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The White Fedora

The White Fedora

Our seemingly insignificant actions are part of a cosmic symphony.


My backpack and I were somewhere in Germany when it occurred to me that I could surprise my parents, whose first trip to Europe coincided with mine. That was about all our respective adventures had in common. I was living on a shoestring, sleeping in hostels and pensions, riding second-class with no itinerary. I only knew where they would be because they had given me the schedule of their jaunt across Europe on the Orient Express.

If I hopped a train into Austria that day, I could catch them the next afternoon as their train pulled into Vienna.

The morning after I arrived in Vienna, as I hurried to the station, a casual glance into a storefront window made me stop and stare.

It was a hat shop, and amidst all the headwear resting innocuously in the display case was a cream-colored fedora, so stylish and striking that it cried out to be owned. Combining the adventure and bravado of Indiana Jones with the cool self-confidence of Sam Spade, I had to have it.

Or maybe not. The hat cost 20 schillings, equal to 20 dollars -- living expenses for two days. It was an unjustifiable luxury, and I was in a rush. I let it go.

The few hours with my parents were delightful. They hadn't seen me in half a year. I hugged my mother and then my father who, reaching out for a last handshake, stuffed a crumpled bill into my hand. It was a 20-schilling note -- exactly the price of the white fedora.

I left Vienna with my new hat resting jauntily upon my head. I would like to tell you that several people stopped me in the street each day to tell me how dashing I looked. The true story, however, is less dramatic -- but far more intriguing.

I began to wonder how many times the same person might cross my path without either of us ever recognizing the other.

A few weeks after I bought the hat, I began hearing the same type of comment with startling regularity. I saw you in Spain, said an Australian in Florence. I saw you in Rome, said a Brit in Athens. I saw you on the ferry from Brindisi, said a fellow American in Plakias. My hat, it seemed, was one of the popular sights of Europe.

If not for my hat, none of these people would have noticed me. And I began to wonder how many times the same person might cross my path without either of us ever recognizing the other. And how might our crossings affect one another in subtle but significant ways -- without our ever noticing.


In composing his Psalms, King David introduces many of his elegies to the Almighty with the word LaMenatzeyach -- For the Conductor. The world is like a symphony, and all its inhabitants are like musicians, contributing their melodies and harmonies to the magnum opus of Creation. Every interplay is carefully orchestrated by the Master Musician, whose silent baton guides each of us in the course whereby, through our own choices, we contribute to the divine music of human history.

Whether or not we recognize how our individual contributions complete the symphony has no bearing on the value of those contributions. The Conductor knows, and the perfect harmony of Creation is the proof of His wisdom. And like the proverbial butterfly effect, whereby the beating wings of a tiny insect produce a hurricane on the other side of the world, a single, seemingly insignificant action may bring about a result of cosmic importance.

Most of the time we don't see the initial cause and eventual effect of any given action. But imagine if we did.

Imagine this: A car cuts in front of you in traffic, then slows to a crawl so that you miss the green light at the next signal. You gnash your teeth in frustration, clenching the wheel.

What you don't know is that a block further on, the driver of a moving van miscalculated the timing of the yellow light and barreled through the red. Had you not been stopped at a red light, you would have been in the middle of the intersection -- and right in his path.

Our every action, whether large or small, may indeed have world-altering consequences.

Or imagine this: Your plane arrives two hours late, so that you miss your connection, miss your business meeting, and have to spend six hours in the airport waiting for another flight. Your cell phone won't get reception, your laptop battery is dead, and you left the novel you're reading in the seat pocket because you were in such a hurry to get off the plane, so that you have to spend an extortionate amount of money to buy another book at the airport newsstand.

What you don't know is that the teenage girl on the other side of the newsstand had decided to run away from home after a fight with her parents. The reason she keeps staring at you is because you bear an uncanny resemblance to her father. By the time you get up to go, she has reconsidered running away and decided to return home to reconcile with her parents.

Far-fetched? Perhaps, although each of these scenarios is a variation on a true story. Our every action, whether large or small, may indeed have world-altering consequences. What those consequences will be we may not know until the tapestry of all Creation is laid out before us in the World to Come. What we discover then will be a story more breathtaking than the wildest flights of our imagination.

November 15, 2008

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Visitor Comments: 6

(6) Maureen, February 22, 2009 8:09 PM

Be Kind To Everyone

What a wonderful aricle.I do believe everything we do is interrelated and part of a bigger picture we don't see as yet.We need to give thanks to God and always strive to have a positive effect on everyone we meet.

(5) Gary Katz, December 8, 2008 9:22 AM

Real life example of "butterfly effect"

Just after my last year of law school, I decided to submit a paper I had written during law school to a national writing contest. Much to my dismay, it was missing the last page of footnotes. I substituted a different paper, also written during law school. Wouldn't you know it, that substitute entry won first prize, which included a trip to Hawaii to accept the award! A few weeks before the trip, I was offered a job clerking for a judge, but I would be required to start the week of my Hawaii trip. I had to turn down the job. Eventually I worked at law firms, doing plaintiffs' personal injury litigation. That work led me to the law library one day, where I met my future wife. We've been married 14 years and have two beautiful daughters. I often wondered if I would've met my wife, had I taken that job as the judge's clerk. Basically, losing one page of footnotes, which annoyed me at the time, triggered a series of events which culminated in a wonderful family. Of course, I'll never know if this was ordained or mere happenstance. Maybe I don't have to know.

(4) Anonymous, November 19, 2008 4:43 AM

Divine Providence

I have been a faithful reader of for more years than I can remember, and this is one of the most deeply satisfying articles I have ever read here.

Quite recently at a Shabbos meal a wonderful young rabbi I know was musing aloud about the difficulty of teaching young people the fallacy of moral relativism. I "just happened" to be a guest at his table. A few days later, I "just happened" to visit a certain Jewish website (not this one) for the first time in many months, if not years. While browsing the articles on that site I "just happened" to read an article Rabbi Goldson wrote about his fascinating experience demonstrating the fallacy of moral relativism to young people in Budapest. How delightful that it "just happened" to be published at just that time.

Of course I sent a link to the rabbi whose family had so kindly shared a Shabbos meal with me. He replied with the comment, "Thank you, it was great!!"

Rabbi Goldson, you and he might never meet in this lifetime, but surely that article of yours will contribute to his good work in a way that would give you great pleasure if you knew. I''m delighted just to have been allowed to be a means of making such an obviously necessary connection.

As you say, "Whether *or* not we recognize how our individual contributions complete the symphony has no bearing on the value of those contributions." True--but even a small degree of recognition, when it comes, adds so much richness and depth of meaning to this strange adventure of being alive, this weird and wonderful symphony we''re all part of.

(3) DD, November 17, 2008 11:18 AM



(2) Meira, November 16, 2008 9:35 AM

A Smile of Invisible

It's nice to thinks that way. It's a good short-term remedy. But we like to feel harmony in this world through our perception. We are Earthy. Constant dissonance can cause brain destruction. Let's meditate a little bit farther: if even misfortune, pain and so on contribute to a harmony of the Creation how much more positive "world-altering consequences" can be caused through love, joy, harmony in the relationship and so on.

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