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Monday, 10 December 2012

"And a man found him wandering..." - a story about a story

You don’t know who I am, my name that is. No-one bothered to record it. Sure, you read about me, but I’m anonymous, I’m just – you might say – a character.  Just another character. Merely  – and this is what hurts – a ‘narrative device’. But without me – and I am just a poor man and my story’s seldom told – without me you would not be listening to this story. Can you believe that? No, probably not.

No-one ever believed me, even then, when I kept telling them that the Jewish story depended on me. That had I not been there that day, wandering, confused, trudging the fields, looking for God knows what – meaning, purpose, the right words (you know, the old questions, the eternal questions) – if I hadn’t been there that day, if I hadn’t bumped into him just by chance - I suppose it was by chance, but how are we supposed to know? - if I hadn’t come across him, who was also wandering in the fields - by Shechem it was, but it could have been anywhere, it could have been in Finchley, or Berlin, it’s that kind of a story - if I hadn’t met him that day when he was lost and confused (he knew his brothers should be there but they weren’t, I knew they weren’t),  if I hadn’t come across him that day (though maybe he felt he’d come across me), if that meeting hadn’t happened, this is what I mean to say, if this encounter had not occurred – the rest of the Jewish story could not have unfolded as it did.

No-one thinks about that, wants to think about that:  the chance encounters, the random events, the serendipitous happenings, how much is down to luck, how randomness rules, how two pedestrians were knocked down by cars in 1931, either, or both, could easily have been killed, Winston Churchill in New York, Adolf Hitler in Munich. It was just my luck – and yours , for good or ill – that I was there that day and made the first move, though it was out of character for me, but I did it, approached this stranger and opened up a conversation, and opened it up with such an inviting metaphor of a question: “What are you looking for?” And his response, well, it warmed my heart, because it seemed to come from his heart “I’m looking for my brothers”. It seemed to take him by surprise, to hear himself say it, there was a quizzical look for a moment, as if he heard himself speak a truth he’d been hiding from:  he was searching for connection to his brothers, it was as if he’d been missing something all those years, privileged child that he was.

Perhaps it was a turning point, of sorts, that conversation. It set him on the right path, or at least a new path. And I was left to reflect on what it meant for me, that I was the one upon whom the whole story seems to hinge.

For Joseph met his brothers, because of me, because of that strange meeting. Whereupon – and maybe he cursed me for it at the time - he was thrown into the pit, sold into slavery, taken to Egypt, he had his adventures and misadventures, thrown into the prison, raised up again – it’s  a great story, all about money  and sex and power – and I was the link in the chain, though no doubt by then he’d forgotten all about me, but without me he would never have been in Egypt, never have become Pharoah’s right-hand man, never have brought his father and his brothers to Egypt, there would have been none of that subsequent collective drama, none of that slavery and freedom and desert wanderings, none of that revelation and journeying to a Promised Land, none of that conquest and grim and joyous adventure of Jewish living, century after century, millennium after millennium, no People of the Book, no chosen people, no Marx or Freud, no Kafka or Woody Allen, none of it  would have happened, no Nobel prizes, no Hollywood, no Holocaust, if that day, that particular day, we had missed each other in the fields:  he wandering, searching after his brothers, me wandering too, just a humble man, a nobody, no distinguishing features, no history, no story, no depth of character, just doing my own thing on that day, like you do your stuff every day, nothing special, except on that day I told him what I had heard.  I was always a good listener, I just reported what I had heard, overheard – it wasn’t snooping, just curiosity, just being open to hear what was going on around me, I just said to him, when he asked about his brothers, I guessed who he meant – how did I know who those shepherds  were? how did I know they were his brothers? – but I knew, I just knew, call it intuition, call it fate, call it the unconscious, call it ‘God’ if you want to, if you need to, but I knew when he asked about his brothers, I knew where they were pasturing, I knew I had seen them and I knew where they had gone, I heard them say it: Dothan.

And that’s what I told him and that’s where he went and that’s where he found them. And the rest, as they say, is history, or saga, or myth: the story of the Jewish people, with me the link in the chain, an anonymous link to be sure, but I’m there – ‘vayimza’ehu ish, a man found him’ (Genesis 37: 15) - my claim to fame, just a small actor in a larger drama, but I played my part, I listened to what was going on, I reported it truthfully, straightforwardly, and the story passed on, the larger story in which I played my role, humbly, simply, it’s what anyone would have done, helping a wandering Jew, a person in distress, a person who didn’t know what to do next, you would have done it too, wouldn’t you?  you would have taken your part, your role, in the unfolding drama of everyday life, of sacred life, you would have been able to be the lynchpin of history – though you didn’t know it at the time – you would have seen that this is not grandiosity, this is not an inflated sense of your own importance,  this is not thinking the world revolves around you, it’s just seeing that actions count, that giving directions to someone who is lost, any day of any week, is taking part in a drama, a story, much bigger than we can ever know. (The texts of our lives mirror, intersect with, the texts of old). It’s the smallest things we do, that history never records in our name, that make a difference.

Life turns on these moments. It’s staggering, this story, this way of seeing the world. When we think we don’t matter, when we think the individual doesn’t count, that the tides of history sweep on regardless of the individual, regardless of each of us, then suddenly we see: no, it’s not like that, it’s all about us, you and me, in our anonymity and our everyday lives where each action can tip the scales, can shift the balance, can alter the unfolding narrative of life on earth. What a responsibility. What grandeur.

I learnt it in Shechem, I learnt it in that place, where I shouldered responsibility – you know of course that Shechem means 'shoulder' – on that day when Joseph approached me ( and I knew who he was of course, everyone knew him with his fancy coat and his dreamy looks, he was unmistakable, unmissable, no wonder the stories they told revolved around him), on that day I suppose I was chosen to play my part in the sacred drama. I didn’t know, of course, just how much was at stake. We never do.

But there I am – inscribed in the good book, the book of life. And you don’t need my name, and I don’t need you to know my name. It is enough that you think of me each year, when you read this tale, this fable, this story of our lives, your lives. It’s enough you think of me. Think kindly of me. And think kindly of yourselves. My time has gone. It’s you now. Your turn to be in Shechem , to shoulder responsibility, to take your place in the unfolding drama, the sacred drama. It’s your turn now.

[Sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, December 8th 2012]midrash

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