“Coming Close to G-d”
By Rabbi Elisheva Beyer, ’06
At the opening of this parsha, a mysterious Egyptian vizier is about to take Benjamin into custody for supposedly stealing a silver goblet. The vizier is actually Joseph who had been sold into slavery by his older brothers and who eventually rose to power in Egypt. None of the brothers recognize Joseph as their brother. After all, why would they think that the brother they threw in a pit and sold to a caravan years ago for a few shekels would be in power in Egypt?
Since it had been many years since the brothers had seen each other, Joseph put his cup into Benjamin’s belongings in order to test their reactions. Would they help out Benjamin or were they just as jealous and selfish as they used to be? Would they come to Benjamin’s rescue or let him rot in an Egyptian prison?
Judah makes an impassioned plea to Joseph for Benjamin. Judah had told his father he would take personal responsibility for the favored son, Benjamin, while they were on their trip to Egypt to get supplies. As a result, Judah even offers to take Benjamin’s place as a servant to the vizier. The opening of this parsha gives us an understanding of Judah – after whom the Jewish people (Yehudi) are named.
“Vayigash elav Yehudah” — “and Judah came close to him.” To whom did Judah come close? The Sefat Emet gives several answers, saying: “To him”—to Joseph (the vizier). But also, “to his own Self—to himself (Judah).” And also, “to Him—to G-d.”
During Judah’s plea to his brother Joseph, a ruling figure in Egypt, Judah has a transformative experience. Judah says to Joseph, “Vayomer, bi Adonai, y’daber-na avdecha” (Gen. 44:18). The Sefat Emet translates: “My Lord is IN me, allow your servant to speak.” By acknowledging that G-d is within him, Judah comes to terms with G-d’s infinite and amazing Holy One.
According to the Sefat Emet, the meaning of this oneness is that “there is nothing except G-d Himself, G-d is the all. Even though we are incapable of understanding this properly, we still need to have faith in it. This faith will lead us to truth…. G-d’s oneness is beyond our power to conceive. When you negate yourself before this divine life-point wanting to know the truth, it will be revealed to you.” “You will seek Me and you will find Me, if you search for Me with all your hearts” (Jeremiah 29:13).
Judah has changed from the previous Judah who allowed his brother to be sold into slavery. Judah begs the vizier to enslave him in place of “the boy,” whose “soul is bound up” with that of his father’s. He tells of his personal anguish, imploring Joseph to understand who he is and why, therefore, he cannot allow Benjamin to remain in Egypt, which would bring suffering to his father. He is now the one willing to take a risk, to step up and do the right thing. On another level, he sees the Divine and acknowledges it.
“When you have learned this lesson and can live with it, with regard to both yourself and others, all the rest is indeed just commentary,” says Arthur Green on Sefat Emet, Vayigash. Indeed, as the Ari (Isaac Luria) points out, Judah’s name contains the letters of G-d’s name (Havayah).