This week’s parasha, Vayeishev, begins the Joseph novella. Joseph is a central figure in the history of our patriarchs and matriarchs, and yet, he bears no mention during our worship service. In terms of the narrative of Jacob, Joseph’s father, Joseph’s journeys end up with all of Jacob’s family residing in the land of Egypt. But I digress.
The story of Joseph, like of Cain and Abel as well as Jacob and Esau, is one filled with sibling rivalry. It is as if the Torah is telling us that sibling rivalry is a part of the human condition dating back to our earliest origins. For those of us who are parents, I am not sure if this is a comforting notion or a distressing one.
Joseph’s story begins with Jacob favoring Joseph because he was “the son of his old age” (Gen. 37:3) and also because he was the first son of Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife. Jacob bestowed Joseph with a coat of many colors, which made his 10 brothers jealous. And then Joseph had two dreams which he interpreted to his brothers that he would one day rule over them. This did not win Joseph any favors with his brothers either.
To this end, Joseph’s brothers conspired to kill him. This story many of us know well, especially if we are fans of musical theater. However, there is an incident in the story that is often glossed over that has a very powerful lesson in it.
Jacob decided to send Joseph to check in on his brothers who were in Shechem at the time, tending the herd. Along the way, “[there] a man happened on him as he (Joseph) was wandering in the countryside. The man asked him: What are you looking for? He said, “I’m looking for my brothers. Can 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” (Genesis 37:15-17).
We are not sure who this man was. One interpretation is that he was the same man or creature who wrestled with Jacob. Another interpretation is that it was none other than the angel Gabriel who attempted to warn Joseph of the plot against him.
In either case, this encounter, whether by chance or otherwise, would have dramatic implications for Joseph, his brothers, Jacob, and our history. If Joseph had not found his brothers, he would not have been captured and sold into slavery. He would not have had all of the experiences he did. And it is quite possible that he may never have matured and become the wise and respected leader he eventually became.
Many of us have chance encounters in our lives. We tend to brush them aside as coincidence or happenstance. And yet, on occasion, those encounters can have profound impacts on our personal journeys. In today’s world, it is all too easy not to really see the holy in those we encounter. As Martin Buber taught, God can be found in sacred encounters, we just have to be open to the possibility of having them.
So on this Shabbat, I encourage you to be more amenable to the possibility of encountering others in sacred ways. For who knows what impact someone else might unintentionally have on our lives even if they are wearing a multi-colored coat.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff