Sermon for Shabbat Vayeshev 5782
Delivered at Westchester Reform Temple, November 26, 2021
Did you know that one of the pivotal characters in the Torah is an unnamed man standing in a field in the middle of nowhere?
In this week’s parasha, Vayeshev, we read that Joseph, at his father Jacob’s behest, has gone in search of his brothers who have headed off to the north country to tend their flocks. As he ambles around the countryside, “וַיִּמְצָאֵ֣הוּ אִ֔ישׁ”: an anonymous man happens upon Joseph, and asks him, “What are you looking for?” Joseph answers, “I’m looking for my brothers. Can you tell me where they are shepherding?” Indeed he can. The man points the way to the territory of Dotan where Joseph encounters his brothers and the real story begins (Gen. 37:12-17).
Now imagine how it might have gone had Joseph not encountered the stranger in the field: no run-in with his brothers; no colored coat torn from his body and dipped in goat’s blood to fake his death; no pit of terror out of which Joseph was dragged, chained, and sold into slavery; no bereaved father; no voyage to Egypt; no help for the beleaguered Egyptians; no safety, survival, or salvation for the starving Israelites, including Joseph’s own family; no Israelite migration to Egypt; no Moses; no Exodus; no Sinai; no Torah; no Promised Land, no Jewish People.
The identity of the man who helped Joseph intrigued the Rabbis. RaSHI insists that he is in fact the angel Gabriel, directing the action as God’s proxy, steering the course of Jewish history from the sidelines (RaSHI to Gen. 37:15).
RaSHI’s contemporary, Ibn Ezra, said just the opposite: he’s just a passerby, no more, no less; an ordinary person with ordinary information to share (Ibn Ezra, ad loc).
It is Nachmanides, the 13th Century Spanish Sage also known as the RaMBaN, who harmonizes the two differing commentators with this resolution:
“The Holy One of Blessing sent Joseph an unwitting guide in order to bring him to his brothers. That is why the Rabbis said that the man was an angel, in order to teach us that these events were not meaningless, but that God’s will shall prevail” (RaMBaN, ad loc).
In other words, here we have an ordinary man unwittingly fulfilling God’s plan.
This interpretation is consistent with one Jewish view that angels are not divine beings with halos and wings, but rather human beings carrying out some greater design, even unbeknownst to themselves. As it turns out, the Hebrew word for angel, “mal’ach,” is the same word for a human messenger.
Still, the fact that an unnamed man in the middle of a field has attracted such Rabbinic attention suggests that Jewish tradition is reluctant to chalk up events of significance to random chance. There must be a reason for everything, right?
In Yiddish, we have this wonderful word, bashert, that we use when something (or, more to the point, someone) is “meant to be.” The word comes from a German root meaning “predestined, fated,” but is usually applied to one’s so-called “soulmate.”
If I am guilty of any rabbinic misdemeanors, surely among them would be the overuse of this word, particularly when I stand with brides and grooms under the chuppah. Who wouldn’t love hearing their rabbi affirm that each is the other’s bashert, that the connection between them must be more than merely coincidental? or, at least affirmative of what Einstein once said, that “a coincidence is when God chooses to remain anonymous.”
Now, if I’m being honest—with myself and with you—I will confess that I’m distrustful of this whole idea of “soulmates,” of “meant to be,” of bashert. Not just in romance, but in life.
Still, the idea exerts a strong psychic pull.
Because we are human, we naturally seek, and—lo and behold—perceive patterns, in almost everything life throws our way, even (maybe especially) in the stuff that is totally random.
The Greeks saw heroes and monsters, sagas, dreams, and oracles in the arrangement of the stars and the planets. Once you have seen Orion’s belt, you cannot un-see it, even though those three stars all in a row are actually hundreds of light years apart from one another and appear to line up only from our perspective here on earth.
In psychology, “pattern recognition” describes those thought processes that match information from a stimulus, some external phenomenon, with information retrieved from our memory. In other words, our brains are particularly good at processing newly received information in connection with information we’ve already stored upstairs. The ability to recognize patterns is what allows us to predict and expect what may be coming and is therefore evolutionarily adaptive.
The problem is, we humans do pattern recognition so well, so intuitively, so unconsciously, that we tend to perceive patterns—what we think of as “design” or even “meaning”—in that which may be, at the end of the day, totally random: just, you know, things happening, for no reason whatsoever.
So much of life, and how we apprehend life, hangs on things that just happen, things that have no intrinsic meaning.
Speaking of things with no intrinsic meaning. Last Friday, President Biden did what Presidents do around this time of year, by officially pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey… two turkeys, actually, one named Peanut Butter and the other, Jelly, in a speech replete with good humor and bad puns.
(“Yes,” he said, referring to the birds’ vaccination status, “instead of getting basted, these two turkeys are getting boosted.”)
Eventually Biden made his way to a solemn coda, speaking of tables “full of grace and gratitude for everyone who made it possible.” And, he said, “we also keep in our hearts those who… have lost so much, those who will have empty seats at their tables this year because of the virus or another cruel twist of fate or accident.”
“We pray for them to find the strength in sorrow and purpose in pain.”
This, we well know, is one of the areas where Biden’s leadership is most compelling, because it is his lived Torah, his story, the story of a man who has buried a wife and daughter killed in a car accident and a son who died at age forty-six of brain cancer.
The President knows that of which he speaks when he acknowledges how a “cruel twist of fate” (or what the machzor, the High Holiday Prayer Book, calls “ro’a ha-g’zerah, ‘the evil decree’) can rip apart your life in an instant, with no forewarning, leaving a ragged wound where once we held another in our arms, where once we enjoyed health or mobility, where once we drew vitality from all our friends and all our faculties. Where once we were whole, now there is only a hole. And there is often nothing that we human beings—we who see patterns in everything—can do, to predict it, avert it, undo it.
“Blame it on a simple twist of fate,” Bob Dylan memorably sang, in the song whose title, “Simple Twist of Fate,” completes each of the six stanzas, narrating a romantic encounter between two strangers that turns out not to be “meant to be.”
By chance they meet in darkness, and she departs in darkness, while he is left with an “emptiness inside to which he just could not relate / brought on by a simple twist of fate.”
And yet, in the face of what a friend of mine calls “the monumental indifference of Nature,” we human beings are consigned to our human nature, which is to be meaning-makers. Moreover, Judaism affirms order, goodness, joy, purpose, and blessing, even in a world whose randomness and errant cruelty are discernable by anyone who is paying attention.
We Jews are not nihilists; we are, more aptly, existentialists.
The nihilist says: “all is random; all is meaningless; there can be no right or wrong, good or bad, up or down, so do whatever you like.” The existentialist says, “there may be no intrinsic meaning in events; but if indeed all is random, then we must figure out how to make life meaningful and good—starting with the ability to define and discover the good in our lives and in the world.”
There is no blueprint for each human life, no plan for what might befall us on any given day. A random guy standing in a field set the course of Jewish history in motion. Each of us is shaped as much by our intentional choices as we are by what Hamlet calls “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Life isn’t meaningful or meaningless. We decide what meaning to give it.
So give thanks, this first day after Thanksgiving, for what good we have, and, even more, for what good we can do; for what blessings we have, and, even more, for what blessings we can give, in a reeling world that so often turns on a simple twist of fate.