There’s something clearly pointing me in a specific direction. How do I know if it’s a sign from G‑d saying “This is what I want you to do”—or a test to see whether I can withstand the pressure? What if both directions seem correct? Or equally wrong?


This is the very situation faced by the prophet Jonah. G‑d sent Jonah to tell the people of the city of Nineveh that they had used up their measure of G‑d’s patience. They’d been too bad for too long. Jonah balked. Commentaries explain that this was because he knew they would repent, and Jonah did not want this to look bad for the Jews (non-Jews repent and Jews don’t?!). Jonah went to the port to try to leave Israel—and his mission. Instead of Nineveh, he planned to get to Tarshish. He was met at the port by a waiting ship. Just so happened, it was headed for Tarshish.

Now the question: Is this a sign from G‑d that Jonah’s logic is sound and that fleeing his mission is the right move? Or is this a test to see if Jonah will follow G‑d’s original command, even though doing the opposite has been made so simple?

Jonah chooses the first interpretation and gets on the ship. Wrong choice.

The basic principle that should have guided Jonah—and should guide us in such situations—is that G‑d will not send a sign guiding us to do something when we have already been told to do the opposite. So if G‑d told Jonah in first person, “Go to Nineveh!” the only thing that would make it okay to go elsewhere would be a direct command from G‑d saying, “You no longer need to go to Nineveh.”

Since G‑d is not talking to me on the prophetic level, and most likely not to you either, we can take our direction from the Torah. If G‑d said it in the Torah, that’s what you've got to do—even if the other option seems more right or moral or sensible to you. The “signs” we see that seem to guide us in the other direction are tests for us (as in Jonah’s case), or obstacles put in our way through G‑d’s agents.

The Book of Job tells us that in the heavenly court, there is a Chief Prosecuting Angel. The Midrash tells us how this prosecuting angel set this sort of obstacle for Abraham as he traveled to follow G‑d’s command to sacrifice his son Isaac. The prosecuting angel flooded the path with a river, and Abraham went ahead and walked right into it. Abraham chose to ignore the river—based on the same principle we have been talking about here. When the water reached a point that Abraham and Isaac could not continue without drowning, Abraham called out to G‑d, “You told me to sacrifice my son. If he drowns, how can I do that?”—and the river disappeared.

Not every obstacle vanishes immediately when unmasked. Nevertheless, from Abraham’s story, we have clear guidance how we should proceed when faced with this sort of choice—and there’s nothing like clarity of direction to make the goal closer, clearer and easier. For once we know this is a test, then we also know that we can pass the test. As the rabbis say, “G‑d never gives any creature more than it can handle.”