Author's Note on Parshat Vayeishev

Author's Note on Parshat Vayeishev

Date: December 21, 2020
22 Kislev 5780

Unity in our Community

בראשית לז: טו וַיִּמְצָאֵהוּ אִישׁ וְהִנֵּה תֹעֶה בַּשָּׂדֶה וַיִּשְׁאָלֵהוּ הָאִישׁ לֵאמֹר מַה תְּבַקֵּשׁ׃ טז וַיֹּאמֶר אֶת אַחַי אָנֹכִי מְבַקֵּשׁ הַגִּידָה־נָּא לִי אֵיפֹה הֵם רֹעִים׃ יז וַיֹּאמֶר הָאִישׁ נָסְעוּ מִזֶּה כִּי שָׁמַעְתִּי אֹמְרִים נֵלְכָה דֹּתָיְנָה וַיֵּלֶךְ יוֹסֵף אַחַר אֶחָיו וַיִּמְצָאֵם בְּדֹתָן׃ יח וַיִּרְאוּ אֹתוֹ מֵרָחֹק וּבְטֶרֶם יִקְרַב אֲלֵיהֶם וַיִּתְנַכְּלוּ אֹתוֹ לַהֲמִיתוֹ׃

(Genesis 37:15) A man found him [Joseph] and he was lost in a field. The man questioned him, saying “What do you want?” (v. 16) Joseph said, “I am (Anochi is) looking for my brothers. Please tell me where they are pasturing.” (v. 17) The man said, “They’ve left here (Rashi: They have parted from brotherhood) and I heard them say ‘Let’s go to Dotan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers and he found them in Dotan. (v. 18) They saw him from a distance and before he came near them, they planned against him to kill him.

In Parshat Vayeishev, Jacob sent his son, Joseph, out to look for his brothers. Joseph encountered an unnamed man who asked Joseph what he was looking for. Joseph replied, “אֶת־אַחַי אָנֹכִי מְבַקֵּשׁ” (“Et Achai Anochi Mevakesh”); “I am (Anochi is) looking for my brothers.”

Interestingly, the man said “They’ve left here and I heard them say ‘Let’s go to Dotan’.”  Rashi pointed out the ambiguity in this statement.  Why did the man have to say “they’ve left here”?  It was obvious that they weren’t there; that is why Joseph was looking for them.  If they were there, he would have seen them.  The man could have simply said “They went to Dotan.”  Rashi explained that the man was really saying to Joseph that his brothers have moved away from him as a brother and lost their “brotherly” connection to him.  That was why when they eventually saw Joseph from a distance and before Joseph came near them, they could actually be plotting against him.

There are many curious aspects of this story.  But let’s focus on one particular word.  In Hebrew the root word is ְבַקֵּשׁ “Bakesh” (Bet, Kuf, Shin).  That is the verb used when the unnamed man asked Joseph “What are you looking for (מַה תְּבַקֵּשׁ/Ma Tevakesh).”  It is also the word used when Joseph replied that he was looking for (מְבַקֵּשׁ/Mevakesh) his brothers.  Pretty much everywhere else in the Torah when that Hebrew root word (Bakesh) is used, it does not mean just “looking for” something.  It means seeking out for a purpose, requesting something of another, or even demanding something of another. 

So when the man asked Joseph what he was looking for, perhaps it was more like the question G-d asked of Adam – Ayeka; Where are you?  The question is intended to evoke a deeper response.  The man was really asking what Joseph was seeking to accomplish.  What would he demand of himself and his brothers in order to complete his mission?  In response, Joseph did not merely say he was looking for his brothers.  He was prepared to demand something from them in terms of their personal responsibility and commitment as part of this quest. 

On the literal level, it was indeed Joseph who was looking for his brothers. However, there is a deeper meaning to this statement alluded to by the word “Anochi.” Anochi in this context could mean more than just Joseph being the “I” and could actually refer to G‑d in a similar way to where G-d opened the Ten Commandments by identifying Himself as “Anochi.”

Using this interpretation, the text suggests a sense in which Joseph and Anochi were both demanding something of the brothers; specifically that they should reconcile and become united. Joseph’s brothers were ready to kill him; they threw him in a pit, sold him to roaming traders, dipped his coat in blood, and told their father he was dead. But the point of the story was that this was not what G-d wanted of the brothers. The point was for them to find a way to become united, move beyond their fraternal hatred, and become a holy people. Only when they could work toward a united purpose could they become “B’nai Yisrael” instead of separate individual tribal families.

This call to unite brothers who are fighting is a universal call to all of us in all generations.

A true story. Morris and Sidney were brothers who came to America in the 1920s. The two brothers went into the grocery business together for decades. The two brothers married two sisters from another family from the same shtetl. The two families lived in the same house – one family was upstairs and the other was downstairs. Their children grew up like siblings, not cousins.

Over time, one brother became jealous of the other; something caused the relationship to deteriorate until they could not live or work together any more. The families split apart and the two brothers never spoke again for over 25 years.

Almost everyone knows a story just like this one. How many times do we see siblings, other relatives, friends, co-workers and others fighting so much that they cannot even speak to each other? Sometimes siblings sit shiva for a deceased parent at separate homes even though they live in the same general geographic area. They just cannot be in the same room with each other. We all are susceptible to being influenced by the acts or words of others, particularly those closest to us. Are our grievances legitimate? Perhaps. But is the result what G-d wants or expects of us? G-d calls out – אֶת־אַחַי אָנֹכִי מְבַקֵּשׁ (“Et Achai Anochi Mevakesh”) – Anochi is demanding something of my brothers. What are we doing to respond to that demand?

What is true on an individual or personal level is equally true at the communal level. One major theme in the book of Bereishit is that of our responsibility for our larger community. The theme began with Cain’s famous statement, הֲשֹׁמֵר אָחִי אָנֹכִי “Hashomer Achi Anochi” (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”).

בראשית ד: ט וַיֹּאמֶר ה”י אֶל־קַיִן אֵי הֶבֶל אָחִיךָ וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יָדַעְתִּי הֲשֹׁמֵר אָחִי אָנֹכִי׃

(Genesis 4:9) And G-d (Havaya) said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” And he (Cain) said, “I don’t know. Am I (Is Anochi) my brother’s keeper?”

Simply understood, Cain’s question (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”) was unnecessary. Right before that statement, Cain said “I don’t know.” Implied in his assertion of not knowing is that he had no reason to know or to care.

By adding the seemingly unnecessary question, perhaps the text is using Anochi to allude to G-d. Then, Cain’s statement takes on a different meaning. Cain was pointing an accusatory finger at G-d, arguing that it was G-d who should have been watching out for Abel. What he was saying was, “Isn’t the guardian of my brother Anochi?” Not only was Cain rejecting personal responsibility, but he actually found someone else to blame!

This abdication of personal responsibility stands in sharp contrast to Joseph’s statement אֶת־אַחַי אָנֹכִי מְבַקֵּשׁ “Et Achai Anochi Mevakesh” (I am looking for and ready to accept responsibility for my brothers.).  Indeed, it was only after Joseph and his brothers connected to their collective responsibility for each other, that they were able to stand together to find unity through community.

We are all on a mission in life to find, connect to, and become unified with our brothers and sisters as well as our larger communities.  Many need our support, Tzedakah or simply a kind word.  But it is not enough just to find those in need.  Are we ready to care for them, support them, cry with them, and laugh with them?  Are we prepared to demand from ourselves as much as we can to help those in need and the needs of our broader community?