Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities
On Being Ready
This week's parashah, Vayeshev, is the beginning of the story of Joseph. Though Joseph is not considered among the patriarchs (that designation is limited to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) his story encompasses almost the entire remainder of the book of Bereshit and is significantly longer and more detailed than the narratives describing the lives of any of the patriarchs. It is Joseph's story that helps to transition the reader from the Patriarchal/Matriarchal period to the nation-building period that is the core of the remainder of the Torah, beginning with the exodus from Egypt. But the Joseph narrative is also compelling in its own right. The author provides insights into the character of Joseph that are often left to the rabbis to fill in through Midrash when it comes to his immediate ancestors.
Many of us are familiar with this story, whether due to having read the Torah narrative, hearing various retellings or through "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" or the animated feature "Joseph, King of Dreams." I too am quite familiar with the narrative, and yet in rereading it tonight something caught my eye that had never drawn my attention before.
In the beginning of the parashah we learn of Jacob's favoritism towards Joseph and how his brothers hated Joseph because of this. Joseph and Jacob are both aware of this, and yet Joseph does not hesitate to tell his brothers of the dreams that clearly imply that they will some day bow down to him.
Not long after this, in Chapter 37, verse 13, Jacob asks Joseph to go out to the fields where his brothers are pasturing the sheep in order to check on them. This is a strange request, since Jacob knew of the brothers' hatred of Joseph. However, even stranger is Joseph's response to his father. After Jacob says "Come, I will send you to them" Joseph responds "Hineni." This literally means, "Here I am," though it is also translated as "I am ready." What is curious about this response is that it is also associated with two key events in the Torah. When God calls to Abraham and then commands him to sacrifice Isaac and when God calls to Moses from the Burning Bush, both men respond "Hineni."