Acknowledging sadness, tragedy and strife

Rachel LaVictoire, 18, is a recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University, where she is a freshman. She grew up in Atlanta, where she is an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center. Rachel will be contributing regular commentaries and d’var Torah reflections, which will be posted on the Jewish Light’s website, — some of which will also be included in the Jewish Light’s print editions.

By Rachel LaVictoire

Bad things happen. They come in different levels of severity and affect everyone in different ways, but they happen nonetheless. We lose loved ones, we make mistakes, we fall ill and we say the wrong things. I mean this in the most matter-of-fact way. Acknowledging the sadness in our lives shouldn’t be upsetting or hopeless, but rather comforting and motivational. Sounds a little strange, right?

Obviously, it feels unnatural to be grateful for unhappiness. However, I find it important to understand that every event in our lives, big or small, positive or negative, inevitably impacts our course.

This may seem somewhat trivial, but have you ever considered how your life would change if you woke up an hour before you normally do? It’s something that crosses my mind on a regular basis. Think about it: If you wake up an hour earlier, maybe the traffic light patterns would be different and you’d hit more green lights. Maybe your normal barista at Starbucks wouldn’t be at work yet and you’d meet someone new. Or, maybe because you’d have enough extra time to skip Starbucks and sit down to breakfast at the bagel shop. The possibilities are endless, but the reality is that just by sleeping one less hour, you’re introducing yourself to a different world.

I use the same reasoning with bad situations. Take for example sorority recruitment, which consumes my life right now, but you can substitute in plenty of other situations.

This week, about 400 girls, myself included, rushed seven sororities at Washington U. We went to all seven in two days, spending exactly 55 minutes at each. Of those 55 minutes, probably 20 of them were used for presentations and cheers, leaving us with 35 minutes to talk to current members. The whole thing was organized like speed dating — when time was up, you left.

Over the next few days the PNMs (Potential New Members) ranked sororities, and sororities ranked PNMs. Many girls were cut from their favorites, and some were cut from them all. While failing to get a bid from your favorite sorority is not on the same level as losing a loved one or getting sick, as a freshman college girl, it’s still pretty devastating.

Yet, as cliche as it sounds, when one door closes, another opens. And it’s not only about opportunity. Sure, it would be great if someone who got cut from a sorority moved on to become the president of another club, but it’s also about the experience of doing so — about learning to recognize your own sadness, understand what’s causing it, and making choices to bring yourself happiness. Growth comes from what we are able to overcome.

What better example of this, than the fleeing of the slaves from Egypt. In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, G-d sends the last three plagues to the land of Egypt. Finally, Pharaoh agrees to free the Jews and they leave in haste — so quickly that they eat unleavened bread, unable to wait for it to rise. When the Jews had fled, Moses spoke to the Israelites, saying:

“Remember this day, when you went out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, for with a mighty hand, the Lord took you out of here, and therefore no leaven shall be eaten… And you shall tell your son on that day, saying, ‘Because of this, the Lord did this for me when I went out of Egypt.’ And it shall be to you as a sign upon your hand and as a remembrance between your eyes, … And you shall keep this statute at its appointed time, from year to year” (Exodus 13:3-10).

Obviously, the year-to-year occasion in which we keep the statute is the holiday of Passover. We eat maror to remind us of the clay that the slaves used and we dip in salt water to remind us of the tears that they shed. Why does G-d want to take us back to that place, that story of slavery and degradation, every year?

Why must we remember?

There are many reasons, some are evident: we remember so that we may thank G-d, we remember so that we may be grateful of the life we have, and we remember so that we may believe in all the miracles that G-d performed.

I think, though, that there is a logic that gets overlooked: we remember tragedy so that we can look at our lives now and understand that it’s possible to overcome even the greatest challenges. It’s difficult to be upset with the past, if you’re content with your present because all that you did led you to where you are. It’s like G-d is saying, “Your people were once slaves, and now you are a success. Therefore, understand that any strife you encounter may also lead to peace.”