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Posts Tagged ‘Being God’s messenger’

I have shared this story before, about my youngest daughter, adopted from Korea.  When she was 4 and a half years old, I found her crying while looking into the mirror.  When I asked why, she responded how upset she was that her eyes did not look like mine. My wife and I kept trying to assure her we thought she was beautiful just as she was, and looking like us was not important.  We tried the advice from a book about adopted children, but that had no effect.  As she turned 5, we took both of our children to Disney World.  While eating lunch at a restaurant in the Magic Kingdom, a woman came up to us, pointed to our Korean daughter and asked if she could take a picture of her.  When we asked why, she said that our daughter’s eyes were the most beautiful she had ever seen.  Our daughter heard this, sat up, smiled, and never complained or cried about her eyes ever again.

We had no idea who this woman was who changed our daughter’s self-perception.  It just felt like God had sent her, as a special divine messenger, to re direct our daughter.  I wonder how many of us have encountered unknown people whose words or actions made a dramatic change in our lives?  In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev, this is exactly what happened to Joseph.

His story seems a bit sad in this parashah.  While he is described as Jacob’s favorite son, his brothers are portrayed a despising him.  Their hatred for him increases when he describes dreams that are metaphors for the rest of the family bowing to him.  Just after his sharing of these dreams, his brothers take Jacob’s flocks of sheep to pasture in Shechem, their father, here being referred to as Yisra’el, sends Joseph to check on how the flocks are doing.  When Joseph arrives in Shechem, he cannot find his brothers and the flocks.  As he wanders in a field, a man finds him and directs him to where they actually are.  Once he finds them, their hatred of him results in him being imprisoned in a pit and then sold as a slave to a caravan of Ishmaelites, who in turn sell him into slavery in Egypt.

While this episode, as well as the balance of Joseph’s experience in this week’s parashah, is oppressive and punishing of Joseph; it actually sets up the path on which he eventually becomes the vizier in Egypt. Decades later; having this position saves his family from a famine.  While Joseph suffered from finding his brothers, in the long run, the unknown man who found him directed him on the path that resulted in his high achievements. A key question is if this unknown, nameless man, was a divine messenger sent by God to make sure Joseph’s path was in the right direction.

The midrash Bereshit Rabbah 84:14 says this man was one of 3 angels.  Nachmanides puts this in the context that Joseph deserved having a messenger from God help him, because the text from Genesis 37:12 -14 shows that he was dedicated to honoring and obeying his father, displayed by his wandering the fields in Shechem searching for his brothers.  In this context he must have known they despised him.  A further proof given is the word used in his response to his father’s direction to find his brothers and bring back a report on how the flocks were doing.  Joseph’s response was hineini, “here I am,” which Rashi explains connotes humility and enthusiasm for doing the bidding of his father. Throughout the Tanach, hineini, implies a deep presence with a commitment to God.

Rashi gives a little different explanation of who the unknown man is.  He still describes him as a divine messenger, but one whose name is Gabriel, which in Hebrew means “God’s man.”  A proof Rashi uses is a reference to Daniel 9:21, a verse from a description of a vision Daniel had in Babylon.  In rabbinic tradition, Gabriel is the name of one of 4 key angels who serve God.

Perhaps the most important piece that implies this man/angel/messenger is acting on behalf of God is the word that describes his encountering Joseph, in Hebrew vayimtza’eihu, which directly translated is “and he found him.”  This was not an accidental encounter, rather, this verb implies a purposeful one.  The deeper version of the question above now is whether the messenger sent by God was a divine, heavenly being, or a human whose “finding” of Joseph was not planned by him but in an unknown way by God?

And this question raises something for all of us to contemplate.  How much in our lives is just accidental and how much is meant to aim us in a particular, meaningful direction?  Judaism does not teach that everything in our life is pre-planned by God, but a combination. As Rabbi Akiva teaches, “All is foreseen yet choice is given.”  This is generally interpreted to mean that God knows everything that is going to happen in this world, yet we have individual choices.

Akiva’s teaching can be rather confusing.  If God foresees everything, how can our choices truly be free will?  One possible answer is that God know every potential outcome in our lives.  We make free will choices of the path we wish to try and take, but God knows how that choice will define our future.  We do not. We are aware of hints about our potential, about how life might evolve, but we can truly never foresee any end result. Sometimes, as we move down a path, a person we have no idea about, and unexptectedly have an interaction with, often impacts our life in a positive direction.   It does not completely secure a path, as the ultimate result depends on our choices.  We can see this as a piece of help that God provides.

We can apply this all to Joseph’s story.  His path is not completely pre-ordained.  It is dependent on the choices he will make, and great examples will occur after he arrives in Egypt.  But without the help of the unknown man in the fields of Shechem, Joseph would never get to Egypt.

Here is a final contemplation:  are we the recipients of the aid of the unknown messenger of God OR have we unknowingly played that role.  While the rabbis commenting on the man in the field identify him, they do not all say he knew the role his act would play.  And I am sure the woman who praised the eyes of my 5 year old daughter, had no idea how that would affect her, but God did.

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