Although I don’t like roller coasters, horror movies and suspense novels, I am not an every day scaredy-cat. I love to fly, don’t freak out when there is turbulence, and have no trouble with elevators, escalators, or looking out from tall buildings. The other stuff just seems like someone trying to make money by scaring me. I always think, Why should I pay them to be scared? They should pay me.
And then my 14-year-old daughter and I were on a friend’s Bar Mitzvah tour in Israel that was more like Bar Mitzvah Boot Camp. They had us hiking, crawling through caves, biking in a crater, zip-lining, hot air ballooning…it was all such fun and just about everyone participated in everything. Until we went rappelling.
I was not sure what it was, but I know people who have done it and loved it, so I was definitely planning to do it. The group was bused to the top of a cliff, and we dutifully hiked to the rappelling spot where we met two young Israeli men with a bunch of ropes and harnesses behind a big sign that said: DANGER! STAY BACK FROM CLIFF.
They calmly explained that they wanted us to strap on a simple harness, hold a rope, and step off the DANGER cliff, backwards.
Without hesitating, Manette, the mother of the Bar Mitzvah boy, harnessed up and stepped off the cliff. I looked around at my fellow Boot Campers and wondered if they were also getting cold feet. Several stepped back and said it was not for them.
I was also having second thoughts. What made me nervous was that I could not see how it was done. They didn’t show us a film or anything to demonstrate, and since we had to stay back from the DANGER cliff, we only saw a safety helmet disappear below, and nothing else.
One of the adult cousins on the trip was Shaindy, the coolest chassidic woman I've ever met. She was a gym teacher at a Bais Yaakov in New York. She walked up to the cliff, harnessed up, stepped off backwards and was gone.
Alright -- the mother of the Bar Mitzvah boy, Shaindy the chassidic gym teacher, what about me? My daughter looked at me with eyes that said, I’m not doing this, but I wonder if you will…
I smiled bravely, stepped up and walked past the DANGER sign, put on a helmet and strapped on the harness. The young Israeli who looked barely old enough to drive explained that the rope he was putting through a metal “S” hook was going to hold me as I went down the cliff. And if anything went wrong, another rope that he held was my back-up protection. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ve got you.”
Following his direction, I turned my back to the cliff and saw the group, including my daughter who was taking a video of this for posterity, watching me. “Step off,” he said.
“Remember, I’ve got you. Just step off the cliff.”
I froze. I felt fear that I didn’t recognize. It was a paralyzing, all encompassing fear I don’t ever remember having.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” I said to the patient Israeli.
“Yes, you can,” he replied. “Remember, I’ve got you. Just step off the cliff.”
To make things easier, I crouched down and tried to edge off, putting my right leg down first. But my foot didn't feel anything, just deep scary cavernous air. I looked up, my eyes wild, and pleaded, “Really, I don’t know if I can do this.”
“Just take that first step. I’ve got you.”
I stepped off the cliff.
And instead of plummeting down, I slowly lowered myself, looking around at the drama and beauty of the Israeli desert, knowing that I actually did it and I will be fine. I landed safely, and felt empowered. If I could overcome this fear and push beyond my comfort zone on this cliff, what else could I accomplish?
Breaking the Barrier
In 1954 Roger Bannister broke the 4 minute mile. One hundred years of running records showed “it couldn’t be done.” Within 46 days, someone else did the same. Within the next nine years, nearly 200 people had broken the seemingly impossible barrier.
Seeing Manette and Shaindy go over that cliff showed me that it was possible. If they could do it, so could I. A retired doctor on the tour told me later that after seeing me do it, he also did it.
My rabbi always taught me that one of the keys to success is not to quit in the face of frustration or fear. One of the ways to do that is to see that if other people can accomplish something, it is now possible for you to as well.
We all look at our challenges as huge cliffs, whether it is walking down the aisle to the chuppah, having that important discussion with a loved one, quitting smoking, growing Jewishly, losing weight… How can we possibly face them?
Facing any challenge involves pain. The trick is to focus on the pleasure.
First, get a role model, someone who is steps ahead. If they can do it, so can I. We all need people to look to who help us raise the bar of what is possible in our life. I have been blessed on my life’s journey to have incredible people -- parents, teachers, peers -- who were steps ahead and living very full and wonderful lives, balancing careers, community and family. I remember meeting Sara Chana Radcliffe in Toronto who had a thriving counseling business and a bunch of kids. She wrote books. And I thought, If she can do it, why can’t I? So I wrote my first book.
Second, accept that when facing any challenge, there will be some pain, but the trick to moving forward is to focus on the pleasure. As Rashi, the great commentator on the Bible, says, “All beginnings are hard.”
And last, but certainly not least, never forget that even if we mess up, God is holding on to the rope and He's got you. Ask for His help. He'll make sure that it will all work out as it is supposed to. He's holding the ultimate safety rope.
Now step off your cliff.