I begin with a story – a young boy was walking to meet his father and walked past a woman sitting on a bench and crying. He realized something was wrong and asked her if he could help. She said no and he started on his way, but something made him stop and turn around. It turned out that she had traveled to that town to apply for a job because there were no jobs where she was. She was staying with a friend, but they had a fight and the friend kicked her out of the house in the middle of the night. She was sitting on a bench in wintertime, without a hat, without gloves, without transportation, without money, and with a phone that no longer had any charge. She did not know where she was. She had no way to get back to her home, which was two hours away. The boy gave her his hat and called his mother in tears. His mother came to the town, picked up the woman and drove her to the train station. She bought her a hot lunch and a train ticket home.
We never know the difference we will make in someone’s life – sometimes good, as in this story, and sometimes not-so-good. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23), a stranger sees Joseph wandering in the field and asks him what he is looking for. Joseph says he is looking for his brothers and the stranger tells him where to find them. We all know what happens next. They throw him into a pit and sell him to the passing Ishmaelite caravan. What would have happened if that stranger had not gone up to Joseph? What would have happened if Joseph hadn’t found his brothers? Well for one thing, the whole history of the Jewish people would be completely different! But he wouldn’t have been sold into slavery. Even though the long-term result of the story ends up working out, it could just have easily not. Without even knowing it, one person can have an enormous impact on the lives of the people around them… and on the whole history of a family and for that matter, a people.
We often think of the impact we have on those who are closest to us, but we don’t often think of the impact we have all the people we might meet once on the street. These interactions can be positive or negative: it is up to us. And who are they?
The homeless person that we buy a sandwich for and have a conversation with.
Or the homeless person we walk past, averting our gaze.
The person we open the door for.
Or the person we drop the door on.
The person we smile at and ask to please pull their mask up.
Or the person we glare at and avoid.
The person carrying too many packages whom we offer to help.
Or the person who drops something because they are trying to carry too much alone.
The person we give an extra tip to because times are hard, especially for servers.
Or the person we don’t tip at all because we place our order online.
What would the world be like if we focus on making our brief interactions with strangers positive, not negative. There are so many ways we can be kind to those we meet. We can open the door for them. We can smile (yes, you can still see a smile even behind a mask). We can ask if they need help finding something or finding their way. We can offer to carry groceries.
We have many young people in our congregation active in scouting. A common theme is to do a good deed daily. I have always thought that this is a powerful mantra. At the end of the day did you do something to make the world a better place? Did you do something to help another person? The story I began with has a happy ending. The boy called the woman that night to make sure she made it home okay and she had. She found a job and then another one, working her way up to being a manager. And she kept in touch with the boy and his mother. What seemed at the time like a small act of kindness to a stranger, something not too hard to do, changed her life… and changed the boy and his mother too. It is but one example of the difference we all can make. Let’s all try to do so.