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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Amy Eilberg

Approaching Yourself, God and Others

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Is there tension or estrangement in a relationship in your life? If you could do so without harm to yourself or others, how might you seek healing?

Parashat Vayigash, in which we find the climactic reconciliation scene of the long saga of Joseph and his brothers, is one of my very favorites in the Torah. We have been following this story for many chapters of the Book of Genesis.

Jacob blatantly played favorites with Joseph (the son of his favorite wife). Joseph’s brothers, understandably, were hurt and angry, and tried to retaliate — first leaving Joseph to die in the wilderness, and then selling him into slavery. Later, Joseph reached a very high rank in Egypt, and his brothers had to come to him begging for help (no longer recognizing their long-lost brother). Joseph responded, taking pains to make things difficult for them along the way.

This week we reach the culmination of the story, when Judah pours out his heart to Joseph, pleading with Joseph not to imprison their youngest brother, Benjamin, which would break Jacob’s heart. (Judah has finally learned how profoundly difficult the loss of Joseph was for their father.)

The Torah’s language, characteristically, is terse but resonant. “Vayigash eilav Yehudah — Judah approached him.” (Genesis 44:18)

On the surface level of meaning, “him” clearly refers to Joseph; Judah approached Joseph with his plea.

But the Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger) wrote that the word “him” refers not only to Joseph, but “to Judah’s own self and to God” (from Arthur Green, “The Language of Truth”).

Judah’s plea would be granted only if Judah poured out his heart in sincere teshuvah (repentance). Judah needed to dig deep inside and connect with the Divine/his highest self, and bring all of himself to the encounter. Like many conversations of deep genuineness and vulnerability, this one had the potential for transformation, but only if Judah gave it everything he had.

Rabbi Naftali Zvi of Ropshitz went one step further, describing the inner process Judah needed to undergo to approach the conversation. Comparing Judah’s heartfelt plea to an act of prayer, Rabbi Naftali Zvi said that Judah needed to prepare himself before speaking to Joseph, saying to himself, “I have within me a part of God above, for the Blessed One gave me the breath of life from a piece of the Divine. I must come in supplication to connect my piece (of the Divine) to its source (to the Divine itself). Because I have within me a significant part of the Divine, I can come to God in prayer, bringing the part of God that is within me into conversation with God” (from “Otzar Peninei Hachassidus”).

Don’t be deterred if you don’t believe in the kind of God the text seems to describe. This is profound wisdom for the way in which we conduct our relationships, regardless of what kind of God you do or don’t believe in.

According to Rabbi Naftali Zvi, Judah needed to make contact with his own sacred center, which is connected to everything that is sacred, trusting that from this place, he could enter into profound encounters with other beings.

This process describes prayer: When I can touch the Ultimate within myself, then I can connect with the Ultimate all around me.

A similar process works in human relationships. This is something like what my Buddhist friends are doing when they bring their hands together and say “Namaste”: The Divine in me sees the Divine in you.

This process is especially powerful when relationships are troubled. Tension and estrangement happen when we lose touch with our own depths, getting caught in more superficial stories of who we are and what we need.

Likewise, we see only the surface aspect of the other person, knowing how they have hurt us, seeing their limitations, relating only to the wounded and distorted parts of their souls. When we can “approach” our own depths and find the center of the other person’s soul, as well, then we can meet in soul-to-soul conversation. Such encounters are the stuff from which transformation — and even peace — are made.

Is there conflict in one of your relationships? Try (again, if it is safe to do so) to muster the courage to reach beneath your superficial perspectives of yourself and of the other person. Try to connect with what is most deeply human — and divine — in you and in them. You may just find yourself in a moment of healing and transformation.

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