26 Dec 2014

Vayigash 5775: Speak to Strangers

 If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.” — John F. Kennedy

The awkwardness of engaging with those whom we do not share a like-mind and vision is among the greatest challenges of humanity. Most of us simply avoid doing so and aim at surrounding ourselves with people who generally think as we do. There are, of course, the occasional variations, but overall, human beings are not inclined to love strangers. Ironically, this philosophy is most challenging when it comes to dealing with family.

We can choose our friends, but we cannot choose our family. We form our most immediate human bonds and interactions with our parents, children, and siblings, and our relationships with them will likely run through most of the stages of our lives. But the way we see and engage in the world can differ significantly. Great discomfort can come from knowing that someone who shares so much of our genetic information can be so different, and that those who are most like us socially and emotionally are often not related to us.

Yet, learning to acknowledge the value of another person’s unique strengths, weaknesses, perspectives and style, broadens and deepens our own sense of self in the world and connects us to the magnificent diversity of Creation. It also liberates us from the confines of a reality that exists entirely in our own minds.

In perashat Vayigash, Yehuda comes to espouse this ideal. In the opening scene Yehuda is defending his younger brother for his father’s sake. This is significant because it was Yehuda who sold Yoseph in the first place. In fact, Yehuda did not get on well with his family in general. He saw his father and brother Yoseph as dreamers who lacked pragmatism, and he additionally did not feel that he could fully invest with his other brothers. After the sale of Yoseph, Yehuda left the family, married a local woman and set out to do things alone.

Now it was at about that time that Yehuda went down, away from his brothers and turned asideYehuda saw the daughter of a Canaanite manhe took her as his wife[1]. (38:1-2)

But Yehuda changed. Time away and a series of hardships[2] taught him to be more open with the people in his life who were not like him. He became more sensitive to life’s complexities and came to understand that humans are fragile, complex, fallible and creative beings. He grasped that in order to truly live a life of connection and viability it is important to be open to some of the differences that we encounter in others.

Rather than reject anything other than a family that would fit well into his personal worldview, Yehuda preferred to have his family, his father and brother, and accept them as they were. He, therefore, stands up and pleads for the boy’s life and safety for his father’s sake.

Please my lord, let your servant speak a word in your ears

When I come back to your servant, my father, and the lad is not with us since his whole life is so bound up with his when he sees that the lad is no more he will die! (44:30-31)

 That change of commitment was no small act — it secured his future. Yehuda went on to merit fathering Israel’s royal family[3], and his tribe, along with that of the younger brother he pledged to protect, would be the only[4] tribes of Israel that would survive history. His father responded to Yehuda’s newfound tolerance and trustingly sent Yehuda as his representative to work together with Yoseph and prepare the land of Goshen in Egypt for the family’s arrival.

And he had sent Yehuda on ahead of him, to Yoseph, to give directionto Goshen. (46:28)

Yehuda came to find room in his life for his family’s individuality, by conceding that the world did not always have to be “according to Yehuda”. His actions teach us that one can experience divine beauty by allowing space for a world of vibrant diversity.


[1] His grandfather and great-grandfather expressed strong disapproval of the family marrying Canaanite women. 28:1, 24:3.

[2] Death of ער is firstborn, 38:7; death of his second born אונן, 38:10; scandal of Tamar, 38:24-26

[3] Yehuda, you your brothers will acknowledge youThe sceptre shall not depart from Yehuda, nor the staff of command(48:8,10)

[4] The tribe of Levy also survived, but they are considered stewards and not usually counted as regular constituents of the nation. See Debarim, 10:8-9; 18:1; Yehoshua, 14:14.