Several years ago, I was flying to Argentina to speak. The flight was terrible. I had to fly from Minnesota to New York to Miami to Buenos Aires.
When I finally arrived in Argentina, I was exhausted. I was miserable. The one thing I was looking forward to was being picked up and taken to my hotel room where I could finally sleep off my journey and awaken refreshed the next day ready to work.
But this was not to be.
When the local Chabad rabbi picked me up from the airport, I was told that we would be making a pit-stop on the way to the hotel.
“A woman in the community,” explained the rabbi, “recently lost her son and she’s been too depressed to speak to anyone or leave her home for months. When we told her you were coming, she agreed to speak with you. We are going to stop by her house on the way to the hotel so you can talk to her.”
I was not very happy about this to say the least. Not only was the assignment daunting — What do you say to someone who is so depressed? — I was quite perturbed that no one had asked me first.
‘Why didn’t anyone ask me?’
But what could I do? She was already expecting us so I had no choice.
When I met the woman at her home, she looked as if she had died. There was no light in her eyes. No life in her voice. No color in her face.
Her 19 year-old-son had died in a car accident while he was trying to get home in time for selichos (the penitential prayers leading up to Rosh Hashana). The three other boys in the car survived, but he did not.
She told me about how special her son was. He was respectful, courteous and kind. He was considerate, wise, caring and mature beyond his years.
“That was an amazing boy you had,” I said when she was finished. “And to think, you had him for 19 years.”
She was not at all impressed with my response.
“I understand,” I assured her. “The shock of losing your son so suddenly is horrible. But imagine for a moment that G-d had come to you in advance and told you the following: ‘I’m looking for someone to be the mother of a really special kid for 19 years. Will you agree to be his mother?’ What would you say?”
I thought for sure she would say yes, but to my surprise she replied defiantly: “Absolutely not!”
Now I was completely at a loss of what to say, so without thinking I retorted: “Well then it’s a good thing He didn’t ask you.”
Suddenly a floodgate of tears opened and she began to sob uncontrollably. This woman finally allowed herself to have a good cry for the first time since her son’s death. And she cried out her grief.
After about twenty minutes, she looked alive for the first time since the tragedy. She was a new person. I felt as if I had literally witnessed a woman go from beyond to the grave to among the living right before my eyes.
This was probably the most meaningful, emotional and powerful experience I have ever had in my 50 years of counseling people.
In the car, on the way to the hotel I reflected. When they first told me to meet with this woman I was angry. I was upset. ‘Why didn’t you ask me?’
And if they had asked me beforehand if I would meet with her immediately after my flight, what would my answer have been? I would have said: “Absolutely not!”
And that would have been the wrong answer! I wouldn’t have been able to help her and I would have missed out on something incredible.
Most of the great things we do in life are not done in response to situations we have willingly chosen. We don’t ask for challenges.
If someone asked you if you would like some difficulties or some tests in your life, you would say: No thanks.
If G-d asked us in advance each time He wanted to send us a challenging situation, we would always say no . And then, we wouldn’t do anything noteworthy in our lives. We’d amount to nothing.
So, we have to thank G-d at every moment — or at least every morning when we wake up – for not asking our permission. We all endure our share of pain in this world. It’s all part of G-d’s plan. It is our struggles that help us to grow and become better people.