Parashat Vayeshev introduces the Joseph saga, a story well-known to many. When it begins, Jacob’s 11th son, Joseph, is a 17-year-old shepherd working in the fields alongside his older brothers. The text’s description of him as a ‘youth,’ na-ar, is apt, both biologically and emotionally.
This immature Joseph seemed oblivious to how his words and actions impacted the emotions of his brothers and the extent to which they hated him. So caught up in his dreams of grandeur, which masked his feelings of aloneness and vulnerability after his mother Rachel’s death, Joseph could not see the extent to which his brothers were aligned against him. Yet, when his father, Jacob, called to him, several verses into the parashah, asking him to visit his brothers who were herding the sheep near Shechem in the north (Genesis 37:13), he became utterly frightened. He was smart enough to realize that away from his father’s protection, he would be alone and vulnerable. Yet, somehow, as Norman Cohen shares, “he mustered up enough courage to respond: Hineini, ‘I am ready.’” Like his ancestors before him, he uttered the one word that indicated he had no choice but to respond positively when someone he loved made a request.
The task was fraught with obvious danger. He sensed what awaited him in the fields of Shechem. Nevertheless, he could not say no to his father, the only person who truly cared for him. Our ability to respond often does depend on who is calling us. Responding to those we love, those we deeply care for, we frequently have no choice but to say Hineini. In so doing, we reciprocate their love for us.
When he said Hineini to his father, Joseph thought that all he had to do was bring food to his brothers and return with a report to his father. At most, he expected to be back in a few days. He had no inkling that his trip to Shechem was the beginning of a 400-year journey of slavery and redemption for his people. Our lives, in some way, are no different. Our simple actions—visiting our siblings, spending time with our children, doing an errand for an aged parent, responding to a friend, a congregant in need—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 a difference in the lives of others, to make this world a better place, and ultimately to bring about tikkun olam.
Finally, little did Joseph know that the next time he would see his father would be twenty-two years later in Egypt. His father Jacob would be very old and nearing the end of his life. There was even a real possibility that Joseph would not see him again. The chance to say Hineini, to respond to those whom we love—our parents, siblings, spouses, dear friends, children, and grandchildren — does not last forever. We never know when the chance will be gone. If only we had the wisdom to cherish the opportunities we have and to use these simple moments in our lives to the best of our abilities.
Parashat Vayeshev 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. Like many of you, I sometimes feel that I have a great deal on my plate. But, I must say, I make every effort to reply, “Hineini,” to the people I care about, the people I love. I am keenly aware that chances for connection are sometimes taken from us at a given moment. Although I don’t feel that I’m living with a ‘gloom and doom’ outlook, I am aware of the importance to cherish every moment to be with the people I love. “Hineini – I am ready” when my daughters/sons-in-law are in need of some help; “Hineini – I am ready” and happy to watch grandchildren play sports, perform, or simply want to ‘hang out and visit.’ “Hineini – I want to be the person who is ready” – ready when friends are in need, or quality time spent with Jerry or my siblings has risen to the top of the to-do list. Through our efforts in providing programs such as Ethical Wills, and gatherings for Post Confirmation, parents and students can learn the importance of responding with ‘Hineini’ as a heightened awareness of each other’s needs become clearer. Each of us on staff are ‘ready’ – “Hineini” we say when we hear a calling from congregants – be it a shoulder to lean on, a special need to fulfill, or a life cycle moment where our presence is required and appreciated. Every one of these actions is a gift; each one builds healthy, close relationships, and, in the long run, makes this world a better place. May we all, in our busy lives, never forget what is truly important. Responding with Hineini will, indeed, enrich and nurture us all. Ken yihi ratzon. May it be God’s will.