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On Being Ready

This week's parashah, Vayeshev, is the beginning of the story of Joseph. Though Joseph is not considered among the patriarchs (that designation is limited to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) his story encompasses almost the entire remainder of the book of Bereshit and is significantly longer and more detailed than the narratives describing the lives of any of the patriarchs. It is Joseph's story that helps to transition the reader from the Patriarchal/Matriarchal period to the nation-building period that is the core of the remainder of the Torah, beginning with the exodus from Egypt. But the Joseph narrative is also compelling in its own right. The author provides insights into the character of Joseph that are often left to the rabbis to fill in through Midrash when it comes to his immediate ancestors.

Many of us are familiar with this story, whether due to having read the Torah narrative, hearing various retellings or through "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" or the animated feature "Joseph, King of Dreams." I too am quite familiar with the narrative, and yet in rereading it tonight something caught my eye that had never drawn my attention before.

In the beginning of the parashah we learn of Jacob's favoritism towards Joseph and how his brothers hated Joseph because of this. Joseph and Jacob are both aware of this, and yet Joseph does not hesitate to tell his brothers of the dreams that clearly imply that they will some day bow down to him.

Not long after this, in Chapter 37, verse 13, Jacob asks Joseph to go out to the fields where his brothers are pasturing the sheep in order to check on them. This is a strange request, since Jacob knew of the brothers' hatred of Joseph. However, even stranger is Joseph's response to his father. After Jacob says "Come, I will send you to them" Joseph responds "Hineni." This literally means, "Here I am," though it is also translated as "I am ready." What is curious about this response is that it is also associated with two key events in the Torah. When God calls to Abraham and then commands him to sacrifice Isaac and when God calls to Moses from the Burning Bush, both men respond "Hineni."

A common technique of rabbinic Midrash is to use a word, especially a unique one, to connect various passages from the Bible with one another. To me, the use of Hineni cries out for this type of interpretation. For both Abraham and Moses responded to God with "Hineni" when they were about to be asked to embark on a difficult, life-changing journey. And though Moses seems more reluctant to go on his journey than is Abraham, both men ultimately begin their journeys into the unknown with unwavering faith in God and in the holy nature of their task. Regardless of what we might think about the fact that Abraham does NOT argue with God when asked to sacrifice Isaac, it is clear in the text that he embarks on the journey filled with faith in God's purpose.

I would like to suggest that the same is true of Joseph. Though the response "Hineni" is to his father, he is also aware on some level that he is responding to God. The entire Joseph narrative is unique in its seemingly secular nature. God does not to be an "active player" as God is in the earlier narratives of his ancestors. And yet at the climax of the narrative, when Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers in Egypt, he tell them that his journey was part of God's plan and that it was God who sent him to Egypt and not them, by selling him into slavery.

If Joseph is able to interpret dreams, which implies that God has given him prophetic vision, then it is within the realm of possibility that he had the foresight to know what was about to happen to him. He was aware that he was about to embark on a journey that was part of God's plan for him and for his family and their descendants. We don't know if there is any reticence on his part, but I would like to believe that, though he was ready to participate in this life-changing experience for him and his people, that he also questioned the wisdom behind "God's plan" and was afraid of what might happen to him. Nevertheless, he was still prepared to respond "Hineni."

I would like to believe that each of us has a bit of Joseph in us, each of us a dreamer and each of us prepared to journey into the unknown - even when there is risk involved. I would like to believe that each of us, like Joseph, as well as Abraham and Moses, could see us as part of "God's plan" for making the world a better place. We each have the ability to make a difference in our lives and in the lives of our family and the world. In that way we are each part of the Divine effort to repair and to bring redemption and freedom into our world.

May we each have the courage to say "Hineni" when we are called - no matter how afraid we might still be. And may we each eventually see ourselves as part of something greater than ourselves, something that is meant to improve us and the world around us.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah