I first asked this question in a musing 9 years ago, but it has also been asked by countless others, including our greatest scholars, for thousands of years.
A little bit of the story. So, like, 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. Playing favorites like that is such a good idea, right?)
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? Would Yaakov really do that to his favorite son? 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,
וַיִּמְצָאֵהוּ אִישׁ וְהִנֵּה תֹעֶה בַּשָּׂדֶה וַיִּשְׁאָלֵהוּ הָאִישׁ לֵאמֹר מַה־תְּבַקֵּֽשׁ
“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 responds that he is looking for his brothers, and wonders if the man knows where they are. The man answers that the 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.
Rashi is absolutely convinced the “ish” is the angel Gabriel, based on another verse in which Gabriel is referred to as “ish” (Daniel 10:21)
Ibn Ezra says the “ish” was no angel, just a person who happened to be passing by.
Nachmanides (Ramban) takes it further, arguing that this was not an angel, just a man, but there to fulfill G”d’s purpose (i.e. the man was there through G”d’s direct desire to guide Yosef to the fulfillment of the Divine plan.) I suspect this is perhaps an unspoken but understood (or implied) thought on the part of Ibn Ezra. The Ramban explains that it is because this “ish” was there to fulfill a Divine purpose that some referred to him as an angel. (This perhaps tells us that the custom of referring to living people as “angels” for their good natures and characters is much older than we think.)
All three sages were attempting to explain why this line is even here. Their basic answer is that it is there to illustrate that G”d was taking an active role in a plan.
Yet, despite the title of this musing, for me, the “ish” 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?
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 even 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 are 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.
©2014 (portions ©2006) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings On This Parasha
Vayeishev 5773 – K’tonet Passim
Vayeishev 5772 – The Ram’s Horn Rag
Vayeishev 5771-Ma T’vakeish?
Vayeishev 5768 – Strangers Walking Together
Vayeishev/Hanukah 5767-I Believe in Miracles
Vayeishev 5766-Who Was That Guy?
Vayeshev 5761 – In Gd’s Time
Vayeshev 5765-Mikol HaMishpakhot HaAdamah
Vayeshev 5758-What’s Worth Looking After