Purim: Giving gratitude


In Megillat Esther, The Scroll of Esther, traditionally read on the eve of Purim, and then again on Purim day, there is a main character that seems to be MIA.

In a nutshell: The wicked Haman plots to create a mass genocide, getting King Ahasuerus on board to have all the Jews slain and annihilated. Eventually, Queen Esther intercedes on her people's behalf with great risk to her own life, and the decree is annulled, culminating in a day of great celebration and joy for the Jewish people.

Strangely, God's name is not mentioned even once throughout the story. This was done deliberately to remind us that God “hides Himself” in our life stories. And He hardwires us to seek meaning in all of our stories — so that we find Him in the process.

The Purim story is our universal story — a story of ups and downs, good times and bad times, that gives us the freedom to create the backdrop of perception: Do we perceive the Purim saga as a series of coincidences or Divine-driven? Do we see our own lives as luck or as God-given?

The code of Jewish law reinforces this concept with a curious rule: If one reads the Purim story backwards, they have not completed the mitzvah of hearing the story. The spirit of the law is that if one reads the megillah as a story that happened way back when, as a quaint tale of the past, they have missed the whole point of the story-the tale of adversity and miracles is our story today — individually, and collectively as a Jewish people.

When we read the Purim story with the proper Godly lens, we realize that the story could have never occurred sans the hand of God. Why did King Ahasuerus pick Esther, out of thousands of beautiful maidens? And how was it that Mordechai knew just the language that Bigthan and Teresh were conversing in, thereby able to pass on the information of their plot to kill the king? When we see just how many coincidences occur in just this one story, we realize that they are ultimately not coincidences; they are intentional parts of the progression from the Narrator of us all.

So the core message of Purim is not taking our lives for granted. Actively looking and being grateful for today’s miracles from up Above.

Last July, I was misdiagnosed with PTTD (posterior tibial tendonitis disorder). After a month of panic and anxiety, I got a second opinion from a different podiatrist and was thrilled to learn that I did not have PTTD; I had only ripped a tendon very badly. I practically danced home. Could you believe it?! I had a broken tendon! Ever since that glorious Tuesday afternoon doctor appointment, I have woken up every single morning in wonder and thanked God for my wondrously working bones, joints, ligaments and tendons. Oh the joy when my feet touch the floor!

This past week, I volunteered at a fertility clinic, overseeing an in vitro fertilization procedure, ensuring it is completed according to Jewish law. The miracle of new life is magnified in more ways than one when you look at a newly formed embryo under a microscope. Having easily gotten pregnant, it rarely occurred to me just how much could go wrong. Looking at four vulnerable embryos in that heated lab, I saw just how much needs to go exactly right: Healthy cells. Perfect environment. God's blessing.

Two days ago, I went to visit my beloved grandfather in New York who is struggling with dementia. As his oldest granddaughter, I like to think that on some level love never dies, transcending even lost memory. After a year apart, I held his hands and told him, “Hi Zayde, it's Shula!” He smiled and responded using the nickname he gave me when I was born, “Shulinke mameleh!” And then after a pause, “And what's my name?” So now I treasure him calling my name.

And feel grateful that I know my own name. And feel endlessly grateful for the affirmation that my ultimate worth is not my body, not my clothes, not my accessories, not my makeup and not even my mind. My value is my soul; living a life of goodness, expressing the soul power within us that lives on forever, even if the memory of the mind has stopped. 

My commitment this Purim is to stop waiting for events or even crises to happen to appreciate what I have and to start actively appreciating what I've got: Clean air. Running water. Overall good health. God's unconditional love. People that love me. People that I love. The Torah, a treasure trove of wisdom that has worked in keeping the Jewish people together for 2,000 years and has held me personally in times of happiness and sadness and sorrow.

What about the fact that there's no guarantee for tomorrow (how I wish there was)? That's what makes gratitude something we have to actively achieve — to consciously live in the here and now.

