A couple of weeks ago, I found myself observing a support group for mothers whose children have a developmental deficit. The facilitator of the group herself has a child with the deficit, and she shared her intense personal experience.
As part of her personal journey and perspective, she shared about the first time she learned of her child’s diagnosis. At the time, she felt that the diagnosis was tragic, as did many others around her. However, over time and introspection, she realized she had the power to change her own narrative. Although the diagnosis was initially devastating, she was able to transition her perspective toward seeing it as a challenge. She asked the participants if they felt a difference between the word tragedy and challenge, and there was a unanimous response that a challenge seemed more manageable and not as negative as a tragedy. A challenge implies something that one can overcome and power through, while a tragedy seems all-consuming and leaves a world of unfathomable effects.
I was personally moved by this woman’s ability to change her own narrative. With time, this woman was able to learn more about her child’s deficit and figure out ways she would be able to manage it. Would this diagnosis drastically alter any life she was expecting as a mother? Most definitely. Yet she was able to change her own and her family’s outlook to see their lives as a series of challenges. Some challenges we overcome with flying colors, and others might transition to being chronic or ever-present, but they are not overwhelming challenges that can consume everything and everyone around.
To me, her life initially looked tragic; I honestly couldn’t imagine how she could go through her day with a smile on her face. I just kept thinking to myself, “If I were in her shoes I would be a complete disaster.”
A few days after Purim was my husband’s 12th yahrtzeit, so often around this time of year I think back to the time period of the long months in the hospital. A few days after he was diagnosed, I remember being on the phone with a prominent rebbetzin with whom I had a close relationship at the time. I can remember the exact location in the lobby of the hospital where I had a phone conversation that would change my life. It was the very first time someone had said to me, “HaKadosh Baruch Hu only gives challenges to those who can handle them.” I’m sure at that moment I couldn’t appreciate any part of that statement. And I have spoken to people who have been told the same thing when they are going through a difficult time. Every reaction to hearing those words is drastically different. The general reaction can range from “Well, Hashem isn’t always right because no way I can handle this,” to “I wish He wouldn’t think so highly of me to actually think I’m supposed to manage this issue.” In the moment, that response seems completely appropriate to that statement. But at some point, it’s time we realize we all have the capability to change the narrative.
There are certainly going to be times in everyone’s life when living through the pain is part of the process. Then there are times where the pain can be so deep that we can’t even imagine what a positive outcome of what we are going through would even look like. And you know what? That’s OK. Everyone is entitled to feel however they want or even need to feel. Even more so, there will be times when you can feel so overwhelmed when you are not even sure what you are feeling. Those are the times when changing the narrative seems nearly impossible, as you can’t even imagine what overcoming this challenge would even look like.
But at the core of a Jew’s inner soul is their emunah (faith) and bitachon (belief) in Hashem. But, as I have written before, what about hishtadlut (effort)? That’s where it gets tricky. In simple matters in life, such as baking a cake, if you follow the instructions you will yield a positive result. In more complicated matters, even if you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing—which generally means emunah and tefillah—you might not yield the results you anticipated. Just a few days ago, my mother told me about a certain moment in our calendar that is an auspicious time for prayer. I half-jokingly responded that we are Jews and we can find reasons to make every moment an auspicious time for prayer. But at least that means we are all in a mental place to believe that there’s a chance for change. There! That moment! Let’s use it as a time to change our narrative.
As stuck as I can feel, once I open myself up to making any sort of effort, I am in fact telling myself that I believe that change is possible. We know that Hashem doesn’t really need us to make any effort in our lives for any good or bad to occur. Just a few hours ago on my drive home, Hashem let me see the most beautiful colors in the sky during sunset. I didn’t ask for it, nor did I even think to as for it. He gave it to me, I gather, for no reason except for me to enjoy without me even making any effort to witness such a magnificent view. I am grateful for those brief moments. But at the same time I couldn’t help but feeling a little uncomfortable. Like, “This is so beautiful and I appreciate this; but can’t You actually put some effort into giving me something I’ve been davening for and not so much into this beautiful sunset?”
Just a couple of days ago, we heard of the miraculous event that Zacharia Baumel, H”YD, was returned to his family. Thirty-seven years. His family lived in a sea of the unknown for 37 years. How in the world was his family able to change their narrative enough that they continued to have productive lives all this time? I certainly can’t imagine. We all know that no one, despite how many fabulous Instagram posts they share, absolutely no one, gets off scot-free when it comes to how Hashem gives out nisyonot (trials).
I never met the Baumel family, and all I daven for them now is that they were able to experience some comfort last week, despite knowing that this is surely not the outcome they ultimately prayed for, while also being cognizant that so many other families are still living the nightmare of not knowing what happened to their sons.
During these few days before Pesach, we can recall the lessons we learned as young children: the idea to feel like we are slaves and then to feel like we are free. I couldn’t help but think about the Jews while they were slaves in Egypt. From the mefarshim I’ve learned over the years that describe the slavery, I can’t imagine that Bnei Yisrael ever felt that there was never any way out of that experience. I’d like to imagine that it was during the plagues that they had a chance to realize the capabilities of Hashem. Of course there were times during enslavement that showed yad Hashem very clearly, but not nearly as public as the makot. Did Bnei Yisrael make any effort to get themselves out of Egypt? Did they have any measure of contentment there? Once they left, their transition in to cheirut (freedom) wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. In the scheme of things, the Cheit Haegel (sin of the golden calf) didn’t occur so many years later. How could they have sinned so intensely after experiencing such miracles during the redemption?
The process for anyone to change their narrative, even when one has overcome a challenge, can be filled with pain, questions and confusion. Feeling as if we are slaves and then as if we are freed in the span of a few hours of a Seder can be an important microcosm for how we look at our challenges. The freedom that Bnei Yisrael experienced in the desert didn’t mean they were now done forever, trouble-free set for life. It just meant they were no longer slaves; further hurdles were to follow.
Hashem shapes our lives so that we may never finish facing challenges. Some will be lighter than others, but it’s no one’s place to tell anyone else that any specific challenge is or isn’t an actual challenge. (Maybe we all have to get better at determining who we share our personal tribulations with if we don’t want to feel we get enough validation from one another, but that could be a whole other article.)
May we all have the mental energy to choose our narrative and embrace this time to celebrate the accomplishments of friends, family and, most importantly, ourselves. Chag kasher v’samei’ach!
By Rachel Zamist
Rachel Zamist has lived in the Passaic community for the past 32 years and has watched it grow and transition. She is the beaming mother of Mimi, a student at Rachel’s own alma mater, YBH.