“We are products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it.”
– Rick Warren
What goes around comes around. Until you make it stop, that is. Sitting on the steps of a courthouse appeared to be a homeless man. As my husband, who is a lawyer, passed him on his way into the building, the man called out, “Hey Rabbi, give me a blessing.” First, what made this man identify my husband as Jewish – much less a Rabbi? A hat covered his yarmulke. So, besides sporting a beard, what identified my husband as a Jew? And while my husband is a Torah teacher, how did this stranger discern that?
Was this a brilliant entrepreneurial strategy on the part of the homeless man? After all, he certainly got my husband’s attention. Or was he a messenger from God? Could the message be something to the effect that while my husband looks and acts like a lawyer on the outside, who is he on the inside? The homeless man could have been saying, “When I look at you, I see the truth of who you are.” Turn that around, and the question for my husband was – when he looked at the homeless man, whom did he see?
After my husband had related this incident to me, he seemed to have second thoughts about the encounter – or at least it was still nagging at the corners of his mind. Yes, he engaged with the man and even gave him a buck, but should he have done anything else? After all, my husband has traversed those courthouse steps thousands of times. Why was that man there that day, saying those words?
“Don’t worry, honey,” I reassured him, “if this was an opportunity you missed but were meant to have, it will come around again. It may not be that homeless guy or any homeless guy. Lessons come in all shapes and sizes. Just be on the lookout to encounter the Divine when you least expect it.” After all, one of our favorite movies is Family Man, where the event that transforms Nicholas Cage’s life came in the form of an angel sticking up a 7-11.
We have all read those stories where someone doesn’t realize the import of a particular situation, makes a mistake, and is told the whole mission of his life, the entire reason for his incarnation was to do that one very thing – which he didn’t do. But unless that person vaporized on the spot, what would be the point of his continued existence? I hope life is more complicated than that, and that we are always given the opportunity to choose and to grow. While we may fail any given test, surely the Teacher doesn’t stop giving us pop quizzes.
In Mikeitz, the epic narratives center on Joseph’s dreams, his becoming the Viceroy of Egypt and encountering his brothers. But the story-line I like to track is the dialogue between Jacob and Yehuda regarding Jacob’s reluctance to let the brothers return to Egypt with Jacob’s youngest son, Benjamin. If you recall, Joseph (who has not revealed his identity to his brothers) retains one of the brothers, Shimon, as a captive until the brothers come back with Benjamin. Hearing this directive, Jacob was not going to let Benjamin go, and was presumably willing to allow Shimon to remain detained in Egypt. At one point Jacob doesn’t even call Shimon by name and instead, in an impersonal manner, refers to him as “your other brother.”
Thus, it was the same family dynamic all over again. Once again, Jacob was making it very clear who was the favored son. Benjamin was his youngest, the brother of Joseph and the only remaining son of his beloved wife, Rachel. Once again, Jacob was showing a demonstrated preference for Rachel and her children – over Leah and hers, and focusing on the youngest children over the elder ones.
This time, however, Yehuda did not allow jealousy and sibling rivalry to drive a poor choice. Instead, Yehuda took the opportunity to make a radical shift in the family drama, stepping up to take sole and personal responsibility to ensure Benjamin’s safe return, even if he had to stand against the very might of Egypt itself. Same exam. New grade. Lesson learned. At last. And it changed the course of Jewish history.
We all make mistakes, but the point is not to keep making the same ones. There is an axiom: “What you resist persists.” The lessons are out there and will keep coming around over and over again, until we get the message, own our stuff, see our truth, and make a choice for a change.