2006“If you could invite any Jewish personality to your dinner table,” a common exercise begins, “who would it be?” Often people will suggest Moses, Golda Meir or Albert Einstein. Maybe even Sandy Koufax or Jerry Seinfeld. I might even consider adding Sascha Baron Cohen to the list. The number one person on my guest list would include somebody whose name we do not know.
The Man Who Came to Dinner
My all-time favorite Jewish personality has no name. He appears in this week’s Torah portion, Va-Yeishev, and is arguably one of the most important individuals in all of Jewish history.
Before we get to him, however, I’ll ask those living in the U.S. to recall a commercial which received way too much air time about a year ago. The commercial began with an important looking man sitting at his desk while he and an underling extol the virtues of a particular cell phone company. The man behind the desk relates that signing up for their service is his way of “sticking it to the man,” to which the underling responds, “but you are the man!”
Who is “the man” – more appropriately – “the person?” The Psalmist asks that very question in Psalm 34: 13-15:
“Who is the ish” (literally, the man)? The “ish is a hafetz hayim” – a pursuer of life. The ish is one who 'turns from evil and does good.' The ish is one who “seeks peace and pursues it.”
The Talmud, in Pirke Avot, Ethics of our Ancestors, gives us bit more to explore in quoting the namesake of the Foundation for Jewish Life on Campus, the great sage, Hillel:
In a place where there are no anashim (the plural of ish) strive to be an ish. (Ethics of our Ancestors 2:6)
Let’s concentrate on this word – ish - what does it really mean – not only in this context, but elsewhere?
The Book of Exodus describes the famous story of Moses coming upon an Egyptian beating an Israelite slave:
Some time after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that, and seeing no ish about, he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.(Exodus 2: 11-12)
How is it plausible that nobody was around to see this? There were hundreds of slaves and many taskmasters present at all times. Perhaps the word ish here means a particular kind of human being. Moses saw that nobody was acting to stop the beating, so he stepped forward and took matters into his own hands.
In the Purim story, Mordecai alerts officials of an assassination plot against King Achashveros, which was dutifully recorded in the king’s annals. Some time later, Achashveros requested that the memoirs be read aloud, where he was reminded of the incident and of Mordecai’s bravery. He wanted to show his appreciation to Mordecai, as the Scroll of Esther relates:
Haman entered and the king asked him: “What should be done for the ish whom the king desires to honor?” (Esther 6:6)
In context, it appears that Achashveros is referring to a particular type of human being by using the word ish. It took courage for Mordecai to also step forward and warn the king of impending catastrophe.
Let’s now take a look at this week’s Torah portion. We set the scene with Joseph at home with his father, Jacob (known by now as Israel), while his brothers are out tending to their flock:
One time, when his brothers had gone to pasture their father’s flock at Shekhem, Israel said to Joseph: “Your brothers are pasturing at Shekhem. Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “I am ready.” And he said to him, “Go and see how your brothers are and how the flocks are faring, and bring me back word. So he sent him from the valley of Hevron.
When he reached Shekhem, an ish asked him: “What are looking for?” He answered, “I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are pasturing? The ish said, “They have gone from here, for I heard them say: Let us go to Dotan.”
So Joseph followed his brothers and found then at Dotan. (Genesis 37:12-17)
Joseph is wandering in the wilderness – clearly lost. An ish, who is a total stranger, approaches him and asks if he can help. Joseph asks if this stranger has seen his brothers. The ish directs him to the city of Dotan.
The rest, as they say, is history. Joseph meets up with his brothers who throw him into a pit, sell him into slavery and take his coat of many colors (which they have stained with animal blood) back to Jacob where they tell him that Joseph is dead.
Through a circuitous series of events, Joseph eventually ends up in Egypt where he ultimately saves his family and the entire Jewish people. Had not this unknown ish stopped Joseph in the wilderness and asked if he could help, it is not implausible to think that Jewish history would have died along with those who perished during the ensuing famine in the Land of Israel. This ish, and the ones mentioned earlier, literally created history.
The ultimate question asked above in Psalm 34 - who is the ish – is “what kind of history are we creating?” The answer the Psalmist gives us is that the ish is a seeker of life and of dreams. A creator of history who loves good – who turns from evil. The one, who just like the ish in this week’s Torah portion says some simple words (what are you looking for - i.e., how can I help?) which create our destiny and set the tone for Jewish living and Jewish loving for all eternity.
This nameless ish is one of my heroes and would certainly occupy one of the seats at my fantasy Jewish personalities dinner. It is my hope that we all merit this anonymous appellation. That we constantly and consistently help others create their own Jewish history by simply asking, just like our ish, “how can I help?”
Written by Richard Moline, Director of KOACH, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Vayeshev at MyJewishLearning.com.