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Every Person Matters

2019-12-13 11:38:53 AM


One is not born into the world to do everything but to do something.

– Henry David Thoreau

Sometimes in the Torah, the smallest and most seemingly insignificant people and moments can have the biggest impact.  This week, we begin the story of Joseph, the Torah’s longest continuous narrative (and one that has been made into countless movies and plays).  As the story begins, we are told that Joseph’s father Jacob loves him more than his other sons, which has made Joseph’s brothers hate him “so they could not speak a friendly word to him” (Gen. 37:4).  Joseph then has two dreams that predict that he will rule over his brothers, once again making them angry.  Finally, his brothers are gone, and Joseph’s father tells him to go search for them.  And this is when we have to pay attention to the details.  We read:

“When [Joseph] reached Shechem, a man came upon him wandering in the fields.  The man asked him, “What are you looking for?”  He answered, “I am looking for my brothers…The man said they are gone from here, for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan”(Gen. 37:14-17).  

With this important information, Joseph goes to Dothan, and finds his brothers, who proceed to throw him into a pit, where he is sold to traders and eventually ends up in Egypt.  We of course know where the story goes from there: he ends up working for the Pharaoh, and a series of events take place which eventually lead to the rest of the history of the Jewish people including the Exodus from Egypt.  And why did all of this happen?  Because this man, an anonymous man, and a profoundly minor character in the story helps Joseph find his brothers.  One simple question, a few kind words, and the entire history of the Jewish people is changed forever.

There is a temptation as we go about our lives to always believe that we have to be the best and greatest at all that we do.  We want to have the biggest impact on others and want to make big change in the world.  Some want to be famous, others want to be rich, and many simply want to do work that is meaningful and to be happy and healthy.  No matter where we stand, we can and should always aim high, but we can also gain strength from the fact that sometimes the simplest acts can often have the greatest impact.  

This is why Jewish ethics asks us not only to care about “changing the world” and fixing what is broken in our society, but also stresses the importance of the minutia of daily life.  We are reminded to “guard our tongue” when we speak and to take care in our relationships.  We are told to remember and bless the small moments of beauty we encounter, and make a weekly holiday to focus on rest.  We focus on these little acts, so that we can have the spiritual strength achieve greatness.  If we start with kindness, focus on blessing and if we pay attention to the needs of others, then we can’t help but bring goodness into the world.  These may be small acts, but this is where compassion starts.  

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it well:

The truths of religion are exalted, but its duties are close at hand. We know God less by contemplation than by emulation. The choice is not between ‘faith’ and ‘deeds,’ for it is by our deeds that we express our faith and make it real in the life of others and the world. Jewish ethics is refreshingly down-to-earth. If someone is in need, give. If someone is lonely, invite them home. If someone you know has recently been bereaved, visit them and give them comfort. If you know of someone who has lost their job, do all you can to help them find another. The sages call this ‘imitating God.’ They went further: giving hospitality to a stranger, they said, is ‘even greater than receiving the divine presence.’ That is religion at its most humanizing and humane.

Being a good person is not meant to be a challenge.  We simply need to start small, and work to bring compassion and love into all that we do.  And as we head into the Hanukkah season, a time of light amidst the darkness, this is what the world needs most from us.   

Thu, September 24 2020 6 Tishrei 5781