Parashat Vayeshev 5773 (on playing a role in someone else’s story)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

There are some things that are better kept inside one’s own head. For example, Joseph told his brothers and father of his dreams that they would one day be subservient to him. This did not go over well, all things considered. But then, it was not in the young Joseph’s nature to consider such things. If he were to have a lightbulb joke it would be (with apologies to Ivy League or Oxbridge students and graduates):

How many of Jacob’s sons does it take to change a lightbulb? Just Joseph: he holds the lightbulb still and the universe revolves around him.

It doesn’t help, I suppose, that he has a whole four weeks of Torah reading, all about him.

From this week’s parasha until the end of the book, we have the Joseph cycle: in the words of Bible scholar Jon Levenson, “a narrative so coherent and so continuous that it has justly been termed a novella.” (Oxford Jewish Study Bible, Intro to Genesis). The Joseph story is carefully woven together, exploring the exploits and personalities of Joseph, his family, and other key players in his life.

The very deliberate focus of this section of the Torah on this group of individuals makes it all the more surprising when a verse opens with a new person as its subject, who is never named, and disappears two verses later, never to be heard from again.

וַיִּמְצָאֵהוּ אִישׁ, וְהִנֵּה תֹעֶה בַּשָּׂדֶה; וַיִּשְׁאָלֵהוּ הָאִישׁ לֵאמֹר, מַה-תְּבַקֵּשׁ.

A man found [Joseph], as he was wandering in the fields. And the man asked him, “what are you looking for?” (Gen. 37:15)

Joseph explains that he is looking for his brothers, and the man tells him where they have gone. And we never hear from him again. How does that add to the story of Joseph? Why is this encounter here? There are commentators such as Rashbam who explain that the purpose of these three verses is to demonstrate Joseph’s dedication to the assignment his father gave him, that he wouldn’t give up until he found them, knowing full well that they bore him ill will. But if that were the case, wouldn’t Joseph have been the active party, approaching others to ask if they knew where his brothers were? Instead, it is the man who finds Joseph.

When Joseph fails to find the brothers in their appointed place, he, in the words of the Radak, “walks here and there searching” until “the man” finds him. From this it seems that Joseph has truly lost his way, and it is the intervention of this stranger that gets the story back on track.

Who is this man? Rashi cites the midrash Tanhuma identifying him as the angel Gabriel, who is often understood by the rabbis to be God’s agent on earth (see Jewish Encyclopedia). Ramban adds:
זמן לו הקב”ה מורה דרך שלא מדעתו להביאו בידם…

… The Holy Blessed One summoned a guide for him, unbeknownst to him, to bring him under the hand [of his brothers],

ולזה נתכוונו רבותינו באמרם כי האישים האלה הם מלאכים, שלא על חנם היה כל הסיפור הזה, להודיענו כי “עצת ה’ היא תקום”
and this is the intention of our Rabbis when they say that these “men” are actually angels, so this vignette is not in vain, for it informs us that God’s plan will be upheld.

Ramban seems to be saying that the meaning of the identification of the “man” with an angel, is that this interaction should be understood as a divine intervention, ensuring that Joseph finds his brothers, and gets sent off to Egypt. Indeed, at the end of the whole novella, Joseph himself explains that this was all part of God’s plan for him (50:19-20).

Looking closely at the Ramban’s words, we note that God sent this guide “shelo midaato” – unbeknownst to him. To whom? It seems evident that Joseph did not know that this was an emissary from God, but if Ibn Ezra is correct that this is just an ordinary passer-by, perhaps he, too, had no understanding of what his offer of assistance meant for Joseph’s future, or for the plot of the Biblical novella.

There is a story told of a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, who had a burning desire to meet not Gabriel, but that other emissary of God in the world, Elijah. Eventually, his rebbe told him that if he took a box of food and a box of children’s clothes to a ramshackle house on the outskirts of Minsk, right as yomtov was starting, he would find Elijah there. Full of anticipation, he shows up at the required time and place, and all he finds is an exceedingly poor family. As he is now stuck there for yomtov, he gives the clothes to the children of the house, and shares his food with the family.

After yomtov, he returns home, and goes to see the Baal Shem Tov. “Nu?” asks the founder of Hasidus, “did you see Elijah?”. When the frustrated hasid explains that he did not, the Baal Shem Tov, looks surprised and tells him that in that case, he must return for the next yomtov, again with the two boxes. Dutifully, he again goes to the outskirts of Minsk, though with less excitement than before. As he approaches the house, carrying his box of children’s clothes and his box of food, he overhears the impoverished children inside complaining of their hunger. “Don’t worry,” replies the mother. “I’m sure Elijah will come and bring us food again, just as he did last yomtov.”

As I understand this story, the hasid’s mistake is that he was looking for the Elijah who would come to him, who would bring him words of prophecy or a miracle. The Baal Shem Tov taught him that the Elijah who we can readily find, is the Elijah that we can be in the lives of others.

If the commentators, modern and traditional, are right that the story in these chapters of the Torah is that of Joseph and his family, why is the subject of these verses the anonymous man, and not the favoured son?

There is a temptation to see ourselves as the star of our own story, with the world turning around us (and our lightbulb). Even once we emerge from the solipsism of infancy and the introspection of adolescence, our primary concern remains our personal – or even our national – destiny. But this man in our parasha, “unbeknownst to him”, plays a crucial role in someone else’s story. By seeing a lost boy and asking him if he needs help, God’s plan is advanced and the history of the Jewish people proceeds.

This paradigm shift from focussing on our own stories, to awareness of the role we might play in the story of someone else, is not easy. We each have a picture of the story-so-far for ourselves; whereas strangers do not generally provide us with “previously in my life” clips. We become accustomed to seeing the world through the eyes of the narrative that we know. The challenge is interacting with others without any clear sense of our impact on any narrative.

In the Torah, God is good enough to let some people know their destinies. We do not have that luxury, and so we tend to construct our “future chapters” from our goals, desires, and self-image. By switching our focus from ourselves to the stories of others, we are freed from any preoccupation with a constructed future. Instead, we must decide how we can best help someone else in the present, no matter what their future may hold.

May we all find ways to play the role of the anonymous stranger, and perhaps, unbeknownst to us, we will become an Elijah or a Gabriel.