Once upon a time in my life there was a man, really a boy — although at the time he seemed far older than me, who mentioned in passing that being Jewish was something that he thought about in everything he did. Being the 14-year-old that I was, I thought he was a little lame. That youth, without even realizing, had a major impact on my life because even though I had been disdainful in the moment, his words resonated deep within my soul. For me, that boy, a counselor at a BBYO summer program back in 1990, was an eesh b’sadeh, the seemingly random man in the field who asked Yosef what he was looking for and then directed him to his brothers (Bereishis 37).
It is a snippet of narrative told in just a few verses, but it contains many powerful lessons. In our current generation, one of the most significant of these lessons is about Hashem’s great desire for Jewish unity. Yes, it is a common trope, one that is brought up particularly often after our beautiful Jewish community suffers a tragedy. The reason it is so pervasive is because it is a concept with which we struggle mightily – not philosophically, but in actuality. Since biblical times, we have been working toward achieving and maintaining this goal, but we’ve had to restart that work far too often. Obviously, it is no easy task.
How does the eesh b’sadeh offer a lesson on unity when all he did was offer Yosef directions? It starts with the fact that, according to some opinions, the brothers took the sheep so far away to pasture because they wanted to get away from Yosef. Here we have disunity and conflict. Yaakov knew that there was tension between his sons. He sent Joseph anyway, with the specific mission: “ra’ey et shalom achehcha,” see the peace of his brothers. Yosef is a faithful son – and some comment that he was actually oblivious to his brothers’ antipathy for him – and so he went. He loses his way, however, because his brothers have gone to a different location. Then he meets the unspecified man, the eesh b’sadeh. According to almost all of the commentaries, this man was the angel Gavriel. Some commentaries say that in his response that the brothers had left, Gavriel was warning Yosef that they were not of a mindset for peace with him. Nevertheless, he told Yosef where to go because, ultimately, Hashem wanted the brothers to be together. Hashem could send His messenger to warn Yosef and to point him in the right direction, but reconciliation of the sons of Yaakov had to come from themselves, unity must be the result of human effort.
The challenge of unity most often stems from problems with perception. By human nature we like to believe ourselves to understand the bigger picture. More challenging than that is the fact that we also tend to believe we understand other people’s motivations and thought patterns, and most of the time we are pretty far off the mark. When the ten shepherding brothers saw Yosef approach, they viewed him from their perception alone. They thought of Yosef with hatred, or with jealousy, or perhaps with fear – fear for their future. Much of their emotions stemmed from their reactions to Yosef’s dreams and their belief that he wished to rule over them. Many commentaries, however, seem to present Yosef as simply an exuberant youth who just wished to share his dreams.
And the perception of each brother was not the same, although in many ways, the picture painted by the narrative is that they were in agreement, on the whole, to get rid of Yosef. But Shimon saw him as the dreamer, the one who dreamed of being bigger, for he was the one who called out “Here comes the dreamer.” Reuvain saw him as a road to redemption, and he convinced them not to kill him so that he could rescue him and thus build himself in his father’s eyes. And Yehuda was the one who suggested selling him, looking at Yosef as a broader picture of one with whom he was connected but with whom he wanted a way to sever that connection.
The distinction between the tribes have essentially been lost by the great dispersion, but we remain in many ways, entrenched in this tribal mindset. In centuries past, we divided ourselves between our minhagim and our countries of origin. Ashkenazim marrying Sephardim was jokingly, mostly, referred to as intermarrying. In the current era, we align ourselves by denominations, and then we look at each other and we make assumptions that may be, but quite probably are not, true.
The eesh b’sadeh, the man in the field, represents people or incidents in our lives (both individual and as a people) whom Hashem sends to try to help us become whole again. When we think back in our lives there are those moments we can find, like the words of the counselor at that camp, that give us a nudge in the right direction. However, sometimes these men in the field are not kind, they are warning that danger awaits on the path we are on. But even when we are given these guides, we are so often hampered by what happens next, when we allow our preconceived notions, our superficial judgments, our fear of the possibility that another might know something we do not, that inhibits us from coming together. Like the 12 brothers who were our ancestors, the Jewish people have always had to learn how to deal with the fact that while we are all Jews, we are not homogeneous. We can’t have unity if we don’t learn to talk to each other like brothers. We today still need to rectify the inability of our ancestors to look and see from our brothers’ eyes.