Most people are ready to bid farewell to 2020, a most difficult and stressful year. Some are planning to throw their yearly calendars and date books into a bonfire to say good riddance to all the pain and aggravation.

When Jews go through challenges, we are asked to stop for a moment and contemplate. Don’t just ask: "God, why did this happen to me? Why did You put me through this?"

Instead we are taught to ask: "What wisdom can I learn from this? How has this experience changed me?"

This past year has brought us to places we have never imagined. The entire world joined together in suffering. What good could we possibly take away?

As we say goodbye to 2020 and all the experiences we have endured, it is time to ask ourselves this question: who have I become?

If we go through an agonizing time such as these last months, we can be left solely with pain and feel that is all meaningless suffering. Or we can think about the moments of good that we can take away, the lessons in gratitude, the small and large kindnesses we have been witness to. Instead of collapsing, we can tolerate this time and use it to carry on with newfound courage and strength.

Courage does not mean that we are fearless. Rather, we overcome the terror and fright we are experiencing. We climb out of our comfort zone and find ourselves doing things we could never have imagined previously. Our world now is filled with stories of ordinary people who reached beyond themselves and touched other lives in ways they could never have conceived. This is the definition of extraordinary.

For each of us, our struggle hurts. It’s not about comparing who has it worse, life is not an Olympics of suffering. It is about trying our hardest to not only survive but thrive; to make it through with newfound spiritual and mental muscle.

My Personal Struggles

Personally, I have grappled with my own disappointments and rerouting of life.

For years I held onto a dream. I wanted to take a group of women I teach to Israel, to find the fire that would ignite our souls the way that only our holy land can. All our teachings would come alive. Somehow it was never the right time till spring 2020. Our itinerary was more than I could have ever hoped for. We maxed out spots. We were on and ready to roll. And then Covid hit. We had to cancel. Till when? Only God knows. My dream is on hold.

There have been losses of great and wonderful people who are irreplaceable. Some I knew personally and some from afar. But these blows have made us grapple with fear of the unknown.

Passover brought me to a table empty of our grandchildren and children. It hurt so badly to say, "You cannot come in, my sweet children." When I blessed my son through his car window, I caught him wiping away his tears as I did the same. Thank God we celebrated the birth of a grandson in Canada. That was 9 months ago and I still have not held or touched my little angel. I know him only through the screen of a device.

A great part of my teaching is spending time personally at class and traveling throughout the world meeting incredible Jewish communities who always open their hearts and homes with love. That has all come to a halt. I miss laughing, sharing and connecting. It is a different world. Instead of praying on the High Holidays in NYC shoulder to shoulder with the women I study with, I was standing masked beneath a tree in a friend’s backyard. I felt alone in my prayers.

Can I find the good too? Have I developed my spiritual muscle as I ask you to discover yours?

There is a bittersweet anticipation for all that has been put aside. I have newfound gratitude for the simplest moments and gestures that were taken for granted. The hugs, the sharing of a meal, the giving of a blessing and placing my hands on my child’s head. I cannot even imagine ‘the first’; the first class together again, the first Shabbos with family at my table, the first High Holiday immersed in prayer with my Hineni family, the first Seder surrounded by grandchildren.

Because I am not traveling I’ve had the opportunity to teach remotely a group of high school girls who have opened my eyes to the thoughts and vision of young women in today’s world. I’ve traveled across the world meeting Jewish communities through Zoom. Since Covid hit, each night my son calls and my grandchildren and I schmooze, as they like to call it. We tell stories and say the Shema together. Perhaps we cannot be together but a bond has formed that otherwise would not be there.

In Hebrew, the word for ‘test’ is ‘nisayon’. Nisayon shares the same Hebrew root as banner and miracle. When you go through your life test and you triumph, you have created for yourself a magnificent banner, dazzling with your personal colors and motto. This then becomes your miracle. No one can take away your banner, no one can destroy it. It is yours forever.

As we approach 2021, let us think about the banner we have each created. A banner means that I have discovered something about myself I would never have known if not for this mountain I’ve climbed. If through it all it is not the pain that remains most dormant but my newfound realizations, then I have moved away from holding onto suffering and discovered purpose to my test. This creates a meaningful life.

A Vow in Auschwitz

The English conductor, Benjamin Zander, once relayed that he met a survivor of Auschwitz who taught him an important life lesson. She was on the cattle cars to the concentration camp, her parents had been lost. It was just her, at 15, along with her 8-year-old brother. She looked down at her brother’s shoeless feet and exclaimed “Why are you so stupid? Can’t you keep your things together?” The way an older sister may speak.

Unfortunately, those were the last words she ever said to her brother. He did not survive.

She made a promise.

“I walked out of Auschwitz into life and I made a vow. I will never say anything that could not stand as the last thing I ever say to a person.”

This woman took that most tragic experience and found a meaningful moment. She could have just remained with her sorrow. She easily could have grown bitter. But instead she took her darkest day and used it as a springboard for peace. She transformed her suffering into bettering her words and her relationships with others. She asked herself: how can I live higher and not spiral downwards.

This becomes our challenge of 2021. Let's not wallow in pain. Instead, we can use the memories of all we have gone through to improve the world – and ourselves.