The Significant Anonymous

As a rabbi, people often ask me who my favorite character from the Torah is.

Well, actually, no one has ever asked me that. But I will answer anyway. And while it is hard to choose, my vote for one of my favorite characters is the mysterious man in the Joseph story.

Who, you may ask?

Let me say at the onset that I am fudging a bit. Our weekly Torah reading this week is Shemot, the beginning of the Exodus story: the birth of Moses, his coming of age, his flight to Midian after killing an Egyptian task master, his call at the burning bush, etc. Now a major motion picture—again. We just finished reading the Joseph story, which comes at the end of Genesis. So this is a reflection backwards not forward. (Though our monthly Temple Beth Hatfiloh Torah study group will be beginning the Joseph story this Saturday.)

Ok, back to the mystery man. The outline of the Joseph story is perhaps familiar to us. Jacob had 12 sons with four wives. His favorite is Joseph, the first born son of his favorite wife Rachel. He shows him favor and gets him a fancy coat, which does not endear him to his brothers. Joseph also has the gift of dream interpretation, and has a series of dreams that tell him he will one day be raised above his brothers. In the spirit of honesty (or foolishness) he tells them of his dreams.

One day, Joseph is sent to find his brothers who are herding their sheep. When he is approaching, the brothers make a plan to kill him, and they take him and throw him in a pit. A caravan of traders pass by, and the brothers change their plans—they haul him out of the pit and sell him into slavery instead. They do tell their father that he was killed by an animal, and brandish his torn and bloody coat as “evidence.”

Joseph is taken to Egypt where he is first a servant and then a prisoner after being falsely accused of assault. And through a series of steps involving dreams of the Pharaoh, Joseph is given a high position in the government overseeing food collection and distribution. When famine hits, his brothers leave Canaan for Egypt in search of food, only to be reunited with Joseph. This then sets up the Exodus story, as Jacob (also known as Israel) and the rest of his family move down to Egypt. The saga of the Israelites begins.

So where was the mystery man? There is an interesting detail in the story. When Joseph is sent to find his brothers prior to them selling him into slavery, the Torah tells us:

One time, when his brothers had gone to pasture their father’s flock at Shechem, Israel said to Joseph, “Your brothers are pasturing at Shechem. Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “I am ready.” And he said to him, “Go and see how your brothers are and how the flocks are faring, and bring me back word.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron. When he reached Shechem, a man came upon him wandering in the fields. The man asked him, “What are you looking for?” He answered, “I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are pasturing?” The man said, “They have gone from here, for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan.” So Joseph followed his brothers and found them at Dothan. They saw him from afar, and before he came close to them they conspired to kill him. (Genesis 37:12-18)

Joseph arrives at Shechem where he believes his brothers are, but they had moved on to Dothan. But, there would have been no way for Joseph to know this. If the man had not been there, Joseph would not have known to go on to Dothan, where his brothers would seize him and sell him into slavery. Therefore, it is this mystery man “wandering scarecrowin the field” who sets in motion the course of action that results in Joseph being sold and sent to Egypt, meeting the Pharaoh and rising to authority, and the Israelites moving to Egypt. This man is one of the most important in all of Torah.

Who was he? Some commentators say he is just a man, some other commentators say he is an angel.

But regardless of who he was, we can all recognize him. We can all recognize that we have people like this in our lives: anonymous people who have made an impact on our life’s journey, people whose names we don’t know but whose guidance and influence have been huge. We may have understood their impact in the moment. Or our interactions with them may have seemed insignificant at the time, but become significant much later. Or we were not ready to hear what they had to say in the moment, but their words resonate after the fact. But in any event, we would not be who we are without them.

We may be on our way to Shechem, but really need to be in Dothan, but we may not have made the journey ourselves. We needed someone to show us the way.

As we travel life’s path, there are those who seem significant to us, and those who seem insignificant. But ultimately everyone is significant because they make us who we are. Think for yourself who you saw “wandering in the fields” of your journey and who set you on a new course, or helped you along the way, or shared words that helped sustain you. Their names may be known to you, or they may not. In any event, offer up some words of gratitude for them for making you who you are. (I personally have been thinking recently about the doctors and nurses and EMTs who have helped me through my health challenges, many of whom I do not know.)

Which does take us to this week’s portion: when we are introduced to Moses at the beginning of Exodus, the Torah first introduces us to Moses’s parents. But the text does not tell us their names, only “a man of the house of Levi” and “his wife.” This allows Moses’s arrival to be that much more dramatic. But it also tells us that significance lies not in the fact of who one is, but what one does.

And sometimes, the seemingly minor engagement with an anonymous person can change everything.

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