October 18, 2018

Drawing close: Parashat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27)

With his brother Benjamin’s fate hanging in the balance, Yehuda “draws close” to the Egyptian viceroy (whose true identity is not yet known). Yehuda had sworn to his father he would return Benjamin safely to Canaan, but now Benjamin is facing confinement and servitude in Egypt. Why does Yehuda “draw close” to the viceroy? As the 19th century commentator Netziv puts the question, “Was Yosef unable to hear Yehuda from where he had been standing until now?”

Netziv observes that the viceroy had made clear that he’d be dealing with Benjamin’s “crime” strictly by the book. He rejected the brothers’ initial statement — “The one in whose hands the goblet is found, let him die!” — because servitude, not death, was the proscribed penalty for theft. Justice was not an ad-hoc construct in Pharaoh’s Egypt. Yet Yehuda’s only hope was to persuade the viceroy to bend the rules, to deviate from “the book” and allow a surrogate to be enslaved in place of the criminal, to allow Yehuda himself to serve in Benjamin’s stead. This is why Yehuda draws close — to have a conversation that would be off the record. Yehuda literally wants to speak in a whisper: “Please allow your servant to say a word into the ear of my master.”

But the gesture of “drawing close” is not about confidentiality only. It also symbolizes Yehuda’s hope of recharacterizing their relationship, of moving the conversation from one realm of personal identity to another. As long as the conversation takes place within the realm of their political relationship and identities, he knows he doesn’t stand a chance. 

Yehuda opens with, “We have told my master that we have an old father who has a child of his old age. That child’s brother is dead, and now the child alone remains, and his father loves him.” Yehuda is seeking the ear not of the viceroy of Egypt, but the ear of a person who also has a father and a mother, who perhaps also has a brother, and who knows the strength of both filial and fraternal bonds. Yehuda literally traverses the customary distance that separates the ruler from the ruled, the politician from the commoner. 

The Talmud (Kiddushin 32b) has a discussion about whether a person who represents law and authority is permitted to exit his formal, political identity and enter a softer, purely human one. The first opinion cited is that of Rabbi Ashi, who says that a nasi (prince) does not possess the prerogative to set aside his position. The needs of the body politic demand that he always remain faithful to the expectations associated with his appointed station.

The talmudic discussion continues, however, by citing a story involving several other leading sages: 

“It once happened that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Zadok were reclining at a banquet hosted by Rabban Gamaliel’s son, while Rabban Gamaliel [the president of the Sanhedrin] was standing over them and serving drink. When he offered a cup to Rabbi Eliezer, he refused to accept it out of respect. But when he offered it to Rabbi Joshua, he did accept. Rabbi Eliezer said to him, ‘What is this, Joshua! We are sitting, while Rabban Gamaliel is standing over us and serving drink?’ ‘We find that someone even greater than he acted as servitor,’ Rabbi Joshua replied, ‘Abraham was the greatest man of his age, yet it is written of him, “And he stood over them [the wayfarers] as they ate.” ’

“Rabbi Zadok said unto them: ‘How long will you overlook the honor of God and speak only of the honor of men? The Holy One, blessed be He, causes the winds to blow, the vapor to ascend, the rain to fall, and the earth to yield … shall not Rabban Gamaliel stand over us and offer drink?!’ ”

The Talmud’s conclusion turns the original premise on its head, asserting that to step outside of one’s appointed station in order to act with loving care and compassion is not only not forbidden, but is the conduct no less than God Himself.

We are not princes, but we each occupy stations of honor and power. We each possess identities above and beyond our simple identities as human beings. Parent. Boss. Partner. Teacher. CEO. Chair. Rabbi. And we regularly face the question as to whether we ought — in response to the human drama that is facing us — step outside our position and engage simply as fellow human beings. 

When do we stand firm and enforce the law that we represent, and when do we choose to hear Yehuda’s plea? When do we insist that others must present themselves to us if they want our attention, and when do we run out of our tents to greet and to feed? When do we insist that others serve us, and when do we initiate the blowing of the wind and the falling of the rain? 

Yehuda draws close all the time.

Rav Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation.