Los Angeles Jewish Home's Blog

Meaning and Transformation — Letter from the Rabbi

It’s funny how many people are quite sure their first meeting with their future husband or wife was beshert (it was “meant to be”), even though many of those same people insist that God plays no part of their lives. Most of our residents look back on 60 or more years of wonderful marriage, and it is hard to believe the way they met their husband- or wife-to-be could have been chance.

I’ve noticed how residents talk with delight about the way that first meeting came about, while their wedding itself hardly gets a mention. That’s true for me too. Just a few days ago my wife and I celebrated the tenth anniversary of the day we met (in Jerusalem). A day like that fundamentally changes the course of one’s life, while a wedding perhaps only confirms a course one has already decided on.

When we say “it was meant to be” or “God intended it” we are expressing our sense that life has meaning that is hidden beneath ordinary circumstances, in coincidences, even in silly mistakes. But why do we think a wonderful happening, like the one that led to a good marriage, is beshert, while we find it harder to say that about a tragedy? When something terrible happens, we are more likely to say God was absent, or God didn’t care, or God doesn’t exist. It would challenge our idea of a good God to suggest that God intended, or wanted, us to suffer hardship or pain.

I would never say to someone suffering loss or illness that God intended this to happen to them. That would be cruel and insensitive, and how can I know, anyway? And yet as we reflect on challenges in our own lives, we may experience trust that there is rightness to what happens, and out of that trust can come positive developments. Is that trust fanciful? That I can’t answer for sure. But my own faith, that there is meaning to the events in my life, has helped me grow from negative happenings, such as illness, so that I bring new changes to my life for the good.

In a few days we will be celebrating the Jewish festival of Purim, which is based on the Book of Esther. Now we all know that the Bible is largely about God, but in this strange biblical book, God doesn’t get a mention. The characters go through their events with the most human mix of silliness, chance, ambition, revenge, fear and courage. Yes, just like we tend to see our own lives.

But the name “Esther”, even though it is derived from a Persian name, connects to the Hebrew word for hidden. It is a hint that even in that very human Purim story, there may be meanings (and God) hidden under the everyday events. This is certainly what our Sages taught. In the Yiddish word we are used to, maybe the events – like the young Jewish girl Esther marrying the Persian King – are beshert.

I think this is what her cousin Mordechai believes. When he learns that the Jewish people face destruction at the hand of the wicked Haman, he seeks to persuade Esther not to be cowardly but to risk her life to get the king to save the Jews. Mordechai says, "Who knows if it is not for this purpose that you are here?"

I think it is that question that prompts Esther to overcome her fear, to wonder if perhaps it was beshert that the king divorced his previous wife and chose Esther to be his new wife. Out of those events grew the opportunity for Esther to save her people. She rose to the occasion, transforming both the situation and herself. Instead of being someone who things happened to, she became a person who made things happen. If we look at the events in our lives as beshert, that we are here at this moment for a purpose, how might we too transform ourselves so that we bring good to ourselves and the world about us?

When we are not making a noise to drown out the name of Haman (who stands for negativity and destructiveness) let’s ponder how Esther can inspire us to new creativity.

Rabbi Anthony Elman Rabbi Anthony Elman is the Skirball Director of Spiritual Life at the Jewish Home and also serves as Rabbi of the Home's Grancell Village campus. His professional background is multifaceted, encompassing the fields of law, social work, and psychotherapy. Rabbi Elman has been with the Home since his ordination and graduation from the Academy for Jewish Religion-California in May 2007

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