I am a rabbi because of a game of catch I played at camp with a rabbi more than three times my age. I found love and happiness and my partner in life, because my best friend and my family helped me through a very difficult time. I survived the social pressure cooker of high school because my woodshop teacher took a personal interest in my well-being. I am alive today, I truly believe, because an anonymous man pulled me back from the curb as I was about to step into oncoming traffic in Manchester, England. (I was looking in the wrong direction for British traffic patterns.)
We have all sorts of names for these people in our lives. Some call them guardian angels, some call them heroes, and our tradition calls them sh’lichim, “messengers” or “emissaries” from God. I call them supporting actors. A rabbi, a friend, family, a teacher, and an anonymous man in the movie that is my life: these are the people who have enabled me to play a starring role! These are the people who, intentionally or not, gave the trajectory of my life a nudge at just the right moment and kept it on track, or steered it in a new and better direction. If awards were given to supporting actors in life as they are to movie actors, then they would each deserve an Oscar for the roles they played and for how their playing of their roles enabled me to play mine.
Who are the supporting actors in your life? Who are the people, past or present, who at critical crossroads in your life’s journey gave you directions, held your hand, and walked a bit of the journey with you? Who are the people who, upon reflection, were it not for them everything would be different, and so much would not have been possible?
Consider for a moment the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev.
Here, we meet Joseph, son of Jacob, grandson of Isaac, great-grandson of Abraham, who, by all accounts, is a leading man in the story of the Jewish people. Joseph, in my estimation, is the second most pivotal person in Jewish history. The most pivotal one is a man whose name we don’t know and the Torah doesn’t record, but whose role as a supporting actor in one scene of Joseph’s life changes the arc of Jewish history.
In this week’s portion, Joseph goes out searching for his brothers who are supposed to be in the field tending the flock. He searches in all the usual places but can’t find them. Along the way he meets a man whose name we never know: The Torah refers to him simply as ha-ish, ”the man” who saw Joseph wandering in the field (Gen. 37:15). There is an allusion here to the nameless man or angel that Jacob, Joseph’s father, wrestled with in the previous parashah, Vayishlach. We note that sometimes when the Torah does not name a character, that character comes to play a pivotal role in the unfolding story.
Such is the case in this instance. The man sees that Joseph appears to be lost and approaches him. He asks: “What are you looking for?” Joseph responds, “I’m looking for my brothers. Can you tell me please where they are tending the flock?” (see Gen. 37.15-16).
The nameless man remembers seeing Joseph’s brothers and overheard them talking about heading toward a place called Dothan. On the anonymous man’s advice, Joseph seeks his brothers there and finds them. Shockingly, they are not happy to see him. They conspire against him, abuse him, threaten to kill him, and eventually sell him into slavery to a band of traveling nomads who are headed to Egypt. Through a series of events, Joseph, the boy who looked for his brothers in a field, becomes the chief advisor to Pharaoh and ascends to the second most powerful position in all of Egypt.
Meanwhile, a famine occurs in the Land of Israel, and these same brothers are sent by the leader of the Israelites, their father Jacob, to find food. They travel to Egypt, and this time it is they who are surprised to find their brother, not only alive, but also in a position to help them. After a series of encounters, Joseph embraces them, asks after his father, and makes all the arrangements for the entire nation of Israel to immigrate to Egypt. His position and power save the Jewish people, and for many years they live well in Egypt and thrive.
Then a new Pharaoh comes to power and forces the Israelites into slavery. A prophet named Moses rises up from among them, and through plagues of frogs, lice, boils, and so on; the splitting of the Red Sea; and ultimately, the giving of the Torah; the people return to the Land of Israel. And that’s pretty much the story of our people.
But what about this nameless man? Who or what was he?
The commentators offer a variety of answers. The 11th century scholar, Abraham ibn Ezra, reads the text of Genesis 37:15 with a p'shat, a “straight forward” interpretation and concludes this was a passerby. Rashi, on the other hand, delves further and concludes: “This [the man] was the angel Gabriel, as it says (Daniel 10:21) 'and the man Gabriel.'”(Rashi on Gen. 37:15). Rashi draws inference from the definite article that is used to identify “the” man.
Ramban explains that he was an ordinary man (a passerby) yet he was unwittingly fulfilling God's design. He was actually "sent” by God to guide Joseph, though he himself was not aware of the significance of his actions. In Hebrew the word malach means both “angel” and “messenger,” because every malach, human or supernatural, is one of God's messengers activated to implement His will on earth (see Ramban on Gen. 37:15).
Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk, known as the Kotzker Rebbe (1787–1859), goes in a completely different direction:
“The angel taught Joseph that whenever one is straying in the ways of life, when one is downtrodden or downcast, one should speak to oneself and clarify for oneself what one is really asking for / looking for / seeking, and what one really desires, so that one can return and first explain to oneself what one needs.”
