The number 40 in the Jewish tradition holds a unique spot in our history and collective psyche. The flood lasted for 40 days. Moses went up to the mountain to receive the Torah for 40 days and 40 nights. The Hebrew people wandered in the desert for 40 years. We are forbidden to study Kabbalah until we have reached the age of 40. And the list goes on.
I am not a superstitious person. In fact, I am downright skeptical about things like palm readers, tarot cards and Ouija boards. Yet I can’t help but think that it was more than a mere coincidence that my own life-altering experience occurred during the month that I celebrated my 40th birthday.
It had been a banner year for me. My law practice was booming, my two young children were thriving, and my husband and I celebrated our 10th anniversary – still very much in love. “If only I could stop the clock right now,” I thought, recalling the many times I had heard my father say those words to me when I was young.
Then I got really sick. Things escalated from bad to worse as I lay in bed delirious, my fever inching above 105 degrees. It took several days of my husband’s persistence until I was diagnosed with Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a potentially fatal reaction to the sulfa antibiotic I was taking. Weeks of steroids later, I re-entered life with a puffy face and a renewed appreciation for how precious and precarious life can be.
What occurred during those few bleak days, however, is what I have come to view as a wake-up call from God. For during that time something sparked inside of me and I soon realized that, like it or not, there was no turning back. Four months later, while I was eating breakfast with my husband, I told him about my epiphany.
“I’m thinking of closing my law practice to study Judaism,” I said as I stirred milk into my coffee.
“And I’m thinking of growing my hair long and becoming a rock star,” he crooned back.
Several hundred conversations later, I embarked on a journey that changed my life for the better in ways too numerous to count. I sold my law practice that year and began to study, learn, teach and write about Judaism. Now, almost 24 years later, I realize that I didn’t just have a career change. I had a life change. For in pursuing my dream, I gave myself the opportunity to find out who I was and what I most deeply value.
I look back on what happened in my 40th year as more than mere coincidence. There was a reason I got sick, although I certainly didn’t understand it at the time. Whether it happened because of an infection, a faulty medical diagnosis or Divine intervention, it opened the doors of my heart to help me understand something important about my life.
I, like everyone, have faced numerous challenges throughout my life, many of which make no sense at the time and are overwhelming to navigate. When my husband, Ray, was diagnosed with lung cancer at 61, no one could believe it. How could a healthy, non-smoker who had just retired get cancer? Why him? Why now? Why?
What I learned through Ray’s illness and since his death has served to fortify what I began to understand at 40. That it is not in spite of the challenges we face but through them that we arrive at a deeper awareness of who we are and what we value.
We alone can decide if we will let our experiences become catalysts for personal growth or stumbling blocks to our development. We alone will determine if loss, grief and hardship will open up our hearts or close them.
I have come to appreciate that our challenges can serve as teachers and touchstones for valuable life lessons.
Anything we fear teaches us the courage to overcome fear. Anything we can’t control teaches us how to let go and have faith that we will be able to handle the outcome, whatever it is. And perhaps most importantly, anything we lose teaches us that it is because of the uncertainty and impermanence of life, that we must strive to make the most of the time that we are given.
Amy Hirshberg Lederman has written more than 300 columns and essays that have been published nationwide. amyhirshberglederman.com