The Meanings of Approach
What does it mean to really approach another person? What does it mean to really approach God?
The rabbinic understanding of the first word of this week’s parashah (vayigash) opens a window into that question. Approaching people and approaching God are mirrors of each other—but there is more than one kind of approach, each of which can underscore different aspects of those relationships.
The word vayigash means “to approach” or “to draw near.” Judah approaches Joseph as he prepares to make his argument to offer himself as a slave instead of Benjamin.
וַיִּגַּ֨שׁ אֵלָ֜יו יְהוּדָ֗ה
"And Judah drew near to him.”
Judah approaches Joseph—whom he does not recognize and only knows is the most powerful man in Egypt (save for Pharaoh)—to offer one last ditch attempt to save his brother Benjamin (and thus also his father Jacob) from pain. It is a physical movement, but what were Judah’s intentions? What was his stance? How did he make his move? What was he feeling in that moment? How did he want Joseph to react? All of these questions are left up to the reader.
There are three opinions in Genesis Rabbah, each one drawing evidence from elsewhere in the Bible about the use of the word: from R. Yehudah, R. Nehemiah, and their anonymous, opposing majority “the rabbis”.
בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) פרשת ויגש פרשה צג
ר' יהודה א': הגשה למלחמה, כמ' דא': "ויגש יואב והעם אשר עמו למלחמה" (שמואל ב י:יג).
ר' נחמיה אמ': הגשה לפיוס; "ויגשו בני יהודה אל יהושע" (יהושע יד:ו) – לפייסו.
רבנין אמ': הגשה לתפילה, שנ' "ויהי כעלות המנחה ויגש אליהו" (מלכים א יח:לו).
Genesis Rabbah 93
R. Yehudah said: “approaching” as in approaching for war. As it says (2 Samuel 10:13): “So Yoav and the people that were with him drew near in battle.
R. Nehemiah said: “approaching” as in conciliation. As it says (Joshua 14:6): “Then the children of Judah drew near to Joshua”– to conciliate him.
The Rabbis said: “approaching” as in prayer. As it says (I Kings 18:36): “And it came to pass at the time of the evening offering, that Elijah the prophet came near.”
The word vayigash, according to this midrash, has three possible connotations, drawn from three different biblical sources: to do battle, to appease, and to pray. In each of these, the common thread is a stance of drawing physically closer. When Yoav, King David’s general, did battle against the Arameans (think: hand-to-hand combat), he approached the enemy battle lines with his army. This is also connected to the word קרב, another word that can mean “to approach, which also means “battle”. One can’t wrestle from afar.
Similarly, appeasement is something that cannot be done only with words from afar. It is a stance that can only be fully appreciated when is done in physical proximity to the other. When Caleb and his tribe wanted to secure his territory in the land, in order to make their request of their leader Joshua, they approached him so that Joshua was more likely to hear their case and give them what they asked for.
Finally, prayer is also something that involves drawing close physically (think: the bowing and kneeling postures, as well as the stepping forward, that take people physically closer to the object of the prayer). Prayer is probably best understood here as request, the core stance of prayer in the amidah, and also the context for Elijah’s approach: beseeching God to answer him and bring down fire on the altar in order to show up the prophets of Baal as the false prophets they are. Requesting is not done with words alone; it is done by coming near in body.
When we approach, we approach physically. But, when someone draws close, they may be attacking, appeasing, or requesting. All this is contextual, and how you understand Judah’s actions depends on which of these connotations you think is being employed in our parashah.
It might seem odd that, out of the four instances of vayigash, three of them are between people (Judahites and Joshua, Yoav and the Arameans, Judah and Joseph) and one of them is between people and God (Elijah). In fact, this reveals a core assumption of the midrash.
The word vayigash applies equally to a drawing close to people as it does to drawing close to God, even though the latter is harder to picture. In fact, the same three explanations of this word occur in the midrashic tradition to Genesis 18:23, which reports an approach between Abraham and God:
וַיִּגַּ֥שׁ אַבְרָהָ֖ם וַיֹּאמַ֑ר הַאַ֣ף תִּסְפֶּ֔ה צַדִּ֖יק עִם־רָשָֽׁע:
Abraham drew close and said: “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?”
This is the opening gambit in Abraham’s battle to save the people of Sodom. The same rabbis offer the same opinions about the translation of this word (Genesis Rabbah 49:8, ed. Theodor Albeck, p. 506): Abraham may be approaching to do battle, to appease, or to request through prayer. Since the midrash moves freely between the two scenarios, it seems clear that the model of drawing close is the same, whether we are approaching God or approaching another person.
Holding All Three Stances at Once
Which stance was Judah taking in this moment? War, appeasement, or prayer? There is a fourth opinion (in both midrashic traditions) that offers a different take on this:
בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) פרשת ויגש פרשה צג
ר' לעזר פשט לון אם למלחמה אני בא, אם לפיוס אני בא, אם לתפילה אני בא.
