As the secular year rolls to a close, media of all types are rolling out retrospectives composed of lavish displays of photos, video, and descriptions of events of the past year from around the globe. As no time in history we can now travel the world without stepping beyond our own doors. We see the scourge of Ebola in West Africa, the suffering of those brutally dominated by ISIS, the fighting in Ukraine and Crimea that has taken an estimated 15,000 lives. Closer to home, we have watched—again and again—video associated with the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. Calamities of nature, tragedies of violence, and travesties of justice approach us and enter our lives; the graphic and immediate nature of contemporary media bring them close.
This week’s parashah brings us to the climax of the story of Joseph and his brothers. In last week’s parashah, Joseph demanded that Benjamin remain in Egypt as his slave in punishment for a crime Benjamin did not commit. We cannot be sure if Joseph’s motive was revenge against the brothers who sold him into slavery years before, or whether Joseph’s clever contrivance to entrap Benjamin is a test to determine whether the brothers have repented and changed in some fundamental way (years before they purposefully disposed of Joseph; will they now extend themselves to save Benjamin)? Our parashah opens with the term that give it its name: וַיִּגַּשׁ [Judah] approached [Joseph]. Judah pleads with Joseph:
וַיִּגַּשׁ אֵלָיו יְהוּדָה וַיֹּאמֶר בִּי אֲדֹנִי יְדַבֶּר נָא עַבְדְּךָ דָבָר בְּאָזְנֵי אֲדֹנִי וְאַל יִחַר אַפְּךָ בְּעַבְדֶּךָ כִּי כָמוֹךָ כְּפַרְעֹה
And Judah approached him, "Please, my lord, let now your servant speak something into my lord's ears, and let not your wrath be kindled against your servant, for you are like Pharaoh.
אֲדֹנִי שָׁאַל אֶת עֲבָדָיו לֵאמֹר הֲיֵשׁ לָכֶם אָב אוֹ אָח
My lord asked his servants, saying, “Have you a father or a brother?” (Genesis 44:18-19)
Judah reminds Joseph that he had asked about their father, Jacob, and tells Joseph that Jacob was loathe to allow Benjamin to accompany the brothers to Egypt, for he could not imagine living without Benjamin should anything happen to the boy. Yet hunger is a powerful force, and the persistent famine induced Jacob to allow Benjamin to go with his brothers in search of food. Jacob had told Judah:
וּלְקַחְתֶּם גַּם אֶת זֶה מֵעִם פָּנַי וְקָרָהוּ אָסוֹן וְהוֹרַדְתֶּם אֶת שֵׂיבָתִי בְּרָעָה שְׁאֹלָה
Now if you take this one [Benjamin], too, away from me, and misfortune befalls him, you will bring down my hoary head in misery to the grave. (Genesis 44:29)
Judah approaches Joseph to plead for mercy. But Joseph—wrapped in a confusion of anger, resentment, excitement, distrust, desire for revenge, desire for reconciliation, curiosity about the spiritual state of his brothers, longing for his father—how did Joseph perceive Judah’s “approach”? The Rabbis offered several suggestions:
Said R. Yehudah said: The verb vayigash (“he approached") implies an approach to battle, as in So Yoav and the people that were with him approached unto battle (2 Samuel 10:13). R. Nechemiah said: The verb vayigash (“he approached") implies a coming near for conciliation, as in, Then the children of Judah approached Joshua (Joshua 14:6). The Sages said: It implies coming near for prayer, as in, And it came to pass at the time of the evening offering, that Elijah the prophet approached (1 Kings, 18:36). R. Eleazar combined all these views: Judah approached Joseph for all three, saying: “If it be war, I approach for war; if it be conciliation, I approach for conciliation; if it be for entreaty, I approach to entreat.” (Genesis Rabbah 93:6)
Joseph, the Rabbis are telling us, was prepared for all contingencies, but kept his mind open and receptive. When he realized that Judah’s approach was peaceful—he wanted to protect Benjamin—Joseph knew that Judah was ready for reconciliation.
Judah’s approach, his proximity, made the fact of Joseph’s brothers’ presence unavoidable; Joseph could not no longer remain aloof and manipulate their lives without himself feeling their pain.
In some ways, opening oneself up in this way is risky, both physically and emotionally, as the Rabbis suggest. But it’s also a wonderful model for us, because only one of the three responses is defensive; the other two, reconciliation and prayer are open, are positive responses. As the 2014 retrospectives approach and bring not only the good, but the tragedies and travesties into our proximity, the faces of so many vivid in our minds, this is an excellent time to consider how our end-of-the-year tzedakah might address the problems that befall others in our world and alleviate their suffering. I’m sure you have your own favorite tzedakah funds. Perhaps this coming week, prior to New Year’s Eve, you can find an hour to scout around for some new and worthy recipients to enlarge the reach of your tzedakah in response to the images approaching eyeshot and earshot—as Joseph did, with openness and a desire for healing.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman