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Those Precious Besherit Moments

Mavis Jackson [1] lived in Anaheim, California. Each Sunday, while running errands she would drive past the Crystal Cathedral, a huge Catholic church on a beautiful campus. She would think to herself each time she passed that she would go there for a service sometime. One Sunday morning, she finally did. She dressed up in her Sunday finest and thought, “Today is the day.”

When she arrived at the church, she was early. She took a seat in a middle of a row in the middle of the sanctuary, taking in the massive neo-gothic walls of glass. The aisles filled in with other worshipers. She nodded hello, but did not get into too much conversation with anyone, other than a few pleasantries. The service was lovely, and spoke to that longing she had been feeling for quite a while. As the service came to its conclusion, she stood up to leave. She was waiting for the aisle to clear when a young woman said hello to her. Mavis asked the woman if she was from the area as well.

“No,” the woman replied, “I’m visiting from the midwest.” She then offered, “I’m actually here on a mission to find my birth mother.” There was a pause between the two of them.

“I know how you must feel,” Mavis replied. “A long time ago, I had to give up a little girl for adoption.” There was another pause. The young woman asked Mavis if she remembered her daughter’s birthday. Mavis cautiously replied with the day she had given birth. The young woman and she simultaneously drew the invisible lines of connection. The serendipity of the moment was visible to both of them: Mavis was her birth mother.

A powerful moment of serendipity. What are the chances? Mavis and her daughter experienced a profound moment of besherit. A lot of people throw around the Yiddish word besherit. We say about couples, “the two of them really are besherit for one another.” We say about situations, “It was like it was meant to be; besherit, you know?” Besherit connotes predestination. The word suggests that something is intended, like a bride and groom looking into one another’s eyes on their wedding day, saying “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li, I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” [2]

When we find ourselves graced with a moment of besherit, it makes us take a second to stop and reflect on what it might mean. Some consider these as moments in which it’s like God is winking at us. Rabbi Larry Kushner calls these the upside-down airplane moments.

Rabbi Kushner’s uncle was the one who coined that phrase. [3] Uncle Art was an avid stamp collector. He had books upon books filled with his stamp collection, and kept them in a special room in his basement. Once, Uncle Art showed Kushner his most precious stamp. It was a misprint that had been accidentally released. “It had a red border that said ‘U.S. Postage $0.24.’ Printed in blue in the center was an airplane, but the airplane was upside down! [Art] said, ‘Sometimes what other people think is a mistake turns out to be valuable, so keep your eye out for airplanes that are upside down.’”

In these moments when we recognize the misprint, that moment of besherit, it’s like the cosmic curtain is being pulled back for us. Like we’re getting clued into a larger mystical reality of our existence. This is what Moses experiences when he is standing before the burning bush.

Recall the experience, because that too is besherit. [4] Moses is shepherding his father-in-law’s flock in the Wilderness, when he came to Horeb. Some say this was the same place where he and the Israelites would receive Torah. As he passed this particular spot, “An angel of the Eternal appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed.” Our Rabbis teach in the Midrash that many had passed by this site, but it was Moses who notices the miracle. “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” Moses thinks to himself.

Upside-down airplanes and burning bushes: giant cosmic flags calling us to attention. Sometimes things cannot just be chance. Sometimes what seemed like a happy coincidence has a powerful meaning for us underneath it. If only our eyes are open to noticing those airplanes that fly upside-down. If only our minds and hearts are open to hearing the voice that emerges from the bush, there ready to teach us the meaning contained within those experiences. Being in a besherit moment is not only about naming it as such. It is also about recognizing what it means for our lives. We have to learn from our besherit, not just be with our besherit.

So what is the meaning behind it? These moments of grace, of chance, of serendipity, of besherit, I really do believe are moments filled with God’s presence. When we wake up from the dream, we are called to say, “Surely God is in this place, and I, I did not know it.” [5] Besherit moments are God-winks, evidence of God’s reality in our world.

When I think back on serendipitous moments that I have experienced, they bring a smile back to my face. They are a pleasing aspect of God. Besherit moments are happy occurrences. We like it when we encounter something that feels like it was meant to be. These are the sorts of moments that Martin Buber called I-Thou moments, in which we experience a moment of meeting with another person, another entity, that seems almost other-worldly. The moment is precious.

I had an experience like that sitting in this sanctuary last Spring. As my wife, Liz, and I were beginning our house hunting here in the Berkshires, we decided to come and spend Shabbat here at Hevreh. Liz and I were sitting over in the chairs where we could look out the window as the sun set. Just as the sky turned from its sunset blue into an inkier black, we arrived at Ahavat Olam in the service. Everyone around us started singing, and I got caught up in the moment. The trees, the voices coming together as one, the beautiful sanctuary. For a split second, I experienced being in three places at once. I knew I was sitting in my chair at Hevreh.

I was also sitting in the chapel at Tufts University Hillel, where I did my undergraduate work. The chapel there was a circular room with a big picture window. It looked out on a beautiful garden, whose centerpiece was an old oak tree. The top branches of the tree extended over a skylight that lit up the chapel space. At sunset, it too, was a magnificent, prayerful place to be. I remember sitting in that room, too, on the first Shabbat I got to spend there as a student. Looking at the candles lit in the center of the room, hearing everyone singing together, enjoying the view, the thought that occurred to me then was, “Ah. I am home.”

