By Rabbah Arlene Berger
The pivotal moment in this week’s Torah portion is the meeting between Joseph and the man known as “ha-ish/the man,” who is otherwise not named. His time in our story is brief, yet by meeting him, Joseph’s destiny, and with it the destiny of the Jewish people, is changed forever.
Genesis 37:13 provides the set-up for what is to come: “Israel said to Joseph, ‘Your brothers are pasturing at Shechem. Come, I will send you to them.’ He answered, ‘Hineni/I am ready.’”
We follow Joseph as he leaves his father’s home and sets off to find his brothers. Once he arrives in Shechem, he gets lost and meets a man in a field. The story continues:
“…When he reached Shechem, a man [ish] 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” (Genesis 37:14 – 17).
Who was this Ish, this random man? Rashi (12th century France) suggests that he may have been the angel Gabriel. Ibn Ezra (12th century Spain) suggests he was just a passerby.
The simplest way to read the story is that the Ish was placed in Joseph’s path by God to ensure that Joseph would get to where he needed to go in order that God’s promise to Abraham will be fulfilled. “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years” (Genesis 15:13).
This serendipitous meeting with a stranger in the field sets Joseph upon a path that changed the entire Jewish future. We have just experienced Thanksgiving and are heading into Chanukah. Both of these holidays, one secular, one religious, call to us to be better people. We are to recognize gratitude, the richness of being in community, the recognition that we can create change.
The importance of the serendipitous stranger calls to me. One chance meeting can make a difference. One ordinary person can become extraordinary by taking a moment to help someone in distress. One person can truly make a difference.
Rabbah Arlene Berger is a rabbi at Hevrat Shalom in Rockville and a community chaplain.