The Adjustment Bureau
Penelope Lively is a British novelist whose stories revolve around “contingency” – the idea that an entire life can be shaped by a small decision or act that seems inconsequential at the time but will have life altering results . This concept plays an important role in this week’s parsha that begins the lengthy drama of Joseph and his brothers.
I confess to not having read her novels but one work I have read that was based on this notion was assigned in our high school English class in Toronto back in the day. Fifth Business by Robertson Davies tells the story of a retired history professor, Dunstan Ramsey who is reflecting back on his life. It begins with his recollection of how so much that transpired over his many years was shaped one fateful day as a young boy when his childhood nemesis and friend, Percy Boyd Staunton who, attempting to throw a snowball at our hero, instead hits the pregnant Mrs. Dempster, the meek village preacher’s wife, causing her to fall and soon after give birth prematurely to a boy, Paul. The book then follows the lives of all involved as they grow older and illustrates how that one accident radically defined the outcome of everyone through the years. It is a wonderful novel, I highly recommend it and Davies is an excellent writer.
The most glaring example of “contingency” in the Torah is found right here and now in the story of Joseph and his brothers. There is no denying that the choices made by the main actors played an essential role for much of what took place between Joseph and his family. Jacob’s favouritism for Joseph over the other boys, 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.
But who knows how differently it would have all turned out had one small incident not have taken place. And that is when Jacob sends Joseph to Shechem to check up on the brothers. Joseph doesn’t have success locating them, 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 is 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 there and as the brothers see him approach, right then and there conspire to get rid of him, setting off the next series of events that will become the turning point for the life-changing events that will transpire over the next 13 years when they will not 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 plans. 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 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. (Great movie.)
On our JWRP/Momentum trips to Israel we often call these, “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 and, whilst sitting there, has an idea for a match for the daughter of the host whom he has met for the first time. 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 my daughter Atara met her husband, Avi.
Or over 40 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. Something hardly ever done in those early days before any Bal Teshuva movement existed. Yet you accept, meet someone else there that you have not seen in years and he in turn introduces you to a young rabbi who is instrumental in your becoming more Torah observant and eventually 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 has had these so-called bit players that seem so minor at the time yet in retrospect become the key moments or people who pivot you to a place that has great ramifications for the rest of your life. It is noteworthy that the Torah never tells us the name of the man who directed Joseph to Dothan. And this is quite telling and symbolic since quite often it is through someone whom you cannot even remember their name who ends up playing the seemingly minor actor in their one-hit-wonder role. 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 cannot totally appreciate or even see the deep significance of these moments when they happen, much the way Joseph could not 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. It is one of those things 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 snowball, or a chance encounter with a stranger, or just a random guy at your Shabbat table, but the beauty of “contingency” is we never know how deep and meaningful those 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 HP 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
PS – Please share with me your “HP Moment” of a chance encounter or event that changed everything for you. I would love to hear them.