Near the beginning of Parashat VaYeishev, Ya’akov calls over Yosef and asks him to travel to Shechem to check on the well-being of Yosef’s brothers and their sheep. Yosef acquiesces, and sets out on his mission (BeReishit 37:13-14).
But Yosef has a tough journey. Along the way, not only does Yosef fail to locate his brothers in Shechem – as they had by that point moved on to Dotan – but he also gets lost in the fields, as the Pasuk states, “VeHineih To’eh BaSadeh,” “And behold, he was straying in the field” (37:15). He needs a stranger (who Rashi identifies as the angel Gavriel) to guide him along the way, and only after much searching does he finally manage to locate his brothers and fulfill his father’s mission. He sees his brothers in Dotan and sees them from afar before they spot him.
Why does the Torah tell us all these details about Yosef’s journey? Why it is so critical that we know about all of Yosef’s challenges along the road and the bumps along the way? Would it not have sufficed just to skip straight from his father’s instructions and Yosef’s departure right to the encounter with the brothers?
Ramban (37:15 s.v. VaYimtza’eihu Ish VeHinei To’eh BaSadeh) suggests that Yosef’s journey is taught in detail to highlight how the descent of the Shevatim to Egypt was divinely orchestrated, as God directed Yosef into the hands of his brothers in spite of Yosef’s original struggle to find them. However, many other Meforshim, including Rashbam, Seforno and Ramban himself earlier on in his comments, add another dimension to the purpose of this segment of the story: Yosef’s journey highlights his incredible commitment to fulfilling the mission laid out for him by his father. Even though he had many excuses to give up along the way, he persevered. His brothers were not in the town they were supposed to be in; nonetheless, he continued searching. He got lost, but he didn’t turn around. He finally sees them, no doubt with murderous looks on their faces, but nevertheless approaches them to fulfill his mission. It was his journey, and he did not give up until he had finally succeeded. He felt responsible to see his mission through to its end.
As we are first introduced to Yosef, the Torah goes out of its way to emphasize his dedication and commitment to fulfilling his responsibilities, as this was perhaps Yosef’s most striking quality. It is one that comes up over and over again throughout his story. In fact, Yosef’s dedication and commitment to fulfilling his responsibilities can be seen in a very striking way later in our Parashah, in his reaction to the advances of Potifar’s wife. Yosef refused her advances – but why? Precisely what aspect of her seduction repelled him? Was it the gravity of the sin of adultery?
Believe it or not, a close look at Yosef’s comments to her indicates that this may not have been the travesty at the forefront of Yosef’s mind at the time (or at the very least, not the one that Yosef focused on in speaking to her). “And he refused, telling his master’s wife: Behold! My master trusts me with everything in his house, and all that is in his possession he has placed in my hand. There is no one in this house ranked above me, and my master has not withheld anything from me – so how could I do this evil thing, and thereby sin to God!” (BeReishit 39:8-9). Yosef seems much more focused on the betrayal of his responsibilities as the head of Potifar’s household than on the specific sin of adultery. Potifar gave me my job, he made me in charge of everything he owns – how could I possibly betray his trust? How could I shirk my own responsibilities of taking care of his possessions by violating his most sacred boundary? Yosef saw himself responsible for taking care of Potifar’s household and would never dream of betraying this trust.
Yosef’s propensity to fulfill his responsibilities may also explain the answer to perhaps the most perplexing question of these coming Parashiyot: why Yosef never “phoned home” while stuck in Egypt, why he never tried getting in touch with his beloved father to rescue him. Many of the Meforshim explain that Yosef saw himself as responsible for fulfilling the dreams he had dreamt of as a child, and went to tremendous lengths – as we will read about over the next few weeks – to ensure that they came to fruition.
Yosef’s dedication and commitment to fulfilling his responsibilities and reaching his goals are exemplary. As we read through his story over the coming weeks, we should strive to consider how we can emulate his devotion in ourselves.