Last night, I returned home from a four-day trip to Switzerland. No, I wasn’t climbing the Alps (although someday I hope to). Rather, I had been invited to lecture to the chashuve women of Zurich. What did I talk about? Well, I’ll start off with a story I told the women, something that happened to me some twenty years ago, when I was visiting my sister in St Louis, Missouri.
One afternoon, while my sister was busy at the bank, I popped into the neighboring music store to shop for a keyboard. But after having lived in Israel for several decades, I erroneously assumed that since the Hebrew word for keyboard is organit, in English it must be an organ.
The moment I entered the store, the salesman broke into a huge smile. "Sister," he said. "I'm so honored that you have come to visit. How can I help you?"
Sister? Whose sister? It took me a few seconds before I realized what he meant. I was wearing a navy-blue pinstriped skirt with a matching navy-blue pinstriped vest, a white blouse and a dark blue snood; he automatically assumed that I was a member of a convent.
I decided to set him straight. "No, no," I said with a smile. "I'm just a regular lady, and I'm interested in purchasing an organ for my children."
The salesman smiled and bowed his head. “We are all your beloved children."
"Tell me, sister," he continued, his smile growing wider by the second. "Where do you live?"
"Jerusalem," I unthinkingly replied.
"Jerusalem! The holy city of Jerusalem!" he enthused, stressing the word Hholy. Waxing poetic, he continued, "So you want to buy an organ for your beloved children in the holy city Jerusalem. How beautiful!"
I felt faint.
"Sister," he asked. "How many children are there?"
I was afraid to state the number. It might confirm his suspicions.
The conversation was becoming more and more ludicrous. Whatever I said, he interpreted incorrectly. He had put me in a box, and I couldn’t get out.
Finally, my real sister arrived. I exclaimed, “Oh, my sister is here,” and made a beeline to the door. As we drove away, I told her of my adventure, and of course we giggled all the way home, like real sisters do.
Memorable story. But what’s the point?
As I explained to the women of Zurich, the salesman saw me as a nun and no matter how hard I tried to tell him that I wasn’t, he interpreted my explanations according to his assumptions.
We are all like the effusive salesman. We put our family, friends and acquaintances into neat cubby holes, make assumptions about them, and then act toward them according to those assumptions
I once read a story about a teacher who at the beginning of the school year was accidentally given a glowing report about one particular student, when, in fact, this student was barely able to keep up with the rest of the class. Since the teacher assumed that the student he was gifted, rather than barely educable, she had high expectations for him. He lived up to her expectations and became one of the top students in the class.
But the truth is, not only do we make assumptions about others, we also make assumptions about ourselves. We limit ourselves, view ourselves according to the boxes we’ve created for ourselves, and as a result, we often don’t actualize our own potential.
Sometimes, we need a real life challenge to break out of our box, to discover hidden potential that we never even dreamed that we had within us. I know women in my age group, juggling work and family while devotedly taking care of sick parents. Suddenly they discover hidden reservoirs of patience and organizational skills that, had they seen them in others, would have left them awestruck.
Our neshamah is well aware that the nisyonos we are given are for our benefit. According to Rabbeinu Bechaya, before we were born, our neshamos accepted all our future challenges willingly, knowing that we would need them to attain our full potential. But it is up to us to find a way to turn our challenges into vehicles of growth.
Okay, that was the gist of my talk to the ladies of Zurich, and, I’ll admit, it sounds great on paper, but it’s really not simple. As most of my readers know, I was diagnosed with Parkinson disease several years ago. But what many of you don’t know is that it took a year of my husband telling me, “I think you should see a doctor who specializes in Parkinson,” before I was actually capable of going to see a doctor and receive a diagnosis. But once I was able to accept the challenge, it forced me (and still forces me) to stretch my spiritual muscles, and discover kochos that I never knew I had.
I am not alone in this journey of self-discovery. So many friends in my age group are finding themselves in new situations. Some are care givers, and some are being cared for. Some are leaving communities where they lived for decades, to live closer to their children. Some are facing the financial challenge of living on a small pension, while at the same time trying to discover who they REALLY are, now that they are not working full time. As one friend wryly noted, “Just when you think you have life all worked out, you’re thrown a curve ball and see you still have a lot to learn.”