Idealist * Muddler * Angel

[For the Ner Shalom Malakh, December 2010.]

This time of year I sometimes find myself in a muddle. I said yes to so many things in the fall, rushing in, full of enthusiasm, eager to do and to be! And now here I am slogging through the heap I've made for myself, lost and dispirited.

This week in Parashat Vayeshev, we observe another mismatch of eagerness and follow-through. Joseph, the dreamer, is a boy. He is the object of his father's affection and his brothers' hatred. Jacob calls him to send him on an errand - the infamous errand that we all know will result in his abduction and eventual rise to power in Egypt. He responds to his father's call by saying hineni -- "here I am" -- the same words Abraham spoke when called by God and by Isaac his son.

Hineni suggests complete willingness; eager receptivity to what will come next.

Jacob sends him to check on his brothers and the flocks. But he gets lost. Suddenly the story's point of view shifts and we see him blundering through the fields, through the eyes of an ish - a "man" or "person". This stranger asks Joseph mah t'vakesh -- "what are you seeking?" Or "what would you ask of me?" Joseph tells him he's looking for his brothers, and the ish tells him where they went.

This is an odd side story in Torah. The plot doesn't require Joseph to go astray. But there's something here that adds both suspense and a sense of destiny. But for running into the stranger, the day would have unfolded differently, and so might our history. Rashi and other commentators suggest that the ish is actually the angel Gabriel, sent specifically to steer Joseph toward his appointed future. A part of me likes to imagine the ish instead as somehow being the future Joseph, come back to direct his wide-eyed childhood self with compassion, perhaps intoning a barely audible "it gets better" blessing as he remands Joseph to the brutality and bullying of his brothers.

Or maybe the ish is not a being but a particular kind of insight that each of us possesses. The loving but unruffled part of our hearts that can step aside from our attachments to both the eagerness and the frustration and can instead take the long view. This is the part of me that I always forget exists, so trapped am I inside, alternately, the idealist and the slogger. So in Joseph's honor, I'm going to look in my heart and find my ish, my guide standing in the field, and invite him/her/it for a cup of tea. And when it asks me, mah t'vakesh -- "what are you seeking? what do you ask of me?" -- I wonder what I will say. What would you?