Ken Richmond
Boston-area Cantor, Rabbinical Student, Musician, & Yiddishist

A New Year’s Resolution for Drawing Near in 2021

As we draw near to the end of 2020, there is much about the old year we may be eager to leave behind, and much to hope for in the coming year.  Some of us may be thinking of New Year’s resolutions.  But even these are harder this year.  One might typically resolve to go to the gym more; this year, shall we resolve to go to the gym less?  Hope the pandemic will decrease such that gyms can re-open?  Resolve to occasionally leave the house for a walk? 

I was thinking about New Year’s resolutions regarding this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash.  We pick up in the middle of the cycle of portions that tell the story of Joseph and his brothers.  In last week’s portion, the brothers had returned to Egypt for food, this time with their father’s second-favorite son Benjamin.  Joseph planted his goblet in Benjamin’s sack, accused him of stealing, and announced that the other brothers could go, but that Benjamin must remain as his slave.  Judah approaches.  Judah is the brother who years ago sold Joseph into slavery, but now he comes forward and asks Joseph to take him as a slave instead. 

The Sefat Emet, the 19th century Hasidic Rebbe from Ger, Poland, says that the opening words of the portion, Vayigash eilav Yehudah, Judah approached him, can mean one of three things.  The plain meaning of the text is that Judah approached Joseph, he drew close enough to touch him, in order to plead for Benjamin.  But the Sefat Emet says that it could also mean that Judah drew closer to the Divine, taking steps to repair the damage caused by his actions years ago.  Or, it can mean Judah drew near to himself.  In this reading Judah, by his responsible and compassionate actions, comes closer to being the real Judah, a better Judah, a person closer to fulfilling his potential and living up to his core ideals.  

This has been a year when approaching, or drawing close to other people has been difficult and dangerous.  It’s been nine-and-a-half months of physically distancing, of refraining from hugs, not coming closer than six feet, and wearing masks as barriers between us.  And we’re going to have to keep eschewing physical closeness for some time, though we have high hopes that the new secular year will bring needed change and relief.    

In the meantime, we can still draw near in the three ways that the Sefat Emet described.  We can draw near to other people in a variety of ways, even if we can’t yet do so physically.  We can strive to come closer to the Divine.  And we can draw nearer to being our better selves, to fulfilling our potential, to living a life that is closer to our values.  

So this is my New Year’s resolution for 2021, and I’ll invite you to join me in it: may we strive to draw closer to other people, to the Divine and to our best selves.  Like any New Year’s resolution, it will be harder to keep than to envision, and we’ll stray from the path at times.  But I think it will be worth our efforts, and I look forward to drawing closer to each other along the way.  

Shabbat Shalom, and I wish you a secular new year filled with joy, health, and an increasing sense of closeness.  

About the Author
Ken Richmond is the Cantor at Temple Israel of Natick, MA, a teacher and student, composer and sharer of melodies, and pastor. He is studying for ordination this year at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. He and his wife, Rabbi Shira Shazeer, are raising their boys with Yiddish as their first language, and enjoy harmonizing with them in their family klezmer band.
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