If I were to ask you, “What is the wealthiest place in the universe?” – what would you answer? You might suggest the banks, the diamond mines, or something along these lines. But in a sense, the wealthiest place in the world is the graveyard. Why?

There, you’ll find dreams never chased after, ideas and inspiration never acted upon, music never composed, works of art never created, books never written, companies and organizations never built – endless potential, never actualized. And on our deathbed, these dreams, these ideas, they’ll come to us and say: “We came to you, and only you could have given us life, but you didn’t; and now, we die with you.

If we died today, what unrealized potential would die with us? What dreams, contributions, and creativity would remain unexpressed? What would we be taking with us to the grave?

Most people we know will probably say: “I’ll do it tomorrow.” But there’s no guarantee we will be here tomorrow. This is why the Mishnah in Avos (2:15) tells us to do t’shuvah the day before we die. The Gemara (Shabbos 153a) explains this to mean that a person should always be in a process of t’shuvah, because one never knows which day will be his last. So, if we died today, what dreams, ideas, and potential would die with us?

Our Role Models

There are, however, a few rare individuals out there who do act on their dreams and inspiration, who truly live lives of greatness. They maximize their time and actualize as much of their potential as possible. These rare individuals shine a light into this world and serve as an inspiration to all those who are fortunate enough to know them. Their existence alone inspires those around them to become more, to want more, to demand more from themselves, to raise their standards.

Fascinatingly, many of these unique people have undergone tremendous challenges. They’ve been thrown down, torn apart, and pushed to the brink. And yet, they rose up, stronger than ever before, driven to greatness, serving as an inspiration to others. This begs the obvious question: Did they become great despite their challenges, or because of them? What is the secret to their success?

Avraham’s Greatness

Yaakov seems to be plagued with challenge after challenge, beginning from his very birth. His battle with Eisav regarding the b’chorah ends with Yaakov running for his life. He then has to deal with Lavan’s trickery. When he finally returns to Eretz Yisrael, he is confronted with the unfortunate events of Dinah and Sh’chem. If that wasn’t enough, his favored son, Yosef, is torn away from him. Yaakov is tormented with hardship after hardship, and yet, despite all these challenges, he still achieves absolute greatness. This leads us to our question: What is the spiritual purpose of a nisayon (test/challenge)?

There are several potential purposes for a challenge or test. A test is usually administered to evaluate a person’s knowledge or mastery of a given area. However, this cannot be the case in a test given by Hashem, as Hashem is all-knowing and therefore fully aware of exactly how much we are capable of. What, then, is the purpose of a test? Why does Hashem constantly send us challenges and tests?

There are several potential purposes for a challenge or test. A test is usually administered to evaluate a person’s knowledge or mastery of a given area. However, this cannot be the case in a test given by Hashem, as Hashem is all-knowing and therefore fully aware of exactly how much we are capable of. What, then, is the purpose of a test? Why does Hashem constantly send us challenges and tests?

The Multifaceted Purposes
of a Challenge

1: Contrast and Appreciation

On the most basic level, we often only appreciate things once we have lost them. One generally does not appreciate the importance of his hand in his daily routine until he breaks it, or how much he loves someone until he’s lost him. The Maharal and Ramchal explain that human beings learn through comparison and contrast. We understand the concept of wisdom by witnessing foolishness, goodness by witnessing evil, and wealth by witnessing poverty. The same goes for our health and quality of life. Only by experiencing the worst of times can we truly appreciate the best of times.

2: Kaparah

On a slightly deeper level, Hashem may send us challenges in order to be m’chapeir (atone) for our past wrongdoings (B’rachos 5a, Arachin 16b). Instead of receiving all of our atonement in the World to Come, which would be far more severe, Hashem sends us yisurin (hardship) in this world (Mishnah B’rurah 222:4).

3: Wake-Up Call

The Ramchal (Derech Hashem 2:3:5) explains that Hashem sometimes sends us a challenge in order to “wake us up” – to help us get back on the proper track. There may be times when we find ourselves on the wrong path, drowning in the physicality of life. In such circumstances, Hashem may choose to jolt us awake, motivating us to question our choices and direction in life. These challenges should push us to realign our values, to regain our desire to live with higher ideals. The Gemara (B’rachos 5a) says that if something negative happens to us, our first reaction should be to examine our deeds and try to determine what character trait we can work on. Sometimes, a challenge is the perfect way to jolt us out of our stupor, leading us to reassess our lives, reconnect with Hashem, and commit to living a more spiritual, purposeful life.

