Vayeishev: The Question

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

A man found him, and here, he was going astray in the field; and the man asked him, “What do you seek?  (Genesis/Bereishit 37:15)

mah-tevakeish—what do you seek; what will you seek

The mysterious unnamed man finds young Joseph in the field at– (ominous music here) –Shechem.  In last week’s Torah portion, Joseph’s brothers tricked the men of Shechem into circumcising themselves, then swooped in and killed them all, plundered the town, and enslaved 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 Shechem.  So instead of trying to occupy the empty city–or even stay on the plot of land he had bought there–Jacob moved his people south to vicinity of Hebron, “and he settled” (Vayeishev, the name of this Torah portion) there instead.

This Torah portion begins the story of Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph.  His older sons hate 17-year-old Joseph, for three obvious reasons:

–Joseph brings bad reports about his brothers to their father;

–Jacob loves Joseph more than the rest, and gives him a special garment;

–Joseph tells his brothers, and his father, about two dreams that predict his brothers will bow down to him.

After the second dream, his father observes the situation, and his brothers go out again to pasture the flock.  “And Israel said to Joseph: Aren’t your brothers pasturing in Shechem?  Come and I’ll send you to them.”  (Genesis 37:13)

Now, Jacob, also known as Israel, is a smart man.  Even in his old age, he should know how dangerous it is to send his favorite son, alone, to a place far away from Hebron, to check up on 11 men who hate him.  It has to be worse when the far-away place is Shechem, the scene of the brothers’ atrocity.

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 does descend 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; Israel, the sadder but wiser father, sees Joseph’s psychological problem and sends him to Shechem.

Shechem represents the place of decision between good and evil, blessing and curse.  When Joseph reaches Shechem, his brothers have moved on.  But a “man”, ish–unnamed, like the “man” who wrestled with Jacob– finds Joseph “going astray” (to-eh) in the field.  If a mysterious man finds you at the place of decision and 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.”

Is his choice good or evil?  Blessing or curse?

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