I am an Educator because my mom believed I would be a loving teacher. Certain teachers were extra perceptive to my needs and responded like loving parents. I made it through some very difficult teenage years because my sister, brother, and I banded together. I was able to stay on course for my PhD because Jerry and my children supported my efforts. A rabbi assured me that even with losses, I would be able to find great joy in the small things of life. I am alive today, I truly believe, because of a brilliant doctor who discovered that I had pulmonary endometriosis and did not leave my side until a treatment brought it under control. Friends have been in my life who were sure to be present at the right time.
We have all sorts of names for these people in our lives. Some call them guardian angels; our tradition calls them sh’lichim, “messengers” or “emissaries” from God. My mom, siblings, husband, children, doctor, a rabbi, friends, teachers: these are some of the people who, intentionally or not, gave the trajectory of my life a nudge at just the right moment and kept it on track, or steered it in a new and better direction. Who are the people, past or present, who at critical crossroads in your life’s journey gave you directions, held your hand, and walked a bit of the journey with you? Who are the people who, upon reflection, were it not for them everything would be different, and so much would not have been possible?
Consider for a moment the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev.
Here, we meet Joseph, son of Jacob, grandson of Isaac, great-grandson of Abraham. In this week’s portion, Joseph goes out searching for his brothers who are supposed to be in the field tending the flock. He searches in all the usual places but cannot find them. Along the way he meets a man whose name we never know: The Torah refers to him simply as ha-ish, ”the man” who saw Joseph wandering in the field (Gen. 37:15).
[There] a man happened on him as he was wandering in the countryside. The man asked him, “What are you looking for?” He said, “I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me please where they are tending the flock?” The man said, “They left this place; yes, I heard them say, Let’s go to Dothan.” So, Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan.
To say the least, they are not happy to see him. They conspire against him, threaten to kill him, and eventually sell him into slavery to a band of traveling nomads who are headed to Egypt. Through a series of events, Joseph, the boy who looked for his brothers in a field, becomes the chief advisor to Pharaoh and ascends to the second most powerful position in all of Egypt.
The remainder of the story is familiar – a famine occurs in the Land of Israel, and these same brothers are sent by the leader of the Israelites, their father Jacob, to find food. They travel to Egypt, and this time it is they who are surprised to find their brother, not only alive, but also in a position to help them. After a series of encounters, Joseph embraces them, asks after his father, and makes all the arrangements for the entire nation of Israel to immigrate to Egypt. His position and power save the Jewish people, and for many years they live well in Egypt and thrive.
Then a new Pharaoh comes to power and forces the Israelites into slavery. A prophet named Moses rises up from among them, and through plagues of frogs, lice, boils, and so on; the splitting of the Red Sea; and ultimately, the giving of the Torah; the people return to the Land of Israel. And that’s pretty much the story of our people.
Imagine how the story might have gone had Joseph not encountered an anonymous man in the field: no interaction with his brothers; no coat of many colors torn from his shoulders and dipped in blood; no pit of terror; no bereaved father; no voyage to Egypt; no safety or survival for the starving Israelites, including Joseph and his family; no Israelite enslavement; no Moses; no Exodus; no Sinai; no Torah.
Let us go back to “the man,” ha-ish, who saw that Joseph was lost, worried, and so responded to him? Who or what was he? Commentators offer a variety of answers. The 11th century scholar, Abraham ibn Ezra, reads the text of Genesis 37:15 with a p’shat, a “straightforward” interpretation and concludes this was a passerby. Rashi, on the other hand, delves further and concludes: “This [the man] was the angel Gabriel. Whatever or whoever he was, were it not for ha-ish, the man Joseph met along the way, the man who told Joseph where to find his brothers, how different it all could have been.
We never know in the present tense which people or events will be the most instrumental and transformative in our lives, but in hindsight, nothing is clearer. Joseph, himself, after rising to his position in Egypt, may have found himself thinking, “you know, if I hadn’t bumped into that guy who sent me to Dothan, I would never have arrived where I am today.”
This week’s parashah has several important lessons to teach us today. One, it offers a reminder to all of us to recognize the people in our lives who have guided us on our path and pointed us to our direction. It compels us to acknowledge, honor, and thank them for the important roles that they played in our lives. For doing so teaches us something greater still: in recognizing the transformative influence of mentors, kind people in our lives, we become keenly aware of how important WE are in the lives of others. And we come to appreciate the capacity each of us has to help our friends, neighbors, even strangers achieve wholeness in life and find what they are seeking. Especially during this time of Covid when so many are dealing with loss, with loneliness, in fear, unsettled – we can be that ‘ish or isha’ who makes the call, is there to listen, to reach out, to guide, to simply be present when needed.
And one last lesson, one that ties it all together for me – one word early on in the text – Hineini – I am here, I am ready. When Joseph was called by his father, Jacob, asking him to visit his brothers, Joseph became utterly frightened. He was smart enough to realize that away from his father’s protection, he would be alone and vulnerable. Yet somehow Joseph mustered up enough courage to respond: Hineini, “I am ready.” Like his ancestors before him, Joseph uttered the one word that indicated he had no choice but to respond positively when someone he loved made a request. Responding to those we love, we care about, those who need us, we, too, say Hineini, I am here.
Our simple actions—keeping in touch with family and friends, with each other at Temple Jeremiah, can be redemptive. Such simple actions are crucial if we want not only to improve the important relationships in our lives but also to make this world a better place. Parashat Vayeishev can truly teach us not only about the relationship between Joseph and his father and brothers, but about ourselves and our family and community relationships. We can all sometimes feel that we have a great deal on our plate, but a simple Hineini, a simple outreach, a short, socially distanced visit, a phone call can have a great impact on someone’s life. Every one of these actions is a gift; each one builds healthy, close relationships.
The message our Torah portion teaches about the possible consequences of even the smallest act of assistance or kindness is powerful. We often mistakenly conclude that in order to make a real difference we are required to perform extraordinary acts. Judaism instead asks only that we perform ordinary acts with extraordinary faithfulness. One word from an apparent stranger set forth the course of Jewish history. So let us ask ourselves and let us imagine, during this week of Chanukah, our Festival of Lights, when we remember the power of our spirit, “What could one well-chosen word from our mouths, one thoughtful gesture with our hands, set in motion.”