Genesis Rabbah 93
R. Eleazar explained the word [using all three definitions]: “I draw near whether for war I come, or whether for conciliation I come, or whether for prayer I come.”
In an expanded version of this opinion, we get a sense that Judah is prepared for any outcome. This is critical because it offers a vision in which we approach without knowing the result in advance. It requires a relinquishing of control even to step forward:1
מדרש הגדול ויגש מד:יח עמוד תשנד
ר' אלעזר אומר: אמר לו יהודה: מוכן אני לשלשה דברים הללו. אם לפיוס הרי יפה, אם לתפלה אני מבקש ממך, אם למלחמה עמוד כנגדי ואני אעמוד כנגדך.
Midrash HaGadol to Genesis 44:18, p. 754
R. Eleazar says: Judah said to [Joseph]: “I am ready for these three possibilities. If for appeasement, then great. If for prayer, then I request from you. If for war, then stand opposite me, and I will stand opposite you.
R. Eleazar offers a different view than the three-way debate above. For him, the stance is actually not one or the other (or the third) option. It is a combination of all three. Judah (and Abraham) were drawing close, and prepared for any of the following emotional stances to emerge. In fact, we may experience all these emotions at the same time.
In our personal relationships, how often are we drawing near with each of these options a real possibility? Have we walled ourselves off from a stance of appeasement, only coming in battle? Or are we never able to access our anger, and only coming to conciliate? Can we approach with a mode of request, which implies vulnerability and need? In our own prayer life, how often are we approaching God open to these three options? What can we learn from the relationships in our personal life to our relationship with God?
What Can We Say? A Prayer of the Dumbfounded
One midrashic tradition in this vein sees Judah expressing all three modes of interaction in the words he says to Joseph in Genesis 44:16-18.
מדרש תנחומא בובר מבוא עמוד סו
...התקין יהודה את עצמו למלחמה – "כי כמוך כפרעה"
לתפלה – "מה נדבר ומה נצטדק"
לפיוס – "בי אדוני"
Midrash Tanhuma Buber, Introduction p. 66
Judah prepared himself for war (as it says): “for you are like Pharaoh” (Genesis 44:18);
For prayer (as it says): “How can we speak? How can we prove our innocence?” (Genesis 44:16)
For appeasement (as it says): “Please, my Master” (Genesis 44:18).
In this version of the midrash, Judah adopts all three stances sequentially. In fact, the midrash does not follow the order of the verses in the Torah; if it did, we would see Judah first coming in prayer, then coming to appease, and finally to do battle. That shifting nature of the mode of encountering may sound familiar to our own experiences of human interaction: we start with a request and move to a stance of appeasement, but then, if denied, gird for battle. The midrash, though, shifts the order: first we come in battle, but then we move to prayer (or not being able to speak) and finally to appeasement. Perhaps this is the ideal order the midrash reports as true to human experience.
It is striking that the prooftext for Judah coming in a stance of prayer is the moment when he says: “what can we say?” This is a different conception of prayer, not one in which all our words are ordered and ready to be communicated to God, but rather prayer as an admission that we do not have words, that we do not know what to say.
Approaching through Love
There is one other midrashic understanding of this word vayigash I want to explore:2
לקח טוב (בובר) קח.
ר"י אומר – ויגש: לשון אהבה, שנאמר: "ויגש וישק לו"
Lekah Tov to Genesis 44:18, ed. Buber, p. 108a
R. Yehudah said: “Vayigash” is the language of love, as it says (Genesis 27:27) “And [Jacob] drew near and kissed [Isaac]”.
Here, we have another dimension of drawing close: a loving relationship. Isaac asks Jacob to draw near and kiss him (Genesis 27:26), and Jacob does draw near and kiss his father, in the context of receiving a blessing (albeit while pretending to be Esav).
To what extent are our drawing near moments those of love? Could we imagine a drawing near to God out of love just like we could imagine drawing near to a parent? To what extent do we dress up as others in order to be loved and kissed?
The image of drawing close is a model of human interaction, and also a model of prayer. What would it take to infuse our relationships with a wider range of human emotion, all expressed in the act of drawing near? And what would it take to infuse our relationship with God with similar emotional range?
Not only do these midrashic traditions open up for us the variety of readings of Judah and his actions, but they also open up these questions for ourselves in our own vayigash moments—whether to other people or to God. Take this rich word with all its connotations and use it to think through these moments and how best to approach them, how to assess ahead of time the contours of the interaction, how to be equipped for all scenarios if your assessment was wrong, and how to infuse all of your approaches with love.
1 I thank Baci Weiler for this insight.
2 For even more midrashic understandings of this word, see Yalkut Shimoni Genesis #151, ed. Hyman, p. 807; Torah Shelemah, ed. M. Kasher, p. 1631.