Who was that man?

Who was that man?

Rabbi Paul Tuchman
Rabbi Paul Tuchman

Vayeshev, Genesis 37:1-40:23

Joseph, at Jacob’s request, travels to find his elder brothers who are tending Jacob’s flocks. “A man” finds Joseph wandering in the fields (Genesis 37:15) and helps him on his way.

We remember what happens next. Instead of murdering Joseph, his jealous brothers sell him into slavery. Joseph endures bondage, slander and prison, but on the strength of his great abilities, he rises to become prime minister of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh.

The chapters about Joseph at the end of the Book of Genesis are a triumph of narrative art and psychological insight, and we lose sight of the nameless man who showed Joseph the way to the rest of his life. Who was he? How did he happen to “come upon” Joseph at that exact moment and change the course of his life?

Was it chance? Was it the will of God? Later in his life, Joseph comes to the conclusion that his brothers’ hostile and pitiless actions were indeed the means by which God placed him in a position to help his brothers and save Egypt from famine. But he never acknowledges the role of that anonymous man.

In your life, is there someone whom “chance” put in your path and who altered your course? It might have been for good or for ill. It might have seemed bad — as it must have seemed to Joseph — yet turned out to be good in the end.

The events of our lives are such a vast and intricate web of happenstance as to make us realize how little control we have, and to make us wonder whether there is some larger, God’s-eye view. We try to make sense of it all, because that is what we humans do, but it is never entirely clear and usually utterly bewildering.

Rabbi Harold Kushner likened it to looking at the reverse side of a tapestry. The figures make some sense, but never completely. Only God sees the intended pattern.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner (no relation to Rabbi Harold) writes, “Everyone and everything moves within the divine.” We cannot know the answers to the why and how questions of our lives, but we trust that God knows. Our sages of blessed memory posited the existence of the yeshiva shel ma`alah, the school our souls will attend after death and where we will learn those answers.

In the meantime, because we know that we are all on that same quest, let us support each other. And let us live with courage, humility and reverence for the One Who knows.

Shabbat shalom.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)