It has happened to me (more than once in my lifetime) that a person will come and tell me something about what will happen next in my life. It is most often a very specific bit of advice from someone I know but not well; it is normally not someone I would seek out for counsel. And every time it is the same thing: the person will see me out at a social gathering – often at a gathering in which it was not a given that I would be there – and announce to me ‘I have a message for you,’ as if they had just listened to a voice mail addressed specifically to me.
When that happens, I know to listen: the person will invariably tell me something that I need to know about what will happen next.
The most recent example occurred right before I started my job search a few years ago. At a party, an acquaintance came up (someone who did not know that I was looking for work) and told me the following: ‘You will leave here; there is a move in your future. It will be some place – like Texas – that you’ve never considered before.”
“Texas?” I asked, wondering, “Why Texas?” It’s not the first place I would pick.
She shook her head: “It’s not Texas specifically; it could be Texas, or it could be somewhere else; I can’t tell you where exactly. But it’s a part of the world that you have never considered before. They need you, and you need them. They need to hear what you have to say, and you need them to hear it. You will both benefit.”
At that point in the process, I had not even mapped out what I wanted to do. So I took her comments under advisement.
A few months later, I had come to the (somewhat surprising) conclusion that I really wanted to go back to congregational work. I love academics, of course, but I realized that I missed that element of transcendence that hovers over the work of a rabbi.
So I called the Director of Placement and told him that I was thinking of returning to congregational work. After he quizzed me about my general background and interests, his first question regarding my search was: “Have you ever considered living in Texas?”
“Texas is fine,” I tell him. “I am open to living in any location.”
It did not turn out to be Texas, but my move was to a place I’d not known existed. Nonetheless, the advice to be open to new places, to leaving, to going somewhere I had not considered before was indeed helpful. When the option came open, I was in a place spiritually and emotionally to accept it, and to do so joyously, without doubt. I left with a clear heart.
I cannot give you a good reason why this phenomenon takes place; I simply cannot explain it. I can tell you that the Bible records several instances of a person – ‘ish’ – who appears mid-narrative with instructions as to what will happen next. Joseph, for example, finds his brothers after encountering such a person.
The person’s instruction is not necessarily one that makes the road smooth; rather, it is an announcement of what needs to happen next. And it has happened enough times now that I heed its call.
And it can be subtle. Recall, for example, the story of Elijah the prophet’s encounter with God. Elijah has retreated to a cave after a difficult set of circumstances to try and regroup. He is a wanted man, and he is experiencing grave doubt. And then he seeks God. This is how the text describes the encounter:
“There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind.”
“After the wind – an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake.”
“After the earthquake – fire; but the Lord was not in the fire.”
“And after the fire – a still, small voice.”
Elijah encounters God as a still small voice after the fire and noise and trembling.
There are things in this life that you just know intuitively, in a spiritual way, in a ‘still, small voice’ kind of way. There is an element of God in that knowledge.
Our perception of the world, as we move through our lives, involves this interplay of presence and absence, of articulate speech and of silent wonder. But we do not ever capture its fullness; in truth, we simply cannot.
As I said: I cannot tell you why it happens, any of it. I can only stand in awe and listen.
Rabbi Kari Tuling, PhD serves Temple Beth Israel and teaches at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh.