In Parshat Shlach, Bamidbar 14:22-23, God declares:
Surely, all those men who have seen My glory, My miracles, which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested Me now these ten times and have not listened to My voice: surely, they shall not see the Land that I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of those who provoked Me see it…
We learn in Pirkei Avot 5:4:
With ten trials our ancestors tested the Holy One, Blessed is He in the wilderness, as it said, “They have tested Me now these ten times and have not listened to My voice.”
What were the ten tests?
The Talmud, Arachin 15a provides us with a list:
Two at the Sea of Reeds, two concerning water, two concerning the manna, two concerning the quail, one concerning the Golden Calf and one in the Paran desert (the incident of the spies).
The Gemara then gives us details about each of the incidents:
The two tests at the Sea of Reeds refer to when B’nai Yisrael descended into the sea and ascended out of the sea. Even when God was miraculously saving them, B’nai Yisrael were worried that He was also miraculously saving the Egyptians. They were afraid that instead of the Egyptians drowning, they would also appear on dry land. Therefore, God told the ministering angel of the sea to spit them out so that B’nai Yisrael would see their bodies. As we read in Az Yashir (Shmot 14:30) “And Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore…”
The two concerning the water were in Marah and Refidim. In Marah (Shmot 15:24) “The people complained against Moshe.” In Refidim (Shmot 17:2) “The people contended with Moshe.”
The first trial concerning the manna was that B’nai Yisrael were not supposed to go out on Shabbat to collect it, nevertheless, some people did go out to gather it (Shmot 16:27). The second test with the manna was that on the weekdays, they were not supposed to save any for the next day, yet some did leave it over (Shmot 16:20).
B’nai Yisrael tested God in two incidents with the quail: In the first incident they complained (Shmot 16:3) “If only we had died by the hand of God in Egypt, as we sat by the pot of meat, when we ate bread to satiety, for you have taken us out to this wilderness to kill this entire congregation by famine.” In the second quail episode we read (Bamidbar 11:4) “The rabble that was among them cultivated a craving and B’nai Yisrael wept once more, and said, ‘Who will feed us meat?’”
The Golden Calf (Shmot, Chapter 32) was certainly a provocation which is ninth on the list and the Sin of the Spies in the Paran desert (described in our Parsha, Parshat Shlach, Bamidbar, Chapters 13-14 as well as in Dvarim, Chapter 1) is tenth.
Maharsha points out that unfortunately these ten incidents are not the only times that B’nai Yisrael tried God’s patience. This is just the list of tests that took place up until the Sin of the Spies. It is also interesting to note that Avot D’Rebbi Natan (34:1) and the Rambam each have different lists.
The list in Arachin is not a comprehensive list of all of the trouble that B’nai Yisrael caused in the wilderness. However, by using the number ten, the rabbis are showing us the significance of their behavior.
On the flip side, we also see in Chapter 5 of Pirkei Avot that Avraham was tested ten times and he withstood them all- to show the degree of our forefather Avraham’s love for God.
With Avraham as well, the various commentaries keep different lists of his ten tests. However, the lesson is clear: Be like Avraham who successfully passed God’s tests and not like B’nai Yisrael who were constantly out to test God and cause trouble.