Several commentators note the seemingly excessive detail in Yosef’s journey to check on his brothers in Shechem. There doesn’t seem to be much reason to tell us that he got lost on the way and met a stranger that give him directions. The most common approach is that the passage is to show us 1) Yosef’s persistence in carrying out his father’s request and/or 2) Divine guidance in making sure events unfurled as they did. While both of these explanations are plausible, several details still seem extraneous or just strange.
Both R. Moshe Alshikh and Kli Yakar pick up on the fact that the Torah describes him as being lost specifically in the sadeh, the field. While his brothers could have been grazing their sheep in a field, this one did not seem to be anywhere near where his brothers were meant to be. Hence even if Yosef was lost, we would have expected him on a road, or maybe at an inn or even by a well. A random field seems like the last place he should be. To this query, Alshikh adds another observation: that the grammatical construction here tells that he was lost in the field (meaning a specific one already identified), not in a field. But which field would the Torah be referring to? His answer is that is the field mentioned in his first dream. Hence the Torah is hinting to us that he was making a mistake about the interpretation of that dream, thinking, says Alshikh, that they were going to bow down to him now.
In fact, I think that it may be more than the dream that is the locus of Yosef’s mistake. While fields abound in the book of Bereshit, they almost always represent a wild, untamed space. As opposed to the empty midbar, the wilderness, where one can go to find God, the field is not totally uninhabited and threateningly close. But as opposed to the city, it defies civilization. In short, it is the proverbial outer realm.
Because of its distance from the center and the sparseness of its inhabitation, the field is a place of a freedom often associated with lawlessness. Indeed, it is in the field that Kain kills his brother Hevel. And while Ya’akov’s place is in the tent, Esav’s is not surprisingly in the field. Accordingly, we read about a field of Edom and a field of Moav, but never about a field of Yisrael.
It is true that not all the associations with fields are completely negative. Avraham buys a field alongside the cave at Machpelah for his burial site (though that is not a completely positive association either). And an even most interesting counter-example is Yitzchak famously praying in the field, when Rivkah first sees him. Still, Yitzchak’s prayer could more easily be seen as a type of conquest of such realms, than as a cozy and comfortable retreat for meditation.
How strange then that Yosef’s dream should take place in the field. And just as strange that he would soon be lost there. But it is less strange if we look at how Yosef’s life develops. Yosef is the one who eventually brought the Jews to what was for them the outer realm of Egypt. And it is indeed only there that his brothers bow down to him. Yet while this helps us understand the field in Yosef’s dream, it still does not explain the symbolism of his being lost there.
As I have mentioned before, Yosef’s struggle with his brothers was really an ideological one. It centered around the question of whether we are to influence the world by example from the more private and safe existence of our tent (the brothers), or whether we have to take more risks by going outside and being heavily involved with the rest of civilization (Yosef). In his vision – like in his dream – he and his brothers were not in the tent, but in the field. And if the brothers were there with him, it was a sign that they had bowed down not only to him, but to his vision as well.
And yet before any of this materializes, the Torah shows us Yosef lost and wandering in the field. Perhaps we are being told the following: If workable, Yosef’s vision would be more effective. But in practice, it makes it too easy to get lost. The goal of the Jewish nation is to strongly influence the world at large. But it can only do so if it first preserves itself, both physically and –more importantly – spiritually. While there are times when there is a need to go down to the field and bow down to Yosef, most times are not like that. And while this should not mean turning our backs on the rest of civilization, it does mean that an essential component of our being able to help others is making sure that we survive.