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Who's That Man?
Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, 5771/2010
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Friends --

This is the sermon I delivered at our annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. I considered the message modest and somewhat obvious then, but in light of the events in Tucson of last week, I am persuaded that it is not quite as obvious as I thought, so I share it here. I rush to emphasize that there is no purpose in looking backward to affix blame or responsibility for the fractious climate in which we find ourselves. The real question is what we do going forward.


This service is good for me in a lot of ways, but especially because my friend Larry always wants to know what I am going to speak about three weeks ahead of the service. As my congregation knows, that's about two weeks and six days earlier than most such decisions I make, and two weeks, six days and 23 hours before I do my preparation. So when I have to commit that early, it is a different kind of preparation for me.

Now that's not to say I don't give these things advanced thought…it's just that I rarely start out with the same thing I end up with. So I picked a Scripture for the service and gave Larry a title, which you see in your order of service bulletin, and I hoped for the best. When I went back to my notes for this talk at 6:30 this evening – just kidding – I had written at the top of the page, "Who is responsible for us being here tonight?" And it took me a while to figure out what I meant by that question.

Did I mean who invented this service for our three congregations? I must say that I inherited it from Rev. Pera, Rev. Satterwhite, Rev. Allen and Rabbi Elster, and they in turn inherited it from Rev. Basom from Beverley Hills UMC. Did I mean gathering in general for Thanksgiving? That would like be some unnamed Pilgrims and their similarly anonymous Indian benefactors. Did I mean North America? I don't even want to get into that conversation. Or maybe I meant even earlier than that.

So I began to think about a Hassidic rabbi by the name of Zusya of Hanipol. One day, as he became aware that his own death was approaching, he was suddenly consumed by tears and fears. One of his devoted disciples tried to comfort him and said, "Rebbe, why are you trembling? When you appear before the Holy One, he cannot help but welcome you. After all, in your lifetime, you were like Moses!" The Rabbi answered, "I am not afraid that when I meet the Holy One I will be asked, `Zusya, why weren't you Moses?' I am afraid that I will be asked, `Zusya, why weren't you Zusya?'"

I was thinking about that story as I reflected on lead-up to the verses we shared from the Bible tonight. If you have read the Book of Genesis – and who among us hasn't? – you know that it starts out as a great piece of literature. God creates the world, Adam and Eve reside in paradise, then they sin and get thrown out. Cain murders Abel. Noah builds the ark. The offspring of Noah build the Tower of Babel. But mixed into those exciting and elevating stories are two long sections – chapter 5 and most of chapters 10 and 11 – which are not-so-respectfully referred to as the "begats." Adam begat Seth, Seth begat Enosh, Enosh begat Kenan, Kenan begat Mahalalel, Mahalalel begat Jared, Jared begat Enoch, Enoch begat Methuselah. All the ages of these guys are included as well, so when you get to Methuselah, it feels like a real-time recitation.

What is the purpose of all these names? Is it to tell future generations what to name their kids? If that's the case, it didn't work too well. We have a few Jareds and Seths, but Noah's offspring pretty much strike out – every now and then a Shem or a Japeth, but no Jewish family ever named their kid Ham.

No, the answer of Biblical scholars who know such things is that a character in the Bible is named only if he or she advances the story somehow. So even if Arpachshad and Peleg and Serug don't do much other than to beget, the eventual begotten is Abraham and the contributions of Eber, Shelah and Reu are very necessary to get us there. You will notice that these are all men's names, but that's a different sermon.

So it struck me as somewhat peculiar that when we got to the story of Joseph and his brothers, beginning in chapter 37, there appears in the story a man with no name. Joseph has gone out to find his brothers, sent by his father who must have been annoyed with this kid carrying on about his dreams, and he gets lost. Along comes a man who finds him wandering around in the field and he asks Joseph, "What are you looking for?" Joseph tells him he is looking for his brothers, and to put the man's response in a contemporary idiom, he says, "They went that-a-way."

