Parshat Vayeitzei

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וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם כִּי בָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ
And he arrived at the place and lodged there because the sun had set

עוֹדֶנּוּ מְדַבֵּר עִמָּם וְרָחֵל בָּאָה עִם הַצֹּאן אֲשֶׁר לְאָבִיהָ כִּי רֹעָה הִוא
While he was still talking with them, Rachel arrived with the sheep
— Genesis 28:11, 29:9

Coincidence.

Time and again as we read the stories of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs we come across stories that we describe as coincidence. Eliezer looking for a Isaac’s bride “happens” to meet her at the well; Jacob finds he has lain down for the night on a holy site since the sun “happened” to set as he was passing that location; Jacob, fleeing to his family also “happens” to meet his cousin and future wife as he arrives at the local well.

Coincidence?

Jewish belief is that there is no such thing as coincidence; nothing happens by chance. The world we inhabit functions with an exquisite balance of occurrences, carefully orchestrated with an infinite degree of precision. Rabbi Yom Tov Ehrlich (1914-1990), musician and composer, sings in his song Di Blettele of the wind which blows and shakes a tree, which sways a branch, which loosens a leaf, which floats to the ground … what for — to shelter a small insect from the baking sun.

So yes, we call them coincidences, but we should be aware that for believers a true coincidence doesn’t really exist.

As we are now in the month of Kislev with the flickering Chanukah lights on the horizon, allow me to share with you an incredible Chanukah story — of “coincidence.”

I heard this story personally from Rabbi Moshe Bryski of California, with whom the story took place. He told me of a young father and daughter, not religious, who arrived to live in his neighbourhood. They made a brief acquaintance one Shabbat and the young man — let’s call him David — agreed to attend a Torah study class. The class he attended was called “Faith and Suffering” and David listened intently. After the class he approached Rabbi Bryski, hugged him, and began to cry on his shoulder. The Rabbi realised this was something deeply painful and invited him in for a private discussion.

David’s story was heart-wrenching. He had moved house with his daughter to his present location because of a great tragedy he had undergone. His wife and two of their three children had been killed in a car crash, and he simply could not bear to remain in the family home. He told the Rabbi that on the previous Chanukah he had come to the end of the road … the pain was too great. He decided to take his daughter out for one last fun time together and then he planned to end his life while she slept.

The night in question was Chanukah, and as they entered a small shopping mall to watch a movie they heard Jewish music playing and saw a Chanukah event taking place. As they watched they were drawn into the crowd and eventually began dancing together with everyone around the Chanukah lights. As they were dancing, David had a moment of powerful clarity. Through the glow of the Chanukah lights he saw his daughter’s joy and the future they could spend together, with love and happiness, and he resolved then and there to abandon his plans of taking his own life. He decided to make a new start on life and that was when he made the decision to relocate into this area where he was made so welcome.

By now the Rabbi was in tears too, and asked David to wait a moment while he looked for an album in his office. When he returned, he had an amazing story too. “David,” he said, “The rabbi you met at that shopping mall on Chanukah was me … here are the photographs from that event.” He showed David a photograph of David dancing with his daughter. “But let me tell you one more thing,” he continued in amazement, “ … we considered that event at the mall to be a failure! There had been a mix-up with the mall and the correct date, and most of the shops were closed when we arrived. Instead of going home we decided to set up near the cinema where people were still passing by, but only a very small number of people were around to participate. We went home feeling sad about all the people who had not shown up due to the confusion. Little did we know that our little Chanukah party in the wrong location was the perfect location for you and your daughter!”

This story always makes me shiver. How often do we get annoyed because not everything works out as we want it to? How often do we get frustrated because we are being delayed or diverted? Yet if we look under the surface, we will realise that there is no such thing as coincidence. There are only jigsaw pieces that we have not yet managed to put in their correct positions.

This knowledge leads to two conclusions: One is to know that whatever happens to us happens for a reason. If we don’t like what happens to us we need to discuss that with G-d. Maybe He is looking for us to undertake some more good deeds, some more credits, in order to change to a situation that we prefer. Or maybe the reason is simply something we cannot understand.

The other conclusion is that whoever we meet in life, we meet for a purpose. There is no chance encounter. Maybe that meeting is the final piece of their jigsaw. Maybe our smile, helping hand or listening ear will change their life completely. If they are Jewish maybe the reason we meet is to invite them to shul, to teach them about the beauty of a fulfilled Jewish life, to put up a mezuzah, or to light Shabbat candles.

The life we see on a daily basis is like looking at the back of a tapestry … we see disjointed colours and threads. One day we will get to see the other side, the beautiful tapestry in full colour, and we will say, “Ah, now we understand!” For now, we need to believe. Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and  director of  Chabad of Ireland.

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