Thursday, May 06, 1999

Directions and Destiny

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Williamsville, NY

Q: Why did Moses lead the Jewish people for forty years in the wilderness?
A: Because he wouldn't ask for directions.

It had been some time since I had taken an international flight. As I traveled to Belgium for my brother's wedding a couple of months ago, I settled into my seat, shot a concerned glance at the group that was drinking and talking at the top of their lungs, worried about whether I would getany sleep at all on the overnight trip, fished out the least interesting reading material I could handle in the hopes of dozing off despite the non-stop talkers... and found myself staring at the screen on the seat in front of me in absolute fascination.

Having pushed the wrong button somehow, there was now a map on the screen in front of me. It shifted perspectives every few seconds, but the point was the same. The map showed the terrain below us. It showed where we had come from. It showed where the plane currently was en route. And, in a dotted line into the future, it showed the route we were going to take.  I hadn't seen anything like this on my previous trips to Europe. Or to Israel. And, to be sure, our ancestors had nothing like this during their wanderings in the wilderness.

What a marvelous thing! A map, to show where we've been. Where we are. And where we are going. If only we could have something like this in life.

Except for this. The line behind is solid. It is the path we have traveled. The plan that has worked. The past that is fixed.  Where we are is a flashing point. A best-guess approximation. As we learn from Quantum Mechanics: you can never know everything about where we are. You can know a particles speed, and its charge, but not its position. Or a different combination. But not all three. You cannot know everything, all at once, about the moment that is. The place we are in. The people you are with. Even the person you are. As in all experiments, focusing on the self distorts the picture. Awareness affects the outcome. All analysis is analogy. The picture of the plane in its present location flashed on and off. As we move in and out of our own balance between action and consciousness.

And the future? What more could it be, than a dotted line? The best laid plan. Our hopes and dreams and expectations, broken by the not-yet reality we are about to meet.And would you really want the future to be a solid line, even if it could be?

A story. Joseph is sent to meet his brothers. He sets out to find them, where once they were. But they were a moving target. They had changed location. Quantum particles whom he could not know completely, they were nowhere to be found. Joseph wanders and wonders. Alone in the field.

But he is not alone. He comes across a "man." And he asks about his brothers.

"Oh," the man said, "I heard them say something about going to Dothan." So Joseph changes course. Finds his brothers. And fulfills his destiny. Because he met a man, while wandering in a field.

We know nothing more of the man. But think about it. If it had not been for that man, Joseph would not have found his brothers. If he had not found his brothers, he would not have been thrown in a pit. If not for the pit, he would not have been sold to slavery, brought down to Egypt, served in Potiphar's house, been the victim of sexual harassment, landed in prison.

If he had not landed in prison, he would not have met the butler and the baker, not have interpreted their dreams, never met Pharaoh. If he had never met Pharaoh, he would not have risen to prime minister of Egypt, would not have made plans for the famine, would not have been there to meet his brothers when they came begging for bread.

Had he not met his brothers then they would not have moved to Egypt, we would not have become slaves, we would not have needed Moses. If there had been no Moses to lead us out of slavery, we would not have crossed the sundered sea, and we would not have stood at Sinai. Had we not stood at Sinai, there would have been no Torah.

All because... of an accidental encounter in a field, when a brother was looking for something, and found something altogether different.

The future is a dotted line. Plans and hopes and dreams broken by our encounter with reality. Broken... and shaped anew.  It is, perhaps, up to us to make new meaning of the accidents in our lives. So that our detours and diversions lead us still to places we want to be.
Q: Why did Moses lead the Jewish people for forty years in the wilderness?

A: Because, whether we knew it or not, that is where we needed to be.

A map on a seat, and a lesson for life. Planes may land in Brussels.  But on an overnight flight with little rest I learned once again... that everything leads to Torah.