Gen. 37:1 – 40:23
Rabbi Gary Pokras
Who needs a soap opera? Our parashah opens with family dysfunction, and then goes downhill from there. Jacob lavishes intense favoritism upon youngest son Joseph, and his brothers seethe with envy and hate. Then, to make matters worse, Jacob sends Joseph to check up on and “bring back a report” on his brothers, who are pasturing the flocks three days away in Shechem. That seems in character. However, oddly, the text refers to Jacob here by the name Israel, which generally signifies Jacob’s patriarchal role in the Covenant, meaning that this action has Covenantal significance beyond mere family interactions. Even more strange, Joseph responds by saying: hineini (I am here). [Gen. 37:13] Hineini is the word Abraham used when God called. It indicates complete and total presence and focus and also carries covenantal implications. It means: “I am here, tell me what You need me to do.” Why would Joseph say hineini here, after he receives instructions from his father?
We might just shrug it off, if not for what comes next. Joseph travels to the valley of Hebron, where:
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. [Gen. 37:15-17]
This little encounter raises a number of questions. Who was this man? How did he know Joseph? How did he know Joseph’s brothers? How did he just happen to overhear where they were going next? It seems rather unlikely that a random stranger would appear at just the right moment with exactly the information that Joseph required.
The great 12th century commentator Ibn Ezra wrote: “According to the plain meaning of the text a passerby found him.” [Ibn Ezra commentary to Gen. 37:15] As a rationalist, Ibn Ezra read this meeting as purely coincidental, meaning, “nothing here folks, let’s move on.” However, Rashi, the 11th century French commentator offered a different perspective. He drew from the Midrashic tradition and wrote that the man was actually Gabriel, the angel.1 [Rashi commentary to Gen. 37:15] To borrow from the “Blues Brothers” movie, if Gabriel was there, then he was on “a mission from God.” Now Joseph’s use of hineini seems appropriate. Somehow, he sensed that this was not an ordinary journey and he set off just as Abraham had generations before.
Yet, this too raises a series of questions. Their reunion is far from pleasant. His brothers see him from afar, ambush him, throw him in a pit and step away to decide how to dispose of him. Could this really be God’s will? If it was, does this mean that the brothers had no agency, no free will?
Today, there is a neurological theory asserting that free-will is an illusion. Our tradition takes a different approach. The Rabbinical consensus is that God cannot force anyone to do anything against their will. For example, when God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, God merely strengthened what was already there. Joseph’s brothers were already filled with raging jealousy. The text does not mention any intervention from God. They were willing participants in Joseph’s mistreatment. The more likely scenario, from what we read in the text, is that God knew what was already in their hearts. And God needed Joseph to go to Egypt where he could one day save his family – including his brothers. Israel in sending Joseph, and Joseph in agreeing, then, acted according to God’s will – painful as the short-term results would be.
In a sense, this was almost a precondition for eventual reconciliation. God was able to see past the trauma of the moment, and the additional trauma to come, to a day of healing and family restoration.
Sometimes, especially when we are aggrieved, we humans struggle to see past our own noses.