Torah Commentary- Perashat Vayigash: Confronting Societal Injustice, Confronting Ourselves

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In these troubled times, when we see societal tolerance of speech approaching that of fascism, when open hate speech about anything or anyone approximating an “enemy”, where even the victims of oppression are treated with hostility and suspicion, one feels helpless in attempting to maintain a sense of justice and decency. How does one respond to what appears to be a situation of crisis? What kind of discourse is appropriate as a response?

This week’s perasha (Torah portion) begins at a similar moment of crisis- All seems lost. An innocent descent to Egypt to purchase food has ended up with youngest brother Benyamin imprisoned by the enemy authorities. To the brothers, it would seem that their own actions have put the children of Rachel at risk of total decimation (with Yosef believed dead and his only brother Binyamin in a place worse than death), an outcome which would compound their father’s already unrelieved grief to beyond mortal tolerance. The family appears helpless in a Kafkaesque trial situation which caught them entirely unawares.

In an act of desperation, Yehudah steps forward and begins to plead with the enemy leader for his brother’s life. The text uses some unusual language- the text reads:Vayigash Elav Yehudah, literally Yehudah “encountered” him. The use of the termvayigash, from the roothagasha, (to come close, also to prepare) is somewhat unusual, both linguistically and even in terms of the action, given that they were in the same room. And to whom is the second word in the phrase,Elav, “to him”, referring to?

In fact, why does the text need to quote Yehuda’s speech at such length? This speech does not reveal anything new towards the linear development of the plot; we are given no new facts about the brothers’ history, and no new personal revelations. Yet this speech is clearly central to the story and thus extensively analyzed by the Midrashim. The Midrash choreographs entire dialogues lurking behind the words of Yehudah, referring to all sorts of hidden meanings within his every word, both conciliatory and threatening words; the prelude in the Midrash Rabbah (BR 93:3) insists that the words of Yehudah “can be interpreted from every angle”. We will find that the words of Yehuda teach us several useful lessons on mindfulness in the moment of apparent crisis.

The Midrash (BR 93:6) tells us that the term vayigash reflects three types of preparation:

“R. Yehudah says: preparation for war…R. Nehemiah says: preparation for mediation, diplomacy…The Rabbis say: preparation for prayer…R. Elazar settled this saying: If for war, I’m ready, if for diplomatic mediation, I’m ready, if for prayer [i.e., if all is lost], I’m ready…

In summary, the word vayigash suggests a ‘stepping forward’ which contains several potential responses, and at the same time, a stepping forward towards several possibleElavs, several possible “towards him”, both the subject and the object of this phrase, who is confronting whom, can be read in many ways.

I.The Object

Let us being with the object of the sentence, towards whom did Yehuda stride, to whom does “elav” refer? One interesting approach taken by several of the mystical commentators is that theElavto whom this verse refers is God, in other words, that the speech given by Yehudah, is actually not an argument to the Pharoah’s minister, but actually a prayer, where Yehudah is pleading and negotiating with God.

Variations of this reading are found in both the Noam Elimelech and the Bat Ayin. They both read Yehuda’s speech as a prayer addressed to God, and not one limited only to this situation. The Noam Elimelech focuses on Yehuda’s ki komacha k’pharoh, “you are like Pharoah”. This is generally understood as Yehuda flattering Pharoah’s minister that in the brother’s eyes he is equal to the Pharoah. However, the Noam Elimelech reads this phrase noncontextually, as signifying an existential truth about our inability to focus- in our daily prayers and thoughts, there are times where while we should keep our attention focused on the bigger picture, on what is central to prayer, God (kamocha), too often we are distracted by those mundane desires that enslave us (Pharoah).

The Bat Ayin, a disciple of the Noam Elimelech, returning the passage to the context of crisis, radically turns this passage into one of those wondrous Hassidic complaints against apparent divine silence- “How can you, God, behave like the evil Pharoah?” The Mei HaShiloach, in this vein, adds that the next phrase,bi adoni, “me/within me, my Lord” reflects Yehuda’s internal certitude that his cause is correct, and thus in a just universe, God is obligated to redeem him.

