“Expect the unexpected.” I’m old enough to remember when people used that phrase almost whimsically. These days, it generates considerable anxiety for many. Ben Franklin would say that failing to plan is planning to fail. In Covid times, it almost feels like you cannot plan at all.
Here’s something unexpected: The phrase doesn’t mean what people think it does. “Expect the unexpected” is credited to the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. There’s been some broken telephone over the centuries. His original quotation meant almost the opposite of its contemporary usage. Here’s what he really said: “”If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it; for it is hard to be sought out, and difficult”. In other words, if you live only for that which can be anticipated, you will miss the richness of life.
Judaism resonates with this idea. Life’s greatest challenges come when you least expect them, but so do its most wonderful opportunities.
Consider the earliest antisemitic attack in history. Nobody saw it coming. The newborn Jewish nation had just left Egypt in a blaze of miracles. They were on the freeway to the Promised Land. Then Amalek attacked. The Israelites had never even heard of these people. Every other nation cowered in fear of the newly-liberated People. Yet, Amalek had the chutzpah to ambush us, even as we were under Divine protection.
“Never forget that”, the Torah tells us this week. It’s a good lesson that challenges surprise you right out of the deep blue sky. As we were vulnerable to a hateful nation then, each of us is susceptible to spiritual booby traps at any time.
On the other hand, some of life’s greatest moments are also often unplanned. Falling pregnant, winning the lottery or stumbling on an unexpected spiritual opportunity.
Our Parsha describes two mitzvos that can only happen while you’re not looking. We urbanites don’t relate to farm life, and we aren’t familiar with the harvesting process. Harvesting in ancient times was laborious. You’d pick the wheat sheaves, bundle them into bales and later return to collect and store them. Should a farmer forget a bale in the field, it would automatically belong to the poor. Voila! A mitzvah you can never plan to do because it relies on the farmer forgetting.
Earlier this week, a member of our community excitedly called me to say that he had fulfilled the other “serendipitous” mitzvah from our Parsha. He had been at a construction site and stumbled on a mother pigeon roosting on her eggs. The Torah insists that you first chase away the mother before you take the eggs. The Torah also says that you can never plan for this mitzvah. You can only do it if you chance on the nest. This fellow was elated to have had the opportunity.
In one Torah portion, we’re told about two unintended ways to connect to G-d and one example of a nasty “unexpected” event.
The “unexpected” can be devastating, like Covid or Amalek. It can also be life-altering, like the lottery or a surprise mitzvah.
We call ourselves intelligent beings. Amalek’s story reminds us how some people surprise us with their stupidity. The fact that we can connect to G-d through mitzvos that require no intellectual preparation reminds us that our soul runs deeper than our mind.
We can never plan for every eventuality, but we can aspire to discover something unexpected about ourselves. Judaism challenges us to try.