Today I heard a story from a friend about someone who “paid it forward” at a store, so that she did not have to pay the dime for a bag, having left hers at home, and how this small act of kindness had made her day. A truly tiny act of kindness made her day.
The person who filmed the police killing Eric Garner did it as an anonymous source (until he was arrested on a gun charge).
Deep Throat, the anonymous source who exposed the corruption in the Nixon Administration, remained that way until after his death.
I have visited a young man at the hospital who is waiting for a liver transplant and hopefully it will arrive before his body can no longer hold him together. When it does, if it does come, it will be from an anonymous donor, someone he will never know, someone who will change his life. Almost everyone who donates blood is anonymous to the person who receives the gift.
How are our lives changed by anonymous people doing good in the world, or just for us?
And here we are at this week’s torah portion, Vayishlach (and he sent):
And Jacob was left alone by himself and fought with a man until the break of day. (Gen. 32:25.)
We’ve spent millennia arguing over the identity of that anonymous man: interpretations include Jacob himself, God, Esau, an angel. Or just a man, an ish. He came out of it injured, and blessed with a new name, Yisrael, one who struggles with God (El). And the grammar or syntax in the attached verses are challenging. “And when he saw that he had not prevailed, he …” There are so many “he’s”, it is hard to figure out where Jacob ends and the ish begins, which certainly gives credence to the theory that “he” is Jacob himself.
The idea of a random ish appearing at another crucial moment in the Jewish narrative of peoplehood is quite mesmerizing for me this year. Just as a few chapter before, our father Avram met up with three men who just happened to be wondering through his stretch of land on their way to Sodom and Gomorrah to drop off the news of Isaac’s birth. Here a man arrives just in time to wrestle with Jacob as he moves his family from his uncle/father-in-law’s house back to his father’s land, just before he meets his brother after 20 years, when the last time had been after he’d stolen his brother’s paternal blessing. In between, Abraham met an anonymous ram caught in the thicket, when he was stopped by the malach (messenger or angel) from sacrificing Isaac. (To whom did the ram belong and who was that messenger?) And in the not too distant future, Joseph will meet another anonymous ish in a field while he is seeking out his brothers. The man’s directions will land Joseph in the pit, and then sold to traders to land in Potiphar’s house in Egypt.
As Butch Cassidy asked the Sundance Kid, “Who are these guys?”
In three of the four cases, each is described as an Ish, that word for male human being. At the altar on Mt. Moriah, it is a “malach Adonai,” a messenger or angel of God. In the first story of the three men, they later become messengers. And the wrestler says that Jacob’s new name means “You have struggled with God and with men, and you have prevailed.” And Jacob names the spot Peniel, “For I have seen God face-to-face and my life is preserved.” So God was in that place, again.
Life can be changed in the blink of an eye by an anonymous person walking through the field, on the mountain, on the road. Do we notice? Do we pay attention? Do we notice now or is it later, when we end up at Potiphar’s house, or when we reach the pinnacle of success that one stranger made all the difference, or at least some of the difference?
And is this the mystery at the center of the universe, the energy for good? Or do we have a strong desire to name randomness and coincidence?
I am not a strong believer in the idea that everything happens for a reason (that can’t be explained by us mortals – I do believe there are human reasons why some things happen). But I think that sometimes we don’t pay enough attention to moments in our lives, to the experiences we have and how they might lead to other experiences. Will the friend who experienced the free bag be in such a good mood that some wonderful opportunity will appear where it might not have otherwise? The person who received a pint of my blood might go on to do something wonderful (or not of course, but I can’t go there today). Where does the random act of kindness come into the equation?
I keep coming back to the image of the random person who plays a key role in our narrative, an unnamed character who passes through. Who are those people for you?