This Week's Torah Portion: Judah Pleas With Joseph to Return Benjamin to His Father (Part 11)

Dëvar Torah — Parashath Vayiggash (Genesis XLIV,18-XVII,27)

Last week’s parasha ended on a cliff-hanger. Yoséf (“Joseph”) had put his brothers through the mill. First, he sent them back home, insisting that they return with Binyamin (“Benjamin”) — their youngest brother, whom their father insisted stay behind — and held Shim‘on (“Simon”) as insurance of their return. The nine remaining brothers had the greatest difficulty persuading Ya‘aqov (“Jacob”) to let Binyamin go with them. In the end, only the pressure of hunger — the food they had brought with them from Egypt began to run out — and Yehuda’s (“Judah”) personal guarantee of Binyamin’s safe return moved Ya‘aqov to permit it.

But Yoséf was not yet done with them. He had his personal silver goblet hidden in Binyamin’s baggage, and then sent his house-steward with troops to arrest the brothers at the border on suspicion of theft. To their protests of innocence, the steward announced: “…The one with whom the goblet is found will be my slave, and you will be clean” (XLIV,10). The goblet, of course, was found among Binyamin’s effects. The profoundly worried brothers accompanied him back to Yoséf’s palace to argue for his release.

Our parasha opens with Yehuda’s impassioned plea: “And Yehuda approached him [vayiggash élav] and said, Please, my lord, let your servant speak a word into my lord’s ears, and be not angry with your servant, for you are like Pharaoh and Pharaoh is like you” (XLIV,18).

The great 13th century scholar Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (known by his initials as Ramban) notes that the lengthy plea which ensues can be reduced to Yehuda’s simple proposal that he be substituted for Binyamin; all the rest is “appeasement and appeal,” to set the mood for acceptance of his proposal.

As we know, Yehuda’s plea worked, though not quite as he had intended. This was the sign Yoséf was looking for; his brothers had corrected their deficiency in honoring their father. It was Yehuda, after all, who had originally proposed selling him, yet here was that same Yehuda, prepared to endure life-long servitude in order to return Binyamin to their father and thus spare Ya‘aqov’s feelings.

The Ramban’s slightly older contemporary, Rabbi El‘azar of Wurms, in his Séfer haRoqéach, cites three instances in Tanach, each of them prefaced with the word vayiggash, which he considers characteristic of modes of prayer. The first of these is Avraham’s petition on behalf of the inhabitants of Sodom: “And Avraham approached and said, Will You even destroy the righteous with the evil?” (XVIII,23). The second is Yehuda’s plea in our parasha, and the third is Eliyahu’s (“Elijah”) prayer during his famous confrontation with the priests of Ba‘al before the assembled population of Israel on Mount Carmel: “And Elyahu the prophet approached [vayiggash] and said, Ha-Shem, G-d of Avraham, Yitzchaq, and Yisra’él, today it will be known that You are G-d in Israel and I am Your servant…” (I Kings XVIII,36).

The examples of Avraham and Eliyahu seem obvious materials to consider in an examination of the nature of prayer; they are, after all, actual petitions addressed to the Master of Universe. Rabbi El‘azar’s reason for citing our parasha is less obvious, and bears examination.

Rashi, about a generation older than Rabbi El‘azar, also connects these three verses, prefaced by the comment that there are three modes of haggasha (“approach”): direct confrontation or war, appeasement or mollification, and prayer. Avraham’s petition, he says, combined all three.

Certainly, Avraham’s petition begins rather aggressively: “Will You even destroy the righteous with the evil?! …Far be it from You to do such a thing, to kill a righteous man with an evil-doer. Such that a righteous man and an evil-doer will be equated. Far be it from You! Will the Judge of all the Earth not exercise judgment?” (XVIII,23-25). In contradistinction to the literal translation offered above, Onqelos translates Avraham’s first question in his Aramaic paraphrase: “Will You eliminate the meritorious with the guilty in anger?” — which suggests that Avraham is really making two accusations, that there is first a lack of justice and second a lack of judgment, in failing to distinguish between the innocent and the guilty.

