A few weeks ago, my wife and I watched a documentary about Elian Gonzalez, the young Cuban boy who in 2000 was a lone survivor aboard a raft with his mother and stepfather and some other family members. They all sought refuge in America from communist Cuba. All the members of the boat Elian was aboard perished at sea. Miraculously, six-year-old Elian survived. He was saved by a fisherman on Thanksgiving Day and brought to his relatives who lived in Miami. What ensued was a six-month standoff between Castro and Clinton, Elian’s family in Cuba and in Miami, and the relentless pursuit of Elian’s father to bring him back to Cuba against the wishes of Elian’s extended family in the United States.
This episode boiled to an eruption when armed SWAT team members forcefully took Elian from his temporary home to reunite him with his father, and then bringing them back to Cuba.
The documentary concluded with the ripple effect of Attorney General Janet Reno’s decision to insist that the boy be returned to his father, who lives in Cuba. The 2000 presidential election took place six months after this ordeal. Many Cuban dissidents living in southern Florida held that Vice President Al Gore was guilty by proxy for returning a child to an evil regime. This cost Gore crucial votes in Dade and Broward Counties that ultimately led to swinging the election toward George W Bush. The intention of the end of the documentary was to illustrate that this event forever impacted the directions the United States took because of the implications it had on the election and the greater world.
One person changing the world by design or inadvertently is nothing new. It goes back to the Bible. When Joseph is sold off into slavery and his brothers go searching to repatriate Joseph with his father, a nameless character is asked, “Which way did he go?” Were it not for the attention of this character and his honesty, the fate of the Jewish people would be forever changed.
These events affecting the direction our history — Jewish and world — leads me to wonder: What if Jacob had empathy for Esau instead of contempt? What if when Esau had come in from hunting, Jacob pre-emptively offered him stew instead of leveraging it to get the birthright he wanted? What if he showed appreciation for his brother providing for the family instead of exhibiting a form of control? What if his guilt got the better of him when he colluded with his mother to trick Isaac into giving his blessing to Jacob?
It is possible that this one moment forever changed the fate of the Jewish people, no differently than Elian Gonzalez’s rescue and return to Cuba shaped a soldier’s life in Afghanistan or a random stranger pointing the brothers toward Joseph allowed for reuniting and eventual Jewish peoplehood and our Exodus. Our lives are shaped by random encounters and events. But, at the same time, they are fashioned by how we act during those events and the values we demonstrate.
Parshat Toldot asks us to consider our actions and the implications they will have. It reminds us to favor empathy over callousness, love over strife, and compassion in place of conviction. These small characteristics might have been enough to change our fate for the better today, and can be enough for us to be better tomorrow.