Last night, 20 fabulous women came to my home to study, eat and laugh. We studied Esther’s story together with a brilliant senior Jewish educator who helped us follow the trajectory of Esther’s growth from child to one who overcame her fear (Did you know the story takes place over 12 years?). She then invited us to talk in groups of three about a point in our lives where we overcame our fear and exercised our courage muscle.

A doctoral student explained her study on performance anxiety for musicians and gave us the opportunity to reflect on our own performance jitters. She then ran an exercise that helps professional musicians reduce their reliance on pharmaceuticals using breathing, focus and body awareness.

A certified yoga instructor led us through a series of warrior poses. She gave us mini-journals to jot down thoughts and feelings as we did this. And then we turned to someone near us and shared what we heard from our bodies. I connected with the effort we need to invest to get what we want.

I presented a shopping list of public speaking consultants’ advice that Esther applied, finishing with that golden oldie, “If you don’t know where you’re going, it’s really hard to get there.” Esther totally knew where she was going. I re-split the group into threes and ran a game where you are given your last line and you make a one minute speech finishing with that. It was loud and funny.

I think both Vashti and Esther would have had a good time. And then I thought about their learning circles.

I think about Esther, asking Haggai to tell her what to take after her year in preparation for meeting the king. They are friends and he’s the guy in charge of the harem. (Mel said, “Who would know better what she should take?”

I think about Esther preparing to meet the king for three days — not just with her women friends, but asking Mordechai and the entire people to pray for her and think of her as she gathered her courage to meet the king. I think of her going in and knowing that everyone is with her as she does. She understands the courage in encourage.

In contrast, I think of Haman’s two family scenes, one where his family is happy at his success and the other where they tell him, “You’re in deep doodoo.” Both times, he is on his own. No one is praying for him, not even his family. He also must have been terrified on his way to meet the king, but no one is with him in spirit.

Natan Sharansky was interviewed on Feb 12th in honor of the 30th anniversary of being freed from the gulag. He told the story of his last phone call before his arrest. He knew the KGB were coming, and, with nothing to lose, he called Israel to speak to Avital, his wife. She wasn’t home. Instead, he reached a group of incoherent Israeli “Free Scharansky!” activists who shouted at him en masse in Hebrew, a language he barely understood, “We are with you!! We are with you!! We are with you!!!” He said, “At first I was so frustrated because I wanted to speak to Avital, but then, what kept me going all those years were those people who shouted, knowing how many people were with me. No matter how many times the KGB told me, “You are alone, you are alone, you are alone!!!” I knew that I was not. There were people praying, working for me, believing in me, shouting for me, that I could do it, I could survive the torture and the isolation.”

Last night, 20 women studied, ate and laughed together in honor of Esther’s courage, Vashti’s courage and our own courage. And today, we are a little happier in our shared encouragement.

Happy Purim.