Vayeishev, the ninth parashah in the book B'reishit, begins the final extended narrative of Genesis, the Joseph story. The Joseph story functions as a bridge between B'reishit (Genesis) and Sh'mot (Exodus) in that Joseph, his brothers, and eventually his father begin in Canaan but end up in Egypt. But the Joseph saga is much more than a mere bridge between the patriarch stories of Genesis and the tale of enslavement and exodus. The Joseph story deftly weaves together the themes of family and betrayal so evident in the early stories of Genesis with the larger national themes of suffering and redemption that form the backbone of Exodus. Its literary style is unmatched in the Torah for its cleverness, poetic expression, and use of literary techniques like foreshadowing, characterization and irony.
Our selection comes from the first aliyah:
[There] a man happened on him as he was wandering in the countryside. The man asked him, "What are you looking for?" He said, "I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me please where they are tending the flock?" The man said, "They left this place; yes, I heard them say, Let's go to Dothan." So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan. (37:15-17)
An essential character in the Torah might is an unnamed man standing in a field in Shechem, a city in the northern part of Canaan. With Joseph's brothers off tending their sheep, Jacob has sent his favored son Joseph to find them and report back to his father. What ends up happening when he finally finds his brothers strays far from Joseph's original, mundane mission. For once he finds them, the brothers swiftly hatch their plot, throw Joseph in a pit, and, after debating the pros and cons of leaving him to die, instead sell him to Midianite traders, who take him down to Egypt in chains. Imagine how the story might have gone had Joseph not encountered an anonymous man in the field: no interaction with his brothers; no ornamental coat torn from his shoulders and dipped in blood; no pit of terror; no bereaved father; no voyage to Egypt; no help for the beleaguered Pharaoh; no safety, survival, or salvation for the starving Israelites, including Joseph and his family; no Israelite enslavement; no Moses; no Exodus; no Sinai; no Torah.
Who was this mysterious man in the fields of Shechem? And what is he doing in this story? There are at least two possible interpretations: Either he was (1) just an ordinary man who just happened to be in the right place at the right time, or (2) he was someone special whose purpose was to help Joseph find his brothers. If you like interpretation number one, then the story of the Jewish people owes itself to a happy (or unhappy) coincidence. If, however, you favor interpretation number two, then you are in line with many of our tradition's most admired commentators, who refused to credit a hapless stranger for providing the catalyst that sets the drama of the Jewish people into motion. To paraphrase a Yiddish proverb: "Coincidence is when God chooses to remain anonymous."
Joseph's assistant would forever remain unidentified, if it weren't for insightful readers who sought to clarify his identity. Rashi tells us, "This [man] is [the angel] Gabriel." The angel Gabriel is said to have appeared to Daniel in a vision, providing him with understanding of God's designs for him (Daniel 9:21). Furthermore, Gabriel is called "a man" (Hebrew, ish), reinforcing Rashi's interpretation that the unidentified "man" (also called ish) of the Joseph story, and the "man"/angel Gabriel, are one and the same. In support of this interpretation are the facts that the man seems to know Joseph and "coincidentally" overheard the answer to the question Joseph is asked!
But here is the bigger point: If we follow Rashi to his logical conclusion, we must acknowledge that what the Torah presents as a chance encounter is actually divinely orchestrated. Joseph must end up in the clutches of his brothers, who seek to harm him, but who instead unintentionally plant the seeds of Jewish salvation in Egypt. The passage reveals what Rabbi Edward Goldman likes to call "the inevitable, inexorable unfolding of the Divine will," a theme present throughout the Torah, and throughout Genesis especially.
Judaism tends to resist attributing events of significance to chance. A primary Jewish methodology is to see God-or at least the potentiality for God-in the meaningful moments of our lives. That is one reason we take the time to say blessings over meals, over natural occurrences like rainbows or thunderstorms or meteor showers, over reaching milestones, even over something simple like waking up in the morning. We regard these not as random fluctuations in weather or biochemistry, but as window moments that allow us a glimpse into the mind of God. Shacharit (Morning Service) includes a recitation of many blessings, originally associated with totally ordinary acts like getting out of bed, washing, putting on clothes, a belt, a hat and so forth. But the prayer book calls these Nisim b'chol yom-everyday miracles. Because even a mundane encounter might serve a holy purpose, as our Torah portion reveals.
Even if you do not choose to seek God in everyday things, consider the message our Torah portion teaches about the possible consequences of even the smallest act of assistance or kindness. We often mistakenly conclude that in order to make a real difference we are required to perform extraordinary acts. Judaism instead asks only that we perform ordinary acts with extraordinary faithfulness. One word from an apparent stranger set forth the course of Jewish history. What could one well-chosen word from our mouths, one thoughtful gesture with our hands, set in motion?
- God does not appear by name in the Joseph story until Joseph is in Egypt, attending to Potiphar. What conclusions might you draw from God's apparent absence from the story?
- Ramban (Nachmanides) teaches that an angel is not a special kind of creature, but merely a human being who carries out God's will on earth without even knowing it. By this definition, are there people who you think fit Ramban's criteria for "angels?" Who makes your list and why?
- Think of some times in your life when you experienced a remarkable coincidence. How did it affect you and others? What would happen if you viewed the "coincidences" as part of a larger plan for your life?
For Further Learning
For one version of the morning blessings mentioned in the commentary above, pick up a copy of Gates of Prayer for Shabbat And Weekdays: A Gender Sensitive Prayerbook (Chaim Stern, editor. New York: CCAR, 1994)and turn to pages 106-107, where you'll find a passage entitled "For Our Blessings." Read through these blessings in Hebrew and/or English, or attend a morning service where they will be recited. You can even learn to chant the blessings using the same melody for the blessing before or after the reading of Torah. What values do these blessings teach? What ordinary act (waking up, getting dressed, etc.) do you think might be associated with each blessing?
Vayeishev, Genesis 37:1-40:23
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 244–260; Revised Edition, pp. 244–262;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 208–232