The Space Between
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This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks.
To kick off Vayigash, Rabbi Sacks quotes Schopenhauer’s question, “What do porcupines do in winter?” In trying to stay warm, porcupines face a dilemma. If they huddle too close together they will injure each other. But if they remain too far apart, they will freeze. Life for porcupines in winter is a metaphor for the delicate balance between closeness and distance that we each must face.
The word that encapsulates this concept in our parsha is the first one: vayigash, meaning “And he came close.” This is the context for when Yehuda approaches the second-in-command of Egypt, saying, “Pardon your servant, my lord, let me speak a word to my lord. Do not be angry with your servant, though you are equal to Pharaoh himself.” Of course, unbeknownst to Yehuda, he’s actually speaking to his brother Yosef! But Yehuda’s act of coming close – of being vulnerable in that way – melts through Yosef’s emotional defences, leading him to reveal his identity: “I am Yosef! Is my father still alive?”
This theme of Vayigash is highlighted by its contrast to the earlier moment when Yosef’s brothers, seeing him from a distance, plotted against him. Instead of seeing his face, it’s as if they saw only his ornate cloak, which symbolised their father’s favouritism. This distance lead them to treat Yosef not as a brother but as a symbol, an object of envy and hate. The tragedy of Yosef and his brothers is rooted in this distance.
When Yehuda comes close to Yosef – vayigash – the coldness thaws, and they become brothers again, not strangers. This demonstrates the delicate tension between too much distance, which leads to a metaphorical freezing, and too much closeness, which can cause injury. Somewhere in this dichotomy, we need to find a balance.
The story of Yaakov and Eisav reflects a similar pattern. In the beginning, Yaakov’s proximity to Eisav leads to conflict and insult. After 22 years of separation, they finally reunite, and their relationship is healed, leading Eisav to embrace Yaakov as a brother and friend.
The Torah suggests a solution to this complex dynamic: first separate, then join. This principle is evident from the Creation story in Bereishit, where God separates light from darkness, water from dry land, and so forth. Separation is at the heart of Jewish law – distinguishing between holy and unholy, pure and impure, permitted and forbidden. In Judaism, kadosh, or holy, signifies separation. To sanctify is to separate. Separation creates order, defeats chaos, and gives everything and everyone their space. Once we take a step back and see more clearly, we can respect our differences. Then we can join without causing harm.
The ceremony of havdallah at the end of Shabbat, especially the havdallah candle, symbolises this concept as well. Multiple wicks must join together to create a havdallah flame, demonstrating how distinct entities can unite harmoniously. This principle applies to many types of relationships as well – between husband and wife, parent and child, and siblings.
The balance between closeness and distance is a delicate one. The Torah’s narrative of Yosef and his brothers, along with the broader themes of separation and closeness, provide profound insights into managing relationships. Whether in familial bonds, friendships, or broader social and cultural contexts, understanding and navigating this balance is key to building healthy, respectful, and fulfilling relationships.
Around the Shabbat Table
- When have you experienced the tension between closeness and distance in your relationships with family and friends?
- If they had been closer during their childhood, do you think Yaakov’s children would have then needed some distance to maintain their relationship?
- Where else in the Tanach do we consider the idea of distance and closeness?
Parsha in Passing
Parshat Vayigash begins with the story of Yehuda approaching the Egyptian ruler who – unbeknownst to him – is actually Yosef.
Yehuda steps forward to plead for Binyamin’s release and, in an attempt to secure Binyamin’s freedom, Yehuda offers himself as a slave in his place.
Moved by this display of loyalty – and seeing this as true teshuvah for betraying Rachel’s other son – Yosef reveals his true identity, declaring, “I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?”
The brothers are initially filled with shame and remorse at this physical reminder of their past behaviour. But Yosef offers them comfort. He explains that their actions were part of Hashem’s plan to save them all from famine. Now they can live together in peace and prosperity, if they bring their families to Egypt.
And so the brothers travel back to Canaan and return again to Egypt, this time bringing with them Yaakov, and all their families, seventy people in total.
God reassures Yaakov, promising to make a great nation of his descendants in Egypt, and letting him know that He will eventually bring them back to their land in Canaan as He promised Avraham and Yitzchak and Yaakov.
In Egypt, Yosef amasses great wealth for the country by selling food and seeds during the famine that he stored during the years of plenty. Yaakov’s family is given the fertile land of Goshen to settle in, where the Children of Israel begin to thrive and prosper.
