Friday, December 22, 2017

How to approach life - a Dvar Torah on Vayigash for Limmud

How do you approach life?

After Joseph imprisons Benjamin his brothers come to plead for his release, Parashat Vayigash begins when Judah approaches Joseph. The midrash wonders why Judah “approaches” — he is already there in the room, having a conversation with Joseph. In Bresheit Rabbah the sages suggest different reasons for the use of the verb “vayigash” (he approached).

Rabbi Yehudah said it implies an approach to battle, as in 2 Samuel 10:13: “So Yoav and the people that were with him approached for battle.”

Rabbi Nechemiah said it implies coming near for conciliation, as in Joshua 14:6: “Then the children of Judah approached Joshua.”

Others said it implies coming near for prayer, as in 1 Kings 18:36: “And it came to pass at the time of the evening offering, that Elijah the prophet approached.”

Rabbi Eleazar combined all these views, saying that Judah approached Joseph for all three. He imagined Judah saying to himself, “I’m here, whether it is for battle, for placating, or prayer. Whatever it is, I’m ready.”

Rabbi Simchah Bunam (1765-1827), in his commentary, suggested that prayer is only accepted favorably if it comes “from the depths of the heart and the essence of the soul,” and likewise one must prepare for war or conciliation  “with all one’s inner powers.” Therefore, Bunam concludes, the use of this word means “that Judah came closer to his own essence."

Judah is wholly present in the moment and he approaches Joseph with his whole self — hopeful that his appeal will be successful, but prepared to argue or placate. He knows that he must be prepared for any eventuality.

We often use the word approach in another way — not just for physical proximity, but when we talk about how we apply ourselves, such as our approach to a subject we are studying, our approach to work, or our approach to life.

Just as Judah did, we have the opportunity to approach things wholeheartedly, ready for whatever might come our way; but it is not always easy. It is sometimes easier, and far less risky to our sense of self, if we keep part of ourselves back. After all — we mistakenly imagine — if we are not successful in our endeavors, failure will be less painful because we were not really giving it our full effort.

Judah does not have that luxury. He is sure that his failure will result in his father’s death of a broken heart, and perhaps he knows he could not bear the guilt of betraying another brother. He has to bring his whole essence to the moment — it is too important to bring anything less as he approaches Joseph.

In all of our interactions we too can approach people or experiences by being fully present, bringing our whole essence to our endeavors and knowing that we are prepared to handle whatever may come our way. For Judah, this results in a reunion with his brother, as Joseph is so moved by Judah’s words that he bursts into tears and reveals his true identity — and ultimately, this leads to the entire family being reunited.


May we too approach life with our whole essence, just like Judah: prepared to be challenged, prepared to make peace, and prepared to find holiness in this world.

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