The alley I called home was poorly lit and strewn with discarded needles, food wrappers and the other detritus of homeless living. All of that was bad, but what was worse was the smell. It was a smell of unwashed bodies of rot and of mold. It was the smell of despair. That smell alone was enough to keep those who didn’t have to live there far away. And it followed us wherever we left. As we traveled, people turned their faces away in disgust. We were marked by our circumstance.
Sometimes, living in that alley, with those people, it seemed like there was no way out. It seemed like the end of the road.
I wasn’t the first to live there. There’d been a broken community when I’d arrived. I’d looked at them and I’d thought that I was different. I thought I had nothing in common with them. After all, they used drugs. They came from broken homes. They were desperate.
But I wasn’t like that. I couldn’t really understand how I’d ended up there.
But, bit-by-bit, I learned that I had more in common with them than I’d realized. As I learned, my life got closer and closer to being tolerable. Eventually, it wasn’t so bad. Eventually, I found myself crawling back into my spot in that dim alley, greeting those friends who had made it through another day, and then closing my eyes somehow embraced by the filth of those I called neighbors.
Eventually, I realized they had as much in common with me as any other people.
Eventually, I looked forward to coming back to this place I could call home.
As you may have guessed, I’m not exactly normal.
I grew up normal, though. My father was a minister at a local church. He was a deeply religious man. And he was man who basically figured that whatever was wrong, G-d would work it out. A lot was wrong, and G-d didn’t work it out. The church accountant was skimming from the collections, leaving us with barely enough to eat. My mother was deeply depressed and unsatisfied with her life. And he had a major heart problem, which hobbled him physically. Nonetheless, he just kept thinking that G-d would work it out.
When I was young, I thought he was the most righteous of men. People could just feel his holiness. Well, except for those like the accountant who were too cynical to be pierced by his power. And I was his son. How can the son of a man like that not think that his father is right in all things?
I looked up to him, I admired him.
At least until I got to be a little older.
I was about 16 when I realized what the accountant was doing. I didn’t know how I worked it out. I thought about turning him in. But, already, I was seeing things from another perspective. I was beginning to think my dad deserved what he got. He let the world walk all over him. Why should I stand up where he had failed to?
The deprivation and sadness and patheticness of my home had driven me away from everything my father stood for. I knew, given the chance, that I’d push back on reality. I’d stand up for myself.
Nonetheless, I somehow found myself sinking into his magical thinking. I began to think things would work out if I just wanted them to. There was a difference though.
In my case, it worked.
It was subtle at first. I’d study for a test. And when the time came, I’d sit down and start going through it. And I would know the answers to all the questions. I was smart, but for the first time in my life I was scoring 100% on everything. When I got the tests back, I’d known the answers to a bunch of the questions that I’d studied. But there were also those that just flabbergasted me. I had no clue what the answer was. But I had written it down, correctly. I didn’t understand.
I know that doesn’t make much sense, but that’s how it felt to me. Being a teenage boy, I didn’t think too much about it. I just pocketed my straight As and began to spend more of my time chasing girls.
Then, I was out with some friends late one Saturday night. It was dark and late and we were on a curving two-lane road. I was driving because everybody else had a little too much to drink. And I don’t know why, but at some point I just pulled over and stopped on a patch of gravel on the side of the road. My friends began asking me what the heck I was doing. And then, 10 seconds later, a semi-truck came barreling around the corner, on our side of the road, going the wrong direction. The driver shot off the road, right behind us. It turned out he’d had a heart attack. And if I hadn’t pulled over, we would all have been dead.
My friends asked me how I knew it would happen. And I didn’t know what to tell them.
Then we had our high-school graduation. I went to another friend’s party. His dad got up to speak, just to congratulate him. He had no notes and nothing written down, but I knew every word he was going to say – just before he said it. I just knew, like I could read his mind.
I may have been oblivious about the tests, but this was stuff I couldn’t ignore.
Somehow, I was either reading minds or I was seeing the future.
Being a seventeen year-old-boy, I did the obvious thing.
I decided to become a magician.
I found a comedy club and asked the owner if I could do my act. The guy was almost as cynical as my dad’s accountant.
