Joseph is perplexed. His father, Jacob, sent him on an assignment to check on the whereabouts of his brothers and the status of the flocks they tend. But the brothers are not where Joseph expected to find them. One of the locals sees how perturbed Joseph is and asks: “What are you looking for?” (Genesis 37:15). Joseph responds: “I am looking for my brothers” (Genesis 37:16). The English translation does not do justice to the nuance of Hebrew. Yet even so, readers can detect the disconnection between the question and the answer. The question is straightforward: Joseph is apparently searching for some missing object. Hence, what are you looking for? Joseph, however, answers as if the question is who are you looking for?
Extrapolating from this brief dialogue, readers gain the sense that the key ingredient in human life – that which all people strive to attain – is the deep, personal, and enriching relationship with other people. However, too often it is the case that people wrongly focus attention on a lesser objective: the accumulation of stuff. The simple dialogue in the text aims to set things right. In life, it is not things that a person should aspire to find, but relationships.
This is a recurrent theme in the Bible. When Elisha the prophet sees the Shunamite woman approaching, he senses something amiss. So he directs his servant to ask the woman three questions: How are you? How is your husband? How is your child? (2 Kings 4:26). Aside from her personal wellbeing, the prophet Elisha inquires about her closest relationships. He does nor ask, as people are wont to do, ‘How are things?’ Things are of secondary importance to relationships.
Martin Buber, one of the most lionized Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century, constructed his entire philosophy on the nature of relationships. Treating people as a means to an end, that is to say, as performers of tasks useful to us, rather than as ends in themselves and worthy of profound respect and attention, is certainly the way to get things done. But it is not the way of adding meaning to life.
Joseph’s simple response comes to highlight that human life is the pursuit of relationships; finding the personal connections that bond together one another like siblings.