Little Things Mean a Lot (Vayeshev)
By Reb David
Sometimes a seemingly insignificant event changes everything, but we might see it only in hindsight much later. Just ask Joseph.
In this week’s Torah portion (Vayeshev), Jacob sends Joseph to find and report on his jealous brothers, at some distance pasturing the flocks. When Jacob summoned him,
[Joseph] answered, Hineni (“I am ready”). And [Jacob] said to [Joseph], “Go and see how your brothers are and how the flocks are faring, and bring me back word.” So [Jacob] sent [Joseph] from the Hebron valley. When [Joseph] reached Shechem, a man came to [Joseph] wandering in the fields. The man asked him, “What are you looking for?” [Joseph] 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 (Gen. 37:13-17).
When Joseph reached Dothan, his brothers attacked him and sold him into slavery, later telling their father that wild animals had killed Joseph. None could have known that this crime would set the stage for a riveting saga that so pivotally shaped history. Joseph would be a slave in Egypt, be imprisoned on false charges, interpret the dreams of his cell mates, appear before Pharaoh to interpret a dream foretelling a famine, rise to be Egypt’s civil ruler, save Egypt from starvation, confront his own starving brothers desperate for food, reunite with his father, and herald the migration of Judaism’s ancestors from Canaan to Egypt. But for all that, this ragtag tribe never would have lived in Egypt, grown numerous, become enslaved, been freed with signs and wonders, traveled to Sinai, received the Ten Commandments, become a nation and re-settled in what today is Israel. But for all that, today there would be no Judaism, no Christianity, no Islam.
When in the story did the but for begin? In hindsight, we can recount the story and its causal links with confidence. With foresight, however, could Jacob know that sending Joseph would have such effect? Could Joseph know that heeding the call would turn his life upside down? Could the brothers know that their crime of selling Joseph would ultimately save themselves and the entire Jewish people? And if somehow they knew, would anyone believe it?
How about us? How often do we know in advance the effects of our choices? Because we usually don’t know, this story teaches that every moment and everyone we meet has potential to shape us and change the course of history. It is by showing up, fully present to every potential — symbolized by Joseph answering “Hineni” (“I am here”) to Jacob’s call, as did others of Jewish ancestry at their pivotal moments — that we journey into the possibility of transformation.
To underscore this spiritual truth, notice how the whole story hinges on Joseph getting lost and someone, an unnamed “man,” telling Joseph where his brothers were. But for this “man” redirecting Joseph, the story could not unfold. How remarkable that a figure so pivotal — for Joseph, his family, Egypt, the Jewish people, monotheism and Western civilization — is utterly anonymous. This unnamed “man” shows us that no one is unimportant. The very person who seems most tangential, whose name we don’t even know, might be the most important of all.
Rashi, the great medieval Jewish commentator, wrote that this nameless “man” was the angel Gabriel, gently redirecting Joseph on a path that would change history. How might it be for us to approach anonymous someones of life as if each carries an angelic purpose? How would it feel to be so present — to say Hineni — to the possibility of transformation inherent in every moment and encounter?
Physicists are learning what historians and theologians knew ages ago: little things mean a lot. The butterfly effect holds that the smallest change in conditions can have a huge effect that usually we can’t predict in advance. Science names this phenomenon for the thought experiment of a hurricane forming because a butterfly flapped its wings.
So remember: we never know where the wind will take us. We never know what unnamed person or force will guide our steps. Just ask Joseph… and then show up. Hineni.