Small enough to know you. Large enough to serve you.

Vayeshev (Rabbi Neil’s Pre-Chanukah Sermon – 12/23/16)

Rabbi Neil SchumanHe may be one of the most influential characters in the Bible. He set in motion over four hundred years of Jewish history, yet we don’t even know his name.

He’s simply referred to as eesh, a man. Joseph encounters him on his way to Shechem to check upon his brothers (Genesis 37:14-17):“…and he (Joseph) came to Shechem. And a man found him, and, behold, he was lost in the field. And the man asked him, saying: ‘What are you looking for?’ And he said: ‘I seek my brethren. Tell me please, where they are feeding the flock.’ And the man said: ‘They are departed from here; for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan.’ And Joseph went after his brethren, and found them in Dothan.”

“What are you looking for?” the man asks when he sees Joseph looking lost. How long did this encounter take: two or maybe three minutes? And yet it changes everything. If Joseph hadn’t met this man, perhaps he would never have found his brothers, and he might have just returned to his father in Hebron. If Joseph returned to his father, he might not have been sold into slavery. If he hadn’t been sold into slavery, he would not have worked for Potiphar, been accused of rape, thrown into prison, and interpreted the dreams of his fellow inmates, etc. The whole descent into Egypt might not have happened, or would have occurred differently.

It’s no wonder that Rashi, Maimonides and others suggest that this eesh was an angel. He was sent by God to direct Joseph toward his, and our, destiny.

Nahmanides, the Ramban, writes: “Scripture goes on at length on this matter because there were many reasons for Joseph to turn back. Instead he went to a great bother to honor his father’s request. Also nothing happens without God’s decree. God had sent a guide to deliver Joseph into their hands… Nothing in this story is pure chance.”

I believe in the Ramban’s answer: it was the Divine will for all this to unfold, yet, why did this man have to be an angel? To me, it’s more powerful if it’s a just a random person: A man sees another looking lost, and he offers help. We do this all the time; we don’t necessarily think we’re making history, but perhaps we are!

We have all heard of Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride to warn and arouse the local militia of the upcoming British attack. Revere was a well- connected silversmith, yet how did he know the attack would take place the next day? Malcolm Gladwell in “The Tipping Point” (page 30) writes, “He had been told of an unusual number of British officers gathered on Boston’s Long Wharf, talking in low tones. British crewmen had been spotted scurrying about in the boats tethered beneath the HMS Somerset and the HMS Boyne in Boston Harbor. Several other sailors were seen on shore that morning, running what appeared to be last minutes errands.” These actions are perhaps irregular, but they’re not conclusive. How’d he really know?

Gladwell continues, “On the afternoon of April 18, 1775, a young boy who worked at the livery stables in Boston overheard one British army officer say to another something about, ‘hell to pay tomorrow.’” The stable boy ran with the news to Revere.

That young boy is our eesh. He’s the anonymous informer who changes history. Certainly, Paul Revere deserves eternal renown, yet, this unknown boy was the true catalyst. He just did something he thought was useful by relaying what he had heard to Paul Revere. It’s highly unlikely that he understood that he was sparking a revolution, yet that’s exactly what he did.

I just read an article in Sports Illustrated about The Rock, Dwayne Johnson. He’s currently the hottest actor in Hollywood, but he’s a rags-to-riches story. Johnson was troubled teenager: big and tough with a father who was not around enough. He had been in a number of different high schools before his junior year.

One day, he didn’t like the cleanliness of the boys’ bathroom, so he went in to the staff bathroom. One of the teachers comes in and says “Get the “f” out here, who do you think you are?”

Dwayne didn’t say anything, he just finished his business, washed his hands and left while the teacher was hollering at him the whole time.

The teacher followed him out of bathroom and then came over to him.

“Hey kid, I like your guts. We could use somebody like you on the football team.” He convinced Dwyane by saying that if he did well in the team, he could get a full scholarship to college and be relieved of his poverty.

Johnson ended up loving football, and got a scholarship to play in college.

Football didn’t work out for him in the long run, but the discipline he learned in football helped him in professional wrestling. The showmanship in the wrestling ring then helped him in his acting career.

This eesh, this teacher, just thought he was helping his high school football team and another student. Did he think he’d be creating the highest paid actor in Hollywood?

Random acts though, can also work against us.

When Antiochus, the Syrian/Greek King invaded Jerusalem and converted the Temple into the service of Zeus, Matisyahu left Jerusalem and headed to hills of Modi’in. He thought he find some peace of mind there, but the Syrian garrisons eventually reached Modi’in as well. They constructed an altar to Zeus and asked all the inhabitants to come and join in on the festivities. Matisyahu was invited first to partake of the pig to Zeus; he was told it would be to his benefit. He demurred saying that an old man like him can’t change his ways.

Just then a young man moved broke through and offered to partake of the offering. This enraged Matisyahu who seized one the guards’ swords, stabbed the renegade Jew and slew the officers. Then he proclaimed, “Whoever is for the Lord, let him come after me!” Matisyahu and his sons, the Maccabees, led the rebellion that eventually drove the Syrian/Greeks from Jerusalem and preserved our religion.

Who sparked the Maccabean rebellion? None other than that one anonymous rebel Jew! No one knows his name, but thanks to his impudence, we’re celebrating Chanukah tonight.

Our random acts or words might just make us the catalyst for major change in a person’s life or in the world. The Torah says, “a man found him.” Regular people like you and me have influenced Jewish history, American history and changed people’s lives in ways we could never have imagined. Therefore, with such power, let’s think twice before we act or speak; who knows how far reaching our effects may be?

Happy Chanukah

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