The Sefat Emet, in his earlier years (his classic text is arranged as a yearly diary of thoughts on the text), also reads the “elav” as referring to God, but in his later discourse of 5637 (1877), suggests an alternative object whom Yehuda addresses in his speech- himself. The termElavsuggests that this text is a soliloquy directed at himself; Yehuda is reevaluating the situation in his own mind. In the words of the Sefat Emet:

‘after all, Yehudah did not introduce one new fact in these words, and he had no solid claim to put forward as a defense to Yosef- even so,the clarification of the issue to himself brought about salvation’

An individual must construct his or her own narrative out of the events of one’s life, which when done with searing honesty can bring about a level of self-understanding; this true analysis of the trajectory of one’s situation can lead to enlightenment and healing.

A similar process of retrospective analysis for the sake of narrative clarity is seen in an earlier story in the text. There is a frequently cited Midrash related to the mission of Abraham’s servant to find a bride for Yitzchak (Isaac), Abraham’s son, in which it is claimed that the servant of Abraham secretly hoped the mission would fail, as the servant had a daughter that he wished Yitzchak would marry. This is revealed, according the Midrah, by the deficient spelling in the text of the word “perhaps” in the phrase “perhaps she (a prospective bride for Isaac found in Haran) will not wish to follow me back here” (In Hebrew, the word for perhaps, “ve’ulay” is written without the usual vav). The Kotzker notes that in the initial third person narrative of the story, in which the servant first uses this phrase, the word is written complete, with the vav in place. It is only in the servant’s first person restatement of the events when speaking to Rivka’s family, that the word ‘perhaps’ is written without the vav, only when the servant recreates the events in his own mind and thus constructs a personal narrative out the events that transpired, that he comes to realize that his intentions were, in fact, tainted by his own personal desire for failure of the mission. In an honest retrospective reconstruction of the events that transpire in one’s life, one can come to recognize one’s own hidden motivations, the obstacles one has placed in one’s own way, and thus begin a path to self-correction and reconciliation.

In this light, we can understand the Midrash (BR 93:9) which suggests that it was only after Yehuda’s speech that Yehuda himself realized how committed he was to saving his brothers, that he was even willing to give up his life for his brothers, and thus, how profound was his sincere contriteness for his previous actions harming his brother. In this reading, this internal narrative is thus the centerpiece of the narrative- the moment of insight, of Yehuda’s sudden self-realization and transformation, is the centerpiece of the episode.

It is perhaps the transformative power of honest assessment of the narrative and situation that is the message of the story for our day. The denouement of the situation after Yehuda’s impassioned speech, is that the minister who was tormenting them breaks down, and reveals that not only is he not a hostile Egyptian prosector, but is actually their long lost brother!

At this point there is a very clear shift in the structure of the text, from the conflict between the brothers who both fade out of center stage, to a resumption of concern with Yaakov, who resumes centrality in the next perasha as he gives the blessings to his sons.

Yaakov’s narrative at this point in the story is that just as Yehuda learns by recollecting, now it is his father’s turn to reappraise his own life through honest self-analysis. Yaakov perhaps now realizes that he has received the answer to his prayer made at the time he left his father’s house for the first time, in which he requested,Im yihyeh Elokim imadi, “If God would only accompany me”. Looking back at all his troubles, at the end of his tale, he now recognizes, that God was there with him all along, present in every moment of his story. This understanding of the deeper meaning of personal history is reflected in the blessings he gives his sons. Contrary to previous blessing narratives, such as that of his father and grandfather, Avraham and Yitzhak, in which non-specific generic sounding blessings are given, Yaakov’s blessings come with a history and a story; his blessings contain recollections of past events linked with situation specific blessings and predictions for the future. This time, the blessings come out of experience, of bitter life lessons.

Specifically with regards to confronting a situation of crisis, the role of honest self-appraisal and understanding the deeper narrative may also lead to a correct assessment of the crisis situation itself. The Izhbitzer in his work, Mei Shiloach, offers a remarkable reading of the text (Exodus23), where God reveals himself to Moshe and states, “my back you shall see but not my front”. The Izhbitzer reads this mysterious phrase as signifying that God’s plan can be found in history only inretrospect; we may not comprehend the meaning within events as they transpire in real time, but upon a critical, retrospective analysis of the kind we are discussing here, a deeper meaning can become palpable.

