June 24, 2019

Torah portion: What a coincidence!

In 35 years as a rabbi, and additional years before then, I have experienced my share of life’s many “coincidences” and have heard others describe theirs. The stories often are fantastic, not only in the sense of being fabulous narratives but also as events that seemingly border on fantasy. Coincidences that “you will never believe.”

Only years later do these moments begin to make more sense and suddenly take on the effect of a grand master’s oil painting that, while initially unclear and curious — particularly when viewed from up close — ultimately is discernible for its grandeur and magnificence when the final strokes have been applied and when the piece is viewed from a suitable distance.

In time, one learns to view life’s inexplicable turns differently, to look at events, including coincidences, through a different lens. The person with a God-consciousness views coincidences and luck as the everyday Divine miracles they are.

In this week’s Torah portion, God commands the Jewish people to observe the shmita year, a fascinating requirement of Jewish law that the holy Land of Israel not be farmed every seventh year. During the year of shmita, we do not seed or water or till or plow or harvest. Rather, we are bidden by God to leave the land fallow: “And if you will ask: ‘What will we eat in the seventh year, given that our grain has not been seeded nor harvested?’ [The answer is that] I will command my blessing for you in the sixth year” and the land will provide enough grain in that sixth year for three years — that year, the following one, and into the eighth (Leviticus 25:19-22).

That sounds hard to believe. Yet that not only is the story of the Land of Israel but also of the State of Israel. Incredible, extraordinary events take place, even in modern times. At first, we recognize that we are witnessing miracles that cannot be explained easily by the laws of nature. Yet, in time, we become so accustomed to the miracles around us that we perceive them as part of a natural order.

I was 13 during the 1967 Six-Day War. I remember the pulse on the Jewish street. Everyone knew a war was coming. Lots of people did not think Israel would survive that impending war. Israel would be attacked by Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Many expected a disaster of Holocaust proportions.

When that war ended, there was a brief period of “miracle consciousness.” But soon, the Jewish fundraisers were back to sending letters saying that Israel had won the war because we had bought Israel Bonds or had given to the United Jewish Appeal. It no longer was about a miracle from heaven. Rather, it was that Egyptians are poor fighters, Israelis are invincible, American weapons are better than Soviet weapons and Sammy down the block had pledged a $100 Israel Bond.

Then came the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Same poor Egyptian fighters, same invincible Israelis, same superior American weapons and same inferior Soviet ones. Sammy still holding his Israel Bond. And yet a war erupted that, in its earliest stages, again had Jews wondering whether all the inferences derived from 1967 had been wrong. Few could absorb the horrible, devastating news coming out of Israel those first days of that war.

And then, again, came the miracles. Ariel Sharon somehow established a bridgehead across the Suez. Israel inexplicably and suddenly was marching on Cairo and Damascus, while also surrounding the vaunted Egyptian Third Army in the Sinai. It all had changed from disaster to miracle. 

And then, once again, people got used to it. The fundraisers were back: Israel had turned the tide because Sammy had upped his commitment, buying a $180 Israel Bond this time. 

Among the many lessons from this week’s law of shmita is that there is a unique holiness to the Land of Israel, that God watches over and protects the land, and expects His People to be proper stewards over that land, too. Just as we miraculously live well even when refusing to work on Shabbat, so can the land provide amply even when resting in the seventh year. The lesson is it behooves us to sharpen our vision and see beyond happenstances and coincidences, and to see that the existence, continued survival and success of Israel amid a sea of hostility and terror stem from more than Sammy buying an Israel Bond or donating to Jewish National Fund (JNF).

It certainly is worthwhile to buy an Israel Bond, to make a JNF contribution and to visit (and spend tourist dollars in) Israel. That is a way we can partner in God’s miracle. But it is His miracle, and it is good to see the miracle for what it is. 

Rabbi Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and at UC Irvine School of Law, is a member of the national executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He is a columnist for several online magazines and rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County. His writings appear at rabbidov.com.