Vayigash: The power of Approach, Safety in Solidarity
Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, Delivered at SAJ, January 4, 2020
“Lo Yachol Yosef l’hit-apek.” “Joseph is no longer able to control himself.”
In the torah portion Vayigash, Joseph directs all his attendants to leave and then he sobs so loud that the news of his breakdown travels all the way to the Pharaoh’s palace.
He was holding onto the pain and anger of his childhood triggered by seeing his brother again when they come to Egypt to procure rations. After doubling down on his decision to torture his brothers by planting evidence on Benjamin and demanding what he must know is an impossible ask, Joseph’s hardened heart melts open. In that moment, he has space in his heart for forgiveness, for reconciliation — things that were not possible or available just moments before.
What was it that so affected Joseph that he gave up on his plan for the brothers and let his guard down? What was it that softened his heart?
We know, first, that it was Judah. It was not until Judah spoke to Joseph, pleaded his case to what he thought was a cruel and erratic Egyptian master, that Joseph went from being a superior to becoming a brother again.
Was it what Judah said? Was it Judah’s sensitivity or the word that reminded Joseph of the bond with his father?
Was it the fact that it was Judah who emerged as the savior of the family? Judah, the brother who suggested that Joseph be enslaved in the first place?
It is possible that it was all of these things — and I want to also suggest that above and beyond anything else, it was the way in which Judah approached Joseph.
Our torah is called “vayigash” — in our Etz Hayim Tanach , the word is translated to “And Judah went up to him….”
There are many other words that could have described Judah’s action. But the torah chooses “vayigash” which can mean “approach,” “to come near.”
Vayigash appears many other times in the torah — and in most cases, there is a physical movement that takes place. As Rabbi Brad Artson says, “the verb is most often used in the torah to depict a lessening of physical distance between one party and another. But it can have a psychic component as well, signaling imminent rapport — or its opposite — the possibility of failure and thus the heightened tension that comes with drawing too near.”
Vayigash in the Joseph story becomes a reciprocal action. One person’s approach, drawing near, leads to a breakthrough of certain magnitude. When Joseph reveals himself, the brothers are so shocked that they cannot speak. “Lo yachlu echav la’anot oto” — they were unable to answer him, due to the shock of that revelation.
In that moment in which the brothers stand there frozen, Joseph said to his brothers, “G’shu Na Elav” — Draw close to me. Come near me.
“Vayigashu” — And they came forward.
By using this Hebrew root three times in a small section — a word with a particular connotation — the torah highlights for us the transformative power of moving closer to others. The torah is showing us what is possible when we risk vulnerability to enter into someone else’s world and seek to understand them and relate to them, up close.
Vayigash implies an understanding that to break barriers and divisions or at least try to do so, we need to come into physical proximity. We need to move past the silos in which we live and locate ourselves and get into the world and space of another person. Vayigash is a or the preliminary step towards connection and reconciliation.
But the moving closer brings empathy and humanity that is not possible from a distance. And that connection can facilitate teshuvah, healing, and personal transformation.
This is a deeply powerful teaching for us individually, as we consider which relationships it might be safe and appropriate for us to move forward, to approach and to bridge the physical and psychic distance between us.
And, this is an especially important and instructive teaching on this Shabbat, following this terrible week (and weeks) of antisemitic attacks in our own city and neighboring city of Jersey City.
As with Joseph and Judah, this moment that we are living in right now offers us the opportunity to approach — and to allow others’ approach to touch our hearts in a way that can further healing and reconciliation, just as it does in the Joseph story.
We have an opportunity to approach our Jewish brothers and sisters.
I have been a rabbi in NYC for 4 and one half years. In that time, I have been surprised at how much every congregation and organization works in their own silos and how little interaction and cooperation happen naturally between groups. This is the first time since my arrival that I have seen the New York City Jewish community come together. What would it be like for us to really approach and accept the approach of the rest of the NYC Jewish community? What might be possible?
We need to also talk about “approach” with the Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. This can be very hard and painful for us as progressive Jews, as feminists, as LGBTQ or allied Jews, and for communities that include non-Jews and patrilineal Jews in our ranks. Many of us have deep ingrained feelings of aversion towards those communities and feel “they are not one of us.” Some of us have painful interpersonal experiences of growing up Orthodox or being rejected in that context. All of these are legitimate experiences and feelings we bring to this moment. At the same time, might we consider embracing “vayigash” “approach” in this moment?
At the very least, we can move towards empathy and a sense of being one people. We can move towards solidarity. Even if that Jewish community doesn’t recognize our version of Judaism, we can still show up for them. We do not have to believe anything they believe in order for us to assert that they have the right to safety. As they are taking the “hits” for all of us as the most visible Jews in this clime of anti-semitism and xenophobia, we have the opportunity to approach and say “we have your back.”
We also have the opportunity now (and always) to approach our allies outside the Jewish community, to invite them to “Geshu Na” — to come towards. We can find comfort in solidarity with others, and solidarity is safety. This is especially important as almost immediately, certain individuals and groups of Jews started using the Monsey tragedy to divide and conquer the non-Jewish African-American community and the Jewish community. Articles and tweets blaming these events on Bail Reform came out almost minutes after the tragedy. Fake Twitter accounts were created with profiles of “Jews” diminishing the dignity of African-Americans, all to sow enmity and distrust. This kind of division keeps those in power safe and does not nothing to interrupt the division and suspicion present. Our approach, our solidarity and commitment are what can stem the tide of this moment.
Let’s also keep in mind the brilliant words of our story. Vayigash is not just about Judah approaching Joseph. It is a reciprocal action. It is a “two way street.” This approaching has to go both ways. If we are asking people to approach us, to come march with us in our time of trouble, we need to be committed to having a similar “drawing near” to others in their times of need. Keeping this in mind, we need to be aware that racism manifests differently than antisemitism. Racism occurs in everyday interactions and also in the most basic systems that allow for systemic oppression and disempowerment, including the prison system, the policing system, etc. To really be in a reciprocal relationship is going to call us to be sensitive and responsive to the concerns of communities of color, starting with the Jewish people of color in our own communities.
As in the story, “Vayigash” “approach” connotes risk and vulnerability. If you draw close, you run the risk of failing. It was a tremendous risk for Judah to approach an Egyptian leader on Egyptian soil (as he presumed) and ask him to take pity on his situation and the feelings of his father. This moment necessitates risk and vulnerability, inviting us to have conversations that are challenging, to confront the personal biases that get in the way from members of our own community and other communities. With the risk comes the reward. Moving closer brings empathy and humanity that is simply not possible from a distance. That connection can facilitate teshuvah, healing, and transformation.
Ken Yehi Ratzon-May it be so.