Accidents Don’t Happen

With time, those with open eyes come to recognize that life is peppered with strange, small ironies – “coincidences” that others don’t even notice, or unthinkingly dismiss.

The famous psychiatrist Carl Jung puzzled over such happenings, which he felt were evidence of some “acausal connecting principle” in the world. In a famous essay, he named the phenomenon “synchronicity.”

To those of us who believe in a Higher Power, synchronistic events, no matter how trivial they may seem, are subtle reminders that there is pattern in the universe, evidence of an ultimate plan.

My family has come to notice what appears to us to be an increase of such quirky happenings in our lives during the month (or, as this year, months) of Adar.

That would make sense, of course, since Adar is the month of Purim, the Jewish holiday that is saturated with seemingly insignificant “twists of fate” that turn out to be fateful indeed. From King Achashverosh’s execution of his queen to suit his advisor and later execution of his advisor to suit his new queen; to Mordechai’s happenstance overhearing and exposure of a plot that comes to play a pivotal role in his people’s salvation; to Haman’s visiting the king at the very moment when the monarch’s insomnia has him wondering how to honor Mordechai; to the gallows’ employment to hang its builder… The list of drolly fortuitous happenings goes on, and its upshot is what might be called The Purim Principle: Nothing is an Accident.

The holiday’s very name is taken from an act of chance – “purim” are the lots cast by Haman, who thinks he is accessing randomness but is in fact casting his own downfall. He rejoices at his lottery’s yield of the month during which he will have the Jews destroyed: the month of Moses’ death. He does not realize that it was the month, too, of his birth.

The contemporary Adar coincidences I’ve come to expect are often about trivial things, but they still fill me with joy, as little cosmic “jokes” that remind me of the Eternal. One recent evening, for example, I remarked to my wife and daughter how annoying musical ringtones in public places are, especially when the cellphones are programmed, as they usually are, to assault innocent bystanders with jungle beats and rude shouting. “Why can’t they use the Moonlight Sonata?” I quipped.

The very next day at afternoon services, someone’s cellphone went off during the silent prayer. Usually my concentration is disturbed by such things but this time the synchronicity of the sound only made me more aware of the Divine. Never before had I heard a phone play the Moonlight Sonata.

Only days later, my daughter saw a license plate that intrigued her. It read: “Psalm 128.” What a strange legend for a car, she thought. That very night she accompanied her mother and me to a wedding. Under the chuppah, unexpectedly, a group of young men sang a lovely rendition of… yes, you guessed it.

Other times, the Adar coincidences are more obviously meaningful, clearly linked to Purim. A few Adars ago, a striking irony emerged from a new book about Joseph Stalin. It related something previously unknown: that after the infamous 1953 “Doctors Plot,” a fabricated collusion of doctors and Jews to kill top Communist leaders, the Soviet dictator had ordered the construction of four giant prison camps in Siberia, “apparently,” as a New York Times article about the book put it, “in preparation for a second great terror – this time directed at the millions of Soviet citizens of Jewish descent.”

Two weeks later, though, Stalin took suddenly ill at a dinner party and, four days later, it was announced that he had died. His successor Nikita Khrushchev recounted how the dictator had gotten thoroughly drunk at the dinner party, which ended in the early hours of March 1. Which, that year, fell on the 14th of Adar, Purim.

This year, too, I was synchronicity-struck by an unexpected piece of Adar information. It materialized as I did research for a speech I was to give about the destruction of a small Lithuanian town’s Jewish community during the Holocaust.

The most famous extant document about Nazi actions in Lithuania is what has come to be known as the Jager Report, after SS-Standartenfuehrer Karl Jager (whose surname, incidentally, means “hunter” in German; “as his name so was he”: he hunted Jews). Filed on December 1, 1941, and labeled “Secret Reich Business,” the report meticulously details a “complete list of executions carried out in the EK [Einsatzkommando] 3 area” that year.

It records the number of men, women and children murdered in each of dozens of towns and ends with the grand total of the operation’s victims – 137,346 – and the words: “Today I can confirm that our objective, to solve the Jewish problem for Lithuania, has been achieved by EK3…”

Standartenfuehrer Jager, however, only oversaw the operation; he didn’t get his hands dirty with the actual work of shooting Jews. That he left to a “raiding squad” of “8-10 reliable men from the Einsatzkommando,” led by a young Oberstumfuherer called Hamman. Joachim Hamman.

May his name, and that of his ancient namesake, be blotted out, and our days be transformed, in the Book of Esther’s words, “from sorrow to gladness and from mourning to festivity.”