The process of retroactive understanding illustrated in our story of the brothers in Egypt is thus an archetype for the meaning of Jewish history, according to the Izhbitzer. Let’s review the story from the brothers’ perspective, as narrated here. Upon innocently traveling to Egypt to procure food, they unexpectedly find themselves accused and imprisoned, about to lose everything, with no hope for redemption, and suddenly, at the bleakest moment, it is revealed that all along, they were never in any danger at all! All this time their accuser was actually their brother!

So will it be at the end of history, states the Izhbitzer, it will be evident that all along, there was a sense to history, a purpose for all of our suffering, and in that moment of retrospective understanding, it will be made apparent how everything that transpired were points in a line leading to universal healing and enlightenment. Perhaps we may even discover that our ‘enemies’ have become our ‘brothers’.

II.The Subject

I would like to return, at this point to the idea of personal narrative as illustrated by the soliloquy of Yehuda. How “personal” is the personal narrative we are to create for ourselves to be? Too often, teachings related to personal awareness are read as some kind of purely private moment, limited to therapeutic or self-help approaches, with an emphasis on “self”, that is, the individual and his or her “problem”. In other words, the assumption is that your problems are your fault as an individual, correct what is wrong with your own life and by correcting your own attitude, you will fit in better at work or in relationships, and then your life will be smoother and you will be more productive.

All too often, however, “self-help” advice is merely a way of concealing societal issues and deflecting the injustices in society upon the individual; it is not society which has a problem but rather it is a failure of the individual to conform. This was the conclusion Theodore Adorno drew from reviewing several years of newspaper horoscope advice columns during his ‘exile’ in LA, documented in his work, The Stars Down To Earth. His conclusion was that instead of addressing the real injustices in society which lead to individual anomie, alienation and suffering, the horoscopes continually suggest that one should try to fit in and not cause trouble, learn how to flatter the bosses, etc. Too much of the emphases of contemporary therapy is meant to subvert attention from the societal inequality and injustice within corporate society and shift blame onto the hapless individual, who only needs to learn how to cope and accommodate in order to be “happier” and more “fun”.

In this light, we might suggest another alternative for whom this word elav and Yehuda’s critique was directed. Yehuda stepped forward, and, as they used to say, “spoke truth to the Man”. According to the Tiferet Shelomo, Yehuda’sspeech was a response to a miscarriage of justice within the dominant society. We can easily update this concept by reading the story as a critique of a society that was accustome to generating threats and hostile actions against innocent people purely because they outsiders, economic refugees seeking only food.

The Tiferet Shelomo says that the emotional impact of Yehudah’s speech is a result of his speaking from a sense of sincerearevut, out of deeply felt sense of responsibility for the Other. Only when Yehuda reviewed his own flaws in dealing with the Other (in the crime against his half-brother), when he was able to feel within himself the pain and suffering of the Other, and the need to take personal responsibility for the wellbeing of the community, could he then speak clearly and directly. It is perhaps only when we can learn to feel the suffering of the Other, when we are willing to stand up for needs of those different than us and be dedicated to creating a better society, that we can also understand our own personal needs and struggles.

This standing up for the victims of injustice, for the weak members of society, is the true root of all our prayers. “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la’zeh“- all of the community needs to feel a responsibility for one another’s welfare. All of the prayers in the Hebrew prayer service are phrased in the plural voice, the Hebrew prayer book never states “heal me“, it is always, “healus“. The Talmud teaches us that when one prays for another’s well-being, the personal needs of the individual praying are answered first- because our own real needs are not understood or honest to ourselves until we have stood up first for the rights and needs of others.

What then are the lessons we can learn from the crises faced by the brothers in Egypt? When confronted with societal injustice and mob uproar of hate, we have to hold true to the lessons of Vayigash elav Yehuda, we need to confront society and we need to confront ourselves, we need to think through our own personal narrative, which itself is itself contingent upon learning to feel responsibility for the pain and suffering of our fellow human beings. Who knows? We might discover that the people we viewed with hatred may with time, become our own brothers and sisters. Our prayer must be the transformation of a society of hatred into a society of compassion and healing.