Purim and Serendipity
How to find God.
It’s a question I’ve often been asked. Many times people turn to me as a Rabbi and in all sincerity ask “How can I find God?”
I tell them it really isn’t all that difficult. All they have to do is turn serendipity into Purim and they’ll realize the answer.
Permit me to explain.
Serendipity is a fascinating word that a British lexicon company recently voted one of the 10 hardest words in English to translate. Dictionaries define it as “a fortuitous happenstance” or “a pleasant surprise.” Wikipedia tells us “The notion of serendipity is a common occurrence throughout the history of scientific innovation such as Alexander Fleming's accidental discovery of penicillin in 1928, and the invention of the microwave oven by Percy Spencer in 1945, to name but a few.”
Serendipity refers to those moments that simply don’t make sense from a statistical perspective
In our personal lives, serendipity refers to those moments that simply don’t make sense from a statistical perspective. We desperately need to speak to someone we haven’t seen in a decade, have no idea how to contact him and out of the blue he suddenly calls on a totally different matter. We are in a panic because there’s some information we have to know and amazingly discover it’s in the very book we just happened to pick up by accident. And then there’s my friend who was distraught because he missed a plane connection and found himself on the next flight seated next to a remarkable woman who it became clear to him soon enough was his soul mate.
The word serendipity merely describes these “fortuitous happenstances;” it does not explain. How is it that the impossible happens so often, that the inexplicable plays such a frequent and prominent role in our lives?
The answer is the key to Purim, and its message enables us to find spiritual meaning in the seemingly irrational events of our lives.
The Book of Esther is the only book in the Bible that does not mention God once. It is a story filled with coincidences, implausible turns of events, improbable incidents which follow one upon another in a crescendo of ever more unlikely happenings which together bring about the downfall of the enemy of the Jewish people intent on genocide.
Mordechai and Esther would appear to be the hero and heroine of this almost unbelievable tale. Yet we know that it was God who engineered it from on high and to whom the Jewish people continue to offer praise for this remarkable miracle.
Where was God? He masked His presence in the guise of serendipity – which to this day is commemorated by Jews around the world through the significant custom of masquerading on Purim.
Purim is the holiday where God’s presence can be detected if we are sensitive enough to the Divine clues as He leads us through our daily lives. It is the holiday which the sages of the Talmud tell us is the only one destined to last throughout our history, even though all the other holidays commemorate far greater obvious and open miracles. Why is that? Because God prefers for us to find Him rather than to vividly impose the reality of His existence upon us.
Serendipity is God whispering to us; it is His still small voice that beckons us to be aware of His presence.
Every one of us has inexplicable “Purim moments” that bring God into our awareness in order to make sense of the strange happenings that befall us.
God’s Whisper to Me
One of the most memorable experiences of my life demonstrated this truth to me. On a trip to Eastern Europe to visit the places where my ancestors lived, as well as the concentration camps where much of my family perished, I spent one Sabbath morning in a synagogue in Warsaw where I was fortunate to be one of the seven called up for an aliyah.
It is the custom for the people given an Aliyah to publicly make a pledge of a donation for the synagogue. As I concluded my blessings, I was emotionally overcome by the realization of where I was and how many great Jewish leaders must have preceded me standing at this very spot, and I felt the need to make a generous contribution. But I hesitated because I didn’t want to appear like a rich American tourist who is shaming all the other honorees whose contributions were limited by their poverty.
As a compromise, I decided that a pledge of $36 would be just about right – enough to be meaningful as a gift and not exorbitant as an expression of ego. No sooner was the pledge announced than there was an audible gasp from the congregants. It seems that $36 was quite a fortune in the currency of Polish zlotys. The president quickly came over to me, asked where I was staying, and if it would be all right for a committee to come to my hotel immediately after the Sabbath to collect this generous donation. Of course I agreed, and within five minutes after the Sabbath ended, a committee of three appeared in the lobby and asked me to make good on my pledge. I happily gave them the money and felt very pleased that I had the merit of being able to perform a good deed, a mitzvah.
My wife and I then wondered what there was to do to while away a few hours on a Saturday night in Warsaw. The concierge told us there was a casino on the premises and that was about the only activity available to us.
I hit the jackpot, and I quickly kept filling bucket after bucket with my winnings.
New to gambling, I stopped at the very first slot machine and, on a lark, deposited one coin. What followed was indescribable. Lights flashed, gongs went off, people around the room stopped what they were doing to see what had happened. I stood amazed as money kept pouring out of the machine. It seems that I hit the jackpot, and I quickly kept filling bucket after bucket with my winnings. I immediately decided that I must have used up my share of good luck for that night, and I went to cash in my winnings.
The cashier put all the coins through her counting machine and finally came up with a total. The sum she told me was staggering, and for a moment I thought I was almost a millionaire. What I had forgotten was that the amount she told me was in Polish currency, zlotys. Anxiously, I asked her, “What does that come to in American dollars?”
After some quick calculating, she replied, “Oh, about 36 American dollars.”
For years I had preached that whatever we give eventually comes back to us. But this time God made it so abundantly clear that my contribution was rewarded by its exact equivalent.
God wanted me to know with certainty His ongoing presence in the very place where the descendants of Haman sought to destroy His people. To do that, He left a clue that was unmistakable. And that is what He continues to do in so many different ways if we are wise enough to understand them. Because we don’t really have to struggle to find God. He is as anxious to find us – if not more – and strengthen our relationship with Him.