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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7 Responses

  1. Ori says:

    Rabbi Avi Shafran: May his name, and that of his ancient namesake, be blotted out,

    Ori: Why do we say this (or the Hebrew equivalent, Yimach Shmo) about our enemies? The only reason anybody still remembers half of them is because we do. If they hadn’t been in the Tanakh, nobody would have remembered Amalek, or Hamman, or Sisera, for example.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    This book, which seems to be out of print, discussed the brutality of a Nazi with the surname Haman (Hamman?) who terrorized the area that included Sanz:

    While Sanz was in western Galicia (in Poland), far from Lithuania, I wonder this was the same Nazi mentioned above by Rabbi Shafran.

  3. Barzilai says:

    Ori: If you want his name forgotten, why memorialize it?

    Barzilai: His name doesn’t matter– he’s dead anyway, and I don’t think he cares whether or not we forget him. What matters is what his name represents. When murderous anti-semitism forever becomes merely a peculiar historical artifact, then his ‘name’ will have been blotted out.

  4. Garnel Ironheart says:

    Or one could argue there’s a perception bias.

    For example, to a pediatrician every child with a fever potentially has meningitis since the kids with simple colds never make it past the ER or family docotor.

    Similarly, when we look for happy events, the ones in Adar just seem to stick out more because of the association of Purim just like we remember certain tragedies more than others because of their association with Tisha B’av.

    Fortunately, we have a God on duty who works 365 days a year (366 in a secular leap year). We should be happy He’s not asking for a vacation.

  5. Daniel Shain says:

    “To those of us who believe in a Higher Power, synchronistic events, no matter how trivial they may seem, are subtle reminders that there is pattern in the universe, evidence of an ultimate plan.”

    While God’s involvement in our lives and “hashgacha pratis” are a fundamental Jewish belief, many Rishonim as I understand it (Rambam, Ramban, Sefer HaIkarim…) wrote that it is dependent on a person’s spiritual level and closeness to God. When we are on a low level, we don’t merit hashgacha pratis, and we may be susceptible to “accidents of nature”.

    I wonder whether nowadays we are on a very low spiritual level, and that some of the things that happen (like recent terrorist attacks, and car accidents) are accidents of nature (that is, not due to hashgacha pratis), and reflect our low spiritual level, rather than a specific message from Hashem. Similarly, we do not merit Negaim and Tzaraas on our bodies and houses anymore. Otherwise, I find it hard to understand why such things happen.

  6. Garnel Ironheart says:

    There’s a story in Mas. Sanhedrin about how the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah wanted to establish that Shlomo HaMelech would not be getting Olam Haba because of his various misdemeanours. After several strong heavenly “hints” were ignored, a Bas Kol came out and said, in effect: “Do you mind? I’m God and I decide who gets in, not you.”

    Who knows the mind of God? Who can decide whether or not our low spiritual level gets us His attention or not? It is for us to fear God and perform His mitzvos to the best of our abilities and trust that He will do his best to show us love and care. Deciding on prequisite standards is presumptious and limits Him far too much.

  7. Yirmeyahu says:

    “Other times, the Adar coincidences are more obviously meaningful, clearly linked to Purim. A few Adars ago, a striking irony emerged from a new book about Joseph Stalin.”

    Well I had heard this before but felt like I should do a little research to try to confirm it, not to second guess Rabbi Shafran but… At first the only date which seemed to pop up was the 5th of March, the day he actually died, but then:

    “The night of 28 February began in the usual manner for Stalin and his closest political circle, Lavrenty Beria, Nikita Khrushchev, Nikolai Bulganin and Georgi Malenkov. They watched a film in the Kremlin then retired to Stalin’s country home, 10 minutes outside Moscow, for yet another night of feasting. By the early hours of 1 March, Stalin’s guests had gone back to their homes in Moscow…..The guards began to get worried, but no one dared to go into his rooms. They had no right to disturb Stalin unless invited into his presence personally. At 6.30 a light came on in Stalin’s rooms, and the guards relaxed a little. But by the time 10 o’clock had chimed they were petrified. Lozgachev was finally sent in to check on Stalin…..The guards rushed to call Stalin’s drinking companions, the Politburo.”

    And from the Library of Congress website:
    “Stalin collapsed on March 1, 1953, and remained unconscious until he died on March 5. Khrushchev said he didn’t receive immediate medical care because Stalin’s advisers at first thought he was drunk and would regain consciousness. “He was on the floor and they brought him [up] on the sofa,” said Khrushchev.”

    It does appear that Stalin “began” dying on March 1st after a drinking party, and it seems that March first that year was in fact Purim:

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