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Closeness, Closure, and Claustrophobia (Vayigash)

Body language communicates volumes. Our facial expressions, hand gestures and eye movements all influence the ways in which we are perceived by others. So does the distance at which we interact. In fact, cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall considers this final consideration so critical towards understanding the dynamics of a given human relationship that he introduced a new term,“proxemics,” just to describe its study. Hall was also the man who gave us the concept of “personal space.” As it turns out, we can learn a lot from a person’s posture and position. In fact, this week’s Torah portion provides a powerful case in point. 

Edward T. Hall

Edward T. Hall

At the end of last week’s Torah portion, Joseph, acting as Pharaoh’s right-hand man, incriminates Benjamin for “stealing” his goblet, and sentences the boy to a lifetime in Egyptian prison. This spells disaster for the brothers, particularly because Jacob, their father, had warned his sons that he would be unable to go on living if Benjamin did not return home safely. So Judah intercedes on Benjamin’s behalf, delivering an impassioned plea aimed at stirring Joseph’s mercy. Before Judah starts to speak, however, he takes a very important “first step.” Hence, the opening word of our Torah portion, from which it draws its name, is “ויגש.” Translated: “and Judah drew near;” “and Judah approached;” “and Judah came forward.”

First Judah bridges the physical gap which separates him from the Egyptian viceroy; only afterwards does he attempt to close the emotional space between them. We, who know the rest of the story, know that just as Judah has “moved” towards Joseph, so will Joseph soon be “moved” to reveal his true identity, initiating the reconciliation between Jacob’s sons which we as readers have long been waiting for. What emerges, then, is that “movement” functions as critical motif in our text.

Throughout the “Joseph narratives,” in fact, the physical movements of the protagonists strongly parallel (indeed, they predict) the trajectory of the plot. For instance, when the brothers originally conspire to murder Joseph, they do so from “afar,” resolving themselves against their brother “before he even had a chance to draw close to them.” Symbolically, explains R. Mordechai Machlis, the brothers formulate their opinions about Joseph without ever taking the time to get to know him. In this week’s Torah portion, by contrast, Judah “approaches” Joseph on behalf of the brothers. Instead of distance and detachment, what we have here is an intimate, vulnerable exchange between two people truly interested in encountering each other. Only now is rapprochement possible—the word “rapprochement,” incidentally, deriving from a French word which means, quite appropriately, “bringing near.”

Nechama Leibowitz

Actually, the motif of “movement” turns up long before we meet Joseph and his brothers. When we study Tanach, Martin Buber tells us, we must pay careful attention for a literary device known in German as Leitwortsilwords repeated throughout a text in order to develop thematic meaning. In Hebrew, Prof. Nechama Leibowitz called a word which is repeated in this fashion a מילה מנחה, or a “key word.” Well, when we look closely, we realize that the root “נ.ג.ש”—to “come close”—serves as one of those keywords in the latter half of Genesis.

We’ve mentioned previously the possibility, advanced by many scholars, that the problems in Jacob’s life begin the moment he steals his brother Esav’s blessing. Interestingly, it is precisely at this point in the book of Genesis—the point at which Jacob steals his brother’s blessing—where the verb נ.ג.ש starts to appear in high densities:

And Isaac said to Jacob, “Please come closer [גשה נא], so that I may feel you, my son, whether you are really my son Esav or not.”  So Jacob drew near [וייגש] to Isaac his father, and he felt him, and he said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esav.”  And he did not recognize him because his hands were hairy like the hands of his brother Esav, and he blessed him.  (Genesis 27:21-27)

Jacob, the text tells us, beguiles his father by abusing the power of human intimacy: he “approaches” Jacob disguised as Esav, breaching the orbit of another’s relationship and reaping the rewards of a “closeness” which isn’t his. Quite literally, Jacob has “moved in” on Esav’s territory. When, years later, Jacob tries to repair his relationship with his older brother, he once again “approaches” Esav’s vicinity. This time, however, Jacob “draws close” sincerely, not shrewdly:

