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Approaching Our Enemies, Approaching Ourselves

01/02/2020 04:35:33 PM


Hanukkah is supposed to be a time of rising light, but this year, it was marked by rising violence against Jews in the New York area, with over 10 incidents culminating in a knife attack at a Hanukkah candle lighting in Monsey, NY. Our Atlanta Jewish community is coming together Monday night, January 6 to show support an an event of solidarity. To participate, please visit

The last 15 months have forced Jews to reflect on the real nature of the threats against us, and how we react. This week, we read Parashah Vayigash which describes the dramatic climax of the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph has accused his brother, Benjamin, of theft and has taken him captive. Jacob’s sons, not knowing that the Egyptian overlord is in fact their brother, are terrified. Judah takes the lead in responding, and the Torah uses a specific phrase to describe Judah’s actions “Vayigash eilav”- “he approached him.”

The classic Rabbinic commentary of Bereshit Rabbah (93:1) records three views as to the meaning of this phrase. Rabbi Yehudah suggests that it means approaching to threaten a violent response. Rabbi Nehemiah explains that it means approaching for purposes of conciliation and negotiation. Other sages suggest that it means approaching God in prayer. Each of these is sometimes an appropriate approach to conflict.

Those approaches each have their place. Sometimes, strength must be met with strength. When facing bullying and violence, if that is the only language that one’s foes will understand, then one must respond in kind, with self-defense, physical and political power. Other times, we are fortunate enough to be able to find conciliation. Dialogue among ethnic and religious groups can create new understandings and remove the fuel that allows hate to grow. When I was growing up, Al Sharpton was known for fomenting enmity against Jews in the African American community. This week, he stood alongside the Jewish community. Then again, sometimes matters are truly out of our hands, and prayer is our only option. 

A Chassidic teaching suggests a fourth interpretation of “Vayigash Eilav” based on the the pronoun “him.” While we assume that it must refer to Joseph, the other party in the conversation, it is possible to read the verse as saying that at this time of tension, Judah approached himself and discovered who he truly was. The same man who 21 years ago had sold his brother, Joseph, into slavery rather than face his brethren and his own evil urges was now willing to confront the powerful viceroy of Egypt to defend brother Benjamin. It is in moments of extreme pressure that we may truly find ourselves and discover our spiritual essence. Fighting anti-Semitism may, alas, be necessary for the perpetuation of our people and our faith, but it is not sufficient for our survival, let alone our flourishing. When we are attacked, we must remind ourselves who, what and why we are.

Fri, June 14 2024 8 Sivan 5784