What are the Chances? No Really, What are They?


Did you ever have an experience where different events in your life came together to create an outcome that just seemed so unlikely, so bizarre, that you were left trying to figure out how it all could have possibly happened?

The Jewish way of pronouncing such a situation is hash-ga-CHA pra-TEET (or Divine Providence, for all you English speakers out there) as the idea of coincidence within Judaism is a big no no. We don't look at the universe as a bunch of random events that just sometimes (oops!) produces crazy, unexpected results, but rather we see the world operating with a certain unity, purpose, and destiny. (Parenthetically, we believe in free will that works in conjunction with this Divine Providence, but that's a subject for a different time.)

Anyone who was ever forced to sit through the treachery of Hebrew School (I too am a survivor) should be familiar with at least a few stories from the Torah. And if you are, you've probably noticed that a bunch of big, in-your- face miracles happened back in those days, despite the fact that things like don't happen anymore.

Don't be alarmed – I've noticed it too – and there's a perfectly logical explanation. Big open miracles don't actually work so well in getting people's attention, believe it or not. People who struggle with belief in God often make claims like, "If God would only produce a personal miracle for me, then I'd surely believe." But let me remind you of The Ten Commandments movie. Inaccurate as it is, you've probably seen it, and we can use a small section of it for our purposes. Remember those ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, God's presence on that fiery mountain? Now cut to the next scene, and the Jews are building a golden calf in order to commit idolatry – one of the most serious prohibitions in the Torah. So, yeah, as I was saying, open miracles don't actually work too well.

Therefore, the new model for attention getting (since the story of Purim occurred) is for God's hand to remain hidden, but for us – if we look closely – to be able to find it.  And since we're on the subject of finding God's hidden hand, I thought I'd share a freaky, hard to explain event that recently happened to me.

We've been getting the Wall Street Journal delivered to our front door every day for over a year without incident, but for whatever reason, last Monday, we got a New York Times instead. Now it wasn't that a neighbor had just switched our papers. The New York Times had our name and address on it, along with the WSJ label, and yet there it was.

Also, my husband's hair had been getting a bit long over the last few weeks, but because he's been very busy with work, despite my gentle suggestions for him to get it cut (I, of course, never nag) he only finally decided to do it last Monday. When he got to the barber, however, he saw the place was closed. (Turns out this store is always closed on Mondays.) On his way home, since he now had some extra time on his hands (having not gotten his hair cut) my husband decided to stop off at the magazine store in town to see what he had missed in the Wall Street Journal that day. While he was at the store, he decided to peruse the other periodicals on the wall and noticed a magazine with a front page story depicting Orthodox Jews very negatively.

He brought the magazine home and tossed it into one of the many piles of paper that we collect around the house, without mentioning it to me. It just so happened that I passed by the pile, saw the magazine, and was instantly intrigued. Despite the fact that it was just about bedtime for my daughters, I found myself engrossed in the article, and only took a couple breaks from my reading to help them with pajamas and tooth brushing. After my girls were in bed, I continued to read the article. Then just as I was finishing it – about to place the magazine on the table beside me – I heard my BlackBerry beep from across the apartment. I checked the email a few minutes later and saw that the subject of the email was the same as the title of the magazine I had just finished reading.

The email was from an editor of a Jewish paper who had seen my recent article on Aish.com, gotten to my website from the article, saw my mission of breaking down stereotypes about Orthodox Jews, and was now asking me if I had seen this article depicting religious Jews in such a bad light. "Did I see the article", I thought to myself, "I just finished reading the entire thing!" And one final note – I don't believe my husband or I had ever once purchased this magazine before that day.

After I retraced in my head how the various steps of the day played off of one another, I started to wonder how unlikely an event like this would be to occur, so I called my brother-in-law in Israel, who happens to be a statistician. I went through each of the day's events with him and we made estimates for the statistical probability of each part. He then ran some sort of statistical equation for the whole thing  (which I'll admit, I have no understanding of) and reported back that the likelihood of all of those various events occurring, ending with the email about the article coming in just as I was finishing it is: 1 in 270,927,835,051 (that's one in two hundred seventy billion, nine hundred twenty-seven million, eight hundred thirty-five thousand, fifty-one).

I am not about to say that such crazy odds prove God's existence. If I said that, the atheists reading this would have my head, and anyway I don't think we actually can prove God's existence, or else that free will I mentioned earlier, wouldn't exactly work too well. But the confluence of these events, with their final outcome certainly made me pause for thought, and I hope they did the same for you.



