Sermon: Yom Kippur - Chance Encounters

Yom Kippur 5768

Chance Encounters

Rabbi Joe Blair

Monday evening, after a fairly long and very busy day, I left the office at the synagogue, and made my way towards home. My day had started with a flat tire when I went out to the car, and after changing the tire and cleaning up, I made a detour on the way to the office to drop the car off to have the tires replaced, the car aligned, and the brakes checked – a routine service which had been delayed a little too long. In the late afternoon, they called and I went and picked up the car, then returned to the office to continue what I was working on for a few more hours.

It was after eight when I left, and it was already dark. As is so often the case, for me, at least, my mind was full of the events of my day: fragments of conversations, nagging problems, unresolved feelings; the list of things I would need to do, things I had forgotten to do, things I should not have done; and a whole host of other bits of the flotsam and jetsam of my day. Nonetheless, I was still alert, awake, and attentive as I steered my car towards home. There was a good amount of traffic on the main highways, but once I got off on the smaller secondary roads it dissipated, and there were few cars on the road as I came close to home.

I have driven the same route almost daily for the last four plus years. I am quite familiar with it, and there are few locations along it that I can’t pick out or picture in my mind’s eye. Consequently, I am fairly comfortable driving along it, and have a sense of when to slow down for upcoming curves and hills, as well as knowing where the straightaways make for easy driving.

Never, however, have I imagined anything out of the ordinary happening along that route, so I was utterly taken by surprise when suddenly, out of nowhere, seemingly from thin air, a deer dropped from above me onto the roadway no more than one foot in front of my car. I tried to swerve, and I did my best to stop, but it was completely futile. I was traveling at between 45 and 50 miles per hour (the speed limit there is 55), and a car just won’t turn or stop in one foot of distance. I hit the deer.

In less than the blink of an eye, that deer flew off my hood and into the brush and trees on the side of the road at that place. A cloud of steam billowed out from under my hood, and the front of the car bounced violently up and down, bottoming out. The tires squealed as I stomped on the brake pedal. It all took just an instant.

By the time I could stop the car, and pull over and get out to try to see if there was anything to be done, I heard a crashing of brush receding into the distance. I had to accept that as indicating that the deer had survived and was able to resume its progress. My car was not nearly so resilient. It is in the body shop having most of the front end replaced. So much for the alignment done that afternoon!

I know that deer are overpopulated in this area, that they are not suited to survive in a suburban environment, and that Virginia has the largest number of deer-car accidents in the US, but I still felt and feel badly.

I can’t help but wonder if I had done something a little differently, or come along ten seconds earlier, or five seconds later, if the whole incident would have been avoided. The very chance nature of our encounter, intersecting only for a split second, only at that precise time and place, is amazing. Any small change on the part of the deer or by me would have changed that incident significantly. In a sense, the very fact that we did intersect is a small miracle.

It seems that we are constantly ‘happening’ to have things occur to us, that chance plays a huge role. Perhaps, on a personal scale, this is what chaos theory is supposed to help explain. (If I am mistaken in my use of the term, I know that the physicists in the congregation will correct my misapprehension shortly enough.) I couldn’t help but think about this idea of chance and happenstance as it plays out in our daily lives. Think about these examples: If I had stopped for coffee instead of going straight home, I would have missed that deer. If I had not had the tires changed and the alignment and brakes done, I might have been less able to steer, slow, and stop and much worse could have happened.

Similarly, if I had not forgotten to pick up the book to return, I would not have had to make an extra trip to the library. If I had not gone back into the house to retrieve something I forgot, I would not have missed the phone call at the office. If I had not missed the phone call, I would have been able to meet my friend for dinner. If I had not turned off my cell phone, I would have known that my appointment was cancelled and been able to do something else.

It all seems so random, so subject to chance. Is this really the organizing principle for our lives?

Of course, chance is one way to describe it, but perhaps a better term would be ‘opportunity.’ At the risk of exposing my age, I recall reading a series of books by Carlos Castaneda about a Yaqui sorcerer named Don Juan who lived largely in rural areas of the west coast of Mexico. Castaneda was ostensibly an anthropologist or sociologist, and intended to study the culture of Don Juan. In fact, what we discover through the various books is that Don Juan was waiting for Castaneda, and in fact lured and then captured him as a student. Castaneda thought he was meeting this old man by chance, but Don Juan knew that this was the arrangement he had been seeking.

In a number of the encounters described, Don Juan described to Castaneda how life presents us with opportunities, saying that each opportunity is a chance that pops out in front of us, and each chance presents us with a choice about what to do. The secret, he teaches, is to be alert, aware, trained, and prepared to make a choice, and to seize the chance presented. He calls each one of them a ‘cubic centimeter of chance’ which comes once and is then gone forever.

In light of this, Deborah Lipstadt, professor of modern Jewish thought and Holocaust studies at Emory University wrote this story about her father, and the intersection of chance and opportunity.

