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The Mission

This week’s parsha begins the final section of Breishit: the Yosef stories. Even though this segment seems to kick off with the incident of the Coat and continues with the Dreams, I believe that the true start of the Yosef saga is the mission to Shechem. Ya’akov Avinu asks Yosef to check on his brothers who were tending sheep around Shechem, Yosef responds with the magic word: HINENI! 

This term is the response of Avraham Avinu to God’s instruction to bring Yitzchak as an offering, the AKEIDA. It has become the favored term for the truly committed to any significant assignment. This declaration of commitment was so momentous because of the assumed animosity for the dreamer of self-promoting dreams. This scenario raises two questions. First, why did the brothers go to Shechem for pasturage? And, secondly, why did Ya’akov send Yosef on this mission. 

The first question is actually a true mystery. The brothers went to an area which should have been hostile to our ancestors, because of the aftermath of the Dinah story, when Shimon and Levi wipe out the town. On the other hand, perhaps, the locals were intimidated by the clan of the Hebrews and the area was therefore safe. Maybe this area had a certain aura as the first place their grandfather, Avraham had noticed that he had entered the holy Land (Breishit 12:6). This may have the furthest place from home that was still in Israel. 

This brings us to question #2: Why would Ya’akov send Yosef into this dangerous situation? The Radak suggests: Yosef was not afraid of his brothers even though they hated him, for he thought that their awe of their father was greater than their desire to harm him. His father also did not think that the brothers posed a threat to his favorite son. Surely, if he had even entertained the slightest concern about the brothers harming Joseph, he would never have sent him on this mission. 

Okay. So, we’re not quite sure why the brothers went to Shechem. Plus, we’re not so sure why Ya’akov sent Yosef on this potentially dangerous quest. But we are sure that Yosef saw himself as up to the task, and that is crucial. But what about the brothers? 

The Da’at Z’keinim sees a fundamental problem with the brothers. While Yosef is travelling to Shechem, they are moving away from there. For when the verse quotes the mysterious stranger who guides Yosef, he says, ‘The have gone from there’ (37:17). Only the word translated as ‘there’ is the Hebrew word ZEH, which means ‘this’. Funny usage. So, the Da’at Z’keinim suggests that it’s a Gematria. They were moving away from the number 12. They were determined or at least prepared to end the band of brothers, which numbered 12. 

The brothers have left SHECHEM, and Yosef is eternally moving towards Shechem. Yosef has just begun his eternal connection to Shechem. When Ya’akov blesses Efraim and Menashe, the sons of Yosef, he concludes his blessing: And now, I assign to you one SHECHEM more than to your brothers, which I wrested from the Amorites with my sword and bow (48:22). Most translations render the word SHECHEM in the verse as ‘portion’, because Yosef was getting two tribes and two land holdings in Israel. But there’s no ignoring the unusual use of the word SHECHEM. It sounds like he’s, indeed, getting Shechem, and he does. Shechem falls into the portion of Efraim. 

Finally, when the Jews enter the Land centuries later, under the leadership of Yehoshua, from the tribe of Efraim ben Yosef, their first commitment is to bury Yosef. Where else? ‘The bones of Joseph, which the Israelites had brought up from Egypt, were buried at Shechem, in the piece of ground which Jacob had bought for a hundred coins’ (Yehoshua 24:32). 

The code word or symbol of Yosef’s commitment to the Covenant and his leadership role in it is Shechem. But, finally, why? What does Shechem represent? Yes, Shechem has a fascinating history. It’s the first place visited by Avraham in the Land, it’s where Shimon and Levi massacre the towns people, it’s the one land purchase of Ya’akov Avinu, it’s where Yosef is buried, but there’s one more distinction. 

Shechem represents our nations solemn devotion to the Covenant. After the nation has crossed the Jordan into Eretz Yisrael, half the nation will stand on Har Gerizim and half the nation shall stand on Har Eival, and the Levi’im will stand in middle (Devarim 27:12-14). What’s in the middle? Where are the Levi’im standing? Well, in Shechem, of course! 

Shechem represents the clear choice between blessing and curse; between commitment to the covenant or moving away from it (ZEH). I would maintain that the stark topography of verdant Har Gerizim and bleak Har Eival is only part of the significance of the location. It’s also where Yosef threw his whole being into the enterprise of the Jewish Nation, and the brothers were seriously considering to move away from it. 

  There’s a lot going on in this week’s parsha; coats, dreams, betrayal, slavery, seduction, prison. But for the destiny of our people there is nothing more significant than Yosef proclaiming: HINENI!!  

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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