Vayeishev: The Question

And [Joseph] came to Shekhem.  And a man found him, and hey!  He was going astray in the field.  And the man asked him: “What tevakeish?” (Genesis/Bereishit 37:14-15)

tevakeish (תְּבַקֵּשׁ) = do you seek, will you seek.

Joseph’s ten older brothers went to pasture the family flock at Shekhem, and their father, Jacob, asked Joseph to go and check up on them.  So Joseph gives the man the simple answer.

And he said: “My brothers I am mevakeish.  Tell me, please, where they are pasturing.”

mevakeish (מְבַקֵּשׁ) = seeking.

How would a man who happens to run into Joseph in a field outside Shekhem know who his brothers are, or where they went?

And the man said: “They pulled out from here, for I heard them saying: Let’s go to Dotan.”  So Joseph went after his brothers and his found them at Dotan.  (Genesis 37:17)

It might be an ordinary man, or it might be a “man” like the “man” who wrestled with Jacob in Genesis 32:25 and turned out to be a divine being.  Messengers sent by God also look like men sometimes–until they disappear.

So the question “What do you seek?” might be an inquiry from God.  And Joseph might have given a different answer.

1) He could have said: “I am seeking to find out what my brothers are doing wrong this time, so I can bring another bad report back to our father.”  The beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev, introduces Joseph by saying he is seventeen, he helps four of his brothers as they tend the flocks, and:

Joseph brought back bad reports to their father.  (Genesis 37:2)

Jacob Blesses Joseph and Gives him the Coat, by Owen Jones

He knew his father loved him more than any of his brothers; that was why Jacob gave him, and only him, a fancy coat (Genesis 37:3-4).  Either Joseph thought the bad reports would keep him in first place, or he was so spoiled he had no qualms about tattling.

2) Joseph might also have answered: “I am seeking to find out what really happened here in Shekhem, since I was only nine years old when my family lived here.”

In last week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob bought a plot of land outside the city of Shekhem, his daughter Dinah incautiously walked around the city alone, and the prince of Shekhem raped or seduced her, then came to Jacob’s camp with a marriage proposal.  Jacob’s older sons responded by tricking the men of Shekhem into circumcising themselves, then swooping in and killing them all, plundering the town, and enslaving the women and children.  Jacob, their father, was afraid that the people of the surrounding area would carry out a pre-emptive strike on his family when they heard what happened to Shekhem.  So instead of trying to occupy the empty city, Jacob moved his people south to vicinity of Hebron.

He apparently did not object when his ten older sons headed back to Shekhem with the flock eight years later.  But he might have been remembering their past behavior when he sent young Joseph to check up on them.

And Joseph might have been curious about what his brothers did in Shekhem that caused an uproar and the sudden move south.

Joseph Reveals his Dream to his Brothers, by James Tissot

3) Joseph might have said: “I am seeking an interpretation of those two dreams I had in which my brothers were bowing down to me.”  His brothers and their father thought that Joseph was fantasizing that he would become a king and rule over them all (Genesis 37:5-11).  But what if the dreams were prophecies from God?  Was there something he should know ahead of time?

In next week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz, Pharaoh has two prophetic dreams, and Joseph interprets them, then gives Pharaoh advice that prevents widespread starvation.

4) If he had been more aware of his family’s psychology, Joseph might have said: “I am seeking to know why my father sent me all the way out to an abandoned city to check up on my brothers who hate me, and might do me harm.”

The Zohar says Jacob doesn’t believe his older sons are capable of doing violence to Joseph, no matter how much they hate him.  Maybe in his old age, broken by the death of Joseph’s mother Rachel, Jacob forgets the atrocities those sons committed in Shekhem, and descends into denial.

Or maybe he is wiser than he appears.  After all, when he asks Joseph to go to Shechem, he speaks not as the doting father Jacob, but as “Israel”, Yisrael.  This is the name he was given after he wrestled with god and man (Genesis 32:29) and was touched by the divine.

As Israel, Jacob may realize that Joseph needs to grow up.  A young man who tells his jealous brothers he dreams that they will bow down to him is either narcissistic or dangerously naive.  Jacob, the doting father, spoiled Joseph; but Israel, the sadder but wiser man, sees Joseph’s psychological problem and sends him to Shekhem so he can travel alone for a change and learn how to fend for himself.

If you encounter a mysterious man who asks you “What will you seek?”, you can bet your answer will affect the rest of your life.

Joseph’s fateful reply is: “My brothers I am seeking.”  And the rest of the story of Joseph is about their revenge on him, his revenge on them, and the question of whether Joseph and his brothers can reconcile.

(This blog was first posted on December 5, 2009.)

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