Thursday, March 30, 2006

Thoughts on Purim and the Hidden Deity

Purim, which occurred two weeks ago, is one of my favorite Jewish holidays. It's a lot of fun. I look forward to the process of making hamentaschen (Purim cookies) all year, and my co-workers look forward to the process of eating them!

But the most interesting part of Purim for me is the hidden way that the Divine is presented in the story of Purim. In the Passover story, we see a very manifest Deity, imposing plagues and the parting of the Sea. That's very dramatic, but it's not the way we're used to relating to the Deity in our own lives. In the Purim story, the Divine is hidden; His Name not even mentioned; His desired results come about through the actions of people. But the story makes no mistake that this was His desired result, that if Queen Esther does not bring it about then someone else will.

I was thinking about this yesterday, while I was stuck in a traffic backup on my way to work. I was thinking about the way that hidden Hand seems to have been working in my life recently. Here is my story, which happens to have reached a critical point on Purim:

Here in the mid-Atlantic states, you may think we have four seasons (Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall), but actually we have only two seasons: Winter and Construction. Construction season started in February, with a building renovation near my office that is blocking one lane of the road. The construction site is so poorly marked that the heavy morning traffic can never quite determine whether they are supposed to shift to the right (as the signs indicate) merge into one lane (as the road markings seem to indicate), a very dangerous situation. Complicating the process is the fact that people routinely park in what should be the shifted right lane. I fought my way through it for a few days before I had a minor accident (just a scratched bumper) to tell me that I needed to find another route to work! I experimented with a few alternative routes before I found the best one: a route that took me past an Conservative synagogue a few blocks from my office.

But construction season was not finished adding to my long commute! Shortly after I settled on my new route, one of the highways through Wilmington was narrowed to one lane for construction, spilling extra traffic onto the highway I take and slowing my long commute (I live more than 30 miles from my office, but it's almost entirely highway). No way around it this time.

As Purim approached, the DOT then announced another upcoming construction project on my normal route to work, one that was expected to add 15-30 minutes to my commute. Frustrating: if I leave early enough to beat that traffic, I'll get to work an hour early; if I leave much later, I'll never get to work on time. What to do?

I was struggling with this dilemma when a co-worker invited me to come to his synagogue on Purim for lunch and open-mike joke-telling. What a great idea! We walked to his synagogue, the same one that I passed every morning on my new route to work. We sat with the synagogue's education director, who told me about the synagogue's morning minyan (daily prayer service). I was surprised to hear that they had one, because most of the Conservative synagogues I'm familiar with don't. He admitted that they have trouble achieving a minyan (the minimum 10 people required for certain parts of the service, notably the formal Torah reading and the Mourner's Kaddish prayer), but their goal for the year is to achieve a minyan 80% of the time. He encouraged me to come.

It was a perfect solution to my commute dilemma: Services run from 7:30AM to 8:15AM, perfect timing for me to get to work a few blocks away by my starting time of 8:30AM. To get to services by 7:30AM, I would have to leave home about 15-30 minutes earlier than usual, which is what I would have to do anyway to deal with the construction delays.

The Purim lunch was on a Tuesday, and I planned to attend my morning minyan there on Wednesday, but somehow I wasn't able to get myself together in time. No problem; I would go on Thursday.

I went to services on Thursday; they didn't achieve a minyan in time for the Torah reading, but we had exactly 10 (including me) in time for Mourner's Kaddish. When I was there on Thursday, I learned that the synagogue's Wednesday services are held at another location. If I had made it on time on Wednesday, there would have been no one there, and I might not have come back.

The Wednesday minyans don't work out for me, because they are later and farther from my office. I would not be able to get to work on time if I went there. But I have made it to every non-Wednesday service since then. There are no traffic delays at the time I leave to make services. The combination of lower traffic and the spiritual benefits of the service mean that I arrive at my office in a better mood, ready to do a good day's work.

As I was stuck in traffic yesterday morning (a Wednesday), I found myself musing on the series of events that brought me to this minyan. The construction that diverted my path past the synagogue, the additional construction that encouraged me to leave early enough to go to services, the invitation to a Purim lunch, sitting with a man who was plugging the services, and unintentionally failing to make it to the synagogue on the day the service wasn't there.

All perfectly ordinary occurrences, nothing special about any of them. And yet, if any one of these pieces had not fallen into place, I might never have found myself at this synagogue's morning services. Twice in the last two weeks, there have been exactly 10 people at the service; there would have been no minyan if I had not been there. I can't help but see a higher Hand in all of this.