Small Victories


Purim celebrates the victory of the Jewish people over all those in the Persian Empire who would kill them. How the exact date of that victory is computed seems indisputable. According to the Book of Esther (Chapter 9), the battle against those who would carry out Haman’s wicked plan took place on the thirteenth of Adar and the victory was celebrated on the fourteenth. With a special dispensation for additional time to do battle, the celebration in the capital city of Susa was delayed until the fifteenth. But in effect, that was the final victory. The first victory, albeit a small one, occurred when Mordekhai convinced his reluctant cousin and ward Esther to intervene on behalf of her people. The next victory was accomplished when Queen Esther succeeded in gaining an audience with the King, a dangerous proposition without a previous invitation.   And inducing the King and Haman to come to her party was another victory. Without any of these small victories, the final one would never have come to pass.

We can derive a similar conclusion from the Scriptural account of Moses in Pharaoh’s court; appropriate to consider with Passover being the next Jewish holiday on the calendar. The victory over Pharaoh and Egypt is secured with the Exodus. And the Exodus follows after the Tenth Plague. But I would argue that the first victory over Pharaoh and Egypt occurs when the court magicians are unable to duplicate the Third Plague: kinim. It was then that they realized they had encountered a power greater than their own.

Now, Charles Duhigg, in his latest book, The Power of Habit, describes how human behaviour can be altered for the better by small victories.

He tells the story of American champion swimmer Michael Phelps whom Bob Bowman coached to Olympic greatness. Bowman had identified Phelps’ body type to be perfect for a swimmer. But physical skills alone were insufficient. Bowman realized that the key to success was creating the right routines that would make Phelps inure to any distraction. In a sport where each fraction of a second counts, it was crucial to create the right mindset that would allow Phelps to be calm and focused.

Achieving that was not difficult. Bowman first had Phelps imagine what it was like to swim the perfect race. Then, in the pool, Bowman would urge him to “watch the videotape,” that is, put into action, what he needed to do to swim that perfect race. And that process was repeated at every practice. Once Bowman established a few core routines –what Duhigg calls “keystone habits” – everything else fell into place: his diet, his exercise and his sleep. Phelps went on to win more gold medals than any other athlete in history. What started with one small victory ended with many great ones. As Duhigg puts it, “small wins fuel transformative changes.”

The Purim story fits into this conclusion. A few small “wins” yielded a tranformative change. Meek and diffident Jews become muscular Jews and the way is paved for the future.

To grow in our commitment to Judaism does not require radical, wholesale changes in our lives. All we need to do is begin with one small victory.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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