Vayeshev: What Is It That You Are Seeking?

The Torah for this Shabbat, portion Vayeshev, is one of the most complicated and diverse sections of Torah. We begin with the introduction of Joseph as the favored son, rewarded by his dad with a multi-colored coat or tunic. Joseph, the self absorbed teen ager who flaunts his status as favored child, much to the frustration of his brothers. They seek revenge and Joseph winds up in Egypt. The rest, as they say, is history. There is a curious insertion of a chapter that describes the encounter between Judah and Tamar, the concept of the Leverite marriage, and a glimpse in to the sociology of Biblical life. The portion ends with Joseph spurning the advances of his Egyptian master’s wife in a scene that could be played as dramatic-comedy. The portion is rich in material, however, one line, two words actually, seemed to touch me more than others.
It is in the beginning of the portion. Joseph has been asked by his father Jacob/Israel to go to the fields and find his brothers who were tending to their flock. Joseph sets out and soon encounters a “man”, the Hebrew word in the text is “ish”. The man simply asks Joseph “mah tivakesh?” what are you searching for? Joseph answers his brothers and the “man” provides an answer. (Genesis 37:15f) A simple encounter? It would seem so, however, this one question speaks to us as we assume the roles of elders. What do we seek? WHat are we looking for?
The “tivakesh” in 37:15 has the sense of movement, of seeking, of future. Many of us are at the age when we may be changing from full time work to different challenges. We know that, God willing, we may have years, decades of life ahead of us, so, what shall we do? What is it that we are seeking? The answers to this most spiritual of questions varies with each of us. However, as we continue to ask this question, certain themes do come forward. One of the most powerful of them is that of legacy. One of the things we are seeking as we age is the sense that we will leave behind us something meaningful of our own self. We seek our own place in the universe, our own sense of the fact that “my life has meant something” and that this meaning can be passed down to my children or grandchildren, friends and family.
This “mah tivakesh” question is much more than a simple request for directions. It is a question that asks us to contemplate the direction of our own life. It is dynamic, this question. The “man” does not ask “where have you come from?”, rather, “what do you seek?” It is another suggestion, I think, that we can take from the text a sense that Judaism hold that as long as we breathe, as long as we have life, we are part of life and that there is the possibility of growth and change….if we but only can have the courage to seek it out.
Rabbi Richard F Address


  1. To me, it’s also the path I’ve chosen to walk through my life. Hopefully i have performed one unrealized random act of kindness that effected someone’s life positively. I greet everyone with a smile and I tell my family and loved ones regularly how much i love them and how grateful i am that our paths crossed in this life. I hope my legacy is that i did my best to utilize my G-d given talents for the betterment of all. I will continue to contribute every day until there are no more days.

    This is a powerful Torah portion. As I read it tears come to my eyes….i continue to wonder if I could have/ should have done more.

  2. I’ve been plagued with this question my whole life – never envisioning that I may find the answer in retirement. My life basically has followed all the rules. Honesty, integrity and love of country have been the channels guiding my life’s work and fairness with all has been my creed. My work was quite satisfying and I consider myself successful based primarily on the fact that I am somewhat comfortable in retirement. Unfortunately, I will leave little as a legacy except for the friendships and family closeness developed over the years – that continues to be strong today. I’m still waiting to learn the real reason for my existence and realize that it may only escape my earthly vision.

    Micah comes to mind here and I continue to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with my G-d.

What are your thoughts?

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