Not Haunted by What Might Have Been


In the late 1990s, a young college student named Joshua Rothman caught the dot.com fever.  So did two of his close friends.  These three undergrads fancied themselves budding high- tech executives, entrepreneurs who were going to create some cutting-edge business in the new economy, sell it off for untold riches, and then do it again.  They worked and worked, they hardly slept, and out of their dorm rooms they created an early version of an internet dating service and insurance business.  Alas, having invested the better part of their college career in this business, the outfit that they hoped would buy it was not interested in it; they had no other suitors; they had bills they could not pay.  It was their senior year in college, they were graduating, and their business dreams came to naught.

Meanwhile, a few days before graduation, Joshua Rothman gets on an elevator to go pay his tuition, and a young woman gets on the same elevator.  They strike up a conversation and have a nice chemistry.  She gets off the elevator.  Later, she gets on the elevator a second time, and they resume their conversation.  They start dating. They get married. She decides to go to graduate school in English.  He decides to go to graduate school in English.  He does not become a high-tech executive or an entrepreneur.  He becomes a writer.  And a father. He and his wife have a son.

In the current edition of The New Yorker, in a thoughtful piece entitled “In Another Life,” Joshua Rothman reflects on this phenomenon of what he calls our unled or unlived life. He quotes a writer named Clifford Geertz who observes that all of us have the “natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life but end in the end having lived only one.”   Think about our most important decisions:  the partner we marry, the children we have, the work of our lives.  If Joshua Rothman’s early internet business had been acquired, he would have been a tech person, not a writer.  If he had not been in the elevator when his future wife got in that same elevator not once, but twice, she would not be his wife; his son would not be born; he would not have gone to graduate school in English; he would not have been a writer for The New Yorker.  Who we are. What we do.  Who our family members are.   There is the version we know and live.  And then there are the unlived versions that quiver beyond the horizon—the versions of our lives that might have been, if only.  What do we with them?

We could look at the life we are living and be haunted by what might have been.   Any one of us could be forever haunted by those words “if only.”  If only I had made a different choice in that crucial moment, my whole life would have turned out different.

The pathos of what might have been is captured in one of the most poignant vignettes in the Torah.  After more than twenty years, Jacob and Joseph finally reunite.   Jacob had thought Joseph was dead, only to discover that not only is Joseph alive and well.  He is Pharaoh’s right-hand man, dressed in royal Egyptian garb, a man of power and prestige.

When father and son at last embrace, the Torah dangles before us a deliberate ambiguity.  One of them cries, and one of them is cried on.  But we do not know which is which:

Joseph ordered his chariot and went to Goshen to meet his father Israel; he  presented himself to him and, embracing him around the neck, he wept on his neck a good while. (Genesis 46:29)

What is the meaning of this intentional ambiguity?  Ramban believes it was Jacob who cried. Rashi believes it was Joseph.  But I would submit the Torah is deliberately ambiguous here to invite us to consider how both Jacob and Joseph could have wept, because both could have been immobilized by I could have, I would have, I should have.

Jacob weeps because he says to himself:  I never should have favored Joseph. I never should have given Joseph the coat of many colors.  It just inflamed his brothers’ jealousy.  I never should have asked Joseph to spy on his brothers and bring me a report. What was I possibly thinking? If only I had not done that, they would not have sold him into slavery.  If only I had not done that, I would have had twenty years with Joseph instead of mourning his loss.  I weep for what might have been.

So too Joseph weeps.  I really could have used a father all these years.  It really was no fun living as a stranger in a strange land, being sold into slavery.  What was I thinking?  Why did I tell my brothers my dreams of domination?  Why did I spy on them?  Why did I wear that fancy coat that made them hate me even more?  I was so unwise when I was young.   I weep for what might have been.

We can all weep for what might have been.  That is always true.  It is especially true today.  Everyone of us can imagine what would have been, what could have been, what should have been, if we were not in the grip of this pandemic.  The people who would be alive today, the people who would be employed today,  the people we would see, the places we would go, the in person education and extracurricular activities our children would have, if only we were on the other side of Covid-19.

What do we do with all those what might have beens?  It feels unhealthy to be haunted by them.  Our life is what it is, it feels like wasted energy to perseverate about lives unlived.  Other than ignoring what might have been, is there a healthier move here?

I believe there is, and Jacob and Joseph point the way.  The healthiest thing to do with what might have been is to channel that energy into what is so that we can make what is better.

After their tearful reunion, Joseph takes care of Jacob, and his brothers, in a whole grace note chapter. Through one important detail, the Torah clues us into the healing power of their grace note chapter.

How old was Joseph when he dreamed his dreams?  How old was Joseph when his father gave him the coat of many colors? Answer: 17.  How old was Joseph when he was thrown into the pit and sold into slavery? Answer: 17.  How many years did Jacob and the other brothers live in Egypt in this grace note healing chapter? Answer: 17.  17 healed 17. The traumas of youth were healed by the generosity of a later season.

That was true then, in the time of the Torah.  That is true now, in our own time.

In Louisville, Kentucky, a man named Todd Elble has been a UPS driver for 37 years.  But he is now in the middle of his most meaningful, purpose-driven chapter.  His father recently died of Covid, and Todd Elble is driving vaccine shipments to places where they can start saving lives.  After 37 years he is now hauling in his words the “most important load that I’ve ever hauled.”  And he added:  “I feel Dad was in the truck with me today.”

What do we do with what might have been?

Don’t be haunted by it. Don’t ignore, repress or suppress it.

Channel it, so that we make what is better. Shabbat shalom.