Why was I there at precisely that moment?
I've thought about that countless times since it happened. It was a turning point in my life. And every time I celebrate the holiday of Purim, the moment vividly comes back to me.
Many years ago, shortly after I assumed my first pulpit and began my rabbinic career, a member of my community came to me with a request. "There is an elderly woman in town," he told me, "who is not a member of your congregation but who desperately needs to speak to a rabbi. She has difficulty walking and would find it impossible to come to you. Would you be willing to take the time to go to her home and help her?"
"Of course," I replied. I took the woman's address and told myself that I'd go at the very first opportunity. I'm ashamed to admit, but all the duties of a new rabbi took so much of my time that I put my promised visit on hold, telling myself several times that I would soon get to it and fulfill my commitment.
"It's freezing outside. Can't you just put it off until tomorrow?" But I knew I had to go immediately.
Two weeks passed and one evening I suddenly realized I still hadn't gone to see the woman who said she desperately needed to speak to a rabbi. It was a bitter cold night in December but I was overpowered by guilt and decided that I could not possibly postpone my visit. "But how will you find the address in the dark?" my wife asked. "It's freezing outside. Can't you just put it off until tomorrow?"
But I just knew in my heart of hearts I had to go immediately.
I searched for the address and finally found the woman's home. I walked to the front door and was about to press the buzzer when the door suddenly opened. A young man stood before me in hat and coat obviously on his way out. I had intercepted him and unexpectedly appeared before him.
"Yes," he said, "what can I do for you?"
"My name is Rabbi Blech," I explained, "and I'm here to see Mrs. Cohen."*
The young man began to quiver and shake. I couldn't understand his reaction. How could the simple act of just saying my name and indicating who I wanted to see cause so much obvious consternation?
Perplexed, I waited, and after a few moments the young man said, "Mrs. Cohen is my mother and I'll tell her you're here." We went back inside and his mother soon joined me in the living room. She told me how glad she was that I had come and that she desperately needed to speak to me. What was strange though was that the her son, who was clearly leaving at the very moment I came, now took a seat and seemed hesitant to leave. His mother was surprised that he remained in the room and seemed to want to delay telling me what was on her mind until he left - but he made clear that he had no intention of doing so.
The mother then explained to me the reason for her request to see me. "I didn't want to speak of this in front of my son but perhaps it's meant to be that I do so. In fact, the reason for my need for a rabbi has to do with him. You see, I come from a religious Jewish home. My parents and grandparents were profoundly proud of their heritage and lived their lives in accord with Jewish tradition. But now I fear that their values will come to an end in our family. You see my son is seeing a non-Jewish woman and seems to be seriously considering marrying out of the faith. And that would destroy me."
Her son began to sob bitterly and could hardly find his voice. "I have a confession to make."
With that, her son began to sob bitterly and could hardly find his voice. "I have a confession to make," he said. That night was Christmas Eve but I had hardly noticed. But I soon found out it had great meaning to the young man who was trying to catch his breath while in the midst of crying.
"Yes rabbi, I have been seeing a young lady who isn't Jewish and we have become very serious. For some time she has pushed me to make it possible for her to marry me by converting to Christianity. Because I love her I finally agreed and tonight was supposed to be the fulfillment of her plan. I told her I would go to Christmas Mass with her and after that, meet the priest together with her to make arrangements for my conversion. I knew that it would be a crushing blow to my mother and probably mean that I would no longer be welcome in our home. But I had made the decision and was prepared to go through with it no matter what.
"When I was leaving this evening I wasn't just leaving my house, I was leaving my family, my past, and every connection I had with the Jewish people. This was going to be my break with Judaism and I opened the door to begin my journey into a new life. But then I was surprised to see someone standing in my way. I had no idea, rabbi, who you were but then you introduced yourself. I was dumbfounded. I haven't seen a rabbi since my bar mitzvah. And at the very moment I was about to throw away my religion, a rabbi stood in front of me blocking my way. I understood that this could not simply be coincidence. It had to be a message. I realized that it was God's way of telling me I dare not do what I contemplated."
It was then that I understood the young man's reaction when we first met. And it was then that I was overwhelmed by the thought that unbeknownst to me, I was nothing more than a messenger playing a role with a divine purpose. I did not choose the moment; the moment chose me. I could have gone to see the distraught mother any time, but somehow God made sure that I arrived precisely at the moment my very presence would be viewed as a sign to the young man.
What a revelation to me as a young rabbi. Moments in my life that I assumed were simply the result of personal choice could in fact be fulfillment of a higher plan. It made me realize that there can be miracles that take a different form than the splitting of the Red Sea. There are miracles that are hidden, that are couched in events that might appear to be natural but are so statistically improbable that they are nothing other than the hidden finger of God writing a script in which He involves us as unwitting actors. They are the miracles in which God chooses to remain anonymous but clearly indicate His presence behind the scenes.
There are miracles couched in events that appear to be natural but are so statistically improbable that they are nothing other than the hidden finger of God.
These are the miracles of Purim. They are recorded in a book called the Megillat Esther – the only book of the Bible in which God's name does not appear even once. God's presence is concealed, teaching us is the major lesson of this holiday: Study events whose coincidences transcend human understanding and possibility and you must realize that God can also choose to do miracles whose author is hidden from view.
Imagine how improbable it was for Esther to rise to her exalted status. So many implausible things had to happen to make that possible. The King had to become angry at his wife for not obeying his orders and have her banished. He had to take the advice of his advisers and end up choosing as his queen a young Jewish maiden who pleased him above all others. To make God's ultimate plan for the salvation of the Jews a reality, Esther's uncle Mordechai had to be in precisely the right spot at the right moment to overhear a plot against the King which was then recorded in the Royal records of events. That story needed to be heard by the King in order to achieve the downfall of Haman, so for some strange reason there was a night when the king couldn't fall asleep, asked one of his servants to read something to him and - what a coincidence - the page that came to hand was precisely the one recounting how Mordechai saved him from assassination.
The coincidences pile up one on top of the other. A foolish person might dismiss them but the Purim story reminds us that these too are miracles worthy of commemoration and celebration. As Mordechai told Queen Esther, explaining why she must act on behalf of her people, "Who knows if not for a time such as this did you achieve your Royal position."
Who knows, I often tell myself in the aftermath of my Christmas story, if at numerous moments in my life I should not reflect that “It was for a time such as this that I achieved my status as rabbi.”
Because that young man understood that God sent him a message, he didn't leave the house that night. We talked for several hours and then I left. I didn't find out the conclusion until the next day.
The young man called me on the phone and told me what happened afterwards. His fiancée phoned him and angrily demanded to know where he was and why he didn't show at Christmas Mass as he had promised. She yelled at him for embarrassing her to her priest by forcing her to cancel their appointment. The young man tried to explain that the inexplicable appearance of a rabbi as he was about to leave made him stop and reconsider.
The young lady was furious and could not be appeased. She told him it was over between them and concluded with disparaging remarks about Judaism and Jews. "I'm very lucky," the young man told me, "that God intervened before I made a terrible mistake that would've ruined my life."
He tried to thank me but I wouldn't accept his gratitude. After all, I realized, I had very little to do with the amazing timing of my visit that helped change a man's life. I was just a prop used in a larger, cosmic drama. Thanks belonged only to the heavenly Author who wrote the script.
Ever since then I've become attuned to noticing the small miracles that surround us so often in life. They're the ones that should make us reflect on why we happened to be precisely in a certain place at precisely a certain time. They're the ones that should remind us that there are occasions when we are merely messengers in a divinely orchestrated story, witnessing God’s hidden miracles.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.