Our humility and vulnerability is what makes our gratefulness precious and beautiful: All we have is today.

Like reading the Purim story from the beginning to the end, in the right order, with the right lenses, I'm going to work harder to see that my ordinary life is ultimately extraordinary.

It's all a pretty big miracle.

Life is good.

Thank you God.

Rebbetzin Shula Bryski is co-director of Chabad of Thousand Oaks and the founder of rentaspeech.com.

After cancer, Thanksgiving will never be the same


In fiction, the scenario would seem implausible: While attempting to console my husband as his little sister drew her final breaths, I noticed an unfamiliar number flash across my screen. I let it go to voicemail. The number flashed again. It was my physician, who informed me when I called back that the morning’s ultrasound indicated that my persistent stomach aches weren’t caused by a virus after all, but likely by ovarian cancer. I had a variant of the same disease that would kill my 47-year-old sister-in-law as the sun set that Friday evening in February.

My world, already dimmed by the unimaginable loss of my sister-in-law Ali, darkened further into a nightmare that was beyond my comprehension.

In the blur of the months that followed, the tragedy of Ali’s death stayed in the furthest reaches of my mind. Likewise, I pushed thoughts of my own peril as far away as I could manage.

Many days I spent largely in bed. Some days the physical discomfort overtook me, and I would drop my body into child’s pose, waiting for medication to soften the pain. As the chemotherapy continued, new side effects emerged. I slept many hours, but fitfully. Some nights, the sweats of sudden menopause shook me awake as I tossed aside one set of pajamas after another.

By summer, after an eight-hour surgery and the resumption of chemo, I’d lost so much weight that I stared at my hollowed cheekbones with little recognition. In the mirror, my eyes appeared red-rimmed and naked, bereft of brows or lashes. I searched the reflection for vestiges of the old me.

And yet, once I learned that my cancer was beating a hasty retreat, my spirits stayed largely aloft. In my strange new universe, with few obligations other than getting well, almost every day became a day of thanksgiving. I would stare out the window of our new Upper West Side apartment, the home we’d moved into during that surreal week in winter when Ali died, admiring the sparkling Hudson River, meditating on the sparrows alighting on the bare branches, so grateful to be close to nature and living in the bustling city that I adore — grateful to be living at all.

I discovered that I was lucky in love. I already knew that I was deeply blessed with a husband and parents who would do anything for me, and with two healthy, gloriously growing children — who in appropriate adolescent fashion alternated between hugging and hating me.

But now I was basking in the warmth of an entire community, people from my daily life, as well as those who had vanished years before. Friends sent me lines of poetry and crafted personal prayers. We received a steady stream of food and flowers and favors.

One friend designed a felt banner emblazoned with a single word: “Courage.” Another sent over a Chabad rabbi to outfit every doorway of our new apartment with protective mezuzahs. Yet another visited several times a week to provide a “healing spa,” soothing my soul with the melodies of Rabbi Andrew Hahn, who goes by the moniker the Kirtan Rabbi. As the iPod played these Hebrew songs, which incorporate the sounds of India, my friend would carefully remove the fluid pressing against my lungs, draining it through catheters that protruded from my upper back.

Jewish tradition, often a source of comfort for me, didn’t play the supporting role I would have expected. I couldn’t get to synagogue much. Several rabbis reached out to me, but they mostly didn’t know what to say.

At the same time, gratitude is deeply embedded in Jewish practice — and finding something to appreciate even in the midst of great sorrow was tremendously uplifting. Jews are not meant to devote just one afternoon in November to thanksgiving, but every day of every year.

“Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me,” the theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel reportedly whispered from his sick bed.

Similarly, in “The Book of Blessings,” Marcia Falk writes, “In a richly faceted world, full of surprise and infinite variation, the source of blessings is everywhere to be found. No wonder the rabbis of the Talmud proclaimed it forbidden to enjoy anything of this world without first saying a blessing.”

