Parashat Vayigash

Proximity & Repair

Even if we are unable to fully fix what's broken, we can begin to make a difference by stepping forward.

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

In my work as a hospital chaplain, I am often privileged to accompany people in the last days of their lives or the lives of their loved ones. I recently spent a long night with Mark, a middle-aged man who had camped out in the waiting room outside his mother's hospital room. The doctors had withdrawn artificial forms of life support and she was expected to pass away within hours. 

american jewish world serviceMark had paid for his mother to have the very best health care during the last months of her life, but he had not actually visited her in person. He had not seen her face or held her hand for over ten years. That night, Mark refused to leave the building, but he was also unwilling to actually open the door to his mother's room, despite pressure from the hospital staff to say goodbye.

As we talked, it became clear to me that what was stopping Mark was not just his unresolved relationship with his mother, but also a sense of being overwhelmed. "It's already too late," he said. "She can't speak or understand me. How can we fix anything now?" Out of fear of doing too little, Mark chose to do nothing at all. 

This week's Torah portion offers a very different image of the human capacity to take steps toward healing, even in the face of seemingly overwhelming tragedy. In our parashah, Joseph is reunited with his brothers who, years earlier, had sold him into slavery. Despite the weight of this shared history, the brothers do not try to repair the mistakes of the past. They mostly just hold each other and weep.

Joseph is brief in his words to the brothers who betrayed him, "Now, don't be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here," says Joseph. "It was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you [to provide a refuge from famine.]" Despite the power of these words, they cannot heal the wounds of the past for they do not address the underlying injustice of the situation. Still, Joseph's words have a profound impact--they bring the family closer together.

Let Us Draw Near

The name of our parashah points to this vision of moving toward action in the face of deep-seated wrongs that feel insurmountable. Vayigash means to draw near. The Torah is teaching us that to move in the direction of repairing relationships is literally to move toward one another. Even if we are unable to fully meet, to fully fix what's broken, we can begin to make a difference by stepping forward. 

When I think about my relationship with my brothers and sisters in the Global South, I sometimes feel like Mark--trapped and frozen outside his mother's hospital door--feeling that the injustices that have been done are too big for me to fix. When I receive donation envelopes in the mail reminding me about the vast needs for food, medicine, shelter, and basic safety that billions of people are lacking due to systemic inequalities--I feel paralyzed. 

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Rabbi Elliot R. Kukla

Rabbi Elliot Kukla is a rabbi at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco.