Writing to you from Warwick, UK, where I'm attending a full Limmud conference. (As opposed to last year, when forces of nature tried to prevent me and only succeeded in delaying me. For a reminder of that fine time, check out "Snowpocalyptic Airport Sleepover," "Sleeping at JFK: Hot Tips for a Quick Nap," and of course, the crowd-pleasing "20 Things to Do at JFK Airport During a Snowpocalypse.")
Limmud regularly asks individual presenters to write interpretive pieces on the Torah portion for a weekly email called "Limmud on One Leg" - this is mine, on Vayigash (written for Limmud on One Leg, week of December 25, 2011.)
Saying kaddish for my mother this year, I spend a lot of time in shul, spending Shacharit (or Mincha or Maariv) thinking about the words, the editors’ translations, and the choreography that accompanies certain pieces of text. Recently, I was contemplating the beginning of the Amidah, the prayer in which we approach God in meditative encounter. Taking three steps back, we pray “God, open my lips”; three steps forward, and we complete the thought, “and may my mouth tell your praises.” We need this preface because we approach our Creator with a twofold fear: 1) That we will be speechless, and 2) That if we do indeed succeed in opening our mouths, the words we unleash may be not be words of praise. Then thanks to Limmud, I found myself contemplating Vayigash and the idea of “approach.”
In this Torah portion, Jacob’s son Judah approaches the viceroy – an unrecognizable Joseph – to beg for Benjamin’s freedom. As Judah approaches, he petitions Joseph-in-disguise through a paragraphs-long retelling of the history of the brothers’ arrival in Egypt. His mouth opens, and what comes out is verbal choreography: preparatory steps back that integrate the viceroy into the larger story as Judah sticks to his liturgy: “this is who we are, this is where we came from, this is what we need.” Approaching the man in power, and using deferential language, Judah indicates his intention to enter into relationship with the viceroy and his willingness to assume responsibility for his brothers, whatever the consequences.
The act of approach is both art and intimacy. It takes confidence and strength, sensitivity and humility. Proximity - a literal step closer to a thing, an experience or a person - is the first step toward face-to-face encounter, and the closer you are, the harder it is to hide your identity or conceal your intentions. By stepping forward into a new experience, or coming face-to-face with a challenging person or piece of learning, we enter into a relationship that is scary but intimate, honest, exciting and holy. Judah’s monologue is rewarded with revelation and embrace. But after our Amidah, we must retreat from that intimate moment, without the powerful relief of a forgiving embrace from a long-lost relative. Instead, we have another set of back-and-forth steps, accompanied by a prayer for peace over all of Israel.
Perhaps the message here is that, although we are reluctant to disengage from the intimacy, the approach itself enables us to connect more honestly with everyone. As we tell our stories and engage with texts and people, let us always approach with the sense that this work, approached with humility and candor, can transform us all.