January 21, 2019

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.