The New York Times recently discussed the body of work of British novelist Penelope Lively whose stories revolve around "contingency" – the idea that an entire life can be shaped by small decisions that seem inconsequential at the time. I’ve always had my own keen interest in this phenomenon since I’ve seen it manifest in my life as I am sure you have in yours.
One of my favorite novels is Fifth Business by Robertson Davies. It tells the story of a retired history professor, Dunstan Ramsey, who is reflecting back on his life and how so much of it was shaped one fateful day as a young boy. His childhood nemesis and friend, Percy Boyd Staunton, was attempting to throw a snowball at our hero and instead hits the pregnant Mrs. Dempster, the meek village preacher's wife, causing her to fall and soon after give birth prematurely to a boy, Paul. The book follows the lives of all involved and illustrates how that one accident radically affected the outcome of everyone.
The most glaring example of "contingency" in the Torah is found in the lengthy narrative about Joseph and his brothers. Free choice certainly plays an essential role for much of what took place between Joseph and his family – Joseph's insistence of recounting his dreams, the brothers allowing their jealousy and hatred of him to foment and their eventual plans to sell him into slavery. But who knows how differently it would have all turned out had one small incident not have taken place. And that is when Jacob sends Joseph to Shechem to check up on his brothers and he gets lost along the way trying to find them.
Before he can turn back after his failed attempt to locate them, a mystery man appears and noticing Joseph's confused wanderings, directs him to Dothan where this man saw the brothers earlier. Joseph makes his way there and, as they say, the rest is history as this became the turning point for the life-changing – and even nation changing – events that transpired with Joseph’s sale into slavery and all that ensued thereafter.
Incidents like these invariably give rise to the issue of our free choice versus God's plans. In Yiddish there is a phrase that best summarizes the tension between the two: Mentsch tracht un Gott lacht, Man plans and God laughs, or Man proposes and God disposes. We all have free choice and there is no question that it is a huge influence in defining how our lives turn out. But at the same time there is an all-knowing God who sets up events, people or "coincidences" that take us in certain directions.
You can call these moments of Divine Providence. They might be as trivial as meeting someone in Israel whom you had no idea was going to be there – which seems to happen every time you visit Israel. And sometimes it is something much larger. The chance guest that shows up at a Shabbat table and has an idea for a match for the daughter of the host, makes it happen and the two end up getting married eight months later, which is how my daughter met her husband. Or the fellow whom you hardly know but one day invites you to his yeshiva when you are a teenager, you accept, meet someone else there that you have not seen in years and he in turn hooks you up with a third person who is instrumental in your becoming more Torah observant and eventually a rabbi – as happened to me in 1977.
I would venture to guess that every meaningful and life-changing occurrence has these so-called bit players (or events) that seem so minor at the time yet in retrospect become the key moments or people who pivot you to a place or space that has great ramifications for the rest of your life.
It is interesting that the Torah never tells us the name of the man who directed Joseph to Dothan. This is so often how it happens. It is through someone whom you cannot even remember his name and who plays such a seemingly minor act in his one-hit-wonder role. Just as quickly as he or she arises in our lives, they are gone, never to be seen again as if this was their only purpose – to cross our paths this one time and forever redirect them.
We cannot totally appreciate or even see the deep significance of these moments when they happen, much the way Joseph could not have foreseen how that random meeting with his mystery man could have altered things so drastically for his fortune and the fortune of his family and nation. God seems to place the right person in the right place at the right time to set things in motion... and then leaves the scene. And when it happens, unbeknownst to us at the time, all we can do is simply go with the flow, let God do His thing, and let the story of our lives unfold.
It might be through a snowball or a chance encounter with a stranger or just a random guy at your Shabbat table, but the beauty of it is we never know how deep and meaningful those people and events really are until much later on when we reflect backwards and see how God set the whole thing up when He sent them our way. These are the moments of Divine Providence that forever change our lives and help us become the person who we are today.
In the comment section below, share a seemingly inconsequential moment of Divine Providence that has occurred in your life.