“What act?” he asked.
“I can read minds,” I said.
“Hmph,” he answered, “What am I thinking?”
“That I can’t read minds,” I said.
He snickered a bit.
“And now?” he asked.
“That that was too easy.”
“You got a decent brain kid; how about now?”
“That unlike me, your girlfriend Amy is kind of dull.”
He just looked at me. And then he booked me for a show.
I was so excited! I had two weeks to get ready, not that I needed any props. I had just decided to go around the room, telling people what they were thinking. No fancy stuff, just spit it out and amaze them with what I could do. I practiced on everybody around me – at least within my own head. I got pretty good at getting a fast read on what people were thinking.
And when the big night came, I was ready. I was an unknown act, but they had a pretty famous comedian on later so a lot of people were there. I stepped up on the stage. And I just began.
I pointed at one guy, “Nervous about my act.”
Next: “Wondering what I’m doing.”
Next: “Something to do with mind reading.”
And I just kept going. I recorded surprise, then wonder at how I was doing what I was doing, then amazement, and then something new. Fear. People got scared. And they began to think about what they wanted to hide from me. But I was showing off my power. And I just kept going. I spat it out, clear as day. Affairs. Addictions. Desires. Lies. All out in the open. And fear. More and more fear. Fear that I wasn’t doing a trick. Fear that I was up to something else. The patrons began to flee.
And then the owner of the club, the same guy who had interviewed me, kicked me off the stage.
“I’m doing great!” I protested.
He didn’t seem to care. Two minutes later, I was on the street – completely confused.
I didn’t know it then, but somebody had violated club policy and recorded my act. It went up on YouTube with the title “Freakiest thing ever”. And it immediately garnered views. By the time I got home, there were hundreds of thousands of views. My father had seen it, and he was frightened. He didn’t kick me out of the house though, he was too full of love.
I went to bed. But half an hour later, my mother woke me up. Her inner thoughts weren’t pretty and she didn’t want them shared. As my father slept, she drove me out of the house. I slept on the street that night, for the first time in my life. I still figured it would be okay. I’d sleep with some friends the next day; I had plenty. But by the time I got to school the next day, the video had tens of millions of hits. And everybody I knew was suddenly scared of me.
I could read minds and all they wanted to do was hide. The principal suspended me because I was disrupting school just by being there. And I headed back out to the streets.
I didn’t know what to do, but I figured I could do something. I could be an investigator. Maybe help the police. I tried, but policemen have secrets too. They didn’t want me. And pretty soon I found myself not only homeless, but driven further and further away from the ‘nicer’ parts of the homeless world. I couldn’t beg in the good spots or sleep in the best alcoves; I was squeezed out of them all. I managed to make a tiny amount of money finding street junk and then locating people who would be willing to pay for it. I had the edge in every negotiation. But even with a little cash, the only place I could call home was my stinking alleyway – filled with addicts driven so far from society that they were just like me. In the end, they were the only people who could stand to be near me.
Then, one night I came ‘home’ to find a new face there. There was a kid in our alley. He was maybe sixteen-years-old. He looked just as emaciated as everybody else there. And he was agitated, shaking in some crazy state. But he wasn’t high on drugs. Something else was wrong. And as I looked at his face, and felt his thoughts, I realized he was more frightened than any person I’d ever met.
But he wasn’t frightened of me, he didn’t even recognize me.
He was frightened of the world, and he was frightened of the future.
And then I probed deeper and I realized what was scaring him. He’d killed his father. He was afraid of being caught. Most of all, he was afraid of being locked up. I began to talk to him. His speech was malformed in some way. But I could understand him, despite his broken words. I tried to calm him down. I tried to bring him peace. But I got absolutely nowhere. He was too frightened to be pacified. And then I realized he needed answers, desperately. He needed to know he’d be safe. He needed to know he would be okay. And he couldn’t afford to be lied to.
But I couldn’t tell the future, not beyond a few moments anyway. I couldn’t give him what he needed.
And so, I found myself doing something I never thought I’d do. I opened my mouth and I began to pray. I asked G-d, in front of the young man, for answers. I asked Him for insight. And then it came to me. Suddenly, I saw not only the boy’s uppermost thoughts, but his entire history. And I saw not the next five seconds, but the next fifteen years.
