Making Room for God

Vayiggash By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Dec 21, 1997 / 5757 | Torah Commentary

Jacob and Joseph, father and son, had been separated for 22 years. At first the exclamation of his sons that Joseph was not only alive but ruled over all of Egypt was met with stony silence. Jacob did not dare let their words shatter the emotional equilibrium he had forged out of his suffering. It was only upon seeing the vehicles of Egyptian design sent by Joseph that Jacob softened his resistance. His spirit sprang back to life and he insisted on leaving for Egypt immediately to behold once again his long lost son.

Robert Alter captures the subtlety of this climactic passage in his sensitive new translation of and commentary on Genesis:

And they went up from Egypt and they came to the land of Canaan to Jacob their father. And they told him, saying “Joseph is still alive,” and that he was the ruler in all the land of Egypt. And his heart stopped, for he did not believe them. And they spoke to him all the words of Joseph that he had spoken to them, and he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to convey him, and the spirit of Jacob their father revived. And Israel said, “Enough! Joseph our son is still alive. Let me go see him before I die” (Genesis 45:25-28).

The text turns on the interplay between the phrases “and his heart stopped” and “the spirit of Jacob their father revived.” Jacob’s initial reaction is defensive. He suppresses any temptation to give credence to the news, being still at risk from wounds too deep to heal. But as the circumstantial evidence mounts, Jacob’s tenseness dissipates and he springs back to life.

The midrash, as is its wont, goes beyond the fleeting episode to ferret out a lasting meaning from the second phrase. The word va-tehi (from the root haya – to be alive) connotes recovery not from a sudden shock but from an emotional state that had become frozen. What Jacob regained at that moment was his prophetic capacity which he had lost when he sand into inconsolable mourning over Joseph. And indeed that is how the Targum (the ancient and usually quite literal Aramaic translation of the Torah) renders the phrase: “The spirit of prophesy descended upon Jacob their father.”

Profoundly, the midrash posits that depression and prophecy are incompatible. The pall of Joseph’s disappearance (intensified by lack of closure and perhaps Jacob’s own feelings of guilt for having sent Joseph on his fateful mission – 37:13-14) never lifted from Jacob’s head. At the time he had bitterly predicted: “No, I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol (37:35).” The tragedy and its melancholy aftermath thus distanced Jacob from God’s presence, leaving him without any source of comfort.

Maimonides explains our midrash by reference to a related instance of rabbinic religious psychology. “God’s presence is never felt in a state of sadness or lethargy or levity or conversation or distractedness, but only amid the joy of performing a mitzva.” In other words, to establish a link between the human and the divine requires of us a concerted effort to be in good humor. The commandments provide occasions and vehicles for elevating our spirits. Executed with care and beauty in the midst of friends and family, mitzvot become a medium for uplift, sanctity and insight. In its animus toward asceticism, Judaism puts a premium on the joy that comes with doing a mitzva as if it were sacred theater.

The highest form of worship is attained for Maimonides only when commandments are fulfilled in a truly joyful mood that carries us beyond ourselves. We need to reduce our self-absorption and shrink our egos in order to make room for God’s entry into our lives.

The example Maimonides offers is that of King David bringing the ark of the Lord to his new capital of Jerusalem. As he loses himself in the intensity of the holy celebration “leaping and whirling before the Lord like a commoner,” he is despised and rebuked by his wife Michal, the daughter of his predecessor King Saul. David administers a stinging retort: “It was before the Lord who chose me instead of your father and all his family and appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people Israel. I will dance before the Lord and dishonor myself even more, and be low in our esteem; but among the slavegirls that you speak of I will be honored (II Samuel 6:21-22).”

Maimonides goes so far as to attribute the decline of prophesy in ancient Israel to exile. Again the dynamic, as in the case of Jacob, is a psychological one. The insecurity and oppression endemic to Jewish life abroad precludes the peace of mind indispensable for direct divine communication. Whatever the actual historical reason, Judaism never restricted the experience of God, as opposed to revelation, to the sacred soil of Israel. On the verse in our parasha where God addresses Jacob before his departure for Egypt: “I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back (46:4),” the Rabbis affixed the universal principle that, “Wherever Israel was exiled, God’s presence would accompany them.” Our state of mind is thus a more formidable barrier to reaching God than our location. The enemy lurks concealed within ourselves.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Chancellor Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va-yiggash are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.