By Mike Fenster
In Vayeshev, we start to learn Joseph’s life story: initially a series of misadventures brought on by his immaturity, and his apparent good luck once he reached Egypt. Being in the right place at the right time seems to be Joseph’s leitmotif. The rabbis worked hard to explain Joseph’s virtues as the cause of his remarkable life, but the key to understanding him are the verses we read in Miketz, when he tells his brothers: “God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth… so it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Gen. 45:7–8)
His journey to Egypt starts innocuously, with Jacob asking Joseph to go to his brothers who are pasturing flocks in Shechem, the city that the brothers had recently looted over the rape of Dinah, killing the males and expropriating the sheep that they are now tending. Joseph had earlier brought bad reports of the brothers to Jacob, and Jacob is now again sending his young spy to check on events in Shechem, perhaps curious how the brothers are dealing with the women and children there, as well as the sheep. Joseph is keen to go, oblivious to the danger that being his father’s personal spy will bring him.
When Joseph reaches Shechem there are no sheep and no brothers. In verses 15–17 we read that “a man found him, and he was wandering in the field”. The man asks him, “What is it you seek?” and Joseph answers, “My brothers I seek. Tell me, pray, where they are pasturing.” The man says, “They have gone from here, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan’”.
The commentators find this paragraph curious. Bereshit is so spare and pared-down that whole conversations are missing; Isaac’s words throughout his life are barely mentioned, yet here are three verses about Joseph being given directions on where to find his brothers!
So what is the significance? We know, as Joseph will tell his brothers, that God sent him ahead of them and his father to save them all. This short conversation with a stranger, pointing Joseph in the right direction, starts the whole epic journey for Joseph. And who is ‘the man’? All the males of Shechem have been murdered by Joseph’s siblings, so he cannot be a local. If it isn’t God telling Joseph where to go to find the brothers, ‘the man’ must be an angel. This nameless man, who is mentioned three times, who asks Joseph what he is looking for, and who somehow just happened to hear the brothers talk of Dothan, knows more than any stranger could. Rashi and other rabbis before him identify the man as the Angel Gabriel.
Interestingly, this seems to be the only time in his life that any non-mortal speaks to Joseph. While Abraham, Isaac and Jacob frequently speak with God and angels, Joseph’s one brief encounter may have been while wandering in the fields – and yet it is enough to set in train a whole series of events that gets Joseph to Egypt, an audience with Pharaoh, and ultimately reunites him with his family when he becomes Pharaoh’s regent, all without any further explicit divine intervention.
We may have trouble recognising the decisive moment in our lives as it happens – only in retrospect is the full picture revealed. So act as if every moment might be the decisive one.
Mike Fenster is a longstanding member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue.