It was a simple, innocuous conversation. A man sees a boy wandering, and asks what he’s looking for. The boy says, My brothers. The man points him in the right direction, and they go their separate ways.
But this little interaction, quietly inserted into the beginning of the Biblical saga of Joseph, leaves us with questions. Who was the man? Was he an angel? It would make sense, because in the Bible angels usually have a single task to complete, and then they disappear. In this case, the angel’s job was to steer Joseph in the right direction to find his brothers, and, as it turned out, his destiny. (The Torah portion is called Vayeshev.)
If it was an angel, I am dissatisfied. I would have wanted the angel to say more, to be more helpful, to perhaps even shed some light on the situation. Maybe if Joseph had engaged with him he would have been rewarded with a blessing, as was his father Jacob.
But Joseph didn’t ask. He didn’t wonder why the man knew who his brothers were, knew who he was. He took the conversation at face value and did as the man suggested.
It’s the kind of faith that Joseph exhibited throughout his life. Or perhaps it was self-assurance, faith in himself rather than the Divine. We don’t really hear him talk about God until he is reunited with his brothers.
If it was a person whom he met on the road, I’m still dissatisfied. I would have wanted the man to give a little more information, and perhaps offer to help Joseph. But again, Joseph seemed satisfied and simply went on his way.
Our American culture is big on self-reliance. We admire the “self-made man,” the woman who despite all odds creates a new reality for herself. It’s why we like Tamar so much, whose story is also told in this Torah portion. She takes matters into her own hands and in so doing, fools Judah and is rewarded by becoming the ancestress of King David. (You can find the whole story here.)
And yet the truth is that it’s nearly impossible to make one’s way through the world alone. We rely on each other – on those who went before us and paved the way (thank you, Suffragettes!) and on the people around us who can provide guidance, assistance, and support.
I am especially cognizant of this in my own life. Would I have gone to rabbinical school were it not for the encouragement (and prodding) of our Kol HaNeshama leadership? Probably not. I am often complimented on my achievements at a relatively late age, but I did not get here by myself. Yes, I worked hard. And there were human angels along the road who helped.
Hanukkah begins this Sunday evening. There are many stories behind it, but today I’m thinking of it simply as the Festival of Lights, and I am feeling grateful to the many people who have been lights in my own life.
May we all be blessed to receive light and give light, at Hanukkah and year-round.