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Drash on Vayeishev 2023

Rabbi Stanton Zamek

United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong

Vayeishev is an incredibly rich parasha. Here the story of Joseph begins, a story that sprawls over the remainder of the Book of Genesis. Given the weight the Torah gives to the career of Joseph, it may seem strange to claim, as I do, that Joseph is not the most important figure in early portion of his own story. There is another who deserves our attention. Without him you could say we would not be here, and yet we do not even know his name.

This mystery man appears shortly after Jacob sends his favored son on a very ill-advised errand. Jacob should know that as a result of his unmistakable favoritism his other sons hate Joseph, but still he sends the lad to go check up on them.  The Torah tells us:

One time, when his brothers had gone to pasture their father’s flock at Shechem,   Israel said to Joseph, “Your brothers are pasturing at Shechem. Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “I am ready.”  And he said to him, “Go and see how your brothers are and how the flocks are faring, and bring me back word.”

The dutiful Joseph embarks on the mission, but he cannot find his brothers. As far as his health and safety goes, this would have been a good thing. He might have returned home having failed in his mission, but still in one piece. But then something strange happens:

An ish, a man, came upon him wandering in the fields. The man asked him, “What are you looking for?”   He answered, “I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are pasturing?”  The man said, “They have gone from here, for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan.” So Joseph followed his brothers and found them at Dothan.

What an odd scene. Who is this man? How is it that he knows who Joseph’s brothers are when there is no way he could have known Joseph? Isn’t it strange that he just pops up out of nowhere at the precise moment when he is needed?  Why does Joseph immediately and unquestioningly accept this stranger’s information?

In a narrative sense this is a deus ex machina device. The man prevents Joseph from wandering out of his own story. But this chance meeting, if it is a chance meeting, is also a pivot point in our religious history. Following the Torah’s logic, all that we are depends on this moment.  Joseph must go and find his brothers. If he doesn’t, then they do not throw him into a pit and sell him into slavery. If they don’t do that, then he does not go to Egypt, does not serve Potiphar, does not get thrown into prison, does not interpret the two prisoners’ dreams, does not come to the attention of Pharaoh and interpret his dreams, and so does not become the vizier, and thus is not able to save his family from famine. Without the intervention of Mr. X we have no Exodus, no Sinai, and no us.

So, a big tip of the hat to you, Unnamed Ish. We could not have done it without you.

Many of our teachers see this incident as evidence that God guided the events of Joseph’s life, unbeknownst to him. The man, for many, is a messenger of God, a malach. But it is impossible to say whether this messenger is conscious of his mission or whether he was commissioned without his knowledge. The text is opaque.

As is true for the entirety of the Joseph narrative, this episode is compelling because it mirrors our own experience in a way that the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs do not. Unlike his forbearers, Joseph does not hear from God directly. Instead, God gives Joseph hints— through dreams, through events, and through an understanding that wells up from within him.

We too have encountered the ish who points the way, not once, but many times, in the form of people who direct our path and events that shape our lives. Like Joseph, most of the time we do not recognize that our course has been redirected at the moment when it happens. Meaning only emerges when, Joseph-like, we reflect on where we have been.

This is not to say that the point of this episode is anything so trite and false as “things always happen for the best.”  Rather, the encounter with the helpful stranger and the domino-like chain of events that follow from it mirror the complexity of our lives. Our real-time snap judgments of what is “bad” or “good” for us are very often wrong, or at least incomplete and unnuanced on later reflection.

Joseph achieves this kind of perspective many years after he takes that fateful trip to check on his brothers. All the ups and downs of his life, all his experiences of fear and loss and unexpected good fortune must have been on his mind when he revealed himself to his brothers in the wonderful reunion scene from Parashat Vayigash (forgive the spoiler). Joseph says to his tormentors, “now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither . . . it was not you who sent me here, but God…”  Of course he could have done without the pain of betrayal, exile, and imprisonment, just as we do not seek or welcome pain in our own lives, but he is able to incorporate the dark times he has endured into the broader tapestry of his life.

We may not be able to make the theological leap to seeing the hand of Divine Providence in all the twists and turns in our lives as Joseph does. For us, perhaps only a form of soft hashgacha is possible, deeper than mere perspective, but less certain than a clearly defined plan. The appearance of the mystery man in our parasha encourages us to make some room for mystery in our understanding of where life has taken us. Looking back perhaps we can see moments when we have been guided to the place where the Holy One has sent us. Given time for discernment we may come to understand that events are often more than they seem.

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