The Possible Blessing of Encounter (VaYigash)

empathy

Years ago, I spent time with Martin Buber’s prolific writings while preparing for a conversation with my dear friend Josh Kornbluth, who was working on his monologue at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum entitled “Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?” where Buber was one of 10 exhibited Warhol portraits. Warhol famously had little regard for the significance of his subjects and was more concerned with their appeal to willing, wealthy buyers. His handwritten notation next to Buber’s name made that clear. He scribbled “Who is Martin Buber?” An intriguing character in the worlds of philosophy, Zionism, and human interaction, Buber’s general worldview is well-articulated by Aubrey Hodes:

I do not accept any absolute formulas for living. No preconceived code can see ahead to everything that can happen in a man’s life. As we live, we grow and our beliefs change. They must change. So I think we should live with this constant discovery. We should be open to this adventure in heightened awareness of living. We should stake our whole existence on our willingness to explore and experience. (Martin Buber: An Intimate Portrait)

Buber’s concept of “encounter” is useful as we enter Joseph’s culminating interaction with his brothers, specifically Judah’s approach:

“Then Judah approached (VaYigash) Joseph and said, “Please, my lord, let Your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, You who are the equal of Pharaoh. (Gen 44:18)”

This speech occurrs in the immediate aftermath of Joseph’s (knowingly falsely) accusing Benjamin of stealing. What must Judah have been thinking? Their father Jacob’s youngest son was about to be lost (again) and Judah’s leadership was facing the ultimate test (again), this time from a position of vulnerability in unfamiliar territory. What must Joseph have been feeling, with the pent-up pain and anger of decades and the sudden position of power over his former-abusers? What must Benjamin have been feeling, thrust into a horrible position he did not himself create? What do we, the readers, experience as we enter the writhing text and its intense emotionality?

What was embodied in Judah’s approach?  The ancient rabbis wondered as well:

[What does ‘VaYigash/He Approached’ mean?] Rabbi Yehudah interpreted it as an approach of war.  Rabbi Nechemiah interpreted it as an approach of appeasement… The Rabbis interpreted it as an approach of prayer. Rabbi Elazar resolved the dispute saying, “if for war, here I come; if for appeasement, here I come; if for prayer, here I come.” (BR 93:6)

It is Rabbi Elazar’s view that must compel our attention, in which Judah’s approach was one of unpredictable outcomes, an encounter in Buber’s vernacular.  This encounter could only be determined by both parties in dialogue. Would war be the next step, as per Rabbi Yehudah?  Would reconciliation ensue, as Rabbi Nechemia and the Rabbis suggest? Rabbi Elazar’s interpretation leaves the question unanswered, as perhaps it had to remain until Judah spoke and Joseph responded, a true dialogue between two separate people.  Neither could ultimately control the words, emotions, or experience of the other.

What a different world we would witness today were this the way citizens and nations interacted. Being less sure about the “other” (do they wish war? reconciliation?) would position both parties in positions of encounter without either presuming to know or control the intention of the other. If peace, both parties would rejoice. If war, the “victor” might have a little more sympathy for their “defeated” sisters and brothers. Encounter means one should never objectify another.

Former Israeli Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yonah Metzger made this clear in the starkest of terms during the 2009 war between Israeli and Gaza:

“Whereas ‘HaBa L’horgecha Hashkem L’horgo, do not hesitate to defend yourself and your country,’ remember also ‘Binfol Oyvecha Al Tismach– do not rejoice because when our enemy suffers.'”

I remember a powerful encounter I had with a friend that very week. I had communicated to my shul community that that Shabbat we would be reciting an Emergency prayer for Israel, and a congregant pointed out a challenge she recognized in the text of the prayer itself. The prophetic quote at its closing “[May] every person shall sit under their grapevine or fig tree with no one to disturb him (Micah 4:4)” was preceded with the words: “may the verse be applied to us. (emphasis mine)”

My friend asked me if this truly represented the verse, if it embodied our hopes as a community, as a People – if it should be the aspirational language of our prayer in a moment of war.  Do we pray for only our own peace?  She was correct. Victory is never the real result of war, as it involves the defeat of the other.

Back to the encounter between Joseph and his brothers. Rashi, commenting on the eventual tearful embrace of Joseph and Benjamin (Gen. 45:14), suggested that their tears were not about the immediate moment, but rather were prophetic:

“And he fell on his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept” for the two sanctuaries. destined to be in Benjamin’s territory which would ultimately be destroyed. “And Benjamin wept on his neck” for the Tabernacle of Shiloh, which was destined to be in Joseph’s territory yet would ultimately be destroyed. [Meg. 16b, Gen. Rabbah 93:12]

Joseph wasn’t crying for his own pain.  He cried for Benjamin’s descendants’ pain.  Benjamin similarly cried for Joseph’s descendants’ pain.  In the encounter, they experienced each other, the beginnings of a reconciliation between two vulnerable selves, an early echo of Buber’s evolution away from proposing the unity of being and instead focusing on relationship and the dialogical nature of existence. Joseph’s relationship with his brothers wasn’t one of undying reunification; upon reading their fear of reprisal upon Jacob’s death (Gen. 50:15) it becomes all too clear that conflict dies hard and that encounter requires ongoing effort.

Imagine the possibilities of fellow citizens crying for each others’ descendants, foreseeing the  potential suffering ahead and instead choosing the winding path toward a better shared reality. This will require a drastic new mode of seeing opponents. They wish for a safe world. No one wants their children to suffer. An encounter-mode is a path away from conflict. War between people is not inevitable. We may discover that while remaining ready to defend ourselves, we might also prepare to pray with those we once thought our enemies.

As our ancestors modeled, we have choices ahead: If for war, here we come. Better than that, if for appeasement, here we come. And best of all, if for prayer, here we come.

While peace may remain elusive, in its absence may tolerance and recognition of “the other” be in our prayers.

About the Author
Rabbi Menachem Creditor serves as the Pearl and Ira Meyer Scholar in Residence at UJA-Federation New York and was the founder of Rabbis Against Gun Violence. A frequent speaker in communities and campuses around the United States and Israel with over 1 million views of his online videos and essays, he was named by Newsweek as one of the fifty most influential rabbis in America. His 21 books and 6 albums of original music include the global Jewish anthem "Olam Chesed Yibaneh" and the Rabbis Against Gun Violence anthology "None Shall Make Them Afraid." He has been involved in the leadership of American Jewish World Service, AIPAC, the Rabbinical Assembly, and the One America Movement, an organization dedicated to bringing together Americans of different faiths and opinions. He and his wife Neshama Carlebach live in New York, where they are raising their five children.
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