But I wasn’t just sitting at Hevreh, and I wasn’t just sitting in the Hillel chapel. I was also sitting in the outdoor sanctuary at the URJ Greene Family Camp in Bruceville, Texas, a sister camp to our own Eisner and Crane Lake Camps. It was where I went for a number of summers. I recalled simultaneously sitting in services there, surrounded by old pecan trees that lined the prayer space, again singing with everyone as the sun set behind the bima, and feeling the wind come through my hair. That was the first time I recall thinking, “I wonder if God is here. God must be here in this moment.”

Sitting in Hevreh during services, suddenly re-experiencing the memories of my childhood, I was taken by this besherit moment. Looking at everyone at Hevreh that evening, experiencing the joy of Shabbat together, I thought to myself, “What a wonderful synagogue. I feel so fortunate to get to visit this weekend.” Then I said to myself, “Wait a second! I’m not just visiting here. This is my congregation!”

Serendipitous moments are nice. Beshereit experiences bring a smile to our faces. They are moments of the reality of God’s presence in our lives. And they validate the good things that happen to us.

However, I also struggle with the concept of besherit. It’s easy to describe something as besherit when it’s pleasant and a happy occurrence. We reject the notion that something was meant to be when tragedy befalls us. It’s cruel to imagine that bad things happen for a reason, and I for one, cannot and do not pray to a God who predestines tragedy.

Earlier this morning we recited Unetaneh Tokef. This prayer, read plainly and directly, is such a challenge to my belief system that come each High Holy Day season that I would rather just skip over it. I cannot be in a deep relationship with God who sits and judges me and others deciding if this is the year that I will continue, or this is the year where I will cease to be. That is not the God that I believe in.

We know that in this year, there will be trials and troubles. However, it troubles me that we would see God’s hand behind the cruel and the random. Ten years ago, Franklin Graham, the son on Billy Graham suggested that God targeted New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina because of the city’s sinful reputation. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the late chief Sephardi rabbi of Israel, claimed that “Katrina was retribution for U.S. support of the Israeli pullout from Gaza. Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam called Katrina judgment for the Iraq war. The Christian Civic Group of Maine noted that the hurricane struck just as New Orleans was planning a huge gay-rights festival.” [6]

Give me a break. It is this sort of religious leadership, and this sort of dangerous and faulty theology that drives so many away from religion. It is this sort of corruption of God that drives so many to deny the positive aspects of our spiritual lives, to reject the evidence that we see of God’s reality in the world. And, I include the literal reading of Unetaneh Tokef in with this sort of dangerous thinking.

One element of the prayer I do find comforting, though, and again, we read it this morning: “But through repentance, prayer, and justice do we transcend the harshness of the decree.” Forgiveness, prayer, and justice—those are actions that we in our community take during the High Holy Days and every day. They are human actions. This prayer for me is really evidence of where we see the Divine working through us. Two brothers, like Esau and Jacob, estranged for years, can forgive one another. In that moment, in which they reencounter one another with open hearts, God is there. When we hear joy emerge in our congregation as we sing our way through services, God is there. And when we march, hand in hand with others, bending the long moral arc of the universe toward justice, God is there.

I cannot entertain the idea that the finger of God brings about the tragic and the horrific. I do see God, though, in our human reactions to the brokenness of our world, and I do see God in those moments that seem pregnant with blessing.

Friends, the experiences of our lives are varied. Sometimes we are standing on the mountain top, and other times we travel through deep and dark valleys. The spiritual life is not one that is lived in perpetual ecstasy. Sometimes, when we encounter a moment of besherit, we can smile at our good fortune. We count our blessings. We see God in that moment. Jewish history teaches us that not all of life is besherit. We, as a Jewish people, are strangers in a strange land. We know about exile from various periods in our history. The Prophet Isaiah, speaking to our exiled people said “Nachamu, nachamu, ami; Seek comfort, seek comfort, My people.” [7] Having experienced trouble, tragedy, and heartache, Isaiah encourages a spiritual connection between the People of Israel and God. In comfort, God is to be found. “Behold God! Like a shepherd who pastures His flock: God gathers the lamb, cradled it in His arms.” [8] Forgiveness, prayer, justice, and comfort—these human acts allow us to witness God’s presence in the world, when besherit moments are not enough.

Besherit moments are wonderful. Witnessing that upside-down airplane validates. Noticing the burning bush confirms. But even more, the human actions that bring meaning to our lives, and that serve as the evidence of the best of humanity, and the best of God, those, too are God filled moments.

In this new year, may we be written in and sealed in the book of blessing and of life. May we, when graced with a glimmer of besherit, smile and embrace it. And may we each do our part to contribute more of those best aspects of ourselves, that no matter the conditions, serve to make our lives holy.


[1] Adapted from Bushnell, When God Winks, 4–5.

[2] Song of Songs 6:3.

[3] Adapted from Kushner, Invisible Lines of Connection, 13.

[4] Exodus 3.

[5] Genesis 28:16.

[7] Isaiah 40:1.

[8] Isaiah 40:8–9.


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