Monday, July 11, 2011

The Guy in the Field

I have a new favorite TV show. How I Met Your Mother has been on TV for a few years now, but I only discovered it recently in the reruns. In case you’re not familiar with the show, it is the story of Ted Mosby in the year 2030, speaking to his teenage children about how, you guessed it, he met their mother. The entire show is one big flashback to current times. There are a lot of things I love about it including the snarky humor, the constant, creative use of flashbacks and the fantastic characters which somehow get us even liking and rooting for the over-the-top, womanizing playboy named Barney (played brilliantly by Neil Patrick Harris). But aside from the great writing and hysterical story lines, an ongoing formula within the show is this: Had I not done X, I wouldn’t have gone to Y, which led me to Z, which is where I met your mother. In other words, X had to happen because it ultimately led me to meeting your mother.

In a completely different context, I heard another example of the aforementioned X, Y, Z formula. A few weeks ago I had the immense pleasure of listening to Rabbi Harold Kushner speak at my synagogue. You may have heard of Rabbi Kushner, or at the very least, you may have heard of one of his best-selling books. His most famous book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, is one that is known to people all over the world. I sat riveted in my seat, hanging onto every word that Rabbi Kushner uttered.
The title of his talk was the same as one of his book titles: “Living a Life that Matters.” One of his points is that we can each do good and create change in other people’s lives. And sometimes the smallest of gestures that we offer to someone can make a life-altering difference. Often, we don’t even know about the end results of our deeds. The example he gave was from the Torah, when Jacob sent Joseph out to find his brothers. A man standing in the field approached Joseph and asked him what he was looking for. Joseph replied that he was looking for his brothers. The man said that he had seen them and pointed Joseph in the direction of the town of Dotan (which Rabbi Kushner likened to the Vegas of the time. What happens in Dotan…). This interaction is covered by a mere three sentences in the Torah. It is a little, nothing event, one that you may have read hundreds of times and that didn’t merit even a moment’s thought.

However, Rabbi Kushner explained, that there are no unnecessary details in the Torah. If it is there, it’s there for a reason. He postulated that this man’s presence was pivotal in the history of the Jewish people, and the world for that matter—back to that X, Y, Z formula. Had the man not given Joseph directions (or, had he pointed him in the wrong direction), he might not have found his brothers, which led to them throwing him in a pit and then ultimately selling him off as a slave, where he was taken in shackles down to Egypt (Come on, sing along: “Then the Ishmaelites galloped off with the slave in tow, Off to Egypt where Joseph was not keen to go. It wouldn't be a picnic he could tell [Joseph] ‘And I don't speak Egyptian very well’ ”) Fast forward a bit…the Israelites ended up as slaves in Egypt, were freed, went to Sinai, got the Torah, which ultimately led to an entire people as we know it today.
At the end of the evening, Rabbi Kushner was signing books. Before taking my turn to get my copy of his book Living a Life That Matters signed, I ran home to get two other books. One was the copy of When Bad Things Happen to Good People that I had purchased in 1989 right after my mother passed away at the young age of fifty. The other one that I grabbed was a copy of my own book, Sliding Into the New Year. I inscribed it to Rabbi Kushner and thanked him for being “the guy in the field” for me. Of course he didn’t know it, but his book was a great comfort to me and did help me find some direction. And his talk was a huge inspiration to me as well.

When we write, or speak or even innocently respond to a stranger's question, we never know how our words or actions will touch others. We can only hope that what we do has a positive effect out there. (And that we don’t give bad directions.)


  1. Dori,
    I love this post. I particularly like your story about meeting Rabbi Kushner.

    His book definitely made the rounds in my immediate family after my brother was killed ina car accident in 1986. Did it help at the time? I'm not sure. But I think it certainly helped later when I was more able to reflect and mourn.

    Your last words are so true. We certainly can't know how our words or actions might affect another. And yet, as you note, we can hope that we are making a difference.

    I have hung on to many letters I received from readers when I was a full-time newspaper reporter. It really does mean something when someone takes the time to say, 'Hey, you made a difference,' or 'You taught me something,' or even, 'You made me laugh.'


  2. Linda,
    Thank you so much for your response. And thank you for letting me know how my words were received! :)

    I'm so sorry to hear about your brother. What a terrible tragedy.

    Thanks for writing. I really appreciate your comments!


  3. Thanks for a great post. I never would have thought to compare How I met your mother (which is a new found and new favorite of mine too) to Kushner.