In Parashat Vayeishev, a long narrative form emerges, unlike any we’ve seen thus far in Genesis. The Joseph story spans 13 chapters and features character development, conflict, suspense and a plot full of twists and turns.
Most biblical stories are terse, without extraneous details. In Vayeishev, however, there is a seemingly unnecessary interlude between Joseph and a man from Shechem. Joseph has just shared his dreams with his brothers, inciting their hatred and anger. Whether naively or deliberately, Jacob, his father, sends Joseph toward Shechem to find his brothers who are tending the flock, putting his favored son in direct danger. It is here where we encounter a minor exchange with an unnamed man: “And a man found him and, look, he was wandering in the field, and the man asked him, saying, ‘What is it you seek?’ And he said, ‘My brothers I seek. Tell me, pray, where are they pasturing?’ And the man said, ‘They have journeyed on from here, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dotan.’”
The story could have easily moved directly to Joseph’s arrival in Dotan. What is the meaning of this unnecessary part of the narrative?
Midrash interprets this passage as an encounter with an angel. God is silent during the Joseph saga. By positing that the man is an angel in disguise, the sages are inserting Divine intervention into the narrative. God, through an angel, is directing the scene, ensuring that the plot proceeds as planned. It is tempting, then, to interpret this interlude as an example
of “beshert,” Yiddish for “meant to be.”
The man just happened to be there at the right time, thereby advancing the story in the way it was preordained by God.
I have always been uncomfortable with the concept of “beshert.” If good fortune is “meant to be,” the same would be true of unjust suffering. Are bad things that happen to good people also beshert? If so, God bestows blessings on some people and curses on others. That is a theology I cannot accept. I do not believe in a God that intervenes directly in human affairs.
Instead, I prefer Rashi’s interpretation: that the man Joseph meets is just a man. We encounter people in mundane circumstances who end up playing a small but consequential role in our life stories. That has implications for how we view all human beings. Anyone at any time could have a purpose we never become aware of. One of my core values is the inherent dignity of every person. This is expressed in Pirkei Avot 4:3: “Ben Azzai used to say: do not despise any man, and do not discriminate against anything, for there is no person that does not have his hour, and there is no thing that does not have its place.” It is easy for us to overlook a person who does not play a leading role in our own narrative. It is easy for us to dismiss the value of a person we do not like or do not know. We are each of us created in the image of God. Knowing that, we need to surmount our own narcissism and seek out the dignity and worth of each human being we encounter. The seemingly unimportant scene with the unnamed man reminds us of a simple and profound truth: that every person has a purpose on this earth and is therefore deserving of our respect. PJC
Rabbi Amy Bardack is the rabbi of Congregation Dor Hadash in Pittsburgh. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.