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Inner Life: The Freeway Purim
by Sonia Levitin

RJ magazine's complimentary
"The Freeway Purim" Discussion Guide by Dr. Alan D. Bennett offers thought-provoking questions to discuss at home & in synagogue.

Two and a half years ago, I miraculously escaped disaster.

On February 8, the 20th of Shevat, 2007, I was driving on the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles. I followed my planned route, but didn’t figure on road construction. As I neared my destination, I made a quick right turn to exit, only to realize—within a nanosecond—that I had inadvertently turned onto another freeway and was headed the wrong way!

Eight lanes of traffic were bearing down on me, car horns blasting. It was rush hour and getting dark. There was no place to go….

I remember stopping dead still and thinking, I will die here .

Yet, as I sat there, terrified and helpless, I was also strangely aware of the amber light reflecting off my car’s pale gold interior…and felt utterly calm.

Dear God , I said aloud. Please help me. Please stop the traffic.

In that instant, I felt only that golden calm.

I repeated: Dear God, please help me. Please stop the traffic.

Inching my car forward, I turned to look over my right shoulder. Far in the distance I saw cars moving so slowly, a vast space opened in front of me. My mind screamed a single word: Go! Pushing on the accelerator, I sped into the empty lanes, then flew off that freeway and onto the darkening streets.

Afterwards, I could think only these thoughts: God heard me. He must know me. He did not want me to be among all the people who died today. Why was I saved?

Until that moment, I had thought of miracles as natural occurrences: the birth of a healthy baby, the destined union of two obviously beshert souls, the sprouting of a seed in moist earth. Near misses also qualified: a friend’s recovering from a potentially lethal illness, or missing a train that later derailed.

I saw my near disaster differently. Redemption, I thought. I have been redeemed . Perhaps for some purpose. Will I be asked do something heroic—perhaps some grand work or the smallest act of kindness that will later define my life? If so, how will I know what it is? Or maybe this reprieve is simply a gift, for which I must be forever grateful.

For two days I lived in the glow of this miracle. It never left my mind. My husband, grown children, dearest friends all heard the story. “I’m glad you were saved,” they said simply.

One friend, though, advised me not to think about the incident. “You’ll forget all about it in a day or two,” she said.

“I don’t want to forget it,” I replied. “Not ever.”

As the months passed, I decided to commemorate the event every year on the Hebrew anniversary date with a small, private celebration.

When I told my friend Rabbi Avi Magid of my vow, his response surprised me. Celebrating in this way is not unique in Jewish life, he said, “You are making a Personal Purim.”

I learned that for thousands of years Jews have been celebrating Personal Purims to mark and recall individual or communal deliverance from danger. The Encyclopedia Judaica lists hundreds of such special Purims, some designated by individuals and others by communities. Riots, plagues, executions, blood libels, earthquakes, fires are all noted as potential disasters averted. In 1339, the Jews of Castile, Spain were miraculously saved from death following false accusations by one Gonzales Martinez, the king’s advisor. Sound familiar? The subsequent celebration was called Purim Martinez. Four centuries later in Bohemia, the David Brandeis family was accused of poisoning a non-Jewish family with plum jam. After Brandeis was exonerated, the family’s annual observance became known as the Plum Purim.

Truth be told, it was somewhat humbling at first to realize that my “new” commemorative idea wasn’t new at all, but rooted in Jewish tradition. Still, upon deeper reflection, I realized that the Jewish people recognize that remembrance is vital to our survival, and that celebration is vital to our remembrance.

I have not forgotten what happened to me, not for a single day. Each morning when I awake there is a moment when it comes back to me. I think of it when I read the “Song at the Sea” in the prayer book and envision Pharaoh’s army approaching the helpless Israelites with their backs to the sea, the sudden and complete routing of the foe, and the Jewish people’s response: “This is my God, and I will glorify Him!” Now I truly grasp the emotion of these words.

This is why, each year, I hold a small celebratory dinner for eight to ten friends. I cook all the food myself, indulging in favorites—homemade bread, fresh salad greens, savory chicken, mashed potatoes, a lovely white wine, and chocolate cake or fruit pie. As with any special celebration, we dress up, decorate the room with candles and flowers, use the best table linens and the beautiful china. We talk about what happened, not only to me, but to each of us, and it becomes clear that every one in the room has experienced moments that I’d call heightened consciousness, awareness of God’s presence and a special grace. One friend tells of her feelings of enlightenment during yoga meditation; another shares his amazement and gratitude at having survived triple bypass surgery; a third tells us about how having walked away from a car collision fatal to others has affected her life. We move on to other topics. Someone wonders whether we meet people by coincidence, or is it destiny? What is the meaning behind an encounter? How do seemingly small incidents change us?

This feast for the spirit brings us closer together.

I have named it the Freeway Purim.

Sonia Levitin is the author of more than 40 books for children and adults. Her most recent novel, Strange Relations, won the 2008 Association of Jewish Libraries Sydney Taylor Award.


Union for Reform Judaism.