Two different approaches to life can be found in this sidra – the first being when Joseph is seeking his brothers in Shechem, “And a man found him and he was wandering in a field, and the man asked him: ‘what are you looking for?'” (Gen 37:15). Had he not met this person and been told that his brothers had moved on to Dotan, he would have returned safely to his father and his life in Canaan would have continued uneventfully, though with continued sibling friction we assume. Having met him however, the train of Joseph’s life was inevitably altered, he went down to Egypt and so opened the way for the whole people of Israel to travel to Egypt and to settle there.
Who was the man he met who so changed the course of Israelite history? Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Yitzchak (1040 -1105) suggests that this pivotal figure must have been important and suggests it is the Angel Gabriel. Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) is more pragmatic and suggests that this is truly an ordinary passer-by who just happened to be there with information at a critical moment. And Ramban (Moses ben Nachman 1194-1270) beautifully marries the two ideas by suggesting this is truly an ordinary human being, but acting as a messenger of God, a malach (the Hebrew word for messenger, also used for describing what we might call a divine messenger or angel). So possibly this could be the divine plan in action, or it could be a coincidence with ramifications, but either way, Joseph is the passive recipient of the event – his life is radically transformed without any active intention of his own.
The second approach to life can be found in the actions of Tamar who, through no fault of her own, finds herself waiting for release from her status of childless widow.
When it becomes clear that the family who can liberate her are choosing not to do so, she takes matters into her own hand. Never mind that she has to dress as a prostitute, nor that she has to waylay her own father in law in order to progress her cause. Never mind that she suffers the charge of adultery when her condition becomes known – Tamar chooses this path rather than find her life unfairly stopped by the refusal of others to do what is required. And she succeeds in her task, eventually acknowledged as a woman who has behaved with righteousness What can we learn from the two stories? – that sometimes our lives can be changed by random events, that we may have no power over what happens to us sometimes, but the outcome of these events IS still something we can exercise control over. Whether we choose to see the turning points at all, whether we choose to see them as entirely random or as part of a divine plan is up to us, but either way Joseph uses his talents to make a success of his life in Egypt having arrived there in very unpromising circumstances, and we too can turn discouraging experiences into better ones by using the various skills we each possess. And sometimes life is unfair and people are obstructive to what should rightly happen, and then we have to be more proactive ourselves, as Tamar risked everything to be.
It so happens that Joseph is the precursor of the leader to be known as the Mashiach ben Yosef, while Tamar’s twins include Perez the ancestor of David and of the Mashiach ben David. (see Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 52a) Whatever these leaders known as ‘messiah’ may also be, they embody between them righteous behaviour and good leadership. Rav Kook (1865-1935) described them as the universal and the particular leaders, Joseph took care of the physical needs of the people and spoke the languages of the world, whereas Judah was responsible for the special holiness of the Jewish people. We need both aspects – the universal and the particular, the making the best of what we have and the go-getting to make the best world we can – in order to fulfil our lives and make them the richest we can.