Rabbi Sacks on Coincidence and Providence

JInsider (March 2010)

If you open the middle book of the Torah, it's called Vayikra. And you open a sefer Torah, you will see the first word Vayikra, the aleph is written small. Now, what is that telling us? Well, it's telling us something extraordinary. There are two words in Hebrew, which sound almost identical, but which are opposite in meaning. One is the word mikreh, which means mere chance, superstition, happenstance, just that. And the other is mikra which means, "God is calling to us." There's nothing chance about this at all. It's God's call to us through providence, asking us to do something. And the only difference is mikra has an 'aleph', and mikreh has a 'hey'. The difference in pronunciation between an aleph and a hey is almost inaudible. And just to emphasise the point, the Torah takes that aleph and makes it small to remind you how small is the difference between seeing life as mere coincidence and seeing life as God's call. It's a small difference, but it's all a difference.

And that is why over the years, I have tried more and more, as a daily discipline, to look at the things that happen to me or to our community and ask, "What is God asking of us through this happening?" And I find that's an extraordinary way to live a life. So for instance, if a real bad thing happens to you, normally that can derail you, it can throw you into a depression, who knows what. But when you don't do that, you say, "Hang on. This thing has happened to me for a reason. And that reason doesn't lie in the past, it lies in the future. God is asking me to take this and use it as a means to do that. Then I can survive even the worst catastrophe." I never lose my faith or my hope. And it, that is a life-changing thing.

So to give you an example, and this is really quite relevant, I was supposed, this morning while we are making this film, to be on a plane to London. Somehow there was an earthquake or a shifting of the tectonic plates or a volcano in Iceland, which sent all sorts of volcanic ash into the atmosphere, and all the planes are grounded and no one can get to London. And so here I am in New York and I'm saying to myself, "What does God want me to do in New York?" And then I meet somebody called Mark Pearlman, who for the viewers out there is the person you can't see but the person I'm talking to at this moment, and he says, "Let's make a film together." And all of a sudden I realise that this was not just mikreh, coincidence. It's mikra, God telling me to use this moment here, now, in these circumstances, to do something He needs me to do.

Live your life that way, and my goodness, your life will be flooded with purpose and meaning in a way it could never be. If all you see of history is in the immortal words of Joseph Heller, "A trash bag of random coincidence is blown open in the wind." Life ain't like that, though it may look that way, life is God's call to us.