I sat there, stunned for a minute. The kid in front of me had endured so much pain. He’d been raised in a locked room. His mother had died there, a prisoner of a sadist, when he was three. He had been tortured and assaulted more times than I could imagine. His father was growing older, but no kinder. The boy didn’t know the world could be different. He thought this was how it should be. But then, in a moment, he just snapped. He killed his father with the old man’s own shirt.
He killed him and then he left the room for the first time in his life and he began to run.
The police had found the old man, I knew that. And they’d worked out what had happened. And they’d decided whoever the boy was, he would never face a night in prison. He would never be locked up. They were investigating, but only to help the victim who was sitting beside me.
The boy couldn’t understand this. He didn’t know the world. He’d been running for almost a month now, growing weaker and hungrier by the day. He needed help. And so, I walked him out of the alley and brought him to the detective in charge of his case. The detective recognized me. He was scared of me. But then he saw the boy and asked me what I knew and I told him.
I was about to leave when I realized the kid still needed something from me. I could see his future. I could see his life stretching before him, a never-ending attempt to outrun the horrors that filled his soul. But he didn’t need to see that future. He didn’t need the horror. He knew the horror. He needed peace. And so, I told him where he’d go. I told him he’d be safe. I told him he’d find comfort. I told him he’d never again be locked up. And he smiled as he listened.
He smiled, for the first time, as he realized that it would somehow be okay.
And then, only then, did I leave. I went home that night. I reentered the alleyway with its smells. And I knew that something had changed.
It took months for me to figure anything out. And then I realized that I’d loved helping that kid. He’d had a need and I’d filled at least some part of it. I’d done a service. And I knew I wanted to do more. I decided to set up shop on the street. Not far from my hovel was a carless avenue popular with the busker set. You could register with the city to perform there. I did. Predictably, it wasn’t enough. I had a mic and one of those small speakers in my collection of street junk. I had just set them up when a local enforcer tried to chase me away. He knew who I was and he had a crew to support. They taxed the musicians and acrobats that plied their trade there. If you failed to pay up – whether or not you brought in the coins – they made things go badly for you. He was afraid I’d be bad for business.
You couldn’t threaten to blackmail a man like that, he’d make you disappear. But you could pay him off in other ways. So, I told him about a girl who found him interesting. I promised a name if he let me perform. I knew he’d go for it; the guy was crazy lonely.
And just like that, I started my show.
I didn’t try to hide who I was. It seemed like everybody knew. I just promised passersby that their secrets would remain secret. I promised them they would enjoy the show. And, bit-by-bit, a crowd gathered. This time, lots of cameras were out. I hadn’t been seen in years, not in this sort of public way. I was a curiosity, albeit a dangerous one. I saw the fear and excitement of those around me.
But I also saw something else. I saw pain.
“My power is not mine,” I said, “It belongs to G-d.”
There were some guffaws and smirks. But I did have power and they knew it.
“G-d will give me answers.” I pronounced.
A few people turned to leave.
But then I turned to the most pained person of all and I asked her, “What do you need?”
She lied, predictably. “A car,” she joked. But I saw. Her husband was beating her, and she needed escape. I scribbled an answer on paper. I told her which shelter to call. I told her what time to do it, safely. I told her it would be okay. I did not speak of the fear and the pain, I just handed her the note. And the cameras captured her in her moment of shock and then overwhelming emotion.
“Thank you,” she managed, with tears running from her eyes.
I smiled, just as I had seen my father do. And she put $50 in my basket.
I moved on. I helped person after person.
Discretely, quietly, in front of the world, I helped every one of them.
Nobody saw the magic, but everybody saw the power of the stories I was telling.
That night I rented out rooms in a flophouse for everybody in my alley. There were showers there. We cleaned up okay. The next day, we were back on the street. But, somehow, things were looking up. I even found the enforcer his girl, though it wasn’t easy. Then I went back to work.
People were waiting this time. I gave credit to G-d and I started working. I helped so many people. But, aside from a bit of cash, nobody really did much to help me.
