How much of life is “right place, right time”? While some encounters are just one-time meetings with someone you may never run into again, other times a chance meeting can lead to a new job, a new love, or a new path in life. We call this serendipity or fate. Most of the time these little chance encounters turn out to be nothing extraordinary, just a regular part of interacting in the world. Once in awhile a serendipitous meeting can change the course of your life for better orworse, but these larger consequences aren’t clear to us until later.
Our Torah portion this week, parshat Vayeshev, leaves us wondering how our story might have turned out without a particular serendipitous meeting. We find ourselves in the thickof the Joseph story. Joseph has two dreams that he shares with his brothers, both of which make them angry with him. The brothers go out to pasture, Joseph finds them, the brothers decide to sell him, and father Jacob mourns for his “favorite son.” After this the story takes a turn to focus on Joseph’s brother Judah and the betrayal of Tamar before turning back to Joseph’s life in Egypt, which ultimately lands him in jail.
This sounds like a classic case of sibling rivalry and brotherly hate; however, hidden inside this famous story is the importance of noticing chance encounters. In chapter 37, Joseph is sent out to find his brothers in the field asthey tend to the flocks. Joseph searches for a while and comes up empty handed when there is a “man who came upon him.” This man has no name and seemingly comes out of nowhere. The appearance always reminds me of the man who calls himself Mr. Slugworth from the earlier Willy Wonka movie. Rambam, the great medieval commentator teaches that the stranger who points Joseph in the direction of his brothers is an angel, sent to make sure that Joseph would not give up on his mission when he could not find his brothers immediately. This man is never mentioned again in ourtext.
And, had Joseph never met this man, he would never have found his brothers or been sold into slavery, his family would never have followed him to Egypt, and thus there would never have been a new Pharaoh who enslaved the Jews. If the Exodus had never have happened, the narrative of our people would have been remarkably different. In the moment, did Joseph orthis man know the impact of their meeting? Probably not. But looking back on it, it is impossible to toss aside the impact this mystery man had on not only Joseph’s life, but each of our lives as well.
We don’t usually know the consequences and outcomes of the little thoughtless acts of we perform every day. But reading parshat Vayeshev reminds us that each encounter we have might be one that brings about a change, whether it’s the smile exchanged with a stranger, or the introduction to a future spouse. Too often we write off these experiences and take them for granted, but if we paid attention to them every so often, we might be surprised with where life takes us.