I didn’t recite 100 blessings each day as traditional Jews strive to do; I didn’t even consciously aim for gratitude. Without warning, my first glimpse of budding flowers in spring made me sob, first because Ali didn’t get a chance to experience them, and then from my appreciation that I could.

The afternoon before Yom Kippur, I received my final infusion of chemotherapy. I’m in remission, officially. It is a time for rejoicing.

Nevertheless, as we approach the national Thanksgiving Day, I often find myself more anxious than ever.

In some respects, my days are starting to resemble those of my old life. I write a little; I exercise; I care for my children. Still, I sometimes feel as if I am masquerading as myself. I am disoriented, dislocated, changed in ways I find difficult to articulate. My future is more precarious than I ever imagined. Will meditation help? Therapy? A medical trial?

I am navigating the waters of my “new normal” without a captain, without a clear idea of which current to follow. I yearn for the calm I found earlier this year, when I simply followed my oncologist’s program, buoyed by the familiar rhythm of weekly chemo and doctors’ visits. Now I’m sometimes so fearful that I feel as if I can hardly breathe.

At other times, though, I am awed that I can fill my lungs with so much oxygen, and then expend it climbing the hills of Central Park at a blistering pace. Often, when I’m not hyperventilating with fear, I am filled with wonder at this season’s startling beauty.

I allow myself, for brief moments, to mourn the woman who sometimes felt like a sister to me. I want to call her to chat. We would have so much to share.

(Elicia Brown is a writer living in Manhattan.)

Rabbi Leder’s ten Money commandments


NET WORTH DOES NOT EQUAL SELF-WORTH

Stop equating what you earn with your value as a person. The true measure of a person has precious little to do with money.

IT’S NOT ABOUT THE MONEY

Whatever our issues are concerning money, they are probably masking a deeper, more profound problem. Try to figure out what’s really going on while changing your negative money behavior. See a therapist if you think it will help you to get to the root of your problem.

UNDERSTAND THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN YOUR WANTS
AND NEEDS

Are you a slave to excess and materialism? Do you have an insatiable set of wants? Ask yourself if you really need whatever it is you want the next time you go shopping.

DON’T LIVE BEYOND YOUR MEANS

Remember that you cannot buy things without money, even if the banks and credit companies want you to believe that you can.

TEACH TRUST, NOT JUST TRUST FUNDS

While we all want our children to have a financial cushion, give them a legacy of values in addition to an inheritance. Remember that the time we spend with our kids is more important than the money we spend on them.

STOP WORKING YOUR LIFE AWAY

Are you working seven days per week? Give yourself a day for rest and reflection by keeping the Sabbath or setting aside some time from prayer or meditation.

SAVE YOUR RELATIONSHIPS BY BEING CLEAR WHEN
LENDING MONEY

If a family member or friend asks you for a loan, offer to be a co-signer at a bank instead. Even if you don’t use the bank as an emotional buffer, make sure you write down the terms of your agreement to avoid problems later on. If things still don’t work out — learn to forgive. Losing your family over money isn’t worth it.

DON’T LET MONEY BREAK YOUR HEART

In marriage, money is an opportunity to create a shared vision for your life together. It doesn’t have to be a deal breaker or heartbreaker.

RECEIVE BY GIVING

Joseph Campbell said by giving to those who are less fortunate, money is like congealed energy, “and releasing it releases life’s possibilities.”

LEARN TO BE GRATEFUL

God has created an abundance of what we need most (food, family and love), yet we often fail to see how well our needs are taken care of. Be grateful for the daily manna we already have. Over and over again when people come to see me who are suffering in some way, be it cancer, a divorce, a loss of any kind, they wish they could rewind their lives. Why? Not only to go back to a time before their troubles began, but also to go back in order to appreciate the things they took for granted. When sorrow comes, it’s the simple things we miss most — laughter, the company of friends, the sun, the rustling of leaves.

Excerpted from “More Money Than God: Living a Rich Life Without Losing Your Soul,” by Steven Z. Leder.