She opened her copy of The New York Times and I watched as her face turned pale. On the front page of the Metro section was a full-page picture captioned, “An Irresistible Danger: Swept Away by the Sea.” A young man sat on a surfboard amidst the tumultuous waves. But to my mom, it may as well been a photo from her past.
The timing of the picture and the synchronicity of the story were uncanny. On the same day, on the exact same beach 92 years earlier, a young man entered the water for an afternoon swim. And he, like the boy in the story, was swept away by the undertow. That man was my grandfather and my mother, just two years old at the time, is still haunted by the memory of the loss.
Mere coincidence? Perhaps, but it re-opened the door to questions that have always intrigued me.
How do we view and explain occurrences like the one Mom had, and what, if anything, do they mean? Do serendipitous encounters in life invite, even demand us to sit up and take notice?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines coincidence as “a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection.” Frequently cited synonyms are: accident, chance, serendipity, fate, destiny, luck and providence. Ironically, accident and providence, chance and destiny, seem more like antonyms than similar terms.
Attributed to Albert Einstein is the statement that “coincidence is G-d’s way of remaining anonymous” (although the attribution itself is disputed; it is not listed in the comprehensive collection, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein from Princeton University Press).
The notion that coincidence is random and not connected to G-d runs counter to Jewish thought. The concept of Hashgacha Pratit, or Divine supervision of the individual, is often depicted in Jewish literature — from Biblical passages and classical Rabbinic texts to Jewish philosophical wisdom.
The words of Psalms 33:13-14 portray a G-d who is intimately involved in our lives and engaged with the world (“The L-rd looked from Heaven, He saw all mankind. From His dwelling place He oversees all inhabitants of the earth”).
<em>Vayikra is the opening portion in Leviticus, the fourth Book of the Torah. The first line reads: “G-d called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting.”
A beautiful connection is made by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks about the word vayikra (and G-d called) and mikreh, the Hebrew word for coincidence. The root letters of these two words are the same — butthe word vayikra ends with an aleph while mikreh ends with a hay.
In a lovely play on words, Sacks points out that the aleph in vayikra is smaller than the other letters. Why? Perhaps it is to show us that there is a small difference between G-d’s effort to call out to us and a coincidence.
Jewish thought suggests that when we experience a coincidence, G-d may be saying hello, perhaps even giving us a shout out!
Regardless of whether we attribute coincidence to random chance or Divine nod, it beckons us to stop, look and listen to what may be a clue in the treasure hunt of life. It presents a moment in time when we can ask ourselves: Why was this put in my path? Is there a message here, spiritual or otherwise, that will help clarify my present or direct my future path?
My mother is not prone to spiritual musings, but seeing that picture in the Times triggered a flood of memories she had never before shared with anyone.
The connection may have been fortuitous, but the doors it opened were profound.
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