Parshat Vayigash: How Do We Approach Others?

Parashat Vayigash: “And Yehuda approached him…” What do we learn about how we approach others?

 We are living at a time when human culture not only sanctions freedom of expression and freedom of opinion – two prominent, leading values, it even promotes them. Regretfully, this hasn’t resulted in more profound discourse or mutual listening.

Yehuda Shtauber, Senior Vice President of Education 

Yehuda’s speech is the climax of the dramatic story of Joseph and his brothers. We end Parashat Miketz feeling anxious about Benjamin’s future how it will come to affect his family.  Yehuda, who leads his brothers and is responsible for returning Benjamin to his father, seems to have reached a dead end. In consideration of the facts at hand, the “legal situation” seems immutable. Once again, the family braces for a catastrophe: Rachel’s youngest son will not return home with his brothers, and Jacob’s worst fears might be confirmed.

This is what Yehuda says to the Pharaoh’s viceroy: “Far be it from me to do this! The man in whose possession the goblet was found he shall be my slave” (Genesis 44:16). This exclamation echoes Yehuda’s utter desperation.  Yet when we reach Parashat Vayigash (one week later, though we must bear in mind that these were successive events), we see a turnaround in Yehuda’s behavior.  We now read of a man acting with determination to achieve his goals. “… And Yehuda approached him and said…” (Genesis 44, 18). Yehuda begins a long speech, certainly when considering that earlier, he had clearly stated that he had nothing to say. Yehuda presumably stands little chance of persuading the Egyptian ruler. So, what has changed here?

Before trying to answer this question, I’d like to argue that human discourse is no simple matter, even in ordinary situations devoid of any crisis. The verses that describe the creation of man make a certain comparison to define man’s nature: “And the Lord G-d formed man of dust from the ground, and He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living soul…” (Genesis 2:7). In Onkelos’ Aramaic translation of the text, the words “a living soul” are rendered as ruah memalelah, which implies that what makes man unique is his power of speech. This should surprise us. Logic would have it that what makes mankind so unique is that people are able to think. Yet there is a fundamental difference between thinking and speaking. A person can think independently, without having to interact with his or her environment, but speech involves interaction with our environment, and requires people to take “explanatory action”, which supplements their thought processes, to explain what they are trying to convey, and to understand what others are trying to tell them. Onkelos seems to use his translation to refine the definition of human nature, emphasizing that humans are social creatures who direct their thoughts toward conversing with others through speech, in order to further the society they live in.

The importance of speech, and the consequences of staying silent, can be demonstrated in many events recounted in the Book of Genesis, and I will provide examples from these stories. No discourse occurred between Adam and Eve. The two had clearly spoken to each other, but their conversations weren’t the meaningful discussions the Torah wished to mention. Now, the communication difficulties have been passed on to subsequent generations.  After Cain’s offering isn’t accepted, the Torah describes the encounter between the two brothers. “And Cain spoke to Abel his brother, and it came to pass when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and slew him.” (Genesis 4:8). Various commentators suggested ideas of what Cain had said to Abel, which the text of the Torah omits. I don’t think Cain said a thing to Abel! Cain wanted to talk to Abel, but was unable to do so. He found it very difficult to speak to his brother, and we see that he wasn’t able to take an example from his parents either. Suffice it to say that the consequences were disastrous. We should note that the Torah isn’t critical of this, so we could infer that since the dawn of mankind, interpersonal communication has remained a formidable challenge.

In light of the above, let’s revisit our parasha analysis. I would like to demonstrate that Yehuda can teach us the proper model for beginning a dialog with others. How can we change others through dialog? It goes without saying that we must choose the right time and speak wisely, but there seems to be one common point of departure which is the key to a successful conversation between individuals.

“… And Yehuda approached him and said” – before Yehuda restated his point, he approached Joseph once again. The Sfat Emet, in his commentary on this Parasha, discerns between speaking and approaching. He feels that it wasn’t that anything Yehuda said or argued had changed, and writes the following:

“And Yehuda approached him – i.e. approached Joseph. And to his inner self – i.e. to himself. He approached him – i.e. he approached the Holy One, Blessed Be He”…

I will now explain the commentary:

“And he approached him – himself: the Sfat Emet seems to be saying that we must first approach ourselves in order to undergo a meaningful introspection to assess whether we identify with the content of what we say before we try to use words to persuade others, i.e. do we feel at peace with what we are about to say to someone else? Only after careful introspection can we truly cause others to change.

“And he approached him – i.e. he approached Joseph.” Yehuda understands that it would take more than just words to persuade Joseph. He needs to be approached. Yehuda needed to try to penetrate another person’s world and understand that person’s needs. In other words, we must understand the point of departure that the other side of the conversation brings in.

“And he approached him – i.e. the Holy One, Blessed Be He.” This is the last stage. After the processes a person goes through, beginning with introspection, and continuing with understanding the other person’s standpoint, choosing the right timing and choosing our words wisely, the person must be aware that human dialog presents a formidable challenge. It isn’t easy to cause others to change. Before we meet with them, we need to turn to Hashem and pray for blessings from heaven.

We are living at a time when human culture not only sanctions freedom of expression and freedom of opinion – two prominent, leading values, it even promotes them. Regretfully, this hasn’t resulted in more profound discourse or mutual listening.

Our obligation, as educators in Israeli society, which faces serious challenges, is to restore the internal discourse to its rightful position and manage it as we conduct serious introspection and listen closely to others.

I will end with a quote from Hannah’s prayer: “Do not increasingly speak haughtily; Let not arrogance come out of your mouth, For the Lord is a God of thoughts, And to Him are deeds counted.” (Samuel A, 2:3) We, too, need to approach dialog with great humility, for reality is truly complex, and the Lord is a God of thoughts.

Shabbat Shalom 

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