A text version of my Shabbat sermon from 12/21. Best to all for a Happy Hanukkah –
The following scenario may be familiar to you – less so for your children and grandchildren, who have grown up with cell phones and GPS. There are two people, driving in a car. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, the two people are husband and wife. And let’s also say – again, for argument’s sake – that the husband is driving. They are going to a place that is not familiar to them, and they seem to have reached a point where they are not one hundred percent sure where they are. In other words, they are lost. The wife is encouraging the husband to pull over to ask for directions, but he is resistant.
Finally they are at a stop sign, and a young stranger walks by. The woman rolls her window down – some of you will remember roll down windows, as well – and she calls out. The stranger comes over to their car, and once they tell him where they are trying to go, he gives them directions. A few minutes later, they reach their destination. Later that evening the woman says to her husband, we were lucky we ran across that young man. The husband, of course, says “I would have found it!”
The predicament I just described is essentially the situation that our ancestor Joseph finds himself in in this morning’s Torah portion, called Vayeishev. You’ll remember the story of Joseph – the 11th son of his father Jacob, born to his mother Rachel, Joseph has a troubled relationship with his other brothers from the time he is young. In part this is caused by his father’s favoritism, the symbol of which is the coat of many colors that Jacob has given Joseph as a special gift. But in part Joseph’s sibling issues seem to stem from his own personality.
After the Torah establishes these facts the brothers are sent by Jacob on a shepherding mission that takes them a number of days away from home. Jacob then – maybe against his better judgement – sends Joseph, all alone, knowing of the animosity between him and his brothers – to go out and find them. And of course we know the rest of the story. Once he does find them they strip him of his fancy coat, throw him into a pit, and ultimately sell him into slavery.
But in the course of this narrative Joseph finds himself in exactly the same situation as our husband and wife in the car. He is lost, in an unfamiliar area, and he does not seem to want to ask for directions. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a mysterious man appears. Referred to in the Torah only as an איש – meaning simply ‘a man’ – the stranger approaches Joseph and asks him מה תבקש – what are you looking for? It is the Torah’s way of saying ‘can I help you?’ Joseph explains that he is looking for his brothers. The man just happens to know exactly where they are, and sends Joseph to meet them. And the rest, as they say, is history.
And I mean that literally. He finds his brothers. They sell him into slavery. He is brought to Egypt. Ultimately he becomes the second most powerful man in the entire country. When there is a famine in the land of Israel Jacob and his other sons come to join Joseph. The Israelites will be enslaved. Moses will be born, will meet God in the form of a burning bush, and will lead the Israelites out of Egypt. And to this very day, each spring, we celebrate Passover and tell the story of יציאת מצרים – of Exodus from Egypt. All because of this mysterious man who sees Joseph lost, and asks if he can help.
If you have any sense of rabbinic commentary, you probably already know that the traditional commentators are very interested in the identity of Joseph’s mysterious stranger. They suggest a number of possibilities as to who the stranger might have been. The great biblical commentator Rashi, who lived in France in the 11th century, explains that the stranger was really the angel Gabriel, sent by God to guide Joseph on the way. Ibn Ezra, who lived in the 12th century in Spain, believed that the man was just a simple passer by, a regular old Joe who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. But it is the comment of the Ramban, Nachmanides, who lived in the 13th century, that I find the most interesting. He writes about the mysterious stranger – כי זימן לו הקב׳׳ה מורה דרך שלא מדעתו – which means, God sent him a guide – שלא מדעתו – without his knowledge.
The question is, without whose knowledge? It is unclear from what the Ramban writes whether he means without Joseph’s knowledge, or without the knowledge of the mysterious stranger. The Hebrew is ambiguous. It might mean that the stranger was sent, and Joseph didn’t know he would find a guide along the way. But it could just as well mean that the stranger himself didn’t know he would end up being Joseph’s guide.
The first interpretation, I suppose, makes the most sense. Certainly Joseph had no reason to expect to suddenly find someone, in the middle of nowhere, who would be able to point the way to his brothers. But the second interpretation – that the stranger didn’t know he would end up helping Joseph – is, at least to me, more interesting. Let me explain.
We often don’t realize the effect our actions have on others. We might say something, or do something, and in our minds what we’ve said or done is for all intents and purposes insignificant – we might not even remember it – as the Ramban said, שלא מדעתו – we do it almost without knowing it. But what we’ve said, or done, can make a big difference in someone else’s life. The right word of encouragement at exactly the right time. A small act of kindness that passes in a moment, but brings warmth to someone’s heart on a difficult day. All the stranger did was point Joseph in the right direction. But because of that small act, everything was different.
I’ll conclude this morning with a quick Hanukkah story. We got a call a few weeks ago from a family that wanted to do something nice for a family in need, but whatever they did they wanted it to be strictly anonymous. So we said ‘sure, we know of a family that could use a little extra help around the holidays.’ Thursday the family that wanted to do the mitzvah brought in a bunch of beautifully wrapped packages. We then called the family in need, that the gifts were intended for. It has been a terribly difficult year for them. Illness. Loss of a job. Just one thought thing after another.
You should have seen the look on the face of the parent who came to pick up those gifts. For a few moments the burdens were lifted. For a few moments the parent was reminded of goodness and hope and kindness and possibility. Knowing that they would have gifts to give to their children on Hanukkah. Suddenly knowing that a holiday they were probably dreading, would be – filled with light.
They will never know the identity of the family that did that kindness for them. And the family that did the kindness will never know the impact their generosity had. The difference they made. In both cases, שלא מדעתו – they’ll just never know. But I would say, somewhere, somehow, in someway, God knows. May both those families be blessed with kindness, goodness, happiness, and health.