Whether an angel or a passerby, unnamed man changes history


The parashah begins innocently, Jacob instructs Joseph to find his brothers, to bring back word of them.

He will not bring back word. Word will be brought back that Joseph has disappeared. Jacob will be deluded into thinking that his son is dead. At this point, the holy place where the road of innocence and the road of danger converge, at that crease in his existence where Joseph leaves the settlement of home and before he is to embark on the great adventure of his life, just at that seam in his existence, there is a mysterious interlude.

Joseph comes to Shechem and cannot find his brothers, and if he would not have been instructed further, we imagine he would have returned to his father’s house in Hebron, and perhaps he and his father Jacob would have settled down in the land of their fathers, no one would have gone into Egypt, become enslaved there, got free from there, and the whole story would have been radically different. Joseph goes out from the valley of Hebron, according to the text, and comes to Shechem, but the city of Hebron is not in a valley, Rashi reminds us, it is on a mountain. The word for valley is “emek” it is similar to “amukah” — deep things — there is deep significance to this journey which appears so ordinary, even random. Joseph cannot find his brothers, but a certain man directed him to Dotan, and there he found his brothers.

His brothers will waylay Joseph there. They will debate whether to kill him and they will decide to sell him into slavery and he will disappear into Egypt.

Who is this mysterious man who meets Joseph at this critical crease in his existence? Rashi tells us it’s the angel Gabriel, acting out the will of God.

What if that certain man was not an angel? What if he were just a guy? A man we do not even recall. A guy appears, something happens, a momentary convergence of events sets the story reeling off in its own direction that later seems inevitable. But it’s not inevitable. It all turns on the appearance of this unnamed guy.

Because Joseph went and was waylaid and was enslaved in Egypt, we became exiles. That means we never arrive.

So who is this certain man who meets Joseph in the fields of Shechem and sends him hurtling toward his destiny? This will be his message, and in his message is everything:

You people are a people of strangers

You never arrive

You remember where you have come from

Your continued existence is crucial to the world

People may despise you

People may envy you

You will become lost many times in your journey

But you have memory

And you always find your way back.

Rabbi James Stone Goodman of Congregation Neve Shalom is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.