Difficult Conversations: Parsha Vayigash

When was the last time you had a difficult conversation? Maybe it was with a supervisor or a partner. Maybe it was with a family member. What was difficult about it? Did you prepare in advance? Did you try to avoid it? Were you able to move forward with your relationships in tact? 

This week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, opens with a difficult conversation. The word “vayigash” means “he approached,” and it refers to the moment when Judah approached his brother, Joseph, who had risen to power in Egypt. For context, we recall that in previous chapters, Joseph’s jealous brothers, frustrated with his arrogance, cast Joseph into a pit and sold him into slavery. Joseph’s brothers then lied to their father, Jacob, saying that a wild beast killed Joseph. After a series of additional twists and turns, which included dreams, false accusations, imprisonment, and more (this is a very dramatic story), Joseph became the governor of Egypt, almost as powerful as Pharaoh himself. At the moment of our Torah portion, it had been 22 years since the brothers had seen each other. Joseph recognized them, but the brothers had no idea that this governor of Egypt was the brother they threw into the pit. Joseph tricked and tested his brothers, accusing the youngest, Benjamin, of stealing a silver cup that Joseph planted in Benjamin’s sack. Upon “discovering” this silver cup, Joseph threatened to enslave Benjamin. 

That’s where the Torah portion begins – Judah, the oldest of the brothers, vayigash Joseph. He approached the governor of Egypt, a man far more powerful than he could ever hope to be, to have a difficult conversation. 

Midrash Rabbah explores the meaning of vayigash in this context. 

Said Rabbi Yehudah: The verb “he approached” (vayigash) implies an approach to battle, as in the verse “So Joab and the people that were with him approached unto battle” (II Samuel 10:13).

Rabbi Nechemiah said: The verb “he approached” implies a coming near for conciliation, as in the verse “Then the children of Judah approached Joshua” (Joshua 14:6).

The sages said: It implies coming near for prayer, as in the verse “It came to pass, at the time of the evening offering, that Elijah the prophet approached . . .” (I Kings, 18:36).

Rabbi Eleazar combined all these views: Judah approached Joseph for all three, saying: If it be war, I approach for war; if it be conciliation, I approach for conciliation; if it be for entreaty, I approach to entreat.

When you have approached a difficult conversation, maybe a conversation with someone more powerful than you, what did you bring into that conversation with you? Did you come ready to fight, like Rabbi Yehudah intoned? Were you prepared to conciliate, to offer a solution or make amends, as Rabbi Nechemiah suggested? Or did you draw near, with a heart full of hope, prepared to humble yourself as if in prayer, as the sages believed? Maybe you went in with an open mind, ready to respond in the moment, as Rabbi Eleazar said of Judah. See if you can put yourself back in that place. What was happening in your body? Were you anxious? Were you aware? 

Judah approached Joseph with humility. He referred to himself as avdecha, “your servant” when he spoke. He told Joseph that Benjamin’s soul is connected to their father’s soul – in Hebrew: Nafsho Keshura beNafsho. The Aramaic translation of the Torah translates this passage as, “and his soul loved him as his own soul.” Jacob loved Benjamin so deeply that their souls were connected. Judah explained, “When my father sees the boy is gone, he will die, and your servants will have brought our father in grief to the grave. Please let me stay instead of the boy as a slave to my lord, and let the boy go up with his brothers. How will I go up to my father if the boy is not with me? Let me not see the misery that will befall my father!”

Joseph saw that his brothers had grown. 22 years ago, when they threw him in the pit and sold him into slavery, they had avoided a difficult conversation – in a way, they took the easy way out, instead of vayigash, approaching Joseph to talk to him about his arrogance. This moment is different. Instead of avoiding the conversation, throwing Benjamin into a metaphorical pit, or selling him into slavery in Egypt (echoing their treatment of Joseph), Judah showed that he cared for his father and brother. He offered a solution, and he pled not only for his father’s or brother’s lives; he used a prayer word, nefesh. He pled for his father’s and brother’s souls.

The reunion became a joyful one – Joseph revealed his identity, the brothers reconciled, they hugged, and kissed, and cried, and Joseph sent them home with a wealth of food, animals, clothes, and more. When the brothers told their father Jacob that Joseph was alive, “vatechi ruach Yakov avihem,” the spirit of their father Jacob revived. Ruach, or spirit, is another prayer word, like nefesh, soul. Jacob’s soul and spirit techi, came to life, after his sons’ reconciliation. 

Judah approached a difficult conversation with a lot at stake. As Rabbi Eleazar said, “Judah approached Joseph for all three, saying: “If it be war, I approach for war;” Judah put his own body on the line, like a soldier, offering himself into slavery. “If it be conciliation, I approach for conciliation;” Conciliation is a way of making amends. Judah offered his labor in return for the value of the silver goblet. “If it be for entreaty, I approach to entreat” (as in prayer). When Judah spoke about his brother’s and father’s souls, he approached Joseph from a place of prayer. Most importantly, Judah showed that he had changed – that he was not the same person who threw his brother, Joseph, into the pit and sold him into slavery, instead of having a difficult conversation. This time, Judah was prepared to engage body, mind, and soul to spare his brother and his father.

Next time you are facing a difficult conversation, consider the way you vayigash. You may not need to concede your body, mind, and soul – this is a pretty extreme example – but you will likely need to concede something. Throwing the problem into a pit only means it will show up again later, and it might be bigger and more powerful when it approaches again. In this coming week and in the secular new year, there will be many opportunities to choose an approach. May we be mindful of our choices, and may every conversation enliven our souls. Shabbat Shalom.

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