Now, with no offense meant to Gomer, Rifat and Togarmah, it seems to me that the friendly stranger in chapter 37 has at least as much to do with the progression of this story as their begatting did. If this mystery man had given the wrong directions, or if he said, "I don't know," or if he had sent Joseph home, the rest of the Bible wouldn't have happened – no sale of Joseph, no slavery in Egypt, no liberation from Pharaoh, no Promised Land, no prophets, no Jesus, no Martin Luther, no Methodists and Presbyterians, no Einstein or Streisand, and we'd all have work tomorrow instead of turkey and football.

And so I want to know, as the title of this sermon suggests, "Who's that man?"

The faithful Jewish readers of previous centuries are mostly convinced that this man was actually an angel, sent by God to be sure that the story of humanity intended by our Creator progressed as it should. There is a certain attractiveness to that notion. Rather than telling Joseph what was in store for him, God just sets things up, the way God did for Isaac before the binding, and the way God did for Jacob on that lonely mountaintop.

But what is to prevent the Bible from making that clear? Why not say, "And an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and said, `Get thee to Dothan, for there thy brothers await thee?'"

Before I suggest an answer to that question, I want to reveal a small secret I have kept for close to twenty-five years. The members of Agudas Achim will recognize that one of my catch phrases, something I pull out at a moment's notice is this: there is no such thing as a coincidence. I have been mostly satisfied over all these years for people to ascribe to me great faith in God's plan for humanity, that the Holy One has put everything in motion for a purpose. I can't tell you how many times people have quoted this phrase back to me when something fortuitous happens in their lives, or when something unexpected results in great blessing, or even when what seems to be a tragedy turns out to be an opportunity. I may very well have instilled in many people the belief in God's presence in every moment and every action. And I do not apologize for that sleight-of-hand.

But the fact is I am not quite so pious. When I say that there is no such thing as a coincidence, what I mean is that there is an explanation for everything in this world – good, bad or indifferent. The football bounced into the hands of the defense because of the trajectory of the throw and the angle of the receiver's fingers, not because the defense prayed harder before the game. You got that job because in addition to being qualified, the person who interviewed you thought you reminded her a little bit of a childhood friend, or had a favorite niece who went to the same college, or decided that she didn't want to interview anyone beyond the first qualified person she met. Your beloved relative contracted a terminal illness not because of punishment, but because the combination of genetics and marriage choices and the environment in which he lived conspired to make him susceptible to it. Almodad, Dikla and Abimael had more to do with all of those things – athletic prowess, impatience, chromosomes – than some arbitrary gust of magic or divine judgment. Like the butterfly that flaps its wings and becomes the main actor in chaos theory, nothing is incidental, and therefore nothing is coincidental.

And lest you think I am speaking heresy, I remind you that I am just following the lessons of Genesis. And I am also following the teachings of the great Rabbi Akiva, who asserted 2000 years ago that there was nothing superfluous in the Torah, nothing incidental at all.

So when I tell you that Joseph finding that guy in the field at just the right moment was no coincidence, because there is no such thing as coincidence, what do I mean?

I mean that the Bible leaves his name out purposely. This small act – reaching out to help a befuddled teenager find his way – is the small act of kindness that I hope any one of us might perform in similar circumstances. We hold the door for the people entering a building behind us. We provide some change for the homeless man on the street. We make room for the woman with three children in her SUV to get into a line of traffic. And when a family bedecked in caps that say "FBI" and wearing 3-for-$10 tee shirts that say "You don't know me – Witness Protection Program" are huddled around a Metro map in front of Pentagon City, we say, "What are you looking for?"

The first person who is reported to have asked that question changed the course of history. His name isn't mentioned and his origin is unknown. He gets none of the credit that Sabeteca, Havilah and Hul got for a single night of passion. But his anonymity offers perhaps the most elevating lesson in all of the Bible: there is no person, no act, no kindness that is superfluous, that is incidental. Each human being, each person in this room and beyond this room determines the course of history.

Wow, what a responsibility. I hope it makes you consider the consequence of your every action. I also hope that it inspires within you a sense of humility, that the big picture of this world that is God's domain is dependent on your simplest decision. And I also hope on this Thanksgiving eve that it inspires in you a sense of gratitude that you have been bestowed by your Creator not just with inalienable rights, but with the power to change the world if only you choose wisely.

Do you want to know the answer to my question? Do you want to know, as the title of this sermon suggests, "Who's that man?"

My friends, it is you.

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