This Week's Torah Portion: Yehuda Provides a Model Reconcilatory Prayer

Dëvar Torah – Parashath VaYiggash (Genesis XLIV, 18-XLVII, 27)

Last week’s parasha ended on a cliffhanger, as Yoséf put his brothers through the mill.

First he sent them back home, insisting that they return with Binyamin — their youngest brother, whom their father had previously insisted stay behind — and holding Shim‘on as insurance of their return. The nine remaining brothers have the greatest difficulty in persuading Ya‘aqov to let Binyamin go with them. In the end, only the pressure of hunger — as the food which they had brought back with them from Egypt began to run out — coupled with Yëhuda’s ‘arvuth, his personal guarantee of Binyamin’s safe return, move Ya‘aqov to permit it.

But Yoséf was not yet done with them. He had his personal silver goblet hidden in Binyamin’s baggage, then he 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: Asher yimmatzé’ itto yihye li ‘eved vë’attem tihyu nëqiyyim (“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 Yëhuda’s impassioned plea: Vayiggash élav Yëhuda vayomer, Bi adoni yëdabber na ‘avdëcha bë’oznei adoni vë’al yichar appëcha bë‘avdecha, ki chamocha këFar‘o (“And Yëhuda approached and said, Please, my lord, allow your servant to speak into my lord’s ears and be not angry at your servant. For you are like Pharaoh and Pharaoh is like you,” XLIV, 18).

The Ramban notes that the lengthy plea which ensues can be reduced to Yëhuda’s simple proposal that he be substituted for Binyamin; all the rest is piyyus uvaqqasha laze, “appeasement and appeal,” to set the mood for acceptance of his proposal.

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

The great 13th century authority Rabbi El‘azar of Worms, the Ba‘al haRoqéach, cites three instances in Tanach, each prefaced by the word vayiggash, as characteristic of modes of prayer. The first of these is Avraham’s petition on behalf of the inhabitants of Sëdom: Vayiggash Avraham vayomar, Ha’af tispe tzaddiq ‘im rasha‘ (“And Avraham approached and said, Will you then destroy a tzaddiq with a rasha‘?” Genesis XVIII, 23).

The second is Yëhuda’s plea in our parasha. The third is Eliyahu’s prayer during his famous confrontation with the priests of Ba‘al before Ach’av and the assembled population of Israel on Mt. Carmel: Vayiggash Eliyahu hanavi’ vayomar, Ha-Shem Elo-hei Avraham, Yitzchaq vëYisra’él, hayom yivvada‘ ki Atta Elo-him bëYisraél va’ani ‘avdecha … (“And Eliyahu the prophet approached 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 material to examine to ascertain the nature of prayer; they are, after all, actual petitions addressed to the Master of the Universe. The Roqéach’s reason for citing our parasha is less obvious and bears examination.

Rashi, in commenting on Avraham’s petition, also connects these three verses, prefaced by the comment that they are three modes of haggasha (“approach”): haggasha lëmilchama (“war”), lëfiyyus (“appeasement, mollification”), and lithfilla (“prayer”). Avraham’s petition, he says, combines all three.

Certainly Avraham’s petition begins rather aggressively: … Ha’af tispe tzaddiq ‘im rasha‘? … Chalila lëcha mé‘asoth kadavar haze lëhamith tzaddiq ‘im rasha‘ vëhaya chatzaddiq karasha‘; chalila lach! Hashofét kol ha’aretz lo’ ya‘ase mishpat? (“Will You then destroy a tzaddiq with a rasha‘? … Far be it from You to do such a thing, to kill a tzaddiq with a rasha‘, such that the tzaddiq and the rasha‘ will be equated; far be it from You! Will the Judge of the whole Earth not do justice?” XVIII, 23-25).

In contradistinction to the literal translation offered above, Onqëlos translates Avraham’s first question: Havirgaz tësheitzei zakka’a ‘im chayyava? (“Will You eliminate the meritorious with the guilty in anger?”), which suggests that Avraham is making two accusations: first, a lack of justice by allowing anger to override reason; second, a lack of judgment in failing to distinguish the innocent from the guilty.

Eliyahu’s approach, if less aggressive than Avraham’s, seems similarly audacious. Where Avraham, at least, is 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 not to refrain from performing a miracle (as Avraham begged that Sëdom not be destroyed) but rather to perform one by consuming his water-soaked sacrifice is in order that hayom yivvada‘ ki Atta Elo-him bëYisraél va’ani ‘avdecha, uvidvarëcha ‘asithi eth kol hadëvarim ha’élle (“today it will be known that You are G-d in Israel and by Your word have I done all these things”).

What seems to be behind Avraham’s fierce accusations is a sense of këvod shamayim, the honor of Heaven. After all, G-d had just finished saying of Avraham: Ki yëda‘tiv lëma‘an asher yëtzavve eth banav vë’eth béytho acharav vëshamëru derech Ha-Shem la‘asoth tzëdaqa umishpat (“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,” XXVIII, 19). How could Avraham teach that the derrech 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 has abdicated His judgment? Këvod shamayim demanded that these things be clarified.

Eliyahu was driven by a similar motive. All of his actions in gathering Israel at Carmel and issuing his 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 was to be an ishur, a vindication, of everything that Eliyahu had said and done in G-d’s name; in short, a validation that he acted only for the sake of Heaven, uvidvarëcha ‘asithi eth kol hadëvarim ha’élle.

So we are not confronted by a case of patriarchal and prophetic chutzpa. The clearest indication of this is shot through Avraham’s petition: Hinné na ho’alti lëdabbér ‘al Ad-nai va’anochi ‘afar va’éfer (“Behold, please I have undertaken to speak to my L-rd and I am dust and ashes,” XVIII, 27), and Al na yichar lAd-nai va’adabbéra (“Please, let my L-rd not become angry, and let me speak,” ibid., 30).

This, of course, is precisely the language of piyyus vaqqasha used by Yëhuda in his approach to Yoséf. And this is why the Ba‘al haRoqéach cites it as characteristic of prayer. Far from being peripheral to the nature of prayer, it is in fact at its core.

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

Why is this necessary?

Our essential humanness, differentiating us from any other living creatures, results from the incorporation in us of a nëshama, a “soul.” The nature of the nëshama is that it is a sort of Divine “spark,” a chéleq Elo-hi mima‘al, “a Divine portion from Above,” to borrow a phrase from the classic Chassidic work, the Tanya (I, 2). The nëshama knows whence it came, that it is a purely spiritual “aristocrat,” “slumming,” as it were, in this world of gross matter. Since one half of our nature consists of matter, we need constantly to be reminded of our humble state.

Ha-Shem malach, gé’uth lavésh, sings King David (“Ha-Shem reigns, clothed in pride,” Psalms XCIII, 1). Gé’uth, “pride,” is perhaps a fit quality for the King of Kings of Kings, the Holy One Blessed is He, but not for us. Hence we must work to minimize this midda, this measure, in our character if we wish to be true servants of Ha-Shem and close to him. So three times a day we engage in an exercise in introspection, and it is then, when we are humbling ourselves, that it is an ‘éth ratzon, a propitious moment, to make requests.

Yëhuda’s words, even though addressed to a high official of flesh and blood and not to G-d, are the quintessential expression of how to approach through humility. Vayiggash, it begins, but not merely vayiggash; vayiggash élav (cf. the Ran on Yoma 4b, s.v. Qol lo, qol élav that élav signifies exemplary closeness), which is emphasized by speaking bë’oznei adoni, “whispering” in my lord’s ears. How is this closeness attained? By ever remembering, ever reminding ourselves, who is the ‘eved and who the Adon.