And Joseph’s brothers went to feed their father’s flock in Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, “Do not your brothers feed the flock in Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.”
And he said to him, “Here I am.”
And he said to him, “Go now, see whether it is well with your brothers, and well with the flock, and bring back word to me.” So he sent him out of the valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem.
And a man found him, and behold he was wandering in the field. And the man asked him, saying, “What do you seek?”
And he said, “I seek my brothers. Tell me, please, where they are feeding the flock.”
And the man said, “They have departed from here, for I heard them say: Let us go to Dotan.” And Joseph went after his brothers, and found them in Dotan.
In the annual Jewish Torah reading cycle, the Joseph narrative always falls leading up to and during the Hanukkah holiday that begins tomorrow night. I find this brief narrative at the start of the Joseph story fascinating and intriguing. A un-named man finds Joseph, who seems to have lost his way. We know nothing more about this individual, except that he asks Joseph a question and points him in a particular direction, allowing the rest of the tale to unfold with its contemplated fratricide, its selling of Joseph to slavery in Egypt, Joseph’s servitude and jail time, his rise to power as second only to Pharaoh, and finally his bringing of his entire clan to Egypt. All set in motion by the seemingly random appearance of one anonymous individual, one seemingly straight-forward, and yet very big and deep question: Where are you going?
When I was a college freshman, I was similarly affected by someone seeing something in me, and making a simple directional statement. “You know, Michelle, you’d make a great rabbi.” The woman in my case was Debbie Rubenstein, the assistant director of Princeton Hillel. She wasn’t anonymous, and we are still close; I often still express to her my thanks. And, my immediate response that spring day was not quite Joseph’s; I didn’t take Debbie’s advice. In fact, I laughed, hard and long. But, unbeknownst to me at the time, she set a series of choices and decisions, and thought-patterns, in motion. And the old adage, she who laughs last laughs best is indeed true. Debbie smiles and takes great pride in it being “all Debbie’s fault” that I am now a rabbi.
It was not until over five years later that I would finally apply to rabbinical school. I had pulled myself together that afternoon after Debbie spoke to me, explained why she was mistaken, and continued along my path to become a chemist. The seed had been planted, though. And it’s telling that part of my later decision to pursue the rabbinate was because I wanted to know the people whose lives I would change. I didn’t just want to create and provide others with pharmacological cures and drugs, but I wanted to know their life journeys and be part of guiding them along those journeys.
Those of us who work with emerging adults, young adults, or children know the power of a word or deed to affect them, bolster – or repress – self-esteem, forward – or crush – a dream, direct in a new or unanticipated way. Sometimes we are aware of our actions. Sometimes we learn, even years later, that we have influenced someone unknowingly. Sometimes those we care about are aware of our actions; sometimes we open a door behind the scenes. In every case, there is the possibility that we are “that man” from the Joseph story who is changing the course of history, for an individual or even a people, a nation, or the world. It is a big responsibility and trust any teacher or mentor takes on.
That day Debbie changed my life. Due to her, I am blessed in my career, and in the work I do every day. I only pray that I will be like Debbie in the work I now do, and will, with insight and humility, influence, inspire, and encourage others to follow paths that allow them to become their best.
Judaism has a blessing we recite at moments of thanksgiving and joy. In this week of Thanksgiving, in gratitude to all those who have helped us on our way when we have wandered or not seen clear paths, who have asked us to ponder the big questions of life, and who have given us that to be thankful for, I recite it now: Blessed are you Adonai, our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this time.
From “Corner of the Sky” in the musical Pippin
Every man has his daydreams
Every man has his goal
People like the way dreams have
Of sticking to the soul.
Thunderclouds have their lightning
Nightingales have their song
And don’t you see I want my life to be
Something more than long…
Rivers belong where they can ramble
Eagles belong where they can fly
I’ve got to be where my spirit can run free
Got to find my corner of the sky
Executive Director, Hillel
Executive Director, Hillel