|In the 1850s, Emperor Franz Josef ordered the construction of the Ringstrasse, a 3 ½ mile promenade in the center of Vienna. It quickly became the prime location for the mansions of royalty and the ultra-rich. It became the location of large, official buildings, everything from the Parliament to City Hall to the Vienna State Opera to the Museum of Fine Arts. But even more importantly, the Ringstrasse became the place to stroll. It was, and remains, the promenade to walk.
Elie Wiesel talked about Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism. He described Herzl, a Viennese Jew, taking his constitutional along the Ringstrasse, thinking about the future of the Jewish people. One day, Herzl decides that a land for the Jewish people is the only way forward. And as impossible as it may sound, he said, “If you will it, it is no dream.”
Another Viennese Jew walked along the Ringstrasse contemporaneously with Herzl: Sigmund Freud. Imagine, said Wiesel, if Herzl uttered his famous declaration out loud as Freud walked by. Perhaps Freud would have stopped and said, “Dream? Did you say ‘dream’?” They might have engaged in conversation. And then, who knows? Perhaps the Jewish State would never have been founded!
There’s a scene in the Joseph story where Jacob sends his favorite son to check on his brothers out in the fields with the flocks. Joseph doesn’t know where his brothers have gone. When he reached Shechem, 36:15 a man came upon him wandering in the fields. The man asked him, “What are you looking for?” 16 He answered, “I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are pasturing?” 17 The man said, “They have gone from here, for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan.” So Joseph followed his brothers and found them at Dothan.
If it weren’t for that chance meeting with a nameless stranger, perhaps Joseph would have never found his brothers. Instead, he would’ve packed up and gone home. Had THAT happened, the Jewish people would’ve never come to be. We’d have died out in Egypt.
When I was in 4th grade and offered with a limitless choice of what musical instrument to play, I chose the oboe. I don’t mind saying that it was a bad choice. With all due respect to oboists everywhere – even on Mozart In the Jungle – it’s just not a cool instrument. Had my parents or some stranger intervened and said, “No dude. Pick up the alto sax!”, I may never have ended up as a rabbi.
Some people say that there’s no such thing as coincidences. They say God’s hand is in all such things. That man in the Joseph story who literally appears out of nowhere, without context or explanation, must have been strategically placed there by God. And perhaps it was God who led my music teacher to say that the oboe was a good idea, to keep me away from another path that would lead me away from what I was meant to do, which was not to be a jazz musician, but rather to be a rabbi.
I’d like to believe that God’s hand is in much of what we do or don’t do. I’d like to think that coincidences are holy encounters, the nearest thing to a proof of God’s existence. I’d like to believe that those people who appear briefly in our life stories and change everything are placed there, even if they have no idea. I’d like to believe that everything happens for a reason.
But alas! I do not. I am glad no one handed me a horn in 1963. I am thankful the first professor I spoke to in college became my mentor and friend. Because of him, I was drawn to the rabbinate. I don’t think God made that happen. I’m just glad it worked out as it did.
The world is filled with random events careening off of each other like atoms in a particle accelerator. And we careen right along with them. To get some balance, we find others who share common concerns and hopes. We build a community that provides lasting stability. That is not coincidence. That’s hard work. That’s commitment.
God’s presence is not in chance encounters. It is, rather, in every moment we decide to open our hearts and our minds. God’s presence is in the gesture of humanity. That’s no coincidence.