There is a difference of opinion in psychology regarding the degree to which hardship and adversity are healthy or perhaps even necessary aspects of human development. Some researchers claim that experiencing adversity allows children to develop grit, the strength to bear hardship and a dedication to long-term goals that enables youth to develop into even more successful adults than their peers who did not experience pain or suffering in childhood. Others note that while overcoming adversity does help children to adapt more easily and readily to new challenges and thus become resilient adolescents and adults, often these experiences can also lead to mental and physical health issues across the lifespan, perhaps a steep price to pay for the “superpower” of resilience.
From a developmental perspective, knowing how much adversity is healthy for a child to sustain or withstand has important implications for education and childrearing. For example, many parents today take issue with the “everyone’s a winner” attitude that many schools and programs have adopted, whereby everyone must get a trophy or medal, even if just for participation. Parents who oppose this attitude fear that their children will not survive the “real world,” where we lose and fail and must live to fight another day, if they are coddled and think they can always win and never need to experience discomfort.
Parents on the opposite end of the spectrum seek to spare their children of pain and discomfort to the greatest extent that they can. In her book Untamed, Glennon Doyle describes these parents as “cream cheese parents,” those parents who, when other soccer moms or dads bring breakfast for the team to eat after practice, will call to make sure their kid’s favorite kind of cream cheese is in steady supply – Heaven forbid their child suffer the devastation of not having their favorite spread on offer! These parents fight their children’s battles for them from the playground to the classroom and often beyond that as well. Unfortunately, in trying to protect their children from having to face any hardship, these parents also risk destroying their children’s ability to manage stress effectively and rob them of the essential skills they need to survive and thrive in the world as resilient, capable adults.
If adversity builds grit and fosters resilience, how much hardship should we allow our children to face? If grit is developed by suffering through discomfort, perhaps we should not only resist protecting our children from certain kinds of adversity, but even orchestrate situations in which they can fight through difficult circumstances to build that strength and fortitude.
To understand the Torah perspective on adversity as a tool for healthy development, we need merely to explore the first Pasuk of this week’s Parsha. At the start of Parshas Tetzaveh, Hashem tells Moshe to instruct Aharon about the lighting of the Menorah. Regarding the oil used for this purpose, Hashem specifies (27:20) “ViYikchu Eilecha Shemen Zayis Zach, Katis LaMeor,” and you shall take for yourself pure oil produced from crushed olives for the lighting [of the lamps]. Rashi explains that the olives had to be crushed so that no sediment would get into the oil, and only the first drop of oil produced from the act of crushing the olive could be used for the Menorah.
In his book, Judaism’s Lifechanging Ideas, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l cites the Medrash, which compares the Jewish people to the olive. R’ Yehoshua ben Levi notes that we are compared to olives because just as the olive yields its pure oil through being crushed, so too it is through being crushed by suffering and hardship that the Jewish people produce our best spiritually. This idea has manifested time and again throughout Jewish history. Hardship and suffering have not only failed to completely destroy us, they have often served as the catalyst for our most impactful growth and success as a nation. In every generation, each new attempt to crush us beyond recognition has only served to catapult us to new spiritual and material heights.
On a personal level, this idea also holds true. Rabbi Sacks notes that often it is through suffering and hardship that we access new enlightenment in our lives. Growing through what we go through allows us to emit a new kind of light, just as that first drop of oil released from the olive when it is pressed ultimately ignites the timeless flames of the Menorah. Seemingly, the Torah supports the view that growth through adversity is a healthy and even necessary component of life, spiritually and physically.
Mrs. Batya Weinberg, a renowned educator and teacher in Michlalah as well as many other seminaries, emphasizes that every pivotal moment in our lives comes down to a choice between comfort or growth. “Comfort versus growth” is her constant refrain regarding difficult choices and spiritual development. When we exercise a new part of our body to increase our strength or develop a new muscle, we experience soreness and discomfort. And yet, as the saying goes, that pain we feel today becomes our strength tomorrow. The same is true for spiritual and personal growth. We can avoid – or protect our children from – pain and discomfort, and be comfortable, certainly. But we – and they – may not grow.
The lesson learned from the olive oil used for the Menorah is clear. The olives must be Katis, crushed, for if we want to grow and light up the world, we must be willing to be pressed, even crushed, temporarily. Only through such a process can we produce our purest light. And, while the olives must be pressed enough to produce drops of pure, untainted oil, they must not be destroyed entirely, for if they are crushed completely, the oil will not be pure and will not be usable. Similarly, we cannot allow ourselves or our children or students to be utterly demolished by hardship without any recourse or support. It is healthy and even necessary for children – and adults – to encounter challenging and uncomfortable situations, even loss and disappointment and pain, and to learn to navigate these circumstances successfully. Even more importantly, we must learn that we can experience unpleasant feelings and survive them. We must internalize that we do not need to be rescued from our own discomfort, for we have the tools to manage it, and ultimately it will pass, leaving us stronger than we were before. And, we must ensure that we – and our charges – have the tools and support we need to overcome adversity and derive the full benefits from it as a result.
Lastly, and perhaps most critically, the Pasuk clearly explains the purpose of crushing the olives, “Katis LaMeor,” crushed for the light[ing] of the Menorah. When we go through challenges and adversity, we grow best when we are able to maintain perspective and make meaning of the experience. When we understand that everything we encounter, every moment of pain, confusion, hurt, or discomfort, is ultimately shaping us to be the best versions of ourselves, then we can withstand the experience of being pressed, even crushed, in that moment. Similarly, for our children and students, understanding the purpose of their discomfort is central to their growth. When children understand that loss and discomfort are difficult and painful, and that we, the adults, see their pain, and when we take the time to teach and explain the purposes and benefits of discomfort, then they can withstand that adversity and rise to the occasion.
R’ Shimshon Refael Hirsch elucidates a profound thought on this idea. Dovid HaMelech writes in Tehillim (22:2), “Keli Keli Lama Azavtani,” my God, why have You forsaken me? R’Hirsch explains that the word “Lama,” which means “why,” can also be read as “LiMah,” or “for what purpose”. R’ Hirsch notes that when a person encounters a difficult circumstance or hardship, rather than asking, “Hashem, why? Why me, why now, why at all?!,” we can instead reflect and ask ourselves, “L’Mah,” for what purpose am I experiencing this feeling of being crushed, pressed, molded – what is Hashem shaping me for? What greater capacity is being extracted from me in this moment that I can use to illuminate my life or the lives of others? When we are experiencing adversity or when our children or students are encountering a difficult circumstance, it may serve to build us and make us more resilient – and, it will be of far greater benefit if we ask “L’Mah,” to what end is this happening, and what can I learn from it?
This week, consider the ways in which you feel pressed or crushed by life’s circumstances. Think about the hardships you’ve faced, the adversity you’ve overcome, and the illumination it has led to in your life. If you are a parent or teacher, reflect on the degree to which you’ve been able to support your children or students in facing adversity with an understanding of the purpose of tolerating discomfort, and provide them with that insight if you haven’t already done so. If you find yourself struggling right now under the weight of a particular challenge, try to ask “L’Mah,” for what purpose and to what ends am I undergoing this pain. With these important ideas in mind, may we all be Zocheh to embody the lessons of the olive, embracing discomfort as an opportunity for growth.
 Masten, A. S. (2014). Global perspectives on resilience in children and youth. Child Development, 85(1), 6-20. https://srcd.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/cdev.12205  Doyle, G. (2020). Untamed. Dial Press.