Somehow, I knew that was because I was offering relief from pain, nothing more.
And then, one day, the abused woman – the first one I’d helped – came back. I saw something new in her. Not pain, but hope. Then I realized who she was. And I knew what would happen next.
As the show came to close, she walked up to me – just as I knew she would.
She told me her name – just as I knew she would.
She told me what she did – just as I knew she would.
She was the White House Social Secretary. Her boss was searching for meaning.
In that instant, I knew I could tell them both a story that would change all of our lives.
Yosef’s (Joseph’s) early life is characterized by three sets of dreams. In the first, he is the dreamer, but he shares no interpretation. The meaning of the dreams is obvious. In one, the stars (or fortune) of his entire family (including his deceased mother), would depend on him. In the other, his brothers’ need for food would depend on his ability to provide it. In the absence of explanation, his brothers offer their own interpretation. They see the dreams as an expression of ambition and power. And they drive Yosef away.
Yosef, like the man in the story, is blessed in all things. But it leads him down a road of slavery, false accusation and prison. And then he encounters his second set of dreams. He is not simply told these dreams though, he seeks them out – seeing the sorrow and pain of the dreamers.
In this set, a baker and a wine steward approach him. The wine steward dreams that there is a vine with three branches. It is budding and blossoming and bringing forth grapes. He takes the grapes and presses them into Pharaoh’s cup. The baker dreams that there were three baskets of bread on his head, but the birds were eating from the topmost basket.
There is an obvious interpretation here as well. Egypt invented bread and exported it throughout the ancient Mediterranean. Canaan, the land Yosef had come from, was known for wine. In three hundred years, the vine of Israel would grow and flourish and eventually emerge ready to be dedicated to the service of the King. By contrast, in three hundred years, the fully baked and matured Egypt will have its highest power eaten away by forces from heaven (birds). This contrast between wine and bread is why we abstain for bread on Pesach (Passover), but have four cups of wine at the Seder.
But Yosef does not share this interpretation. He credits G-d and then asks for the chance to interpret. And he tells a personal story, not a national one. It is one that speaks of the baker and wine steward but goes no further. He sets the fear of the wine steward aside, but he gives the man no reason to rescue him. He has helped, but aside from gratitude he has provided no motivation for the favor to be returned.
Perhaps Yosef has learned to tell a better story.
Then comes the third set of dreams. These are also obvious. A bull represents a nation’s will (a common perspective throughout the region). A cow represents its potential (from a reproductive sense). Pharaoh’s thin cows eating the fat ones represent a nation losing its potential. The seven thin ears of corn eating the fat ones represent a nation losing its food.
Yosef says “It is not in me, only Hashem can answer.” Yosef then sets aside the first dream, after all he is the one who undermines Egypt’s potential. Instead, he focuses on the second. And he offers Pharaoh something more than an interpretation. He offers him an action plan and then he offers him the greatest thing of all: purpose. He tells him he should act “so the land does not cease.”
Pharaoh, a man with nothing lacking, can reach beyond his own time.
Through the progression of these dreams we see three patterns.
First, Yosef moves from giving no interpretation at all, to giving an interpretation, to advising what to do with his interpretation.
Second, Yosef moves from disregarding the feelings of others, to acting in response to them, to learning how to direct them.
Third, Yosef moves from motivating others to hate him, to motivating others to ignore him, to motivating others to act on his behalf.
Finally, Yosef has moved from showing off his own fate, to acknowledging G-d, to finally stating his own limitations. And as he moves, G-d provides him with interpretations – limited interpretations – that serve his needs.
In reality, all of these trends are intertwined. Caring about others is wrapped up with telling them what they need to hear. Telling them what they need to hear is wrapped up with motivating them. Finding ways to motivate others is enabled by realizing our own limits and by giving credit where it is due. And giving credit where it is due is wrapped up with caring about others.
These are all themes I’ve tried to capture in the story of the wizard. It isn’t enough to have a gift.
You must see the needs of others, embrace them, build a story around them and, always, give credit to G-d for the blessings that you have.
Image by Matthew Woitunski – Own work, CC BY 3.0