  1. Without taking away from your larger point, that’s really a misuse of statistics. The number seems impressive when it’s out of context like that, but when you figure in how many days that DOESN’T happen and multiply it by how many people it could happen to, but doesn’t, the odds aren’t as great. Look at it like a lottery. The odds are astronomical against any specific person winning, yet people keep winning the lottery.

  2. great story! I agree what you said at the end about belief and free will. I think that reason why almost every argument has a counter argument is so we still have free will and can choose whether or not to believe.
    G-d doesn’t want to force it on us, he wants it to be our choice. And if we are willing to, and seek G-d out, we’ll find him

  3. Howard...the brother-in-law : July 24, 2008 at 3:01 pm

    Unlike the lottery, there aren’t millions of people this could happen to, but the odds are similar. The only ‘players’, though, are those who had recently written a relevant article that Allison’s E-mailer had seen. Suppose this is a group of, I dunno, 30? Then, assuming these 30 people all have similar chances of having seen the article, the overall odds of at least one having seen it are still astronomical.

    Imagine only 30 people bought a lottery ticket every week, but another 50 million, just for fun, wrote down what they thought would be the winning numbers. Assuming that the right numbers were guessed, the odds of it being by one of the 30 paid ticket holders is only about 1 in 1.6 million. It could take a long long time before there was a real pay out…

    This argument can go back and forth. Statistics can be used to prove anything you want really. It’s really just how you look at it.

  4. OK, just to clear things up and not have this turn into an all out statistics battle, the purpose of my asking my brother-in-law to put what happened into mathematical terms was just to get a feel for how it looked in numbers.

    Statistics being flexible or not, the fact that a stranger, in a far away place, sent me an email about an article (that got to me in an unusual way) the moment I had finished reading it was downright weird no matter what the probabilities show.

    For me, the most important thing to do at a time like that is to ask oneself “are there any greater implications here?” How could it be that there are times that a person thinks of an old friend, whom he hasn’t spoken to in years, and then gets a call from that very same friend the next day? Is there some sort of interconnectivity in the universe, and is that force, perhaps God?

  5. I assume you deliberately did not use the name of the article, magazine, or any other identifying details to not give said magazine publicity that you deemed negative. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure I read the article in question, and I would very much like to hear a different take on what went down with that family, since the reporting presents such a cut-and-dried picture (I lack the Judaism-expertise to read between the lines of the depiction of that community). Is such a post in the works? Maybe by popular demand? 😀

  6. Hi Olivia-
    You probably did read the article I was referring to and yes, you’re right, I did deliberately leave out anything identifying as to not give it even more publicity. For anyone who knows about it, this is my short take on it:

    The girl being interviewed, was unfortunately the product of a lot of family issues. Her mom, like me, became religious on her own, but it should be noted that she also joined like the most extreme right-wing group of Orthodox Jews out there, something that most ba’alei teshuvah (pple that become religious) do not do.

    The woman being interviewed was also a product of divorce, had her mother run away with her and her siblings at one point, only to turn around and join the community again. Clearly and sadly lots of issues.

    Also, there are some points touched upon in the article that I simply can’t speak about because I’m not part of this Chasidic community and therefore even though I’m a totally religious Orthodox Jew myself, some of these community practices (which I’d like to stress are community practices and NOT Jewish law)are completely foreign to me.

    In other cases, the woman being interviewed mentions aspects of Jewish law that all observant Jews practice, but she puts them in such a negative light that I cringed as I was reading about them. (As with many things in life, there are positive ways to understand them, and negative ways. Every aspect of Jewish law mentioned in that article was given the absolute worst spin possible.)

    I can’t undo what is going on in that community or the way it has been portrayed, but my goal with my Jew in the City campaign is to A) be able to put things into my own words (something the members of this Chassidic community were not given the chance to do) and B)try to show that it is possible to be fully committed to Jewish law and a Torah lifestyle without being extreme or judgmental – something that unfortunately some of the Orthodox Jews that make the news have not managed to achieve.

  7. 1. Yep, same article.
    2. I think you’re doing an admirable job at both of your goals. As a potential “re-masterer” (or full-out convert, depending on which Rabbi you ask) myself, your writing has both toned down the scare-factor and tipped me off to resources that I’ve been happy to have in this exploration, as a clear head and clear eyes would hopefully help me avoid situations like the ones that the family in the article has suffered through. So..Thank you.

  8. Glad to be of service, Olivia!

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