Parashat Vayeshev: The angel’s lesson

The drama of Israel – the selling of Joseph, the slavery and redemption – seems to hinge on an accidental encounter in the field with a stranger.

‘JACOB WRESTLING with the Angel,’ fresco of Eugène Delacroix. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘JACOB WRESTLING with the Angel,’ fresco of Eugène Delacroix.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Astute observers of Jacob’s dream over the centuries have noted that the angels are “ascending and descending the ladder” (Gen. 28:12), suggesting that they began on earth. What are all these angels doing on earth?
This week we have at least one answer.
Joseph is sent by Jacob to find his brothers. Yet Joseph is unable to find them and is left walking about, not knowing which direction to follow.

“A man found him wandering in the fields. The man asked him, what are you looking for?” (ibid. 37:15).
When Joseph tells the man he is looking for his brothers, the man replies that he heard them say they were headed to Dothan, where Joseph indeed finds them.
The drama of Israel – the selling of Joseph, the slavery and redemption – seems to hinge on an accidental encounter in the field with a stranger. Yet could something so monumental really be accidental?
Rashi explains that the stranger was an angel. Ibn Ezra says that according to the simple meaning (peshat) the stranger was a “passerby.”
In Hebrew the word for angel is “mal’ach,” which also means messenger. What message did this stranger bring that qualified him to be thought of as an angel? The obvious explanation is that it was to connect Joseph with his brothers. But underneath there is a deeper implication that determines Joseph’s destiny.
Scholar James Kugel has pointed out that, often in the Tanach, when an angel is encountered, it is a seemingly normal experience. When Abraham and Lot see angels, they are not startled or amazed. Apparently, the angels do not appear with wings like seraphim, flying in the air or all ablaze with celestial fire.
What then distinguishes an angel from a human being?
This uncertainty deepens when we discover that some who are indisputably human beings are called angels. The Prophet Haggai, once he receives his charge as a prophet, is called a “mal’ach of God” (Haggai 1:13). The Prophet Malachi bears the very name of angel – in other words, a messenger of God.
So is the man of Dothan an angel or a human being? Ramban combines the approaches of Rashi and Ibn Ezra and teaches that human beings can indeed be angels when they carry God’s message. Ramban points out that Joseph, wandering and lost in the field, might turn back and go home, but his own determination to carry out his father’s mission combines with a message at just the right time, leading to the culmination of the story.
The message of an angel, however, is more profound than a finger pointing toward Dothan. Recall the man’s words: “What are you searching for?” (Gen. 37:15). The Kotzker Rebbe comments that the angel is teaching Joseph that when one is uncertain, lost, and in perplexity of soul, the first priority is to understand what it is that one seeks.
We are often persuaded by the impulse of the moment. A messenger of God represents not a passing mood or ephemeral moment, but what remains true. Joseph might have been ready to turn back, but heard the message that his deepest desire was to fulfill the destiny he was chosen for, no matter the hardships it would entail.
The ability to look past the moment characterizes Joseph’s life as he enters Egypt. In Potiphar’s service, he resists the seductions of Potiphar’s wife, knowing that to succumb would betray his master and his values. In prison, he learns how to interpret dreams other than his own. Rising to a position of power in Egypt, he looks far ahead to plan for the prosperity of the land in a time of famine.
In all of these the question of the angel – “what are you searching for?” is apt and powerful. Emerson wrote: “Our moods do not believe in each other.” Sometimes we are captured by the instant. The angel reminds us to look past this moment, past today, to what you value that is deep and enduring.
The first question of the Torah is “ayeka?” – where are you? The angel’s question is where are you headed? Taken together they form a spiritual ladder on which we earthly creatures can ascend.
The writer is Max Webb senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of David: The Divided Heart. Follow him on Twitter: @rabbiwolpe.