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Turning Adversity into an Advantage Parshat Va’era January 11, 2013 I’d like to share with you a story that

many of you I’m sure have probably heard before. Abe and Esther are flying to Australia for a two week vacation to celebrate their 40th anniversary. Suddenly, over the PA system, the Captain announces, “Ladies and Gentlemen, I am afraid I have some very bad news. Our engines have ceased functioning and we will attempt an emergency landing. “Luckily, I see an uncharted island below us and we should be able to land on the beach. “However, the odds are that we may never be rescued and will have to live on the island for the rest of our lives.” Thanks to the skill of the flight crew, the plane lands safely on the island. An hour later Abe turns to his wife and asks, “Esther, did we pay our charity pledge check to Beth Jacob Synagogue yet?” “No, sweetheart,” she responds. Abe, still shaken from the crash landing, then asks, “Esther, did we pay our Jewish Federation pledge?” “Oy, no! I'm sorry. I forgot to send the check,” she says. “One last thing, Esther. Did you remember to send a check for the Synagogue Building Fund this month?” he asks. “Oy, forgive me, Abie,” begged Esther. “I didn't send that one, either.” Abe grabs her and gives her the biggest hug and kiss in 40 years. Esther pulls away and asks him, “So, why did you kiss me?” Abe answers, “They'll find us.” *** I’d like to tell you about the “world’s ugliest woman.” Her name? Lizzie Velasquez, from Austin, Texas. Why is she the world’s ugliest woman?


Because she was born with a condition in which she has no adipose [adipus] tissue. That means she has no body fat. She eats 60 – yes, 60 – six-zero—small meals a day, but she has no body fat. And because of that condition she looks disfigured. In 2009 she discussed her condition on a television show. It was picked up by an anonymous online user, posted it on Youtube and titled the video, “the world’s ugliest woman.” That video received 5 million hits. You can find her story simply by doing an internet search on the term, “the world’s ugliest woman,” and you will read a story that both breaks your heart but inspires admiration for her courage. What a disheartening story about a woman suffering from a devastating disorder, one that has baffled the physicians’ ability to diagnose. There are exactly three people in the entire world who have been identified as having this syndrome. If she doesn’t eat every 15 minutes—she’ll die; because her body cannot store the excess calories as fat. Suffering through such a disability, facing death daily as well as disfigurement—and the response of the world was to call her “the world’s ugliest woman.” One would think that this might be straw that would cause her to give up. And yet, it didn’t. The challenges people face in life can be traced all the way back to Biblical times. In the Torah portion this week we read about the encounter between God and Moses and the command God gave to Moses to demand that Pharaoh release the Israelites. Moses told the Israelites that God would redeem them and bring them to the land of Israel, but the Torah tells us that the Israelites would not listen to him. So when God commanded Moses to confront Pharaoh, Moses responded, “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impaired speech?!” Yet he found a way to compensate for his impediment, and we all know that despite this physical disability Moses became known as the greatest prophet in all of Israel’s history. He compensated for his impediment by utilizing Aaron as his assistant. He turned the adversity he faced into a strength that gave him success. That is one of the greatest lessons we can learn from this type of story.


I am reminded of another story recently about a young teenage girl in Michigan. Whitney Kropp considered herself and outcast at her school. She had only a few close friends. To her surprise she was selected by her class as the female representative of her sophomore class royalty for the school’s homecoming celebration. She was surprised, shocked and elated. Until she found out that it was a cruel teenage prank. The so-called “popular” girls voted for her as a joke. That left her so devastated that she felt like no one cared about how humiliating it was. She became depressed and considered suicide. But her family gave her support. They persuaded her to remain courageous and she became determined to own and master the honor that had been given to her as a humiliation. “I can just prove all these kids wrong,” she declared, “I’m not the joke everyone thinks I am.” The story became public. A local business donated her dress. A salon gave her a complimentary makeover. Some friends set up a support page for her on facebook and she earned 140,000 followers. And guess what. The very students who intended to bully her saw her strength and turned their humiliating action into support. These so called “popular” girls who attempted to embarrass her joined her in an anti-bullying campaign and participated in developing the website to support this student and to oppose bullying everywhere. Whitney Kropp could have remained depressed. She could have withdrawn from her community. She might have even been on a path to suicide. And yet she took ownership of her adversity and turned it into a success not only for herself, but to become a role model to bullied children everywhere. She couldn’t believe the support she received when her story went public. She had thought nobody cared about her. She had been at the bottom of the social ladder in her school, and she took this opportunity to display courage and become a role model to the very students who bullied her. Too many times in our lives we face struggles, trials and apathy from others around us. Sometimes the apathy makes us feel invisible. Other times it’s an insensitivity that is maliciously hurtful even if the people being malicious are oblivious to the fact that they are being so. We will all face some form of adversity in our lives. Whether it’s an illness, work frustration, another person’s hostility, a family trauma. Whatever it is we WILL face them. And when we’re down it may seem like others don’t care about what we are facing. And we will feel alone, and we often expect that there should be those who should help us with our struggles. 3

And indeed, we will find people who can help us, but ultimately no one can help us unless we first work on helping ourselves. Only YOU have the most control over your life. And when others kick us, as they kicked Lizzie Velasquez and Whitney Kropp, there will be those who might rally for us—but we have to take primary responsibility for our own courage, our own strength, our own victory, as these two strong young women did. So, what happened with Lizzie Velasquez? I left the story with the youtube video and indicating that this could have been the final straw to cause her to give up. And yet it did not. What did happen? She wrote a book titled Be Beautiful, Be You. She is a senior in college and her book shares advice on how to be unique, how to make and keep good friends and how to deal with bullying. Most recently she was featured on Headline News’s Dr. Drew. She has 40,000 followers on Facebook and tours as a motivational speaker. She has turned the unbelievable adversity in her lifelong struggle into the very definition of what makes her successful and makes her special. That is something we can all learn. Like Whitney Kropp who turned bullying into an opportunity to become a role model. Like Lizzie Velasquez who turned her lifelong syndrome into the strength to motivate others to overcome their struggles. Like Moses who despite his speech impediment challenged the ruler of the greatest empire on earth, prevailed over him, became Israel’s greatest prophet and wrote the book that has been published more than any other book in the history of the world. We, too, can face our challenges, overcome our burdens, and turn adversity into a source of strength.

Copyright © 2013 Rabbi Jeffrey Kurtz-Lendner