“When he reached Shechem, a man came upon him wandering in the fields. 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 to Dothan.’ So, Joseph followed his brothers and found them at Dothan.” (Genesis 37:15-17)
It is reasonable to assume that no one reading our weekly Torah portion, Vayeshev, will consider these innocuous lines of Torah to be of any particular importance. Coming as they do inside the dramatic first part of the Joseph story, the narrative which will continue until the end of the Book of Genesis, there seems no reason to take special note of this rather curious mention of “a man” meeting Joseph on his way to find his brothers and giving Joseph directions. Rather, the camera is fixed on Joseph, the major protagonist of the narrative, whose tragic life story begins to unfold in our Parasha. Tension mounts as we read about Joseph’s narcissistic dreams, his visions of grandeur, his preferential status in his father’s eyes and his antagonistic relationship with his brothers ending in his being sold into slavery and his eventual imprisonment in Egypt. With all these action scenes to cover in the Parasha, who would possibly pay attention to the few lines describing “the man” giving directions to Joseph.
The man goes nameless, enters with no introduction and leaves with no good-bye. In fact, the narrative seems to be unchanged entirely by the man’s presence. Or is it……? Let’s look at this again and, like the rabbis, try to delve deeper into the text and extract meaning which might not be obvious upon first reflection.
A helpful start might be to ask the question – is there another situation in Torah where a nameless “man” figures in prominently. For those of you following our weekly Torah readings, you might certainly remember that just last week, in Parashat Vayishlach, before Jacob meets his brother Esau for the first time since his deception and flight, Jacob meets a nameless “man” and wrestles with him until the break of dawn (Genesis 32:25-31). In the end, Jacob is victorious and demands a blessing from the “man” who bestows upon Jacob his new name, Israel. Most traditional Jewish commentaries see this mysterious being as evil. According to Genesis Rabbah, 77:3, the “man” may have been Esau’s guardian angel. According to the noted Israeli commentator Nechama Leibovich, “Before encountering Esau in the flesh, his spirit struggled with the spirit of Esau”. Other commentators surmise that the “man” might have been the demonic guardian of the river, trying to weaken Jacob on the eve of his confrontation with his brother Esau.
But reflected in the text itself is a different explanation. The nameless “man” reveals to Jacob that he (Jacob) has struggled with beings divine and human and has prevailed (Genesis 32:29) but refuses to answer Jacob’s question: “Pray, tell me your name” (Genesis 32:30), responding only with: “You must not ask my name” and then leaves.
Looking again at our text in Parashat Vayeshev – could it be that this nameless “man” who happens to be in the right place at the right time to give Joseph direction, might just represent the divine presence as well. If so, where does this line of thinking take us? We do know that often in our Torah portion we read that “Adonai was with Joseph” (Vayehi Adonai Et Yosef). We know that Joseph understood his entire life as living out God’s will. It was God who led him into slavery in Egypt only to become Pharaoh’s trusted overseer and ultimately the protector of his family and all the tribes of Israel.
With this context in mind, let’s look again at the nameless “man” in our Parasha. Had Joseph not bumped into this man on his way looking for his brothers, a purely chance encounter, might the entire history of the Jewish People been different? Without the man’s directions, Joseph would not have found his brothers, would not have been sold into slavery nor become the savior of his family. The Exodus from Egypt might not have occurred along with so many other key events in the history of the Jewish People. This is the subtle yet dramatic consequence of that chance encounter between Joseph and the nameless man.
Let’s reflect a moment on so many chance encounters we experience in our own lives. Nameless people we meet – so many opportunities for experiencing the unknown divine presence in good people we meet along the way. So many opportunities for finding directions to those places we need to go. Might our Torah reading be teaching us that while we may plan and plan and plan some more to ensure that our lives are following our clearly structured game plan, it might just be in those chance encounters that we actually meet up with the nameless divine spirit which, if we are open to it, can lead us in a life-affirming direction. Being open, inviting and living thoughtfully towards the many nameless others we encounter along the way may just change the course of our lives. We never know who the next nameless man or woman may be.
Rabbi Joel Oseran is the Vice President Emeritus of International Development at the World Union for Progressive Judaism.