to understand the usage of this word as well.

    I just don't see how we can identify the actual demonstration in a test. A demonstration applies a lesson of sorts.

    The examples of the Tsadiqim are apparently made clear, as they are disgussed in the Humash or Prophets.

    Tests/demonstrations of Job are apparently obvious, as they were meant to demonstrate the loyalty to G-D, under the worst of conditions. But the tests of daily life are not so obvious to the likes of me.


  4. I do not think it means test at all. It is a teaching how one behaves or loves God. i will address each case in the next few posts and it will become clearer.

    Job is another issue in providence that needs to be addressed. A clue: Satan is the person's internal drive to satisfy his physical needs.

  5. Yes I know. What I wrote still applies though. Even using Rambam's term "trial" which leads to the demonstration


  6. Al I am not sure what you are trying to get at. Nissayon in this sense refers to stories told in the Torah to teach people. The parallel would be what is popularly called Kiddush Hashem or Chilul Hashem. If a person choses to act in a way that others learn from him he would be considered an example of someone who demonstrated how to serve God. If he does a bad thing it would be demonstrating the opposite.

    There is no reward or punishment other than the act itself.

    As we will see Avraham's Akedah - it is not clear whether it really happened or was just a vision.

  7. Yes, there may not always be a greater reward for the act. We agree.

    Perhaps you could address the component of how (these events which happen in our lives) effect a person (in terms of teaching him/her something) in today's world. Perhaps that is the demonstration you are referring to. A demonstration to the self, in terms of a lesson...

    But I see you are not addressing this so much. You are more focusing on the trials which appear in scripture. You are talking about righteous individuals in the Humash. Kol ha kavode. Excellent stuff.

    However, I am trying to extrapolate. I am talking about every day people (as you started your essay with), who are experiencing temptations every day. I don't think it's really so difficult. HaShem interferes (as you put it) in order to (give us the opportunity) to make ourselves better (Holier / more like Him) in some way. Would that not be in line with the Rambam? Afterall, HaShem created us with limitations for some reason. He created us physical for some reason that we don't understand. So then he steps in and trys to elevate us by giving us the choice between good and evil. Sometimes we grasp it. Othertimes, we fall miserably.

    Lots of themes going down here. By the way, regarding the contention that there is no punishment involved (if I am reading that correctly), the Rambam appears to ride the fence on that one, as He defends the Morality of G-D as Just.

    I think (as you noted) that this (with regards to the scriptural theme) is the key to it all:

    “The sole object of all the trials mentioned in Scripture is to teach man what he ought to do or believe; so that the event which forms the actual trial is not the end desired: it is but an example for our instruction and guidance.”

    But what about the trials not mentioned in scripture. The ones we go through every day. It must be the same, on some level.


  8. Perhaps the events of the sacrifice were a vision or perhaps they were literal. The Rambam should be able to clear this up.

    Either way, the events we (as people) are going through appear quite literal (not to bring down Avraham or his son with this comparison to ourselves). In fact, the trials we experience should not be viewed as visions. They are real choices... no?

  9. Al, Of course if the stories in Torah are meant to teach us, we have to learn from them and act accordingly in our lives. I am writing this as part of what I started in earlier posts to address namely providence. i am stepping gingerly because it is probably the most difficult issue in our theology as you noted so well, that it impacts our daily life. I am also limited because I believe any post that has much above 1000 words is not readable.

    I will address Avraham and the Akedah next - i started that and will follow with others and as the spirit takes me.... will address your issues.

  10. Well come on now. We are waiting for a taste...

    Shabboth tov u'mevorakh