Reflections on Parashat Vayeshev by Jeremy Fineberg

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Please enjoy a d’var Torah this week from Jeremy Fineberg. Jeremy is an alumnus of Brandeis University and is currently in his fifth and final year of Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Jeremy currently serves as the Intern Rabbi at Temple Israel of South Merrick on Long Island, and as Gabbai of the Women's League Seminary Synagogue at JTS. A lifelong Ramahnik, Jeremy has been a counselor, Rosh Aidah, Program Director, Rosh Tefilah, and Yoetz Tichnun (Educational Consultant).

Reflections on Parashat Vayeshev
by Jeremy Fineberg 

Has there ever been a moment in your life that you’ve looked back on and said, “if this one event or interaction hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.” It could be something big, like a question that inspired a life direction or passion, or something small, like watching an act of kindness or cruelty take place on the street. For me, a quick, almost joking question by one of my close friends helped inspire me to become a rabbi, and I’ve read plenty of stories about how chance encounters inspire lifelong friends or hobbies. One of the greatest questions is whether we consider these events or interactions to be fate or happenstance. Are we lucky the interaction stuck to our awareness so strongly that we couldn’t let it go, or was it fate or divine providence that forced us onto this path?

In this week’s parashah, Vayeshev, we meet one of my favorite characters in the Torah. Without this character, it’s possible the entire story of B’nai Yisrael’s (Israelites’) time in Egypt might not have happened. This character is mysterious, possibly all-knowing, and definitely has a knack for being in the right place at the right time, or depending on how you look at it, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Who is this all-important character? That’s a great question, since in the parashah itself we only know of him as “the man.” This nameless character is critical to the Joseph story, but all we ever learn about him is the brief role he plays in Genesis 37:15-17.

After Jacob asks Joseph to check in on his brothers, Joseph gets lost. He wanders about looking for his brothers, and “a man” sees him wandering and asks

וַיִּשְׁאָלֵ֧הוּ הָאִ֛ישׁ לֵאמֹ֖ר מַה־תְּבַקֵּֽשׁ׃
וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אֶת־אַחַ֖י אָנֹכִ֣י מְבַקֵּ֑שׁ הַגִּֽידָה־נָּ֣א לִ֔י אֵיפֹ֖ה הֵ֥ם רֹעִֽים׃
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר הָאִישׁ֙ נָסְע֣וּ מִזֶּ֔ה כִּ֤י שָׁמַ֙עְתִּי֙ אֹֽמְרִ֔ים נֵלְכָ֖ה דֹּתָ֑יְנָה וַיֵּ֤לֶךְ יוֹסֵף֙ אַחַ֣ר אֶחָ֔יו וַיִּמְצָאֵ֖ם בְּדֹתָֽן׃

“...The man asked him, ‘What are you looking for?’
He answered, ‘I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are pasturing?’
The man said, ‘They have gone from here, for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan.’ So Joseph followed his brothers and found them at Dothan.” (Genesis 37:15-17).

After playing this critical role the man disappears, never to be heard from again. But his contribution to the story can’t be denied. Without him, Joseph never would have checked on his brothers, which could have possibly prevented his brothers from selling him into slavery. Without Joseph’s time in Egypt, he never would have risen to power, and without his rise to power, he couldn’t have saved his family during the famine. While the outcome of that last step is the eventual enslavement of B’nai Yisrael in Egypt, without the events of this week’s parashah, the arc of Jewish history as we know it might have been different.

So who was this mysterious mover of Jewish history? The classical commentators have two predominant theories. Rashi, the 11th century French commentator, argues that the man was not an ordinary man but rather the angel Gabriel. Meanwhile, ibn Ezra, the 12the century Spanish commentator, argues that “the man” was just a regular man, just someone walking down the street. These theories suggest drastically different understandings of the way the world, or at least the Torah, works. From ibn Ezra’s perspective we can extrapolate that things happen randomly or coincidentally. It’s no great miracle that Joseph happened to meet “that guy” at the right place at the right time. Sometimes, or at all times, things just happen. On the other hand, from Rashi’s perspective, where the man is not a man but an angel, there is no such thing as coincidence. God and fate are conspiring to ensure that certain things happen. It was destiny for Joseph to meet the one “person” who could tell him where his brothers were. It had to happen this way.

I think that we can find a middle ground between Rashi and ibn Ezra. Yes, this encounter was undeniably powerful and almost providentially impactful. But also yes, sometimes these things just happen. The trick is training ourselves to see when there are angels behind the small things and when there is no particular meaning. To a certain extent we are able to look back on certain events in our life and decide if they are enough to inspire us to great deeds or relationships. All we need is the patience to look back and see if we can find something holy in these interactions.

At camp, there are so many opportunities to create and find meaning in our everyday activities. An omanut (art) experience might inspire a professional career in art education, or it might inspire a lifelong love of doodling. A conversation with a madrich/ah (counselor) or chanich/ah (camper) might set you on your path. By opening ourselves to the possibility of inspiration and meaning, we can bring a little bit of holiness to all of our interactions.