I used to walk to synagogue every week under a major highway overpass. Every week as I walked, I passed by the basic objects that make up our city; I saw buildings and trash cans and bus stops. For the longest time, however, I refused to see what many still refuse to see – those who sleep amongst the concrete and refuse, the wretched men and women who hide in the bushes. The homeless dwell in the background of our cities like a lamppost or a fire hydrant, going unnoticed by most of us. We don’t see them.
That’s the way it was for me until the day “Jack” came into my life. He waved at me once as I walked by. Sometimes he’d smile, other times just a nod. Over the weeks our wordless “hello” became part of my Shabbat morning ritual. Eventually I stopped for just a minute and asked him his name. We talked for a bit and then I went on my way. Over time, I brought him food from our kiddish and we began to talk. It turns out that Jack was a veteran. He served our country overseas, and experienced the carnage of war. When he came home, he couldn’t keep his life together and everything fell apart. Pain, addiction, and despair landed Jack right there next to me under the freeway. There we were together, face to face, me in my suit and him in raggedy old clothes. And for the first time, I saw this man. I saw inside him, his pain, his shame, and most of all his humanity. It was there I saw the face of God.
And then he was gone.
Jack had been arrested, taken somewhere far away because he got too close to the hotel. Apparently the manager didn’t like him around and waited for him to wander onto the property’s front garden. I never saw him again. The truth is that I would have never come to know him and his story if I hadn’t looked up at him when he waved and spent just a minute of my time with him. Those sixty seconds changed my life; they changed my world.
I have often written that the most basic unit of life is not the atom or the molecule, but the moment. We are not only biology chemistry, we are something more. We are capable of dreams and fears, of creating life and fashioning futures. No other species aspires to be more, to surpass ourselves and to make an unknown future into the living present. To change the world and to make a difference requires, more than anything, a single moment of time to make the choice that the world is worth changing. That precious choice comes down to a single moment, when the sacred past, the holy present, and hopeful future fuse, producing world-changing results. One moment of revelation changes the world.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, we see a series of such moments. We begin the first part of the epic journey of Jospeh, from being his father’s favored son, to being cast into a pit by his brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt. Joseph was the eleventh of the twelve sons of Jacob. Jacob “loved him more” than his other sons. (Genesis 37:3) Being jealous of their father’s love and chided by Joseph’s dreams of grandeur, the brothers resented him. Some time later, the brothers were out in the field and they saw Joseph coming. Their envy boiled over and in a terrible moment, changed the course of history. They said, “Here comes that dreamer!” “Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a wild animal devoured him.Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.”(Genesis 37:18-19)
Reuben, the eldest of the family, was the only one to disagree. In another extraordinary moment, he said, “Shed no blood! Cast him into that pit out into the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves.” (Genesis 37:22) In this story we find two moments: one of horror and the other of salvation.
Inside of Reuben something clicked. His conscience told him that fratricide was not the way for this family. According to the Rabbis, each of the brothers owned a pit as part of their holdings and each was filled with dangers. One had brackish water, another filled with snakes. Reuben, knowing that this was the only dry and clean pit, suggested to the brothers to put Joseph in that one, hoping to buy time so that he could save Joseph. (Alshlich ad locum) Reuben’s choice was a half-measure. Perhaps fearful of the ten other brothers, his choice only directed their anger from murder to kidnapping. While later rabbis credit him with good intentions, (Tosefta Peah 1:4) his decision was a failure.
The moment passed. Sixty seconds. The world had changed.
The moment the brothers decided to turn on Joseph and the moment when Reuben did not act sent the family of Jacob into a tailspin. Returning to the cistern later that night, Reuben found Joseph already gone, sold as a slave and on his way to Egypt (Genesis 39:29) — the enslavement of Joseph, the beloved presaging the eventual enslavement of all of Israel.
The Mishnah writes that each life is a universe. (Sanhedrin 4:5) No life is inconsequential. No decision is unimportant. The world is changed one moment at a time and one person at time. Jack made a difference in my life in sixty seconds. Later that fall, in my congregation Valley Beth Shalom, I gave a sermon about homelessness for the first time. We organized a task force to help the unhoused. Out of those conversations came the largest coalition in LA County history. At VBS we hosted the final public debate between the two candidates for the County Board of Supervisors. Our coalition bused in homeless folks from around our community and asked them to sit in the first four rows of the congregation.
A formerly homeless man named “Walker” spoke to each candidate about the impending housing crisis. He told them about being homeless and his struggles and asked them if they would do something about it. On stage and on camera, the candidates stammered. Hours of prep time and building relationships across Los Angeles came down to a single moment – sixty seconds.
Would they say, “yes”? Would they equivocate? With only a minute to respond they were not sure what to say. In the end they both agreed.
From that one minute, the world changed.
It was only the first victory. Over the next several years, our coalition moved billions of dollars in local and state funding to help the homeless, the addicted, and those suffering from mental health. All it takes is to look into another’s soul at the right moment. All it took was sixty seconds.
Happy Hanukkah and Shabbat Shalom