A Tale of Two Men

Thursday, 15 December, 2022 - 6:47 pm

One day the zoo keeper noticed that the orangutan was reading two books - the Bible and Darwin's Origin of Species. Surprised, he asked the ape, "Why are you reading both those books?"  "Well," said the orangutan, "I just wanted to know if I was my brother's keeper or my keeper's brother."
Sometimes, the contrast is too conspicuous to ignore. In both stories, the Torah employs the same term: man. In two consecutive portions, the same term is used.
In this week’s portion Vayiehsev, Joseph was sent by his father Jacob, to go visit his brothers and seek their welfare. Despite his brothers loathing him, Joseph embarked on the journey, and he got lost on the way. The Torah tells us: Then a man found him, and behold, he was straying in the field, and the man asked him, saying, "What are you looking for?"  And he said, "I am looking for my brothers. Tell me, where they are pasturing?" Who was this man, who encountered Joseph at that vulnerable moment? It was angel Gabriel.
But wait! Last week it said that Jacob remained alone and a man wrestled with him.  Yet this week, sees him as the angel Gabriel, and last week as Esau’s angel? That seems unfair. But of course, context is always the key. The word may be the same, but the question is what does this man, do?
In both stories, two people are deeply vulnerable. Father and son. Jacob and Joseph. Both meet a stranger. A man who appears out of the blue. The question is what does this man, do? Here is the difference. In Jacob’s case, the man sees a lonely man in the middle of the night and pounces on him.  What about the second story? Here too Joseph is alone. And a man encounters him. But what does the man say and do? "What are you looking for?"
And Joseph tells him: “I am searching for my brothers!” I want a relationship. I am searching for love.  So, when a man, encounters a vulnerable person and seizes the opportunity to attack him, that man, is an angel of Esau. But when a man, encountering a vulnerable person, seizes the opportunity to offer a loving hand, to see how he can be here for you, this person, must be the angel, Gabriel!  The lesson to us is clear. We all encounter, daily, weekly, or monthly a person, a child, a teen, who is “alone,” vulnerable, lonely, lost, bewildered, and pained. We see them in their vulnerability. And we make a choice.
Some of us seize the opportunity to use them for our benefit. But some of us encounter the same vulnerable people. And our response is: My dear friend, let me find out what you are searching for, what are your deepest fears and causes of anxiety?
We each must make a choice about what type of “man” we will be. I can either become a force of Esau, or I can become the angel, Gabriel.
That also happened just two weeks ago in Israel. Tragedy visited the city of Jerusalem one Monday evening in late November 2022, when a Chassidic Jew, Rabbi Moshe Dovid passed away in the local hospital after a protracted illness.
It was a tragedy because of a life lost, because he was still a young man, only 43 years of age, who had left behind a grieving wife and two young children. 
His passing was noted with sadness by the local press, which published the heart-rending image of Reb Moshe Dovid’s 10-year-old son sitting shiva.
Thus, it was to the surprise of the family, when among the few Chassidim sitting around the little boy, an unexpected face entered.  A young fellow showed up, asking for a kippah at the front door. He apparently knew no one and was unrelated to anyone there. With his borrowed kippah on his head, he sat down among the others who had come to comfort the Israel family.
After a few moments, one of those visitors sitting nearby turned to politely ask this unfamiliar face whether he had known Reb Dovid Moshe.  No! He said. Had ever met him before, or had he perhaps worked with him in the past? The answer was negative. So, what brings you here?
“I live in another city, in Rishon Letzion, and someone sent me that picture of the young boy, the orphan, sitting by himself”, he explained simply. “It just made me so sad and made me feel so bad for him. I said to myself that I had to come over, to share in his pain, and try to cheer the young boy up.”
Why does he need any more an excuse than that? A sentiment as pure and heartfelt as that is all it takes to melt away labels, enclaves, politics, and partisanship. Our powerful sense of humanity, our peoplehood, and our shared identity is enough to dissolve any illusion of division.
On his way out, the young secular Jew stopped by the donation desk that had been set up at the front of the house to solicit support for the widow and her two children. This visitor signed to deposit 200 shekalim directly to the family each month for years and years to come, and with that, he left the house. And perhaps he left something else behind, a message that is important as it needs to be heard: For the Jewish people, there is no such thing as a private tragedy. When we hurt, and when we are happy, we share in each other’s pain and joy. We support each other, lean on each other, celebrate together, and lift each other up.
Here we have an example of a modern man the angel Gabriel. We all read in the paper and watch the news about this child or this situation. We sigh. And we move on. But this Jew got into his car. Drove into a Chassidic enclave where he knew he will stick out like a sore thumb. And just sat down to tell a little child that he is thinking of him. And then pledged money for years and years for this family.  It was the night of Yom Kippur, the holiest time of the year. Rabbi Shneur Zalman, also known as the Alter Rebbe, was praying. Wrapped in his talit, he was immersed in his prayers, in intimacy with G-d. Suddenly, he removed his talit and left the shul. It was shocking.
As the Rebbe’s Chassidim waited worriedly for him to arrive, he was climbing deep into the woods, with a sack on his back, to chop down wood.  They later learned that he then proceeded to bring the firewood and the sack into the lonely little house of an impoverished widow who had just given birth and her small children. Saving a life is so important, that chopping wood and creating fire—normally forbidden on a holy day—are permitted.
In the middle of his Yom Kippur prayers, he felt the agony of this woman. And he left the shul to enter her home and ask her, as the man asked Joseph, “how I can help you.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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