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