Vayiggash: The Power of Proximity

Posted on December 22, 2023 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck

The story of Joseph and his brothers was about to end in disaster. Having woven a web of revenge around his siblings who had sold him into slavery, Joseph was about to deliver the final blow when his oldest brother Judah made a bold and courageous move.

Vayiggash Yehudah…

“Judah drew near…” “he approached…” He placed himself and his humanity before the second-most powerful man in Egypt, the lord who held their fate in his hands. Judah stood before him panim el panim, face to face, and poured out his heart. He revealed the depth of his pain and anguish, with utter vulnerability, and pierced the armor of Joseph’s anger. “Take me,” he pleads. “Take my life in place of my brother Benjamin, whose loss will kill our father.”

Joseph’s heart breaks open upon hearing Judah’s plea, his love and compassion for Benjamin and Jacob, and his contrition. The barriers that divided and separated the estranged brothers are shattered. Tearfully, Joseph reveals his identity and repents of his vengeful plot. He bids them to draw near, he forgives them, and he charts a path to healing for their entire family.

It is so much easier to hate from a distance, when the object of your acrimony is an abstract, an idea, or a category — one of those people — and not a full-fledged, flesh-and-blood human being with a face and feelings, a person who hurts and hopes just like you.

The reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers teaches us the power of proximity. It demonstrates how our divisions feed on alienation, and how drawing near to one another — how seeing, hearing, and feeling one another — can release the wellsprings of compassion that can heal the breaches that cause so much pain and suffering. Therein lies the path to peace — vayiggash, laggeshet — the willingness to draw near and experience the possibility, the promise, and the power of proximity.

Since October 7, many Jews have felt like we are reliving the painful drama of Joseph and his brothers. In our time of grief and anguish, many of those we considered friends and allies have been seemingly indifferent to our pain, leaving us to feel abandoned and even betrayed. Dead Jews garner sympathy, for a while, it seems, but Jews who refuse to be victims, Jews who stand up to defend themselves and their people, are deemed oppressors, villains, and criminals.

I, too, experienced these hard and raw emotions. The silence of so many faith leaders and partners was devastating to me. But I did not suffer that pain in silence. Instead, together with a rabbinic colleague, I spoke up and expressed my distress and disappointment. Instead of withdrawing, we drew near. And something wonderful happened. A vayiggash moment ensued. Our fellow religious leaders saw us, heard us, and felt our pain. They expressed remorse and regret, and asked our forgiveness for failing to realize that we needed their support – not necessarily their agreement with our perspectives on the conflict – but their caring presence.

This week, we met in person to talk about our feelings and have the difficult conversation about Israel, Hamas, and the war in Gaza. It was hard. Emotions were raw. There is much that we do not agree on. But we were able to hear and feel one another because we were open and proximate, and felt safe to share our pain and struggles. Our African American colleagues spoke of how they live in fear for their lives every day because of the pervasive racism that plagues our society and makes everyday activities like driving a car fraught with danger. “Will today be the day I don’t come home to my family?” said one. An Imam noted that he lives in double jeopardy because he is both Black and Muslim. One of the women in the group lamented the constant experience of being objectified and sexualized.

We came together for our meeting, saw each other, heard each other, and affirmed one another. We didn’t solve any problems. Racism, antisemitism, islamophobia, sexism, and misogyny are as persistent and pervasive as ever. But we left our gathering closer than we were before, with spirits uplifted and with renewed hope, renewed in our commitment to lift the voice of faith that declares that we are one human family, each of us created in God’s image, all of us deserving of dignity and love.

May we all be blessed to draw near to others and experience the promise and the power of proximity.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Arnie Gluck