I don’t always remember what I have written about for a given parasha, so it always behooves me to look over prior years’ musings before I undertake the task of assembling a new one. I suppose it should not surprise me that I can have an interesting new insight without realizing I may have had that same insight before. It also sometimes happens that I have an insight that contradicts a previous one.
So this week, as I was reading the parasha, I kept coming back to the same place – the mysterious man who encounters Yosef in the field and tells him that his brothers have left the area and gone to Dothan. I found myself all excited at the idea of discussing how this one chance (?) encounter turned the tide of a story. I was excited to discuss the potential nature of the encounter as either random chance, or Divine guidance, or perhaps both or none of the above.
I found myself thinking about all those chance encounters we have in our lives, and how sometimes they really do lead us into different paths and experiences. I know I have experienced such moments-times when people, both strangers and friends, have told me or showed me something which, when I look back at them, did change the course of my life-sometimes in small ways, and sometimes in very big ways. I found myself thinking about how we ought to be open to those moments, and grateful for them as well.
Then I read my musing on parashat Vayeishev for 5766 – Who Was That Guy. In reading it, I realize that the insight I had for that musing was, in many ways, far deeper and more meaningful than the one I was having now. So, while I still commend to you the idea of being aware of the potential for the significant effects of seemingly insignificant situations, I commend to you even more the lesson I drew from these verses 5 years earlier. For when I ask myself the question that this previous musing commends us to ask, I recognize those earlier words as being more of an answer to that question than my thoughts at this time. Ma t’vakeish?
Random Musings Before Shabbat – Vayeishev 5766
Who Was That Guy?
So Yaakov/Israel gives his favorite son Yosef this really cool coat. (We’ve been over the bad parenting technique thing before, so we’ll skip that.) Yosef then proceeds to further alienate his brothers by describing these dreams in which they all bow down to him. Even Yaakov/Israel is a little put off when Yosef’s second dream also includes his parents bowing down to him along with the brothers. And, as the text tells us, Yaakov “shamar et hadavar” – he remembered this thing, he kept it in mind.
And the next thing you know, he’s sending Yosef out to check on his brothers who are out pasturing the flock. Can’t help but wonder if there’s a connection with the previous verse. Was Yaakov hoping to see Yosef get a little comeuppance from his brothers? Was it all a set up? All interesting things to explore, but again, I’m going somewhere else today.
So Yosef reaches the fields near Shechem and before he even has a chance to discover that his brothers aren’t around, “Vayimtza’eihu ish, v’hinei to’eh b’sadeh, vayyishaleihu ha-ish leimor mah-t’vakeish.” “a man came upon him wandering in the fields. The man asked him ‘what are you seeking?’ ”
Yosef respond that he is looking for his brother, and wonders if the man knows where they are. The man answers that they brothers have gone from this place but he heard them talk about going to Dothan. And so Yosef heads to Dothan, where his brothers spy him coming, and proceed to throw him in a pit. And he gets sold. And he winds up in Egypt. And he serves Potiphar. And he won’t dally with Mrs.. Potiphar, so she screams “rape” and Yosef is put in prison. G”d favors Yosef even in prison and he manages to thrive. He correctly interprets the dreams of the cupbearer and the baker. Yadda, yadda, yadda. And we wind up in Egypt and we get freed from Egypt and get the Torah and yadda, yadda, yadda.
All on account of this one man. Possibly. Yosef, having not found his brothers, could have given up and gone home. Then again, knowing as we do that all of this was part of G”d’s divine plan, when G”d was yet again thwarted by this free will thing, I doubt G”d would have given up, and still somehow have managed to make the whole darn series of events happen. So, while some rabbis and scholars like to think of this man, this ish, as crucial to the story, suggesting perhaps the man is an angel or other divine messenger/steward, he might no be so essential to the story–it just might have turned out a little different. Would the butterfly effect have ensued? How different would Judaism be today as a result? Hard to predict or even know. And if it really all was part of some grand design, G”d could have tweaked things as necessary.
No, his being essential to the story is not what matters to me, or what intrigues me. What has me thinking are those simple words he said to Yosef- “mah t’vakeish?” What are you looking for? Seeking? Searching for? He could have said “Whom are you seeking?” but no, he said “what.” What are you looking for, searching for, seeking?
And is that not the essential question that all spiritual seekers must ultimately confront? If this ish, this man, is truly some sort of angel or divine messenger, then might not this question be of greater import than it might appear in the context of the story? It is said that we should take the entire Torah as context. This being so, perhaps these is the most significant two words in all of the Torah. Can we even begin to unravel the meanings of all the rest of the Torah until we know what it is that we are looking for?
Of that I am not certain, for sometimes the true learning form Torah comes from the serendipitous, or in those moments when we shed our preconceptions, our desire to know what it is we are seeking and allow ourselves to be led down another path that might eventually alter the answer to that very question.
Talk about the power of words. Two little words. Mah-t’vakeish. I could easily spend the rest of my life thinking about them. I know they will occupy my Shabbat, and perhaps yours as well.
©2010, portions ©2005 by Adrian A. Durlester