Yosef: In hiding no longer, he is a brother revealed.
Yaakov: Preparing once again for a long journey: “My Yosef is alive, I must see him.”
Yehuda: Making amends for former sins, he is the first ever Baal Teshuvah.
Yosef’s brothers: Forgiven for past sins, a new adventure and a new life in Egypt awaits the whole family.
Rabbi Sacks notes the intricate balance between closeness and distance that is crucial in strengthening interpersonal relationships. At times, separation is necessary as a precursor – or enablement of – closeness. Creating some distance can also be an opportunity to reconnect with ourselves and our unique qualities, thereby enhancing our future interactions with others.
The narrative of Yosef and his brothers illustrates this: their initial separation ultimately leads to a stronger familial bond upon their reunion. While a degree of separation can contribute to personal growth, excessive distance, also seen in Yosef’s story, can lead to estrangement. The key lies in finding a middle-ground where one can pause to understand oneself and then use that understanding to better connect with others.
How do you think we can best achieve this balance in our everyday relationships?
Family Islands is a game that allows families to physically and symbolically explore the concepts of individuality and unity. To begin, each person becomes an “island,” spreading out in the room to stand at a distance from each other. Each person then describes their island by incorporating fun facts about their likes, dislikes, and things that make them unique.
After everyone has shared, the family starts to “build bridges” between the islands by finding commonalities with other family members, (shared interests etc.) and then ‘building bridges’ by taking a step closer to them. Each family member takes turns finding connections and, person-by-person, moving closer together. This game continues until the entire family has come together and the islands have merged.
How can we apply this concept of separation and connection in our everyday lives?
Well, if you’re reading this on Shabbat, you’re looking directly at the answer! Shabbat serves as a paradigm, creating a distinct separation from the mundane routines of the work-week to foster a deeper connection with ourselves and with Hashem on a special day of rest. Shabbat is our pause from the daily hustle and bustle, allowing us to engage in rest and reflection.
And for those of us who are a little too reliant on our phones and other screens, Rabbi Sacks calls Shabbat a weekly “digital detox”, which many doctors recommend too!
Shabbat rejuvenates us, both physically and mentally, and strengthens our spiritual connections. By dedicating this time – and taking it seriously – we acknowledge the importance of balancing activity with rest and engagement with retreat.
- Reflecting, how might you enhance your Shabbat experience to reinforce this balance between the demands of everyday life and the spiritual rejuvenation that Shabbat offers?
- And what makes your Shabbat distinct from your week, bringing you closer to family, friends, and Hashem?
Little Torah: Lost and Found
This is a story about something very important to the Jewish people. Something that you and I get to see every Shabbat, and dance with every Simchat Torah. That’s right, this story is about a Sefer Torah! A special one, that was lost for a very very long time.
Once, in a town in Europe many years ago, there was a big synagogue. All of the people in the Jewish community would come there and pray together and, most importantly, read from the Torah. Every week this Torah would be taken out of the Aron Kodesh, and someone would read the beautiful words inside, just as we do in shuls around the world, to this day.
But over time, the town in our story became unsafe for the Jewish people to live in. The neighbours in the town became unkind and so the Jews were forced to flee for safety. Because they had to leave so quickly, they could not carry anything with them, and so their beautiful Sefer Torah was left behind.
A brave man took the scroll and hid it in a secret cupboard in his cellar so that it would be safe. There, the poor Sefer Torah lived in solitude, all alone and gathering dust for many, many years. No one read from it, no one carried it around the synagogue, and no one kissed it or sang to it. Would the Torah ever see the Jewish people again?
And then one day, sunlight shone on the little Torah in the closet once more. Someone had finally opened the door, and the Torah was found! A man gently brushed away the cobwebs and dust. “I’m going to bring you home,” the man said to the Torah. And then carefully, so very carefully, he picked up the Torah and brought it to a new synagogue. After so many years, the Torah was once again with its people.
People read stories from the Torah, they danced with it on Simchat Torah, and as the Torah was paraded around the people of the synagogue, the whole community sang to it and kissed it once again.
Question: How many of the children of Yaakov were born in the land of Israel?
(See below for the answer)
This Week’s Parsha Puzzle Answer:
Only Binyamin was actually born in Israel, as noted by Rashi (Bereishit 35:18).
This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1,500 Torah riddles, available on Amazon.
Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.
With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.
“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks