The Kindness of Strangers

Recently, I lost my keys, as I walked to synagogue on a Saturday morning. I was pushing my daughter Hannah in her tricycle. Since my dress did not have pockets, I put the keys in a plastic bag which I attached to the back of the tricycle. I enjoyed the cool, crisp morning air and the pleasant walk. After the service, I discovered the bag had a hole in it, and the keys were gone. My family and I searched the synagogue and then retraced my steps for the two miles home to no avail. When I got home, I was sure I'd never see the keys again. Although the keys were replaceable, I felt unsettled to have lost them.

This week’s Torah portion focuses on feeling lost. The portion, called Vayeshev, means “and he settled.” The text opens: “Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived,” but then launches into a series of unsettling stories about strife between Jacob’s twelve sons.

The story unfolds that Jacob’s son Joseph recounted to his brothers dreams about them bowing down to him. Then, Jacob asked Joseph to go check on his brothers who were shepherding the flocks. Joseph searched for his brothers but couldn’t find them. An unnamed man then asked Joseph what he was looking for and told him where his brothers were. When Joseph found his brothers, they threw him in a pit and sold him into slavery.

This story is curious. Why did the Torah bother to include the incident of the man who gave Joseph directions? While this man was kind and helpful to Joseph, his directions led to Joseph’s demise. It would have been better if Joseph never found his brothers in the first place. With friends like this, who needs enemies?!

Yet, perhaps, the juxtaposition of the two stories sends an important message. In a world filled with cruelty, where families can be so dysfunctional, the kindness of strangers can be especially precious. Indeed, this message is one that Joseph seems to take to heart. Later, while in prison, Joseph is kind to those he meets there. He interprets dreams of fellow prisoners. One of these former prisoners remembers Joseph which leads to his release. Subsequently, Joseph pays this kindness forward by administering food to the Egyptian people during a famine.

Last weekend, I too experienced the kindness of strangers. On Sunday morning, I received a message from my gym that they had my keys. The message included the phone number of the man who’d brought them. He'd asked me to call so that he could reassure his son (who'd found the keys on his front lawn) that they were successfully returned. Since my keys had a membership card to the gym, the man took my keys there. The gym then scanned the card and called me.

My kids and I were so excited to hear the message on the answering machine. We immediately went to the gym to pick up the keys. As relieved as I was to have the keys, I was even happier to show my kids that people can go out of their way to help someone they’ve never met. Like Joseph, I will remember this act of generosity for a long time.

This Thanksgiving holiday, I am grateful for my family and friends and especially for the kindness of a stranger.