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Parshat Vayeshev: The Mystery Man

There is a concept in literature and philosophy called “contingency”. It is the idea that an entire life can be shaped by a small decision or act that seems inconsequential at the time, but that has life-altering results. The most glaring example of “contingency” in the Torah is found in this week’s reading that narrates the saga of Joseph and his brothers – the longest drama in all of Sefer Bereshit/Genesis. 

There is no denying that the choices made by the main actors played an essential role for much of what transpired between Joseph and his family. Jacob’s favouritism for Joseph over his other sons, Joseph’s insistence of recounting his dreams to his brothers despite their anger at him, the brothers allowing their jealousy and hatred of him to foment and their eventual plans to sell him into slavery – all were decisions that each party made of their own volition.

But who knows how differently it would have all turned out had one teeny-tiny incident not taken place. Everything that happened and would happen pivoted on one seemingly insignificant chance meeting. 

And that is when Jacob sends Joseph to Shechem to check up on the brothers. Joseph doesn’t have success locating them. He wanders aimlessly about and before he can turn back after his failed attempt in finding them, a mystery man appears and asks him what he’s looking for. When Joseph tells him, the man says he happened to overhear the brothers say they are going to Dothan and points Joseph in the right direction. Joseph makes his way to Dothan and as the brothers see him approach, right then and there conspire to get rid of him, setting off the next series of moments that will become the turning point for the life-changing events that will transpire over the next 13 years as they won’t meet Joseph again until he is the Viceroy of Egypt. Everything turned on this one chance encounter.

Incidents like these invariably give rise to the issue of our free choice versus God’s plan. In Yiddish there is a phrase that best summarizes the tension between the two: Mentsch tracht un Gott Lacht, Man Plans and God Laughs or Man Proposes and God Disposes. We all have free choice and there is no question that it is a huge influence in defining how our lives turn out. But at the same time there is an all-knowing God who might have different plans for us and sets up events, people or “coincidences” that take us in a certain direction. An Adjustment Bureau of sorts. 

We are the people who make sure things happen according to plan
You can’t outrun your fate
-The Adjustment Bureau (movie)

Sometimes we refer to these as “HP moments” – HP standing for Higher Power or in the Hebrew, Hashgacha Pratit/Divine Providence. HP moments might be as trivial as meeting someone in Israel whom you had no idea was going to be there – which seems to happen every time you visit. And sometimes it is something much larger. The chance guest that shows up at a Shabbat table one time and one time only and, whilst sitting there, has an idea for a match for the daughter of the host. The fellow follows up with his idea, sets up his friend with the young woman and lo and behold the two end up getting married eight months later. Which is exactly how one of my daughters met her husband. It all started with this fellow whose name I cannot recall, nor even remember how he came to be at our dinner table.  

Or maybe 45 years ago an acquaintance, whom you hardly know, one day, out of the blue, invites you to his yeshiva to study when you are a teenager. It’s something very uncommon in those early days of Jewish people rediscovering their Jewish roots, before any Bal Teshuva movement really existed. Yet you accept, meet someone there at the yeshiva that you haven’t seen in years who in turn introduces you to a young rabbi who is your first Torah teacher on your path to eventually becoming a rabbi. All of this happened to moi way back in the day. Seemingly small acts and chance meetings that forever changed the course of a life. 

I would venture to guess that every meaningful and life-changing event that has happened to you has had these so-called bit players that seem so minor at the time, yet in retrospect hold the keys to pivot you to a place that had great ramifications for the rest of your life.

It’s noteworthy that in this week’s portion, the Torah never tells us the name of the man who directed Joseph to Dothan. And this is quite telling and symbolic since this is usually how it works. It happens through someone whom you cannot even remember their name; a seemingly minor actor in their one-hit-wonder role in your life. Just as quickly as they arise in our lives, they are gone, never to be seen again as if this was their only purpose. To cross our paths this one time, forever redirect us and then just disappear. 

We can’t ever appreciate nor see the deep significance of these moments when they happen, much the way Joseph couldn’t have foreseen how that random meeting with his mystery man could have altered things so drastically for his fortune, the fortune of his family and future nation of Israel, or Egypt for that matter whom Joseph eventually saves from famine. These are the moments where God seems to place the right person in the right place at the right time to set things in motion… and then leave the scene. And when it happens, unbeknownst to us at the time, all we can do is simply go with the flow, let God do His thing, and let the story of our lives unfold. 

It might be through a chance encounter with a stranger, or just some random guy who somehow ended up at your Shabbat table, but the beauty of “contingency” is we never know how deep and meaningful these people and events really are until much later on when we reflect backwards and see how God set the whole thing up when He sent them our way. These are the Higher Power moments that forever change our lives, the lives of those around us, and define who we are today. 

You appear without a face,
disappear, but leave your trace…
Looking for Your fingerprints
I find them in coincidence,
And make my faith to grow
– Suzanne Vega

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