An old friend visited recently. We had first met in 1994 while applying to rabbinical school, nervously waiting in the office lobby together for our separate interviews. Because of the interviews, it was one of those days that you know will impact the course of your life and help determine your destiny. Naturally, now more than a quarter century later, we looked back at our spiritual and professional journeys from that day until now.
What surprised us both as we looked back on the paths are lives have taken from then in our early twenties until now, is how we could never have predicted, looked forward to, or even imagined or guessed at the routes we ended up traversing in life. At the same time, tracing those paths backward from now, it seems so obvious to both of us how one thing naturally led to another, step-by-step, as if it had been planned more-or-less precisely all along.
Maybe we should not have been so surprised. One’s destiny is impossible to know beforehand…. and yet in retrospect it seems intuitable, perhaps inevitable and hinted at all along the way.
For example, looking at this week’s Torah portion, Shemot, the destiny of the Jewish People is determined: A new Pharaoh suddenly comes to power in Egypt. Before we can fathom it, we find ourselves brutally enslaved. This sets the course for the rest of the Torah which tells the story of our redemption from that slavery and subsequent journey to the Promised Land.
As surprised as our ancestors presumably were at finding themselves suddenly slaves to Pharaoh, Abraham had been told long before that his descendants would be slaves before becoming the blessing to the world that God needed them to be. Perhaps God should have said it more clearly (yet jarringly): We would need to be slaves in order to become the blessing to the world that God needs us to be.
This story continues to set the course for who we ourselves are as individuals today. In many ways our personal ‘destinies’ are still shaped by the experience of our ancestors as slaves, by their redemption, and by the ways our people (and the world) have internalized, learned from, and utilized that experience over the last 3,500 years….Most obviously when we attend a Passover seder, but also during this Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend when we reflect on how much we treasure the idea and value of freedom, have the impulse and dedication to work for justice and care for the “widow, the stranger, and the orphan” of society, when we appreciate the notion of the Sabbath day as a respite from the work world and the tyranny of market forces so as to have the ability to rest and be ourselves, and in so many other ways as well. There is a reason that our daily prayers in the siddur refer to our experience as slaves, time and again, day in and day out…
“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself…. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
What unexpected pathway(s) has your own spiritual journey traversed? How has your path intertwined with causes greater than yourself, with the events of your generation?
Are you still moving along your path or are you searching for your way forward? Looking backwards from where you are – does it all add up and make sense? Do you suspect that perhaps you need to retrace a few steps and veer off where the trail last split? Is your path so certain that you only wish you could advance more quickly and ascend further? Are you noticing the blessings and vistas along the way? Who is walking along with you?
Rabbi Michael Schwartz