The Deeper Purpose of a Challenge

There is a fundamentally deeper understanding of a challenge, one that reveals the very core spiritual purpose and effect of a test. The Mishnah in Avos (5:3) tells us that Avraham was subjected to ten tests and overcame them all, expressing his eternal dedication to Hashem. The Ramban (B’reishis 22:1) questions the necessity for Avraham to undergo all these hardships. He questions as follows: If Hashem already knew whether Avraham could pass these tests, why even conduct them?

The Ramban explains that the purpose of a challenge is to push you to actualize your latent potential, to transform your koach (potential) into po’al (actual). Hashem already knows exactly who you are and what you can become; the purpose of an ordeal is to enable you to realize who you can become so that you can then actualize that potential. Each challenge that Avraham and the rest of the Avos overcame was another step in their journey towards perfection.

The Rambam (Moreh N’vuchim 3:24) explains that this is why the word for challenge, nisayon, is based on the word for banner – neis. A group raises a banner or flag to express who they are and what they stand for. When we overcome challenges and achieve greatness, our perseverance and triumph serve as a banner for all to see and learn from.

In order to better understand this concept, consider the following analogy: There was a man who was training to compete in the high-jump at the Olympics. He practiced every day, gaining strength, improving as he went. The first week, he was able to jump the three-foot fence. The next week, he made it over the four-foot fence. After two more weeks, he was able to jump over the five-foot fence. But no matter how hard he trained, he just couldn’t clear the six-foot fence. After working on it for another five weeks, he began losing hope. One day, as he was about to head home, he saw a bull stampeding, full speed, straight at him. Seized by adrenaline, he flew right over the six-foot fence – the same fence that, just moments before, he was convinced he was unable to jump over. So, here’s the question: Was he capable of jumping over the fence before now? If not, what changed?

The answer is profound: For quite some time, he had been capable of jumping over the fence. But sometimes, we need external pressure to help us fully harness our potential. We’ve all heard the stories of a mother lifting a car to save her child; in any other scenario, this same mother wouldn’t even be able to move the car an inch. Our challenges bring out strength buried deep within us, helping us actualize our latent potential that would have otherwise remained hidden.

Personal Megillah

At this very moment, you are “who you are” because of all the challenges you have faced. Every decision and experience you have ever had has led you to this very moment. Some turns were bigger than others, but they have all led to your unique path in life. One day, you will realize that the challenges you faced were in fact the best things that ever happened to you. You will realize that everything you’ve managed to become is not despite your challenges, but because of them. The greatest people among us are great because of their challenges, not despite them.

While it is difficult to see the positive aspects of a nisayon while it is still underway, it is easier to look back in retrospect and see how past challenges shaped you in the person you are today. This is why the baalei machshavah (Jewish thinkers) suggest writing your own personal megillah. In Megillas Esther, there is no open miracle; only by putting all the pieces together do we see the Yad Hashem (Hand of G-d), how everything fit together so perfectly. Megillah shares the same root as the words l’galgeil (to roll) and m’galeh (to reveal). When we roll through the scroll of the Megillah, we reveal the presence and hashgachah of Hashem.

The same is true of our own personal story. Each individual piece seems insignificant and happenstance, each challenge bearing little consequence. However, if we put all the pieces together, connecting the dots, we begin to see the beauty manifest in our own personal megillah. We begin to see the turning points in our lives; we retroactively see the life-changing impact our challenges had on our lives. Whether it was a physical illness, a difficult relationship, losing someone dear, or a personal struggle, our challenge-streaked past becomes a masterpiece ready for us to read.

A Life Worth Living

We must learn to embrace our challenges, to see them as an opportunity to achieve our unique greatness in this world. And as we push past our physical, emotional, and mental shackles, well aware of the impossible leap we are asked to take, we must look up to Hashem and put our complete trust in Him. As we close our eyes and take that leap of faith, we find ourselves on the other side, now a banner of greatness and a partner in revealing Hashem’s presence in this world. In doing so, we not only achieve our own greatness, but we inspire others to strive for more, as well.

Never stop dreaming; never stop pushing past your boundaries and limitations. Be happy with what you have become, but always remain hungry for more. Like the Avos, you will constantly be challenged, but remember: Challenges are opportunities in disguise. Don’t waste your time, don’t waste your life; but most importantly, don’t add any wealth to the graveyard.

Shmuel Reichman is an inspirational speaker, writer, and coach who has lectured internationally at shuls, conferences, and Jewish communities on topics of Jewish Thought and Jewish Medical Ethics. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy (ShmuelReichman.com), the transformative online course that is revolutionizing how we engage in self-development. You can find more inspirational lectures, videos, and articles from Shmuel on his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com

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