Lockdown is a word with which we have sadly become all too familiar. Many countries around the world have experienced a second wave of COVID and implemented various forms of lockdown. Ontario in Canada just announced its own lockdown and as I write I am looking at 28 long days of lockdown. International travel is restricted, and even domestic travel is difficult.
But are we stuck in lockdown? Do you feel stuck? Let me tell you a story. In the winter of 1967, a group of Chabad women flew to Detroit for a convention. When they arrived at the airport for their return flight, they discovered that all flights were canceled due to a snowstorm. The leader of the group called the office of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to inform him that they were stuck.
His secretary, Rabbi Binyamin Klein, checked in with the Rebbe and immediately got back on the line and said, the Rebbe doesn’t understand the word “stuck,” a Jew is never stuck. The Rebbe explained that instead of worrying about how they would get home, they should look for the “most obvious” explanation—that G-d extended their stay in Detroit.
So why does G-d want you in Detroit during a storm? Well, the answer was rather obvious to the Rebbe. It was to take the airport and the city by storm. I don’t mean a military takeover. I refer to a spiritual takeover. The Chabad women fanned out through the airport armed with candles and brochures about the Mitzvah to light Shabbat candles. They encountered many Jewish women whose travel plans were disrupted. Why did these women come to the airport? Well, of course, as the Rebbe saw it, it was to receive their candles.
The Chabad women then returned to the city and participated in various Mitzvah campaigns. When they reported their activities to the Rebbe, he replied that they were fortunate to have received clear guidance from above on their mission for those few days. Now that they had fulfilled the mission, the Rebbe concluded, it was time for them to return home.
Hundreds of Jewish women lit candles that Shabbat that might otherwise not have done so. Detroit and its environs were spiritually aglow the following Shabbat because G-d had orchestrated “unplanned” encounters at the airport and throughout the city during the storm.
G-d Sent Me
This story is vintage Lubavitcher Rebbe. His positivity bias was legendary and infectious. But the Rebbe was hardly the first to adopt this attitude. In fact, in his reply to the women in Detroit, the Rebbe pointed to the teaching of the saintly Baal Shem Tov that every event that occurs to a Jew is meant to serve as a lesson on how to serve G-d better.
In this, both the Rebbe and the Baal Shem Tov modeled the attitude of Joseph. Joseph had been sold into slavery by his brothers. As events unfolded, Joseph landed in an Egyptian prison and languished there for twelve years. But G-d had other plans.
While in prison, he befriended two of Pharaoh’s ministers who were imprisoned for various infractions. One night they both had disturbing dreams, and, in the morning, Joseph interpreted their dreams for them. It turned out that his interpretation was an exact foretelling of the future. Ten years later, when Pharaoh had two strange dreams, one of these ministers remembered Joseph and recommended him as an interpreter of dreams.
Joseph was hauled out of prison and brought before the king, who loved his interpretation and appointed him viceroy of Egypt. As Joseph had predicted in his interpretation, there was a famine in the region, but because Joseph had planned for it, there was plenty of food in Egypt. His brothers came from Israel to purchase food and did not recognize Joseph after twenty-two years.
In our Torah portion, we read that Joseph revealed himself to his brothers. The brothers shrank back in shame or perhaps even fear. After their terrible mistreatment of Joseph, how could they look him in the eye? But Joseph would have none of it. Listen to his take on events.
“Don’t be upset or angry that you sold me to this place for now you see that G-d sent me ahead of you to save your lives . . . G-d sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival in the land and to sustain you . . . Now you can see that it was not you who sent me here, but G-d. He made me an advisor to Pharaoh, a master over all his household, and a ruler over the entire land of Egypt.”
We have once discussed Joseph’s amazing ability to forgive his brothers their massive betrayal, but that is not our focus here. Today we focus simply on his perspective of the ostensibly negative events of his life. Most of us probably view his suffering as negative and his appointment to viceroy as a massive surprise. Joseph never doubted that his hardships were purposeful and were leading him to a profound destiny. When it occurred, he was not surprised. He had expected something like that all along.
He did not see his hardships as negative. As the Rebbe told the women in Detroit, you are in Detroit for a good reason. Had they planned to remain in Detroit for a few days to participate in Mitzvah campaigns, the snowstorm would not have bothered them. The fact that it came by surprise brought them up short and caused them to think of it as a negative. The Rebbe taught them to take Joseph’s view. It was not negative. It was all part of a positive process.
In Hebrew, G-d has several. The Tetragrammaton means G-d of mercy. Joseph used the name Elokim, which means the L-rd of judgment. Indeed, the events of Joseph’s life appeared to be a severe judgment. Yet, Joseph saw through the charade.
Nothing that G-d does is bad. It is always good. Only sometimes the goodness is not immediately apparent. When G-d acts as Elokim, it feels like a negative. It feels like we are stuck at the airport or in a lockdown. It feels like Joseph was stuck in a dungeon. But Joseph saw through it. It was not negative. It was a positive process leading to something even better.
We all have plans and then events arise that surprise us and abruptly change our plans. Lockdown is a primary example. We expected our kids to be at school, yet they are at home. We expected to be at a wedding, yet we are Zooming instead. Are we stuck?
No. A Jew is never stuck. G-d surprised us with an unexpected twist, but He did not paralyze us. He merely redirected us. As a friend once told me, sometimes G-d closes many doors but leaves one wide open, and you know that this is the one He wants you to enter. So, look around for the gate that He opened wide and prance through it knowing that this was His plan all along.