Vayeshev/Shabbat Chanuka

Texts and beliefs By BZ Gilinsky 10th Dec 2020

וַיִּמְצָאֵהוּ אִישׁ וְהִנֵּה תֹעֶה בַּשָּׂדֶה וַיִּשְׁאָלֵהוּ הָאִישׁ לֵאמֹר מַה־תְּבַקֵּשׁ׃  

A man came upon him wandering in the fields. The man asked him, “What are you looking for?” 

In the story of Joseph and his brothers, there are a number of famous scenes. Jacob loving Joseph more than his other sons, giving him the multicoloured coat, Joseph’s dreams, and the brothers pushing him into the pit.  

One of the less famous moments of the story is the short interaction between Joseph, searching for his brothers, and an unnamed man. Joseph, having been sent to Shechem by Jacob, finds that his brothers are not herding their flocks there. While wandering the fields, an unknown man finds him, and asks him what he is doing. When Joseph tells him that he is looking for his brothers, the man tells him that they have gone down to Dotan. When Joseph arrives at Dotan, he finds the brothers incandescent with rage. They conspire to throw him in the pit, and the rest is history. 

This interaction can seem small, but it serves as a critical hinge for the story of Joseph, the book of Genesis, and the broader sweep of Jewish history. Much of the rest of the Bible is contingent on Joseph being successfully directed to where his brothers are. Without the man telling Joseph where to look, he doesn’t end up in the pit. Consequently, he doesn’t get sold down to Egypt, doesn’t become viceroy there, and doesn’t help Egypt to weather the famine. With Egypt no longer the breadbasket of the region during a famine, Jacob and his family don’t go down to Egypt, and therefore the Jewish people don’t become slaves there.  

In response to this seemingly vital role being filled by an unnamed character, Rashi looks to ascribe this to an angel, using a textual link to the book of Daniel to say that this character is actually the angel Gabriel. The lynchpin of the book of Genesis and Jewish history must, for Rashi, be a character of cosmic importance. 

But if we explore the other option – that a critical but minor role in our national story was filled by an ordinary person – we come away with a different perspective. Ibn Ezra, who often explains the Bible in a more simple, straightforward fashion, explains that this man was simply one of the passers-by – another inhabitant of the area. 

The huge impact of this random passer-by is not only incalculable, but also totally unknown to him. By directing Joseph to the brothers, he sets in motion events that take place centuries later. The Joseph story is often thought of in grand terms – the climax of generations of filial strife, our transition from a clan to a nation, and the clash of big personalities. But the story of the man in the field reminds us even ordinary people can have far-reaching impacts on the world in which we live. 

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