This week the parashah gives us one of the Torah's most forgettable characters, and yet, one of our great teachers about spiritual life.
The story of Joseph and his brothers has begun to unfold. Joseph begins having the prophetic but self-aggrandizing dreams that enrage his brothers. Jacob begins to realize that he has been over-indulgent with his youngest and most precious son, Joseph, and that this pampering may have nurtured a kind of narcissism in Joseph that is separating him from his brothers. Jacob sends Joseph to Shechem, to spend some time with his older brothers who are shepherding their father's flocks there.
At this point in the story, the Torah, known for sparse narrative detail, inexplicably gives us the following segment, apparently devoid of relevance or meaning. But listen closely:
"When Joseph reached Shechem, a man came upon him wandering in the fields. The man asked him, `What are you looking for?' He 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. 37:14-7).
What a completely forgettable piece of the story — were it not for the fact that from this simple act of asking and receiving directions, flows Joseph's destiny and that of the Jewish people. By the time Joseph finds his brothers, they have decided to kill him. They throw him into the pit, and the history of the Israelites in Egypt is set in motion.
Even so, one would scarcely have noticed this bit of the story were it not for the keen exegetical eye of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. Kushner notes that this nameless man in the fields, who is never identified, never described, and never heard from again, is the man whose simple act sets in motion the fateful story of Joseph's descent and rise into power, and the story of the Israelites in Egypt.
I see two possible ways to read this tiny piece of the narrative. Following Kushner, one way is to think of the anonymous shepherd in the fields as a simple person. You are walking along the street in your neighborhood one day and someone stops to ask you for directions. You respond, the stranger goes her way and you go yours. Most of the time, we would sleep through this sort of chance encounter. A moment of complete insignificance.
But then again, perhaps this ordinary person had an inkling that something momentous was happening, and that she had been sent to play a minor but essential role in history. Perhaps, even, this person was awake to the possibility that every moment of her life might have powerful significance in the hands of the Author of the story of life. Perhaps she understood that at any moment, she could be a vehicle for God's will in the universe. Perhaps she woke up each morning eager to play her part, in whatever way God would choose for her. Can you imagine living that way?
Alternatively, we could read this story in the way that some of the ancient rabbis did, seeing the anonymous shepherd in the field as an angel. We know that God had already promised that the Israelites would go down to Egypt. This story — as well as the brothers' intended act of violence that flows from it — was God's story, God's plan.
In this reading, the nameless person was an angel. Then, we might ask of Joseph — was he asleep to the significance of this encounter? Or might he, too, have understood that, lost in the field, his destiny was about to unfold?
Then again, perhaps angels always look like people, if we only know how to look. The person who gratuitously stops to help, the particularly kind waitress, the student who asks an apparently innocent question, even the friend who brings up pain — all of these, and all the people in our lives — may be angels, present in our path to move us forward to where we need to be in our stories.
Would we notice the angel if s/he showed up? Are we willing to play the role we are given? Are we ready to claim our story as our own God-given destiny?
May the nameless shepherd be our teacher in living fully alert to God's plan for us. Amen.