Should We Interpret Signs From God?

When God sends us a personal message, we don't always know how to interpret it, or whether to interpret it at all.

Tal Cohen

When my wife and I became more religious, we checked our birthdates on the Hebrew calendar. My birthday is on December 22 and hers is on December 10, so we were surprised to discover that, even though the dates on the Gregorian calendar were almost 2 weeks apart, we shared the same Hebrew date: the 4th of Tevet.

For an atheist, this would be a mere coincidence, nothing more than chance. But for a family on a spiritual journey, it was a clear sign, perhaps a personal message from G-d. There is a Jewish concept, bashert (Yiddish for destiny), of being intended for one another. According to the Talmud, 40 days before a male child is born, G-d announces whose daughter he will marry. Debbie and I welcomed this as a sign; a message that G-d made us for one another.

Yet today, 20 years down the track, I wonder: to what extent should one read into a sign?  

In Jewish theology, there is a concept known as Hashgacha Pratit (Divine providence). Hashgacha Pratit means that G-d is actively involved in each of our lives. We have a relationship of trust with G-d and it is within this context that we pray to Him, expressing gratitude and making requests for things we need and want. However, as one of my teachers, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, cautions, G-d is not an ATM (automated teller machine), where we put in our requests and He grants them if we are good and refuses them if we are bad. Accordingly, it is hazardous to draw conclusions about what G-d may or may not be communicating to us by how He does or doesn't answer our prayers.

It is most problematic to draw conclusions for others about how G-d responds to their prayers. Trying to decipher Divine meaning for our friends is not only impossible, it is often destructive. When something bad happens, we want to know why – it's human nature – and so we draw the simplistic conclusion that it is due to Divine judgment. But invoking Divine intervention is cruel – even when done to help the person who is hurting feel better. When confronted with tragedy, we are better off just being there for the other in silence.

But when it comes to interpreting G-d's response to our own prayers, for ourselves, this is another matter.  Here, we may be able to read into His response as a sign. However, the signs we may or may not receive are what we make of them. In and of themselves, they are interesting at best, but as part of our conscious plan to lead ethical, G-d centered lives, they can be the boosts we all need to encourage us along the way, particularly when confronted with adversity.

The vast majority of us would like to know with certainty that G-d exists. But, instead of certainty, we are given the free will to choose to believe or not. Our patriarch, Abraham, is called in the Bible the Ivri, the Hebrew, meaning the one who has crossed over. So too for us, faith can only be experienced by crossing over to the perspective of believing.

However, faith does not eliminate doubt. As in any healthy relationship, ours’ with G-d is stronger because the doubt we choose to live with promotes growth and change. Choosing faith enables us to live each day as a series of potential encounters, as opportunities to realize G-d’s goodness, and in the process to actualize our own unique contributions to the world. When we recognize signs as possibly sent to us by G-d, it provides us with the opportunity to interpret them in a way that brings us closer to Him and moves us closer to becoming the people we want to be.

We have just entered the month of Elul, the last month of the Hebrew calendar, with Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) approaching. In Hebrew, Elul is an acronym for "Ani l’dodi v’dodi li," I am to my beloved as my beloved is to me. In Elul, the King is in the field and we have the opportunity to begin or renew our relationship when He is close.

For this Elul, to prepare for the coming new year, let’s all try to approach each day as an opportunity to enhance our lives by evolving and growing our relationships with G-d.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a member of the David Cardozo Academy Think Tank and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations. The opinions expressed are personal and not representative of any organization with which he is associated.