“On Rosh Hashanah in the mid-1960s, my father received a cancer diagnosis. The doctors scheduled radiation treatments, but the initial treatments fell on Sukkot and Simchat Torah…. He asked that he be allowed to come in for treatment during the middle days of the festival. The hospital spokesperson explained that those days were reserved for in-patients. Outpatients generally found it too depressing to see the terrible shape these patients were in. My father, unfazed, said that even if it was too depressing, he would come during the in-patient days. Reluctantly, they agreed. On his first visit, he sat in the waiting room surrounded by terribly disfigured, desperately ill people on gurneys. While reading his newspaper, he began to hum. A lady on a gurney nearby said, ‘That’s pretty. Sing louder.’ My father agreed and did. The lady quietly joined in. Others followed, and soon the room was awash with song.

Shortly thereafter, a nurse emerged and asked my father to come in. He rose, but before leaving, he turned to the other patients and said, ‘That is a tune by Shlomo Carlebach. I knew his family in Germany. He set a verse from the book of Psalms to this music. The words you were singing are, ‘Esa eynai el heharim meyayin yavo ezri. Ezri meyim Adonai, osey shamayim ve’aretz’ (From whence shall my help come? My help shall come from the Lord, the creator of heaven and earth.) He concluded, ‘And so may it be’ then went in to his treatment”

Mr. Lipstadt seized the chance when it arose and made it an opportunity to make a difference to those around him. He made this opportunity in the midst of a chance encounter, thinking of and reaching out to those around him, acting on his values, doing what he had been preparing for for many years.

The same Shlomo Carleback that Mr. Lipstadt mentioned told this parable about chance and opportunities. This is adapted from the version of it retold by his daughter Neshama.

"Imagine you are on a subway, and suddenly realize that your soul mate, the one you have been waiting and praying for your entire life, your basherte, is standing beside you. You’re full of love and disbelief; and you can’t speak. Then the doors open, and your soul mate is leaving, walking off the train. Frozen, you manage only, ‘What’s your number?’ You hear only the first three digits. Then the doors close.

"At the next stop, you run to a pay phone, frantically trying every combination of numbers imaginable. Failing that, you drive through the streets, crying, searching. Overwrought, you begin to drive dangerously, hurrying, running red lights. You are arrested for reckless behavior. Imprisoned, brokenhearted, and alone, you await your trial. You prepare yourself, terrified of the possible judgment you will receive.

"As you enter the courtroom, you look up to see that the judge you have feared to meet is your soul mate, the very person you’ve been seeking, and whose absence created the sadness that made you lose your way. You break down. Your soul mate says the words that change your life. ‘I know you’ve made mistakes, but let’s not think about that now. Today, I just want to be close to you."

On Yom Kippur we stand in judgment before G-d. We beg forgiveness for our mistakes. In Elul G-d comes to us. If we listen closely we will hear G-d’s voice saying, ‘I know how hard this world can be. I know you long for meaning, and sometimes make mistakes. But now, I just want to be close to you.’ Sometimes, it is when things are falling apart that we have the opportunity to hear G-d’s voice.“

 Of course, all this begs the question of whether there is really any such thing as chance, or is it foreordained? It has been a subject of debate for centuries. It is too large and too hard a question to answer today, so I will leave it for exploration another time. For the moment, it is enough to know that there is something that we call chance, or coincidence, and we must live in such a way as to take that into account. We cannot live in a rudderless, undirected fashion. There must be a guiding light, and an organizing principle, for our lives to have any meaning. For the moment, we will just accept that this light is G-d, and the principles are those enumerated in the Torah and Mitzvot.

Taking advantage of the sudden appearance of a chance, turning it into an opportunity, is not something that simply happens. It requires that we prepare our self. Like an athlete, we must train and practice and make our self ready to recognize the chance, and to act at the instant, without notice. Thank G-d, that is what all my years of driving did: I knew to first slow and then stop the car, to continue steering, to hold steady in my lane, and so on, all without taking any time to think. Training, preparation, and practice, all came together, and took over to the point that it was all integrated into my bones. I didn’t have to think at all, I just KNEW what to do and automatically did it.

This is also the purpose of our traditional routine of prayer, and meditation, and kavvanot, of tikkun olam, and mitzvot, of avodah, tzedakah, and gemilut Chasidim. These are the exercises and practice that we undertake to make ourselves ready to recognize the chance, to seize the instant, and to actualize the opportunity. This is what we do to prepare, to train, and to ready our self to recognize our beloved when we encounter them. What we do becomes a part of us, so deeply ingrained that we do not need to give it a thought – we simply do the right thing when we have to act.

That is why it is so important to have meaningful spiritual practices that are in synch with our values, and a regular routine of reinforcing them.

Today, Yom Kippur, is the culmination of all of that work and preparation for the past year. Now, here, we stand before G-d, our judge, and our basherte. It is up to us to seize this opportunity, to reach out, to take this chance to be close to G-d, and to seek to hear the words telling us that G-d will ‘just want to be close’ to us, as we seek to be close to G-d. In that way, our lives will be fulfilled, and we will be a blessing and a light to the world.

May you see G-d in the face of all you love, and love in the face of all around you. May you be sealed for a good and sweet year of blessings and joys. May you find that G-d wants to be close to you. May there be peace in the world. Let us say, Amen.

Shanah tovah. Chag sameach.

Oct. 18 2007