Eliyahu’s approach, if less aggressive than Avraham’s, seems no less audacious. Where Avraham is at least pleading altruistically on behalf of a foreign people, Eliyahu claims as his beneficiaries none other than G-d and himself! The reason, he proclaims, for G-d to refrain from performing a miracle (as Avraham does, begging that Sodom not be destroyed), but rather to perform one by consuming his water-logged sacrifice, is so that “today it will be known that You are G-d in Israel and I am Your servant, and it is by Your word I have done these things.”

What seems to be the motivating factor behind Avraham’s fierce accusations is a sensitivity concerning the honor of Heaven; after all, G-d had just finished saying of Avraham, “For I know him, that he commands his sons and his household after him, and they will keep the way of Ha-Shem to do justice and judgment” (Genesis XVIII,19). How could Avraham teach that the “way of Ha-Shem” requires justice if Ha-Shem allows Himself to act capriciously in anger? How could he demand the exercise of judgment and the drawing of fine distinctions if G-d Himself had abdicated His judgment? The honor of Heaven demands that these items be clarified.

Eliyahu was driven by a similar motive. All of his actions in gathering Israel at Carmel and issuing the challenge to the priests of Ba‘al had been by Divine command. He had undertaken nothing on his own. The miracle for which he asked would be a vindication of everything that Eliyahu had said and done in G-d’s name. In short, a validation that he had acted only for the sake of Heaven, “and it is by Your word that I have done all these things.”

So we are not confronted with cases of patriarchal or prophetic chutzpa. The clearest indication of this is shot through Avraham’s petitions: “Behold, please, I have undertaken to speak to my L-rd, and I am dust and ashes” (XVIII,27), and “Please, may my L-rd not become angry, that I might speak…” (ibid., 30).

This, of course, is precisely the sort of language used by Yehuda in his approach to Yoséf, and this is why the Séfer haRoqéach cites it as a characteristic of prayer. Far from peripheral to the nature of prayer, it is, in fact, at prayer’s very core.

The Hebrew word most often rendered “prayer,” tefilla, has a very interesting etymology. The verb associated with it is hithpallél. Where the English word “pray” actually means “request” (cf. such Elizabethan expressions as “I pray thee” or “pray tell”), the underlying meaning of the Hebrew word can be deduced from pillél, “examine, investigate, judge.” Once the form of the verb is reflexive, that is, the subject and object are the same, hithpallél means “examine, investigate, judge oneself.” This is what we are actually doing when we engage in tefilla — clarifying to ourselves the nature of our relationship to our Creator.

Why is this necessary?

Our essential humanness differentiating us from any other living creature results from the incorporation of a neshama, a “soul.” The nature of the neshama is that it is a sort of Divine “spark,” a Divine portion from Above. The neshama knows whence it came, that it is a purely spiritual “aristocrat,” “slumming” in this world of gross matter. Since one half of our nature consists of matter, we need constantly to be reminded of our humility. “Ha-Shem reigns, He is clad in pride,” sings King David (Psalms XCIII,1). “Pride” is perhaps a fit quality for the king of “kings of kings,” the Holy One, Blessed is He, but it is not for the rest of us; hence, we must work to minimize this measure in our characters if we wish to be true servants of Ha-Shem and be close to Him. So, three times a day, Jewish law demands that Jews engage in an exercise in introspection, and it is specifically then — when we are humbling ourselves — that it is a propitious moment to make requests.

Yehuda’s words, even though they are addressed to a high government official and therefore not to G-d, are a quintessential example of how to make an approach through humility. Vayiggash, he begins, but not merely vayiggash, but vayiggash élav — as the great 14th century scholar Rabbi Nissim ben Re’uvén (known as the Ran) points out, the phrase signifies exceptional closeness (cf. his comments on Yoma 4b, s.v. Qol lo, qol élav), which is also emphasized by “speaking in my lord’s ears,” i.e. whispering intimately. How is such closeness attained? By every remembering, every moment convincing ourselves of who is the “lord” and who is the “servant.”