This Shabbat in synagogue, we read one of my favorite Torah portions – the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph, the favored son of Jacob, is hated by his brothers, who sell him into slavery. He is sold to an officer in the court of the Egyptian Pharaoh, but ends up ruling Egypt and saving the entire country (as well as the surrounding area – including his brothers back in Canaan) from death by starvation. The brothers are reunited, everyone kisses and makes up, the Jews are enslaved by the Egyptians, God liberates the Jewish people from slavery, and we eat matzah for a week. This story is the story of the Jewish people. But the whole thing starts when Jacob sends Joseph to a place called Schem to see how his brothers are doing with the sheep. This is the starting point of the Jewish story of exile and redemption. The lives of millions depend on Joseph being in the right place when famine hits Egypt. But if Joseph does not first find his brothers in Schem, then there is no slavery for Joseph and no redemption for the Jewish people. Genesis 37 recounts this odd addition to Joseph’s story:
A man found him wandering around in the fields and asked him, “What are you looking for?” He replied, “I’m looking for my brothers. Can you tell me where they are grazing their flocks?” “They have moved on from here,” the man answered. “I heard them say, ‘Let’s go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers and found them near Dothan. (vv. 15-17)
Why do we need to know about this trivial conversation with a seemingly unimportant character? While unnamed, and on the surface, unimportant, the man from Schem plays a critical role in Joseph’s story, and eventually, in the story of the Jewish people. The Bible seems to be telling us that we never truly know our role in the bigger story, but the right words at the right time can truly shift destiny. This message really hit home for me last year when I met a group of Americans who were visiting the town of Sderot in the south of Israel. Together, we spent an hour speaking with a mother of seven who was raising her children under a hail of rocket fire. She described the emotional relief that Hibuki – a special doll used to treat and prevent PTSD in children – had given her son, and voiced her determination to continue living in Sderot, despite the danger. It was a story that moved me as a mother, and I saw several of the participants tear up as they thought of their own boys and girls, safe at home in the States. A couple of days later, I received an email from one of the participants who wrote: “S'derot was something I will not forget. I gave the doll to my daughter. She's 7. I tried to tell her what it represented and was used for but it wasn't easily communicated. I kept the picture you gave us of what a child there drew where it shows a missile coming down. All of it affected me. I may be a better person and businessperson as a result.” I had no idea that we had so touched this man, even to the point that he feels that he underwent a real personal shift during the visit. As we go about our day-to-day lives, we may feel that we are not being heard. But the email I received and the story of the man in Schem teach us that sometimes we are doing far more than we will ever know. What does a kind word, a thoughtful gesture, or a moment of patience and understanding do for someone who is lost and seeking answers? You never know. - Davida Kutscher lives in Jerusalem with her daughter (and dog) and works for the AJJDC.