We’ve reached that moment in Genesis where Jacob has “settled down:” vayeshev means, ‘and [Jacob] settled.’ In this Torah portion our curtain rises on Joseph, he of multi-colored coat fame. Joseph is set apart, distinct from his siblings – both through the favoritism of their father and his talent for dream interpretation. Joseph, though well-intentioned, stokes his brothers’ ire through his unfiltered processing of dreams – dreams that showcase just how favored and talented he is.
One day while the brothers are tending to the flock near Shechem, Jacob sends Joseph out to to find them. As Joseph sets out on his journey he comes across an unnamed individual – identified in the text as, simply, “the man” – who points Joseph in the direction of his brothers. The next part is more well-known to us: as Joseph’s brothers see him approach, they conspire to kill him and instead throw him in a pit. Alone in the wilderness, Joseph is soon picked up by a crew of traders and sold into slavery in Egypt.
What is most poignant about this passage is not necessarily the act of jealous, immature siblings; it is the mystery man, this individual without a name, who serves as a physical compass in the narrative. This man points Joseph not just toward his siblings, that pit, or the Midianite traders; he actually points Joseph toward Egypt. While first his residence is a prison cell, his talents eventually move him to be pharaoh’s most trusted advisor. It is Joseph who manages to save the people of the region from a devastating famine – an act that brings the brothers back together many years later. Were it not for the mystery man, how would Joseph’s destiny unfold?
I think about this story every Hanukkah – indeed, Vayeshev is always read right around the Festival of Lights – for its linked symbolism to the notion of increasing our light in a very dark world. While one could see the mystery man as a harbinger of despair – we know that Jacob is devastated upon hearing his son Joseph has died – I choose to look at him as an instrument of change. By sending Joseph to Egypt to oversee the storing of grains to anticipate a famine, this mystery man saves thousands of lives. By sending Joseph to Egypt the mystery man elevates the status of an Israelite, ensuring protection for our people in this generation and the next. While this mystery man may not receive a name, the goodness he brings forth is worthy of the highest status. Without a status of his own, the mystery man serves to increase the light in what could be a very dark, hopeless tale.
This holiday season we will encounter dozens of nameless faces – in crowded shopping malls, busy restaurants, on congested street corners and outside bustling supermarkets. If this one mystery man from Joseph’s story could have such a profound influence on our people’s narrative, imagine what power those nameless faces might have on us and our world. As we head into the holiday of Hanukkah, let us remember to cultivate a sense of grace toward these unknown individuals. For who knows? It may actually be they who point us toward our destiny, too.
Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen