Parshat Vayishlach 5778 – Challenges & Channukah Miracles

I recently attended a seudat hodaya (gratitude party) of an acquaintance of mine who I had not seen in a long time. She was celebrating the fact that her baby, who had been diagnosed with a potentially fatal syndrome in vitro, had been healed through a miraculous surgery. The girl is now a healthy, functioning three year old, Baruch Hashem! But the most amazing thing that struck me was the difference in my acquaintance’s personality when I met her at the party again. To me, she was a completely different person to the one I had known when I lived in the same town as her years ago. I could not quite put my finger on it, but she seemed…different. Wiser? More mature? As she explained how she and her husband had davened, she literally glowed.

I recently learned an interesting definition of the Hebrew word “nisayon.” I had known it to mean challenge or test. But recently I was learning a sefer of Bilvavi where he used the term to mean “experience.” (See Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh, Volume 3). As with many Hebrew words, I realized that this shared meaning must be no coincidence. The same word means both experience and challenge/difficulty – and so these two concepts must be intertwined!

Perhaps we could say that when something happens to us, the extent to which we are challenged and rise to that challenge is the extent to which we gain experience. Without overcoming a challenge, we would not be considered “experienced” in that area. We learn from our experiences by overcoming our challenges. Depending on whether we are “cup half full” or “cup half empty” people, we will either chalk up our challenges as experiences, or view every experience as a challenge.

But there’s more to these terms. Embedded in the Hebrew word nisayon is also the word “nes” (nun, samech) . One translation of “nes” is banner. (See for instance the phrase in Shacharit davening “v’sa nes l’kabetz galuyotenu” – raise the banner to gather our exiles” and morning brachot where we refer to Hashem as our “nesi”, banner)). According to Mrs Rina Zlinkin in her parsha sheet on Parshat Tazria (see Moriah Alumni newsletter), a banner is raised up high. This might give us a clue as to what “banner” has to do with experiences and challenges. When we raise a banner, we are proclaiming a victory by lifting it up for the world to see. So too, when we overcome our challenges and gain experience, we are lifting ourselves up from our previous state. And our very essence changes – to the extent that the whole world can see our elevated status.

The Hebrew word “nes” has yet another meaning – “miracle”. What does enduring nisayonot have to do with miracles? What is  miraculous about difficulties and challenges? Let’s explore.

On Channukah we recite a bracha “Al HaNisim” to thank Hashem for the miracles He performed for us on this day. According to Rav Ithamar Schwartz in his shiur on Channukah, though we also experienced miracles on Pesach, only the Rabbinic festivals of Purim and Channukah include a blessing in Shemonei Esrei thanking Hashem for the miracles He performed.  The Chashmonayim had some internal, personal nisayonot to face, and when they managed to pass these tests, they witnessed miracles.

Rav Schwarz explains that a miracle is when something in this world rises above the normal, natural laws of nature like when a lower level of creation is able to function at a higher level. For instance, if plants could walk, or animals could talk. With human beings, if one individual on a particular spiritual level suddenly managed to assume a higher madrega (level), then this is a miracle for this particular person. During Channukah, the spiritual light of miracles is shined upon us. But each year is different. The amazing thing Rav Schwartz points out is that “if we have passed more nisayonot (difficulties) since last year, he merits a greater level of miracles, because now…he has become more elevated since last year….”

Thus, it seems we can say that our challenges/experiences that we rise to and overcome are our own personal miracles. Instead of viewing miracles in an outer way – what wonderful, miraculous things Hashem can do for us – we can shift our focus and realize that the true definition of miracle is our ability to overcome our nature. Every time we grow spiritually, we are experiencing a miracle – a shift in the normal level of our functioning to a greater level. THIS rising above our teiva (nature) is the miracle.

At the seudah hodaya, I had initially considered chalking up my friend’s different personality  to her temporary exuberance and relief at the miraculous news of her baby’s recovery. But after hearing her speak about her experiences in detail, I retrospectively realized it was not simply her mood on the day that made her seem different. She really WAS a different person. Having endured such trials for so many months and pulled through, she had pulled herself up to a completely different level spiritually. She had experienced the trials and circumstances of the previous two difficult years and she had literally become another person because of them. Her nisayon provided her with the opportunity to experience  a miracle. The miracle of self-growth.

Bilvavi teaches in the name of the Vilna Gaon that “the avodah of a person is to rise above his own nature that he was born with and to elevate himself to a more miraculous level than before.” Witnessing my friend’s changed personality – so much the starker to me perhaps since I had not seen her in a number of years – was testimony to me that we all have the opportunity to grow through our challenges… and come out glowing. Our challenges provide us with the experience we need in order to grow. And when we manage to rise above our innate nature, our new persona serves as a  banner for all to see that we merited the miracle of being “reborn” as a higher neshama.

How can we apply this lesson to our parenting practice this week?

Having lived with our children since they were born, we have the unique vantage point of knowing their own, inherent natures. We can also see where they are today. This reflection and comparison  of their original position and where they are now allows us to be more aware of their challenges and pinpoint their growth areas..

As parents, most of us probably cheered our children on when they graduated from crawling to walking, acknowledging this momentous milestone with fanfare, cameras, videos, hand clapping, calling safta/bubba/saba/zeidy. So too we should celebrate our children’s character growth with equal enthusiasm – to raise the banner when they mature in their middot. And to thank Hashem for the miracle that a human being has the capacity to rise above their nature and literally become a different person.

It’s important to remember that nisayonot are defined as experiences. Experiences are defined as occurrences, incidents, encounters. This might suggest that it is not necessarily what we do or what we achieve when we are faced with a difficulty, but rather just whether we can, well, weather it. Thus, we can remind ourselves that the victory is often not in the success but in the endurance. Just seeing our children going through a challenge, no matter what their actions and choices may be, means they are being strengthened. When it comes to passing our nisayonot, success is defined as endurance. Often just “getting through the situation” is enough to qualify as winning the battle. Though we may not feel certain exactly what Hashem wants of us in every challenging situation, if we stay strong and hold on to our emuna, we can believe that the challenging experience will enable us to change and grow.

It is also important to remember that every person’s tests are different, depending on where they currently hold. A sensory child has a shower and suffers water in their eyes without complaining? That’s a miracle! A shy child grows up and agrees to go on a shidduch date? That’s a victory! Your boisterous toddler manages to stay quiet for a few minutes during a shiur? Celebrate with him the miracle of his progress. !

As their parents, it is our duty (and honour) to inform our children of the wonderful capacity within every Jew to endure nisayonot and rise above their nature. To remind them to wear their experiences as a banner. To teach them that they can merit Hashem granting them the miracle of rebirth at any moment, by enduring and experiencing their trials. Wonder of wonders!

Wishing you a Shabbat of development and  growth, the strength and blessing of being able to rise to the challenge and see miracles!

With bracha

Chaiya Danielle Ledder

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