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Vayeshev and Making History

Jewish history hinges on the Joseph story that begins this week. Because of the jealousy and hatred between Joseph and his brothers they sell him into slavery in Egypt where he rises to prominence. Eventually his family follows him there. The Jewish people then build comfortable lives in Egypt until a new Pharaoh comes to power. As the Torah recounts, “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” The people are enslaved. Their cries reach to heaven and so God calls Moses to lead the people to freedom. The rest of the story is all too familiar.

It turns on Joseph. It depends on the moment Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. It also revolves around an unnamed man. Let me explain.

Jacob sent Joseph out to the fields to look for his brothers. He apparently had difficulty finding them. “When Joseph 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 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)

If not for this stranger Joseph might never have found his brothers. They might not have sold him into slavery. Then the Jewish people might never have arrived in Egypt and become enslaved there. And we might never have drawn so much inspiration from our Passover Seders and the retelling of our going out from Egypt.

Moses Maimonides suggests that the stranger is an angel. How else could one explain that all of Jewish history, and for that matter world history, turns on his directions? For this medieval thinker it could only be a divine messenger who sets Joseph on the proper course. For Maimonides the stranger could therefore only be an angel.

And yet I would like to think that this man could be anyone.

Perhaps it is the unknown, unnamed strangers upon which history turns. Their names are never known. History books do not even record their deeds. And yet history could never be written without their guiding hand.

Far too many people aspire to fame. They wish to be the ones who write history, whose names are recorded in the history books. They worry about their legacy. They spend precious hours wondering if they will be remembered for good. Yet often it is the unnamed stranger who points the direction. And it is upon their shoulders that history actually turns.

There is more that depends on the unnamed. I might never have noticed these verses, or the mention of this man, if not for the young parents who asked to study this week’s Torah portion in preparation for their son’s bar mitzvah. If not for their eyes and especially their questions, this stranger might have remained hidden from view.

Perhaps it is the hidden, and unnamed, upon which our learning turns and upon which history revolves.

You never know where the directions you offer might lead. You never know where the questions you ask might take others.