Years have passed since Joseph’s brothers conspired against him and sold him into slavery in Egypt. And now, following an uneven path to power, Joseph has become Egypt’s vice president. Because of his ability to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, he has effectively prepared the country for the famine. Meanwhile back in the land of Israel Joseph’s family is ill-prepared. They are forced to make several journeys to Egypt in order to procure food.
Joseph seizes upon this opportunity. Because his brothers do not recognize him, but he of course recognizes them, he develops an elaborate plan to see if they have changed. He entraps the youngest of the brothers, Benjamin, hiding a goblet in his bag of food, and threatens to throw him into jail. Judah, an elder brother, pleads in behalf of Benjamin. He suggests that Joseph arrest him instead.
At this moment, Joseph is overcome with emotion and reveals himself to his brothers. They are dumbstruck. He forgives them. They have indeed changed. They stand in the exact same situation and yet this time choose differently. They are once again given the opportunity to get rid of their father Jacob’s favorite child and yet this time choose instead to defend him. They exhibit complete repentance.
This week’s portion opens with the words: “Then Judah drew near (vayigash) to him and said, ‘Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord.’” (Genesis 44) This drawing near offers an insight into how we are to go about fixing relationships and repairing the world. The rabbis comment (Midrash Rabbah):
Said Rabbi Yehudah: The verb “he drew near” (vayigash) implies an approach to battle, as in the verse “So Yoav and the people that were with him drew near to do battle” (II Samuel 10).
Rabbi Nechemiah said: The verb “he drew near" implies a coming near for reconciliation, as in the verse “Then the children of Judah drew near to Joshua” (Joshua 14).
The sages said: It implies coming near for prayer, as in the verse “When it was time to present the meal offering, the prophet Elijah drew near and said, ‘O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel!’” (I Kings 18).
Rabbi Eleazar combined all these views. Judah approached Joseph with all three in mind, saying: If it be for war, I approach to make war; if it be for reconciliation, I approach to make amends; if it be for prayer, I approach to pray.
The fascinating insight about this ancient commentary is the notion of how thin the line between war, reconciliation and prayer. In drawing near to another it could be for a fight. Or it could be to make peace. Or it could be to offer a prayer.
In an age when apologies are too often offered by text message, when bellicosity rockets across social media, and when prayers are circulated through email, we would do well to remember that the critical, and most important, point is the act of drawing near.
Little can be accomplished when distance separates people. The relationship cannot be transformed if people refuse to look each other in the eyes. They must stand face to face. They must draw near.
And in that moment of drawing near, a relationship can be repaired and the world transformed. When we approach another we may fear war, but it can turn to peace. We may expect reconciliation but it can inadvertently turn into an argument, disagreement and even belligerence. A moment when we are ready for a fight, when we are prepared for reconciliation can likewise be transformed into prayer.
We must be prepared for prayer, reconciliation and argument, all, at the same time.
We must always draw near. Vayigash! Draw near.