Before the pandemic it was common practice for the residents, upon arriving at Beit T’Shuvah, to be without their phones and other electronic devices for about a month or two. One of the comments I heard frequently was a request for more clocks around the building. Entering into residential treatment (and early recovery) had left them feeling dis-oriented, out of sync, and unsure as they struggled to adopt and adapt to new rhythms and routines. I began to understand their comments about the clocks as a statement about their longings for normalcy. (For the record, we’ve always had plenty of clocks at 8831 Venice Blvd.)
I’ve been reminded of their clock comments throughout the ever-unfolding realities of life during a pandemic. And now even more so with the “holiday surge,” where our anxiety, frustrations, and fatigue levels seem to parallel the exponential increases in the local daily infections rates. Much has been written about the major and minor mental health crisis, as well the expanding epidemic of substance abuse and subsequent overdoses. At times, our energy levels sputter, our spirits are dimmed, and it can be difficult to engage in even the basic aspects of healthy living. When every day seems like a Tuesday, it can be such a challenge to stay focused and accomplish the goals we set for ourselves, both big and small. The voice of “why bother” constantly couches at our door.
Pandemic living aside, our tradition has always had a response to the darkness (literal and metaphoric) with the celebration of Hanukkah. The festival of Hanukkah is one that honors our ability to fight back against oppressive forces with a faith to (re)dedicate ourselves to the core principles of spiritual life, all the while expanding our awareness about the miracles that surround us. (You can read about our virtual community Hanukkah celebrations HERE.)
This week’s parashah also provides me with direction about navigating moments of disruption and disorientation with dedication and faith.
As VaYeishev opens, we are introduced to Jacob’s eleventh son, Joseph, a very young and immature 17-year-old. Aside from Moses, Joseph is one of the most highly developed characters in the Torah. Over the next several weeks, we’ll follow his remarkable journey from spoiled brat to family redeemer. But initially, the Torah shares about his insensitivity and self-centeredness. He obliviously antagonizes his brothers and even his doting father with boastful dreams of superiority and dominance. With each successive incident, the divide between them deepens.
Despite Joseph’s immaturity and obvious missteps, we can also see key elements of spiritual strength, of his willingness to “show up,” take action driven by a sense of faith, and appreciate the miracles of life. One time, when his brothers had gone to pasture their father’s flock at Shechem, Israel said to Joseph,
“Your brothers are pasturing at Shechem. Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “I am ready” (Genesis 37:12-13).
Although his father is fully aware of the rift between Joseph and his brothers, Jacob asks him to go and check on them while they are tending to their flocks. Joseph offers a single word response, “Hineini.” Hineini can be translated as either “I am here” or “I am ready.” There are only a select few instances of hineini in the Torah, and each occurrence is indicative of an individual willing to follow G!D’s lead into a uncertain and life-changing journey. “Hineini” is how Abraham responds to G!D prior to the binding of Isaac; it is also how Moses responds to G!D when they encounter each other at the burning bush.
Joseph knew he was about to embark on a journey that was likely fraught with danger and uncertainty. However, his faith in G!D was strong and he knew that G!D would accompany him on this path.
Shortly after he departed to look for his brothers, a seemingly small but significant event is described.
…a man came upon him (Joseph) wandering in the fields. The man asked him, “What are you looking for?” He answered, “I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are pasturing?” The man said, “They have gone from here, for I heard them say: ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So, Joseph followed his brothers and found them at Dothan (Genesis 37:15-17).
Joseph’s ability to successfully complete his mission/task was entirely dependent upon this unexpected encounter with a random stranger. If this encounter hadn’t happened, Joseph might never had found his brothers and the story of his family (and the Jewish people) may have been completely different. Commentators have offered that this stranger actually wasn’t a man, but an angel. Recognizing the significance of the role the stranger plays in the larger story, they attribute to him a dimension of Divinity.
Our lives are also driven by factors beyond our control (and how much, I wonder, by Divinely-inspired miracles!). On a daily basis, we – like Joseph – encounter the opportunity to answer “Hineini” to a call by G!D. Granted, we often get too caught up in disruptions from within ourselves and from the outside world to hear this call. Nonetheless, when we do become aware of it, we can draw inspiration from Joseph that our faith in G!D provides the means for navigating the complexities of life (on life’s terms) that may result when we respond to the call with “Hineini.”
This cooperation of spirit and body – hearing a spiritual call and responding with readiness (feet) – both stems from and deepens our appreciation for the on-going miracles that exist within and throughout our lives. And that understanding helps us cultivate our willingness to listen to the strangers who may be angels sent to help us fulfill our Divine purpose.
It may even allow us to serve as a stranger/angel in another’s journey.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah!