October 13, 2010
On Gin Joints and Destiny
Parashat Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27)
“And God said to Avram: ‘Go forth, for your [best interest], from your land and from the place of your birth and from the house of your father to the land I will show you’ ” (Genesis 12:1).
This week’s parasha begins with God bringing Avram (later known as Avraham) to an unknown destination, leading him away from the security of his childhood home, family and the community where he grew up. He will encounter people and a culture foreign to the core of his being. At God’s direction, he is abandoning everything he knows, the anchor of security. And he is proceeding, with only God as his GPS, to encounter his destiny.
Avram soon plants new roots in the Promised Land, but he never will assimilate the locals or their culture. Although they will deem him a great man — the Canaanite Hittites will call him “a Prince of God in our midst” (Genesis 23:6) — Avram ultimately insists that he wants his son, Yitzchak, to marry a girl from the Old Country, back across the river. Decades later, when he sends his manservant Eliezer the Damascene to find a wife for Yitzchak, Avram will instruct him: “[S]wear that ... you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell. Rather, travel to my land and to my place of birth [to] take a wife for my son, Yitzchak” (Genesis 24:3-8).
Avram’s experience is not unique. Throughout our generations, Hashem leads people on journeys that just so happen to bring them to frontally face their destiny.
Eliezer just so happens to encounter Rivkah, an atypically kind and altruistic young lady eager to draw heavy buckets of water both for the thirsty traveling servant and for his camels. Eliezer discerns that God has brought him face to face with precisely the woman he prayed he would find for Yitzchak (Genesis 24:12-27).
A generation later, Yaakov will be compelled to flee for his life, avoiding a vengeful brother set on murdering him. Of all the watering holes in the Middle East, he will find himself at the well, where, moments later, the young Rachel is about to arrive with her father’s sheep and quench their thirst (Genesis 29:9-11).
Generations later, it is young Moses of Egypt. Moshe, fleeing a Pharaoh determined to execute him for his having killed a murderous Egyptian taskmaster, just so happens to arrive at a well where the daughters of Midian’s high priest are about to arrive with their flock. From the resulting encounter, he not only marries Tziporah, but also gains a father-in-law who is theologically renowned and skilled with managerial experience, which will prove critical later for Moshe’s mission as teacher and judge (Sh’mot 2:15-21; 18:17-24).
It’s interesting how people journey, almost aimlessly, yet en route to encounter their Divine destiny. In film, Rick Blaine contemplates the unexpected return of Ilsa Lund into his life in “Casablanca”: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
I look back on twists and turns in my life. I am a kid from Brooklyn and remain thoroughly a New Yorker. But my life took its unexpected turns, and Southern California was the well that God brought me to experience. Looking back at each step, each turn could have taken me instead to a different gin joint. But it was here that I heeded Yogi Berra’s sage advice: “When you come to the fork in the road — take it.” As a result, I found my wife here, helped found a yeshiva and two shuls, became an attorney and practiced law here, and have been honored to touch and engage three Jewish communities throughout the Southland as their rabbi.
Although many Jewish Angelenos are native, so many of us trace our roots and our parents’ roots elsewhere. Some of us came here for job opportunities or fleeing persecution. Others came here to connect with siblings or childhood friends. We had dreams, hopes — and we thought those were the only reasons we came here. Yet, looking back, perhaps 10 years later, perhaps half a century, we realize that maybe — just maybe — there was a higher purpose to our lives, an unanticipated destiny to which God Almighty was leading us. Long after that job fell through, or the relative moved back East, or the friend had a falling out with us, we charted some of our lives’ greatest achievements.
We did so far away from our lands, birthplaces and parents’ homes. We walked with God, journeying toward a well He had prepared for us. From Avram’s journey this week to our own, we have come to see — even through disappointments and setbacks along the way — that, when journeying to the well where God has set our destiny, all’s well that ends well.
Rabbi Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is a columnist for several online magazines and is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at rabbidov.com.