December 11, 2020
There is an interesting moment in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23), during Joseph’s search for his brothers. Initially, Joseph seeks them in Shechem, where Jacob supposes them to be. As Joseph unsuccessfully seeks his brothers, a man who perceives that Joseph is wandering aimlessly asks Joseph the purpose of his search. When Joseph replies that he is seeking his brothers, the man tells him he has heard that they are headed for Dothan. (37:14-17) Joseph then follows his brothers there, and the story unfolds of his sale as a slave and his descent to Egypt.
One wonders what purpose this episode serves. The Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir – France, 1085-1158) and others suggest that the Torah intends to praise Joseph for taking his time in seeking out his brothers in accordance with Jacob’s wishes. All of this despite knowing his brothers’ hostility toward him. Read this way, the inclusion of the anonymous supplier of information is simply a device to highlight Joseph’s devotion to his father’s request in the face of obstacles that might have deterred a lesser human being.
However, the Midrash (Tanhuma, Vayeshev 2:3) identifies the anonymous informant as the angel Gabriel; thus the rabbis assume that Joseph’s encounter with his informant is not coincidental but rather divinely ordained. God sends a celestial messenger to ensure that Joseph finds his brothers; his consequent descent to Egypt is a vital part of the divine plan to lead Jacob’s descendants into enslavement there as had been foreordained. The Midrash puts it as follows: “[Joseph’s descent to Egypt] can be compared to the case of a cow that refuses to be led to the slaughterhouse. What did they do? They led her calf in front of her and she followed against her will.” So too it is Jacob’s love for Joseph that compels Joseph to journey to Egypt and slavery.
Whether one sees this story as the potential of celestial beings in our lives or the more rational possibility that each of us has the potential to be that messenger for others, it does encourage us to be aware that we have the opportunity to lead others. Our lives are full of mitzvah opportunities if we but have eyes to see them. Greeting a stranger, tempering a criticism so that it does not sting, or complimenting someone on a new haircut, each small act helps tip the cosmic scales toward the side of goodness and merit; each one binds us closer to God and to our fellow human beings; and each one is an instrument for making meaning in our own lives. No, we do not know the ultimate consequences of our actions; as mortals, it is enough that we do mitzvot in the hope and belief that each mitzvah brings another in its wake.