Parashat Vayiggash 5784

21 December 2023 – 9 Tevet 5784

Rabbi Dr Margaret Jacobi


Have you ever seen someone you thought you knew at a party and wondered whether to go up to them but then felt too nervous? Some find it easy to go up to other people but others find it daunting. It can be hard to approach people we don’t know and for some strange reason it’s even harder if you think that you know them but aren’t quite sure. There is the added fear that you might be wrong and feel embarrassed or embarrass the person you are approaching. We can worry about social encounters and their potential for embarrassment, even when, more often than not, others feel equally reticent and are glad to be approached. And that’s at a party where the chances are there will be like-minded and sympathetic people, glad to enjoy themselves and meet new people or old acquaintances.

How much harder must it have been for Judah to approach a man he thought of as a stranger, a powerful man who held the fate of his brother Benjamin and all his other brothers in his hands. But that is what he does. Our Sidra is called ‘Vayiggash’, meaning ‘and he approached’. Judah did not simply speak out. He went near to Joseph and asked to speak a word in his ear, as if he wished to speak to him confidentially and privately. We do not even know if the other brothers heard what he said. We do know that Judah spoke from his heart, honestly and truthfully as perhaps he had never done before in his life. And we know that Joseph was moved, so moved that he could no longer keep up the pretence of being a distant, harsh ruler but instead revealed himself at last as Judah’s long-lost brother. We can only imagine the courage that Judah must have summoned to be able to approach and speak, to reveal his past and his feelings and his regret to a person he thinks of as a stranger.

It takes courage to approach people. And yet, we talk about approaching God in prayer as if it is an easy thing. The story is told of a rabbi on his deathbed who is asked to give a final blessing of advice to his students. ‘Would that you fear God as much as your fellow human beings’, he said. ‘What master?’ they exclaimed, ‘Should we not fear God much more than we fear our fellow human beings?’ ‘You should’ said the rabbi, ‘but I know that you fear your fellow human beings much

more.’ We are often fearful of our fellow human beings. And yet, when we approach God in prayer, whatever our concept of the Divine, we rarely give it a thought. Perhaps it is as well. If we truly thought about the nature of God, the God Judaism understands as the Creator and source of being, the Sovereign of the Universe, we would not even dare to begin. To pray is a kind of chutzpah, a boldness, a daring. It is to overcome our self-doubts and our sense that we are of little worth and have the temerity to address the Supreme Being. Yet, if we pray with sincerity and intent, we can be both conscious of our insignificance and be able to express our deepest emotions. As Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: ‘Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living… It is so embarrassing to live! Only one response can maintain us: gratefulness for witnessing the wonder, for the gift of our unearned right to serve, to adore and to fulfil. It is gratefulness which makes the soul great.’

For Heschel, we can have the chutzpah to approach God in prayer, in full awareness of our insignificance, if we express our prayers in gratitude and joy that we have been given the privilege of life.

If we can approach God in prayer with this awareness, then we can begin to approach our fellow human beings in a different spirit. We can realise that they share our frailty. We need not fear them, any more than they need fear us. Just as Judah touched Joseph’s heart by approaching near to him, so may we touch the hearts of others and draw nearer to them. And as we do so, we will surely feel God’s presence closer to us, guiding and sustaining us and giving us courage.

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