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The Freeway Purim—A Discussion Guide
by Dr. Alan D. Bennett

Sonia Levitin explores the meaning of miracles--not academically, and not in the abstract, but after a searing incident on a Los Angeles freeway, a miraculous escape from almost certain death that leaves her a changed person.

In the aftermath, she ponders the role of God and the power of prayer in moments of peril. Why do we pray? Does God hear our prayers? How do we know if God “answers" our prayers? Does God single people out for salvation or death? What does it mean to be redeemed from a near-death experience? Does she—and do others who have experienced such miracles--have special roles to play in this world?

Levitin vows not to allow this experience to fade from memory. She decides to mark her miraculous day with an annual celebration. Talking about her plans to a friend, she is surprised to discover that her idea is not new: Jews have been commemorating the anniversary of individual (as well as communal) redemptions for centuries. This Jewish tradition is called a personal Purim.

As we frolic through the Purim holiday’s customary celebration of purimspiels, hamantaschen, and the cranking of groggers, “The Freeway Purim” (Spring 2010) invites us to ponder the questions above as well as Purim’s deeper meanings.

1. Why pray?

a. On the freeway Levitin prays, “Please stop the traffic!” What did Levitin hope or expect her prayer to achieve? Is praying for the recovery of a critically ill person in the same category as praying for the traffic to stop? Explain.

b. The sages teach that a prayer to change the past is praying in vain (a b’rachah l’vatalah). What prayers would you consider to be in vain? Why?

c. Our tradition also teaches that prayer is so important that even God prays. What do you think our sages meant when they taught that even God prays?

2. In times of danger, when should we depend on God’s intervention, and when should we take action?

a. The biblical Book of Esther (Megillat Ester, the Scroll of Esther), in which the Purim story appears, does not contain any references to God except for Mordecai's veiled, almost throw-away reply to Esther: "If you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter" (Esther 4:14). Why do you think God is not mentioned in the Scroll of Esther?

b. As Pharoah’s army closes in on the Israelites at the Sea of Reeds, they wait for a miracle. In several midrashim (derived from Exodus 14:15), God rebukes Moses for standing around and praying instead of dividing the waters. In one midrash, Benjamin and Judah jump in before the waters part, after which the sea divides. In the Chanukah story, the Maccabean rebellion begins when Mattathias leads his people to armed revolt against the Syrians. In what situations might it be more advantageous to ask for God's help rather than to act on your own? When might it be preferable to take action? When might it be best to do both?

c. The modern philosopher and theologian Martin Buber warned against telling people in need that God will help them. Rather, he said, act like there is no God. What did he mean? Do you agree?

d. If you are facing a critical situation, and you believe God does not intervene directly in what happens to us, might you still be able to pray to God? If the answer is yes, for what might you pray? If the answer is no, how else might you find the help you seek?

3. Is remembrance vital to survival?

a. The obligation to remember—zachor!—appears in the fourth of the Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). To remember her redemption, Sonia Levitin invites friends to a commemorative meal. Why do you think remembrance is a core Jewish value?

b. The kiddush prayer uses other word forms of zachor to say that Shabbat and festivals are zikaron l'ma-asai b'resheet and zecher litziyat Mitzrayim—reminders of Creation and the Exodus from Egypt. How is remembering Creation, Exodus, Shabbat, and festivals linked to our people’s survival?

c. How might observing annual celebrations such as Levitin’s personal Purim meal help us to feel closer to God?

4. What is a miracle?

a. What is your definition of a miracle?

b. What events in your life and in the lives of loved ones would you call miracles? What do these events have in common?

c. Before the freeway incident, Sonia Levitin thought of miracles as “natural occurrences." Afterward, she thought of miracles in terms of redemption, of salvation for a special purpose. Still later, she thought of her survival as a gift to remember and treasure. Which, if any, of her views about miracles speak to you? Explain.


Union for Reform Judaism.