Vayigash: Near and Far
I speak frequently about the policy work I do surrounding people who experience homelessness. Often these conversations delve into solving big policy problems like hunger, homelessness, and poverty and suffering. We speak about statistics and global trends all in the hopes of solving the problems. Except there really are no problems to be solved.
You see, there is no such thing as hunger or homelessness. Tere is no such thing as poverty or suffering. Those words, are meant to distance ourselves from the actual people who experience hunger and people who suffer. These social problems are words from spoken from afar. They give the powerful the emotional distance to by turning real people into statistics and families into numbers. The distance lets them make judgement on whether to help or not to help. These words are meant to take real lives and turn them into ‘problems’ that can somehow be solved or not solved, because of the distance, there is no compelling sense of urgency to alleviate the pain of the person standing in front of you.
The Torah knows this dynamic well, including in this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash. At many points in the Torah, distance is equated to the feelings of being strange, unapproachable, and in some cases vengeful. The most theological moments where there is a distance between the will of God and that of human beings are described this way. For example in Genesis 22, when Abraham takes his son Isaac to be sacrificed atop Mt. Moriah, the narrative pauses for a moment for us to join father and son together as they see spot that God has appointed for them, and saw that haunted ground “from afar.” (Gen. 22:3). The Hasidic Master, Sefat Emet, shows the theological contours of this moment by stating that the word ‘place’ refers to God and that “God was far off from Abraham.” This notion echoes again in Exodus when God appears in firestorm atop Mt. Sinai, the people, according the Torah “Stood far off.” (Ex. 20:18). Again, God seems strange to human experience. This distance is not a good thing. In both cases, (Abraham in one, and Moses in the other) the leader draws themselves closer to God in order to receive blessing.
On a more human level, we find that Joseph’s brothers use this lack of proximity to mortally judge their brother. As the beginning of the Joseph narrative unfolds, the relational distance between family grows with every dream. When we arrive to this point in the story, what is relational distant is now symbolized by physical distance. The Torah relates, “As they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him.” (37: 18) From this moment of murderous intention, the brothers never speak to Joseph directly again. He becomes an object of jealousy and vengeance. He becomes a commodity to sell into slavery. He is no longer a person, but thing. Or in other words, he is a problem that must be solved.
This is what happens when we lose our proximity to each other. From far away we don’t see who people really are. They become symbols of envy, lust or hate. We cover over their actual stories of who they are and replace them with our sense of objectification. Stalin famously said in his own murderous tone, “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”
This brings us to our weekly Torah portion Vayigash. Joseph is now more powerful than ever, having been elevated by Pharaoh to manage the country’s food supply. Joseph, whose greatest fear was to be forgotten (see Gen. 40:14), has in many ways forgotten what his policy of food for land has done to the Egyptians. He enslaves as much as he saves.
Which is why the actions of Joseph’s brother, Judah suddenly become very important. When Judah came close to Joseph (lit. vayigash) the moral and spacial distance collapses simultaneously. “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.” (44: 18)
The irony is that Judah was still unaware that the man he was speaking to was his brother. It matters not, because of what Judah did. His courage in this moment was bring Pharaoh’s equal into proximity. To bring him close and bust through the moral distance that enables the powerful to not deal with the cries of the vulnerable. The act of coming close, of being proximal, melts the reserve of the distant politician. It is what the lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson writes in his book Just Mercy, ““Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.”
Like all politicians who have a moral core, Joseph’s defenses come down, and he is overcome by the wellspring of humanity that beckons him forth. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” (45: 3) The boys forgive each other. They overcome their worst and find their best. They set the stage for the redemption in the chapter’s ahead.
Hunger is not real. Homeless is not real. Poverty is not.
People who are hungry are real.
People who live without homes are real.
People who are poor are real.
This is the greatest teaching of Vayigash. When we no longer look at the people of the world as problems to be solved, but as fellow human beings we can draw closer ties between ourselves. Revelation is borne of proximity. Covenant is borne of proximity. Forgiveness is borne of proximity. We need to not be far off, but to be close – to be near if we want to strive for redemption.