Connecting With Others

Prayers can help repair the world.

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Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.

We usually think of prayer as a way of connecting to God. But this week’s parashah suggests that prayer can also help us connect with other people and open the way toward tikkun--repairing brokenness in our world.

Reunification

Parashat Miketz describes the slow, agonizing process of Joseph’s reunification with his brothers, who have come down to Egypt to plead for food. The Torah tells us: “Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.” The relationship between them, long broken since their bitter childhood, cannot be repaired so quickly. Joseph chooses not to reveal himself, taunting and testing his brothers and maintaining their estrangement.
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Only when Benjamin, Joseph’s youngest and only full sibling, arrives in Egypt, is Joseph confronted with a deeper recognition of brotherhood. Choking up, he utters a short prayer of blessing:

"May God be gracious to you, my boy." With that, Joseph hurried out, for his compassionate feelings grew hot toward his brother, and he needed to cry; he went into a room and he cried there (vayevk). Then he washed his face and returned; restraining himself, he gave the order [to his servants]:  "Put out bread." They served him by himself, and them by themselves…

Joseph's Compassion

The encounter with Benjamin stirs Joseph’s compassion, but the short prayer cracks it open. Suddenly he feels the pain of disconnectedness from his family and is able to empathize with his brothers’ hunger and powerlessness. And yet, Joseph hides his cries. Determined to maintain his distance and power, he stifles his own emotions and offers only a terse order to give bread. He cannot and will not sit and eat with his brothers. How familiar is this feeling to those of us who see suffering or poverty and yet hold our full selves back from such an encounter, content instead merely to give a bit of tzedakah!

And yet: “vayevk--and he cried.” This powerful word reappears at two crucial junctures in the next parashah. The first comes when Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. He allows his emotions to break free; he still tries to hide his cries, but the Egyptians outside the room hear him sobbing. The second comes when Joseph reunites with his father Jacob, apparently in full view of many others. At this moment of reconciliation, the process of recognition and reunification reaches its fulfillment.

A 19th-century Hasidic text, The Well of Living Waters, illuminates how prayer can be a model for tikkun olam. Commenting on the verse in which Joseph begins to recognize his brothers, it cites a teaching by Rabbi Isaac Luria, one of the founders of 16th-century kabbalah. Luria explains why the central prayer of Judaism, the amidah, must first be said silently, before being repeated out loud:
So it is in the way of holiness: it both disappears and is revealed. And in a place that requires full repair (tikkun) and unification (yichud), at first the unification needs to be in secret... But afterward, when the unification has been effected quietly, then one is able to raise one's voice and to effect the unification, revealed to the eyes of all.

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Guy Izhak Austrian

Guy Izhak Austrian is a community organizer and rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary.