We read in Parashat Vayeshev of Yaakov’s request of Yosef to travel to Shekhem where his brothers were tending to the family’s flocks. A close examination of the text of Yaakov’s request reveals that it consists of two distinct components, separated by a response by Yosef. Yaakov first turns to Yosef and says, “Aren’t your brothers shepherding in Shekhem? Let me send you to them” (37:13). Yosef briefly responds, “Hineini” – “Here I am” – after which Yaakov against makes his request, but formulating it differently: “Go, please, and see the wellbeing of your brothers and the wellbeing of the sheep, and report back to me” (37:14). These two requests are not identical. In the first, Yaakov expresses his wish to send Yosef to his brothers, without mentioning any specific purpose. It is only in the second verse that Yaakov asks Yosef to report to him about his brothers’ wellbeing. How are we to understand these two different statements?
Rav Yehuda Henkin, in his Benei Banim (vol. 2, Chiba Yeteira, p. 43), suggests a novel reading of these verses, by noting the usual use of the word “hineini” in this context. Generally, the word is used in response to one’s name being called, as in the introduction to the story of akeidat Yitzchak, when God called Avraham’s name, and he replied “Hineini” (Bereishit 22:1). Another example is Moshe’s response to hearing his name called at the burning bush (Shemot 3:4). Yosef, however, replies, “Hineini” not to hearing his name called, but rather to Yaakov’s request that he go to his brothers. Although Rashi interprets this response as referring to Yosef’s eager and enthusiastic readiness to comply with his father’s wishes, Rav Henkin suggests the precise opposite reading – that Yosef declined Yaakov’s request, saying “I am staying here,” rather than go to Shekhem. Yaakov then expressed a different request, with which Yosef complied.
Rav Henkin explains that initially, Yaakov asked Yosef to join his brothers in shepherding the flocks, and not to simply check up on them. He asked Yosef, “Aren’t your brothers shepherding in Shekhem?” – as if to say, “Why aren’t you there with them?” The second verse in Parashat Vayeishev tells us that Yosef would shepherd together with his brothers, but it appears that this cooperation stopped due to the enmity that developed between them. Yaakov now tried to intervene, encouraging Yosef to join his brothers in tending to the herds, but Yosef refused, knowing that his brothers were no longer capable of treating him in a friendly manner (“ve-lo yakhelu dabero le-shalom” – 37:4). Yaakov then came up with a different plan, asking Yosef not to join his brothers, but to see how they were doing, in the hope that this brief encounter might trigger a process of reconciliation. Since this was a favor Yosef was being asked to do for his father, that did not entail working with his hostile brothers, Yosef agreed. Tragically, of course, Yaakov’s plan backfired in the worst way imaginable, and Yosef ended up being brought to Egypt as a slave.