And Jacob went ahead of his family, and prostrated himself to the ground seven times, all the while drawing closer [עד גשתו] to his brother. And Esav ran toward him and embraced him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. And he lifted his eyes and saw the women and the children, and he said, “Who are these to you?” And he said, “The children with whom God has favored your servant.” And the maidservants and their children drew near [ותגשן] and prostrated themselves. And Leah and her children drew near [ותיגש] and prostrated themselves, and after them, Joseph and Rachel drew near [ניגש] and prostrated themselves. And he said, “What the purpose of all this camp that I have encountered [אשר פגשתי]?” And he said, “To find favor in my master’s eyes.”  (Genesis 33:3-8)

Emmanuel Levinas

Emmanuel Levinas

If it is the illusion of closeness which tears Jacob’s family apart, then the attempt to achieve genuine closeness is what brings his family back together. In philosophical terms, the story of Jacob’s family is the story of encountering he whom French existentialist Emmanuel Levinas labelled “the Other:” the one who is essentially different from myself. Levinas, who was of Lithuanian Jewish descent, knew well what it means to be an “other.” In fact, his thought was strongly influenced by his background. By no coincidence, it would seem, did Levinas speak of the “face-to-face” relation—the sort of interaction through which one must “give to and serve” the “other”—as the solution to the phenomenon of “otherness.” From where might the term “face-to-face” be drawn, after all, if not from Jacob’s interactions with Esav and with the angel of Godboth of whom, the text tells us, Jacob met “face-to-face?”

And so we return to this week’s Torah portion. Like their father, Jacob’s children struggle, at first, with meeting the “other” on his terms. But, by learning to draw close to one another, they finally bring closure to decades of animosity and strife:

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Please come closer to me” [גשו נא אלי], and they drew closer [ויגשו]. And he said, “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. But now do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that God sent me before you. (Genesis 45:4–5)

In this light, it is interesting to note the way in which Joseph words the invitation which he extends to his brothers a few verses later:

And you shall dwell in the land of Goshen [גשן], and you shall be near to me, you and your children and your grandchildren, and your flocks and your cattle and all that is yours. (Genesis 45:10).

Mere moments after reconciling with his brothers, Joseph encourages them to settle in the land of “Goshen.” If not etymologically then at least phonetically and graphetically, the name Goshen, “גשן,” unquestionably involves a play on the root “נ.ג.ש:”—“coming close.” In fact, Joseph states explicitly that by residing in the land of Goshen, his brothers will always be “near” him. Thematically, then, the message of this dénouement—this literary “tying together of loose ends”—is that the Israelites have learned to pass in one another’s midst without feeling threatened or insecure.

Now, and only now, are we ready to move into the next book of the Torah—a book whose central challenge will become creating space for the “other” without compromising on the integrity of the “self.” Goshen, after all, is a region in Egypt—and, in the Hebrew name for Egypt, “מצרים,” the Zohar finds an allusion to the word “צר:” narrow, constricting. At least one message of this word play, it seems, is that a very fine line divides the closeness of Goshen, גשן, with the claustrophobia of Egypt, מצרים. Come too “close,” and you start to feel “constricted”—start to feel that your personal space has been violated.

So it’s a delicate dichotomy. When we’re too insistent on our own way of doing things, or when we view new ideas with suspicion simply because they are foreign, or when we keep strangers at arm’s-length while only drawing close to our own kind, then we sacrifice the opportunity to expand ourselves by learning from and forming relationships with others. When, on the other hand, we are so eager to mingle with the society which surrounds us that we embrace its ethos and its customs uncritically, then we silence our own voice, forfeit our uniqueness, and lose the chance to contribute something of irreplaceable value—something which everybody else was relying on us to contribute.

To navigate the tension between experiencing the “other” and expressing the “self” takes skill. It is a skill which we, like our forefathers and foremothers, must strive to develop if we are to engage with our environments openly and authentically.

Shabbat shalom!


  1. Menachem Copperman says:

    beautiful insight! the tension between closeness and ones personal space finds it’s way into halacha. the gmara bava metzia 10a states that a person’s “dalet amot” are considered his own space and he can perform a “kinyan” (aquisition) via them. But this special “kinyan” is restricted to a “simta”, a place where “traffic” is sparse, but in the main public domain, one does not have “dalet amot” of personal space because it is condensed with people (“דחקי בה רבים”)

  2. Mike Shriqui says:

    Great message Alex, thank you.

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