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Torah Commentary
Vayeishev (November 23, 2013)

By Rabbi Rena Y. Rifkin, Coordinator of Faculty
& Family Engagement

WHAT IF? What if Joseph had not been sold into slavery by his brothers? Would he still have ended up in Egypt? Would the rest of the Hebrews have come to Egypt in search of relief from the famine? Would the Hebrews have stayed there and become slaves until the time of Moses? What if Joseph had not found his brothers that fateful day?

And yet for all our wondering, there was a man, an ish, who directed Joseph where to go.

When Joseph arrives at Shechem, where he believes his brothers will be in the fields, he does not find them. The Torah tells us that an ish comes to Joseph and helps him to find his brothers in Dothan. And from there, we know what will happen to Joseph…and eventually to our entire ancestry.

The commentators do not spend time discussing this ish. We wonder, just as we did a few chapters before when Jacob wrestled with an ish, if this is really a man or some kind of agent of the Divine. We do not know how this ish knows who Joseph’s brothers are — as he does not ask for their description. Nor do we know why this ish decides to help Joseph on his quest to find his brothers. But it would seem that NOT KNOWING is the point.

This is not the first moment where the course of the biblical narrative is affected greatly by a minor or lesser-known character. As I mentioned above, Jacob wrestles with an ish and is given the name Israel and a special blessing. Bat Pharaoh, the daughter of Pharaoh, pulls Moses from the river and essentially saves the Jewish people. Later on in Joseph’s tale, Pharaoh’s servant tells Pharaoh of Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams, thus rescuing him from Egyptian prison.

None of these nameless characters are insignificant. Each one’s actions lead our text and our people down a specific path. In some instances, they allow the story to continue, and in others, they begin a sad new reality. Like our game of “what if,” they are the beginning of a series of ripples in the story of the Jewish people.

We never will know the moments in our lives when we were an ish for someone else. When, for better or worse, we changed the course of someone else’s narrative and affected his or her world. It may be the tourist who asks us for directions or the person to whom we reply “God bless you” when he sneezes. It might be the stranger we bump into, knocking her pile of papers to the ground or the person we step ahead of on line at Starbucks.

When I first read about this ish, I was frustrated. How could the commentaries not spend pages and pages discussing the ish? Why did we not know more about this character? Was no one else curious about the ish’s motives and background, especially because without him, Joseph may not have ended up in Egypt? The ish is important but no more or less important than any other person. In truth, we are all the ish, and we never will know the moment when we changed the course of someone else’s life.

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