August 19, 2019

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five takes on a verse from the weekly parsha


“When he 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.”

Rabbi Susan Leider
Congregation Kol Shofar, Tiburon, Calif.

What are you looking for?

A sign on my refrigerator reads, “Whatever you’re looking for, you’re not going to find it in here.”

I ask, “But what if I’m hungry? Surely, it’s OK to look in the fridge for something to eat?”

True — but only if you are actually hungry for food. If you are really hungry for something else, the fridge won’t help. In fact, it could be the worst place to look.

So many times, we look in the wrong places for the things we need. Knowing what we are looking for is half the battle when it comes to leading a life well-lived.

A man asked Joseph, “What are you looking for?” He answered, “I am looking for my brothers.” He answers a “what” question with a “who” answer. Despite the troubles related to his brothers, he still seeks them out in a relationship. His “what” lies in the “who.” Even if he sometimes gets in his own way, Joseph really wants them. He really wants to be with his brothers, to be in a relationship with them.

When we’re asked, “What are you looking for?” many say, “The perfect job” or “Money.” How many of us actually answer a “what” question with a “who” answer?

By looking to “who” around us, we find the “what” that matters most: meaning, connection, compassion and comfort. Joseph tells us to lead our lives with the “who” in mind, even when we are asked, “What are you looking for?”

Rabbi Jackie Redner
Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services

I have always loved Jewish men (truly, there is so much to love about Jewish men). So I am greatly saddened when they behave badly, when Jewish brothers act poorly, straying far from the ideals of a faith that introduced the notion that all human beings are formed in holiness — sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.

I sit with my women friends. We drink coffee and speak in hushed tones about the number of high-profile Jewish men accused of sexually harassing and abusing women.While we have never talked about it out loud, we all know it to be true. We all knew it to be true even before it exploded in the media with Harvey Weinstein.

We are glad that it is finally spoken out loud and we know that this issue goes well beyond the Jewish community — it is global.

Joseph, go, find your brothers. Man of Shechem, direct him well. These brothers have strayed far, but surely, they are not completely lost. Bring them home to the Source of their own holiness. Remind them of that holiness so that the space that exists between human and human is safe and sacred for all.

Then we, the children of Israel — its glorious sons and daughters — can continue on the holy trek of this life and attend to our sacred mission.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld
Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue

This story ends tragically with Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers. And yet the words Joseph says are deeply powerful and should serve as a guide to us in our spiritual lives.

Joseph says, “I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are pasturing?”

This sentence and question sum up the Torah’s fundamental charge.

Back in the beginning of Genesis, Cain asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer is that, yes, we are, indeed. We are all deeply responsible for the actions of our brothers and sisters, and for actions upon our brothers and sisters.

When Joseph’s brothers take advantage of him, it reminds us of Jacob taking advantage of his own brother, Esau, when Jacob purchased the birthright from him for a mere bowl of soup. This questionable action leads to all sorts of negative consequences and ultimately results in Jacob and his children being exiled to Egypt.

Redemption from Egypt comes only when two brothers — Moses and Aaron — join together in love and harmony, without jealousy or competitiveness. Moses and Aaron represent the paradigm of brothers working together on behalf of each other, to help each other succeed. This is why the redemption comes through their efforts.

Today, we must never forget that we are all siblings, with a responsibility to one another. We must constantly be looking for our siblings, and looking out for the welfare of our siblings.

Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Magen David Sephardic Congregation, Rockville, Md.

Why is this exchange recorded at all? The Torah could have written that Joseph sought his brothers and found them in Dothan. Apparently, the encounter with the man is important.

Some suggest that the man was an angel, sent there as part of the divine plan, thus making free will and sibling rivalry irrelevant, and all participants mere puppets controlled by the Almighty.

I believe the opposite is true. The man is anonymous because he is insignificant, save for his random encounter with Joseph, which altered the course of Jewish history.

What if they had not met? Joseph would have kept searching for his brothers and returned home empty-handed. Jacob would not have lived in agony and Joseph would not have been a slave or a viceroy. This encounter teaches us how impactful fleeting moments and overlooked interactions with strangers can be.

It also draws a tragic picture of an orphan trying to win his brothers’ sympathy. His dreams of grandeur and his gossiping about them do not stem from arrogance, but from a craving to belong. He could have turned back and gone home when he didn’t find them in Shechem, but he kept searching, desperately.

He wanted to find them, run to them and maybe even hug them. Maybe he thought that the time they had spent apart had made them miss him. How wrong he was, how blind to their seething anger. The seemingly unnecessary report reveals Joseph as a vulnerable, clueless teenager, seeking the approval of siblings who have rejected him.

David Sacks

“The man asked him, ‘What are you looking for?’ ”

My rebbe, Shlomo Carlebach, once said that if a man comes up to you in the street and asks, “What time is it?” he doesn’t want to know the time — he wants to know what he should do with his life.

What are we looking for?

The answer is simple. We all want to be “successes.” But ask someone how he or she defines success and a shocking silence usually follows. We don’t really know.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov tells a story about someone chasing after a package and finally grasping it, only to open it and discover that the box is empty.

For many of us, success means money. But when we realize that many rich people are unhappy, we change our definition to happiness. When asked to define happiness, again we’re not sure what that is or how to achieve it.

So, what are you looking for?

The Sefer Yetzirah, the ancient kabbalistic text, says all of reality can be boiled down into three components: space, time and soul.

Two thousand years ago, the Jewish people already were thinking in terms of the space-time continuum. But even more significantly, we already understood that soul was an indispensable ingredient of reality.

“What are you looking for?”

For every person, the answer will be different. But if we want to get to the root of our existence, where personal success and happiness dwell, we must take account of the needs of the soul.