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JTS Torah Commentary

Parashat Va-Yigash 5766
Genesis 44:18–47:27
January 7, 2006     7 Tevet 5766

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Barry Starr, Rabbi of Temple Israel in Sharon, Massachusetts

"Take with you words," says the Prophet Hoshea, "and return to the Lord" (Hoshea 14:2). This exhortation suggests to some the importance of words to a people steeped in the oral tradition and the learning that comes from books. Thus it is not unthinkable that the use of particular words would be significant for us in understanding not only passages of Torah but subtle human motivations inherent in those passages as well.

Our parashah begins with the words, "Judah approached [va–yigash] Joseph" (Genesis 44:18). Clearly this phrase, given the subsequent conversation that the two of them had, would be superfluous. Of course, he approached. They certainly did not shout at each other from a distance! In fact, this word and variant forms of it appear quite often in the story of Jacob, and the generation preceding and following him. The word appears no less than six times alone in the story of Jacob's taking the blessing from Esau. Here in our parashah, Judah approaches Joseph with the intention of understanding just why this prince of Egypt seems to be treating his family with such malevolence. The Gere Rebbi, the S'fat Emet, suggests that Judah, not knowing that Joseph was his long–lost brother, nonetheless sensed a secret deep in the heart of Joseph, a secret that needed to be revealed. Judah's approach was filled with trepidation and anxiety as he sought just the means to draw out the secret in Joseph's heart. If va–yigash here is indicative of this trepidation, so perhaps its frequent use in regards to this family is the Torah's way of suggesting that in Jacob and his family we are witnessing people who have trouble approaching each other. Because of anxiety, lack of trust, or fear, the characters surrounding Jacob are always reluctant to approach. They must be asked or are asking others to do the same. Somehow, for these people, coming near emotionally, spiritually, even physically, is troublesome.

A midrash in B'reishit Rabbah (93:6) reminds us that "approaching" is a very complicated action both physically and spiritually. One may approach another with varied intentions; in fact, with multiple intentions. The Midrash suggests that "approaching" can be in a spirit of contentiousness, in a spirit of contrition, or even in a spirit of tefillah, which I will translate here as soulful closeness. Only the individual knows what the true intention is. One wonders which, or indeed how many, of these complex intentions were in the heart of Judah as he approached Joseph. Though approaching another may be difficult and anxiety provoking, it is necessary for serious human relationships to flourish. Jacob and his family may be no different from us in finding the act of closeness something fraught with danger.

Our society is obsessed with "personal space." We protect that space and shut others out. We even find ourselves in lawsuits for violating another's space. Litigiousness aside, I do understand the need for protection and I realize full well that in certain cases the invasion of one's space can have disastrous results. Too often, however, personal space becomes merely a metaphor for the individual's reluctance to approach another with sincerity and closeness. We live in a world of handshakes, not hugs. Ever vigilant to protect ourselves, we end up making it impossible for others to "get in" and we refuse to even try to approach our fellow human beings. Yet embracing another human being, let alone someone in our own family, is more than just a physical act. Embracing another means to help that person explore the depth of his or her soul; it means to reach out for intimacy of thought and purpose. If we cannot approach, we certainly cannot expect to feel any closeness with others.

Jacob wrestled with what he thought was a man. Only later did he learn that this figure was indeed an angel. Following this incident, and I would argue only following this event, could Jacob embrace his brother Esau and tell him that in his face he saw "the face of God" (Genesis 33:10). In reality, what Jacob learned from his struggle was the important lesson that embracing a human being is embracing God. Jacob emerged from this moment shaleym (whole and complete), says the Torah. In fact, human completeness only comes from the realization of the truth of embrace that Jacob learned in his struggle with God. Only by embracing human beings physically and emotionally can we begin to see the Almighty in our world. Only by approaching others willingly, openly, and enthusiastically can we make the connections that are necessary to a world that needs caring and love. We can only see the face of God if are willing to reach out to the heart and soul of other human beings.

Yet Jacob emerges from the struggle with God wounded. A willingness to seek closeness is not without its own dangers. We can be deeply hurt by others when we do approach. Those who face that danger by never being close end up suffering wounds far deeper than the dislocation of the hip suffered by Jacob. They suffer a dislocation of the spirit, from which they never recover. To struggle for closeness means to open one's self up to being hurt.

Judah's approach to Joseph did the trick and Joseph was finally ready to reveal his secret. How sad then that even at this moment of revelation and sincere joy, Joseph had to beckon his brothers, "Come near to me!" (Genesis 45:4). There's that word again! Joseph is now no longer afraid of the approach of his brothers. He is ready to unveil his secret truth and reunite with the family he has not seen for so long. The brothers are still suspicious though. How difficult it is in a world of handshakes to truly embrace.

Let us strive to create a world of embrace. We can overcome the injury. The reward is greater than the pain. And in those with whom we find closeness, we will see the Almighty, face to face.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Barry Starr



The publication and distribution of the JTS commentary on Parashat Va–Yigash are made possible by a generous gift from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.