The Kotzker Rebbe seems to disagree with Ramban, Rashi, and Ibn Ezra, saying, it’s not a passerby, God, or an angel that points the way. Rather, he says that the supporting actor in this unfolding mystery is Joseph’s inner voice and that sometimes our inner voice can be our own supporting actor.
Whatever or whoever he was, were it not for ha-ish, the man Joseph met along the way, the man who told Joseph where to find his brothers, how different it all could have been.
We never know in the present tense which people or events will be the most instrumental and transformative in our lives, but in hindsight, nothing is clearer. Upon reflection, the pieces of the puzzle and the paths of our lives are perfectly clear, even if they may be filled with uncomfortable observations.
This week’s parashah is a reminder to all of us to recognize the supporting actors who have guided us on our path and pointed us to our direction. It compels us to acknowledge, honor, and thank them — even to give them awards — for the important roles that they’ve played. For doing so teaches us something greater still: in recognizing the transformative influence of supporting actors in our lives we become keenly aware of how important we are in the lives of others. And we come to appreciate the capacity each of us has to help our friends, neighbors, even strangers achieve wholeness in life and find what they are seeking.
Rabbi Dan Moskovitz is senior rabbi at Temple Sholom in Vancouver, BC, and author of “The Men’s Seder” (MRJ Publishing). Rabbi Moskovitz is also chair of the Reform Rabbis of Canada. His writings and perspectives on Judaism appear in major print and digital media internationally.
As we read Parashat Vayeishev, Rabbi Dan Moskovitz challenges us to ask ourselves, “Who are the people past or present who at critical crossroads in your life’s journey gave you directions, held your hand, and walked a bit of the journey with you?” In his own answer, he recalls a best friend, a woodshop teacher, a rabbi with whom he had a game of catch, and a stranger who saved him from a traffic accident.
Thinking back on my own life, I have a similar list: a middle school teacher, a college friend, and the woman who is now my wife.
Rabbi Moskovitz compares such people to ha-ish, "the (unnamed) man" in the field, in this week’s Torah portion who guided Joseph to find his brothers — and, as a result — helped him discover his destiny. That unnamed man can be seen as the lynchpin of the Torah. If he had not sent Joseph in the right direction to find his brothers, Joseph never would have been sold into slavery, Jacob and his children never would have received food to save them from starvation, and the Israelites never would have gone down into Egypt. The Torah would have ended with this week’s Torah portion. The Jewish people would have ended there, too.
I want to suggest, though, that ha-ish was not quite like the people that I can identify from my past. All of those people made an impact on me that I recognized at the time as significant in my life. By contrast, ha-ish was just an anonymous stranger who told Joseph that he had seen his brothers veer away from the road to Shechem and head toward Dothan. It was no big deal to Joseph in the moment it happened, but It was a huge deal when seen in retrospect.
I imagine Joseph after he was elevated to the position of vizier of all Egypt, sitting on his throne and thinking about how he got there. I imagine him saying to himself, “You know, if I hadn’t bumped into that guy who sent me to Dothan, I would never have arrived where I am today. Isn’t it amazing how God takes you where you need to go, and you only recognize it when you look back and remember it.”
In that moment, I hope Joseph also recognized that while it may have been ha-ish who sent him to Dothan, it was he himself who chose to look for his brothers even though they hated him. It was he who was a faithful servant to Potiphar, even when tempted by his wife. It was he who kept up his spirits and his integrity in the dungeon, when he could have given in to despair. The road that leads us through life is filled with twists and turns we cannot anticipate, but it also gives us opportunities to make good choices.
Haven’t we all walked down the same road as Joseph? Haven’t we all looked back at our lives and wondered about the long, strange trip that takes us from past to present? Haven’t we all had moments at the crossroads, barely recognized at the time, that took us off one path and put us onto another?
Contemplating such moments makes us realize that we are not in control of our lives as much as we like to think. The story of ha-ish reminds us that free will is, at least in part, an illusion. God and the universe have more to say about where we are going than we do. In the words of Shakespeare, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends / Rough-hew them how we will, …” (Hamlet, V, ii).
The Rabbis of the Talmud understood this, too. Rabbi Haninah says, “Everything is in the hand of Heaven except for the awe of heaven” (Babylonian Talmud, B'rachot 33b). God does indeed control the events and circumstances of our lives. Yet God does give us the ability to choose how we will respond to those circumstances — with awe and appreciation, or with disdain and neglect. We may never be aware of the times when our lives are about to change course in the moment, but we can, like Joseph, respond to life’s challenges by doing what is right.
May we all have the humility to recognize that so much of our lives is outside of our control. May we all have the courage to make choices that lead us to sanctity.
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
Haftarah, Amos 2:6–3:8
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 352–354; Revised Edition, pp. 263–265