This week in our Torah portion, we begin the story of Joseph, the longest single narrative in the Torah. We follow him from the impetuousness of his youth to his adulthood, we walk with him along the path of his life with its ups and downs, its highs and lows. We are privilege to the changes in his character and personality, the ways the circumstances of his life shape who he becomes in the world and the evolution of a person from boy to man. In the beginning of our parasha, Joseph is in a privileged position, he is the favourite son of his father, he is given a coat of many colours and as a result he is hated by his brothers. But then Joseph does not make the situation any better for himself for he has a series of dreams in which he is the ruler over his family. Now many of us would keep that to ourselves, especially given the family dynamic but Joseph, seemingly oblivious to the consequences, shares with his family all of his dreams and their interpretation. Jacob, Joseph’s father, tries to mitigate the damage, but to no avail, Joseph’s brothers hate him even more. Then they are sent off to the fields to pasture the flock in Shechem and Jacob sends Joseph to meet them and bring back word of the brothers. Maybe this was Jacob’s attempt to reconcile his warring family but despite his maybe good intentions, it was never going to end well.
Joseph follows his father’s instruction and heads off to find his brothers. He arrives at the field where they should have been but there is no sign of his siblings. Joseph wanders around aimlessly when a man, unnamed in the Torah, approaches him, he asks “What are you looking for?” and Joseph responds, “I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are pasturing?” the man says, “They have gone from here for I heard them say: let us go to Dotan” so Joseph follows his brothers and finds them in Dotan.” (Gen 37:15-17) It is then he is captured by them, thrown in a pit, sold into slavery and they return to their father and claim Joseph has been devoured by wild beasts.
This seemingly insignificant encounter with the man in a field is perhaps one of the most significant in the whole Joseph story for, as our commentary says, “If Joseph had not met him, he never would have found his brothers. He never would have been sold into slavery. The family would not have followed him to Egypt. There would have been no Exodus. The history of the world would have been so different. (Etz Chayim pg. 229) This has led many of the traditional commentators to suggest that the man was not in fact a man but rather an angel, a messenger of God, sent to ensure that Joseph found his brothers and the events of the Torah would be set in motion. But I think the story is far more powerful and instructive if the man is not a divine being but rather just a man. And Joseph did not have an orchestrated meeting but one of pure chance which altered the course of his life. How many of us have stories such as that? Moments when we met someone, had a conversation, were directed to a place we would otherwise never have been and it changed our lives forever? How many of us have met that unnamed man in a field and how many of us have been that man? We do not know how our encounters impact others. The man in the field probably does not know that his direction sent Joseph to Egypt, changing the course of our history. Encounters can happen anywhere at any time, we just have to be open to them, and to listen to the words of strangers for we never know which ones will change our lives forever.
Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio