The Moment of Impact
By Cantor Marcia Lane
In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcom Gladwell describes the moment when a situation changes, the small thing that had a big impact on a problem or a situation.
In this week’s parashah we come to the moment in a long narrative when life will change for each of the participants in the drama. Joseph sits, disguised as the Pharaoh’s viceroy, watching his brothers try desperately to get out of the seemingly impossible situation they are in. Do they leave their brother Benjamin behind, go home and break the bad news to dad? Do they argue, fight, reason? How can they win his freedom without sacrificing their own? The sum total of what they think they know is only a fraction of what is actually happening. Joseph holds all the cards. He knows who they are, what they have done, what he has done to them — putting them in the position of appearing to be thieves. What, one wonders, does he actually want? Does Joseph want them to abandon their youngest brother, save their own lives, and confirm his suspicion that they have no moral code? Does he want them to argue, deny, struggle against the fate he has constructed for them? Would that be sweet to him? To see his brothers weep or squirm? What do the parties want? What resolution will be satisfying or even acceptable to them?
It’s a cinematic moment, worthy of a Martin Scorsese. What can resolve the impasse? It turns out that the tension is broken by a step, a single step. “Vayigash,” the text says. “And he (Judah) approached.” Such a tiny move. Not even a touch. Just the closing of distance by a foot or two. Judah, who takes charge of the conversation with Pharaoh’s viceroy, has the temerity to approach this figure of authority. I admit I tend to flesh out the picture in my mind. There are a few seconds of silence, the tension builds, and Judah looks down. Then he raises his eyes to this stranger who sits, like Pharaoh, on a throne, and he steps forward. His voice is quieter than it was. There’s no threat, no anger, just the intimacy of one man trying to convey a picture to another. The conflict, which was between a petitionary and a master, is now between two men. Please understand, Judah says. Please hear me out. And in that moment, as in the moment that a pin-prick breaks a balloon, the wall that Joseph had constructed tumbles down. His emotions overwhelm him, and he reveals himself. One step forward is all it takes to create the possibility of reconciliation. At least that’s what it looks like in my version of this movie. Vayigash! “He approached.”
In her commentaries on the book of Genesis, The Beginning of Desire, Aviva Zornberg speaks about the use of the word vayigash: “In a classic analysis, for example, the word va-yiggash is refracted into three possible modalities of intimacy (lit. he drew close): war, appeasement, and prayer” (p. 318).
In the book of Genesis the word vayigash (or some variant using the same root) occurs eight other times. In Gen. 18:23 Abraham approaches God to argue for the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah. The result is that God compromises and allows for the possibility of 10 righteous people who could save the cities. In Gen. 19:9 the men of Sodom and Gemorrah approach in anger to try to break down Lot’s door. As a result they are blinded by a divine light. In Gen. 27:26-27 the one approaching is Jacob. He draws near to Isaac so his father can feel “if you are indeed my son Esau or not.” Here it would appear that the intent is deception, but it comes out of a desire for blessing. The result? Jacob deceives his father and steals his brother’s blessing and birthright. In a very different use of the word, in Gen. 29:10, Jacob beholds Rachel and he “approaches” the stone that covers the well! What, in Zornberg’s rubric, would be his intent? She doesn’t include romantic attraction or sexual desire as a reason to “approach” (in the particular way that we are using that word). All the next instances of the use of the root y-g-sh are part of the narrative between Joseph and his brothers. Gen. 43:19: “And they (the brothers) approached the man who was in Joseph’s household and said, “Please, we came once before to buy food, but when we arrived at the inn and opened our packs we found our money, each man’s money in his sack.” Like Judah, they seek to be understood, to be believed, to be forgiven.
“Then Joseph said to them, ‘Come forward (geshu), I pray, to me.’ And they approached (vayigashu). And he said, I am your brother Joseph, who you sold into Egypt” (Gen. 45:4). In the case of this week’s parashah, the result is shock, forgiveness, tears, and the reuniting of a family.
Is it what the parties actually wanted? At the beginning of this episode, in Parashat Miketz, it seemed like Joseph wanted a measure of revenge. Perhaps the brothers want never to lay eyes on him again. Maybe the desire for food to take home to their father is less important than never having to confront their past. Does Judah actually want the opportunity to “step up to the plate?” Whether or not he actively seeks leadership, Judah proves worthy of his father’s trust. Perhaps as a result of his encounter with Tamar – an incident in which Judah actually took full responsibility for his actions – Judah is the right person at this crucial moment. He takes a risk, puts himself on the line, accepts responsibility for his past actions. It’s difficult to imagine the enormous courage it takes to step forward at this moment. And perhaps Zornberg is right; this step, this approach, is a form of prayer.
Does Judah actively seek the new leadership role that comes to him? Or is he simply a man put into an impossible situation? Either way, vayigash, “he approached” the powerful man before him and it became the tipping point. As a result of the encounter, the course of our history is charted. The family/tribe of Jacob/Israel will become the nation of Israel.
Hazzan Marcia Lane (AJR, 2004) is the cantor and Director of Ritual and Music at West End Synagogue in Nashville, Tennessee.