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Finding Gratitude and Purpose (And Happiness) in Times of Great Challenge

This week our country marked a tragic milestone – over 500,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 in the last year.  That is more dead than the combined American deaths in WWI, WWII, and the Vietnam War.  I grapple with this enormous tragedy and the fact that our country seems numb to it, or even more frightening, callous. It is a moral failure we will need to confront.

There is no escaping the fact that we are living in challenging times. We recently endured the events at the Capitol on January 6th, food insecurity remains disgracefully high for such a wealthy country, unemployment still plagues large segments of our population, we saw the consequences of a failing infrastructure and the misery that it caused in Texas,  and our country remains angrily divided.  It would not be difficult to continue to paint a dark picture. In fact, our brains are designed to focus on the negative, the dangers in the wild, the potential losses; that’s the prehistoric lizard brain that still resides within us.

In the past year many have felt isolated and lonely.  Most of us have not touched loved ones, traveled, eaten out, gone to theatres, or visited friends and relatives. 

And yet, we can still choose to be resilient and hopeful. We can choose to still find miracles around us and among us.  The holiday of Purim, which we celebrate this week, can bring perspective.  It is not new for nations, people, or we, as Jews, to face exesstential crisis.  We have faced enemies, disease, and destruction before.  Our fortitude, our beliefs, and our bend towards justice have always prevailed and will this time too.  The miracle of Purim, in part, is that otherwise ordinary people stepped up at the right time to make a difference.  We owned our future and made it happen, defeating the evil of the time. Megillat Esther reminds us of the heroism and miracles in a text filled with irony, literary exaggeration, and even humor. Life is complex, filled with nuance and contradictions. We are also reminded, quite appropriately, that in the victories, and in the good, there is happiness. After all,  we are instructed to, “Be Happy, it’s Adar!”

I personally try to confront my daily  struggles of feeling sad, lonely and disheartened by everything we have endured this past year. With each passing month it becomes more challenging.  I miss theatre, seeing friends, traveling, eating out, and so much more. It’s okay to be disappointed. I acknowledge that. And yet, I know very well how blessed I actually am, and how blessed most of us who are reading this blog are as well.

Even in bleak times it is important to keep perspective. If you are blessed like me, you have not had COVID-19. No one in your family or friend circle has died from COVID-19. You are employed and have not suffered any economic hardship. You are not hungry and do not worry about where your next meal may come from. You live in a comfortable home. If you are blessed like me, you are a parent and a grandparent. You have a loving family and remarkable friends. You have purpose.  

These are not only blessings, this is what privilege looks like. My daily  struggle is to find the balance – to let the gratitude win over more than the negative,  and I look to my Jewish tradition for this.

I often think about what Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz wrote about living in this world. “We are living in the worst of all possible worlds in which there is still hope. As it is now, evil can be conquered (even) in a world in which we have to accept a vast amount of evil.” Steinsaltz calls this  “Jewish optimism.”  “If a person sees the world as all pink and glowing, he is not an optimist, he’s just a plain fool. An optimist, on the other hand, is one who in spite of seeing the terrible facts as they are, believes that there can be improvement.”  If everything were all right, then you wouldn’t have to be an optimist. 

I think of this idea often. The story of the Jewish people, and of humanity, is one of struggle, and yet hope, joy,  and progress.  We need to fight the power of the brain that focuses on the negative only. We acknowledge the loss and suffering, and we need to also focus on gratitude – for that which we do have, even in times of trouble. And in Adar, and during Purim, capture the spirit of being happy too!

Life and the earth are still filled with multitudes of gifts. Maybe this is a good time to add more brachot to our lives to remind us. A bracha forces us to recognize the moment of gratitude. It sanctifies the moment, time, and even boundaries. Appreciate where these moments and benefits come from.

Regardless of the challenges we each face, join me, and with intention, remember the brachot we each have in our lives, the goodness, the love, the purpose, and fill your heart with that gratitude and gladness. 

As a parent and grandparent I will continue to love my family and share my values. I will strive to be a positive role model of what it means to live a Jewish life filled with compassion and action, and yes, joy and happiness too! I will continue to see my role as Head of School not as a profession, but a mission to guide our community in providing the learning opportunities our children need to be ready for the world they will inherit, filled with the love for  their country, Israel, Torah, the Jewish people – ready to live their values and participate in the traditions, grounded in our relationship with God.

Personally, I am committing to giving even more tzedakah than I gave last year to help those truly suffering. For Purim, I will fulfill the mitzvah of matanot l’evyonim, giving gifts to those in need. And in my gratitude and privilege, I will not only continue to recognize what I have, I will continue to learn more about others and their suffering with the purpose of learning what I can do to make a difference. This includes listening to others, extending empathy, and validating their narratives – even when they are not mine.

Join me in making our best efforts to bring more light in these challenging times for the sake of our children, our community, our country, and our people. Join me in memory of the 500,000 who lost their lives to COVID-19.  Together through our words, our deeds, and tzedakah, and in recognition of our blessings, we can make a difference. With gratitude, it is time!

8 Comments

  • Nanette Jiji - February 25, 2021

    This is a beautifully written piece – inspiring and a great way to begin the day!

    Thank you.

    Reply
    • Steve Freedman - February 25, 2021

      Thank you!

      Reply
  • Debra Orenstein - February 25, 2021

    Yishar Kochacha. I am grateful for your perspective!

    Reply
    • Steve Freedman - February 25, 2021

      Thank you!

      Reply
  • Rona Lotan - February 25, 2021

    Grateful for your beautiful words and for our amazing Schechter community!

    Reply
    • Steve Freedman - February 25, 2021

      Thank you Rona. Your family helps to make it an amazing community!

      Reply
  • Menorah Rotenberg - February 25, 2021

    Thank you for sharing your personal feelings regarding your values.
    In this context I think of a line from a poem by Saul Tchernokovsky:
    “ki od amin gam b’adam af im yirkhak zeh hayom”
    and I loved your quote from Adin Steinsaltz.

    Reply
    • Steve Freedman - February 25, 2021

      Thank you.

      Reply

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