Reflections

More than just a handshake

By Ayala Wasser - 23 December 2020

There are different contexts in which a handshake can be used, different messages that this simple and common gesture communicates depending on content and context. Perhaps a handshake is a simple hello between friends, a “good game” at the end of a competition, a gesture symbolizing an agreement has been made, an act of respect.

In this week’s parsha, Vayigash, we come across a brief section that is related to the aforementioned dynamics. In our parsha, reflecting upon the saga of Joseph and his brothers, Judah takes the lead in asking the viceroy of Egypt to help his family. Unaware that this is Joseph – the brother they sold into slavery – the text describes the attempt to find peace and reconciliation:

וַיִּגַּ֨שׁ אֵלָ֜יו יְהוּדָ֗ה וַיֹּ֘אמֶר֘ בִּ֣י אֲדֹנִי֒ יְדַבֶּר־נָ֨א עַבְדְּךָ֤ דָבָר֙ בְּאָזְנֵ֣י אֲדֹנִ֔י

“Then Judah came close, drew near, and reached out to Joseph and said, let your servant appeal to you…”

Motivated by this act of reaching out, Joseph is so moved that he not only reveals his real identity to the brothers, but he actually forgives them for their cruel betrayal so many years ago. Judah’s act of reaching out was effective, constructive, and meaningful.
Rabbi Shimon of Frankfurt on Main is drawn to the concept of Judah’s act of reaching out. What type of act was it? How did it make such a difference? How was it able to transform the relationship between the brothers so quickly and so effectively? Several possibilities are offered to understand what is meant by the Hebrew word, “Vayigash”, often translated as “reaching out or drawing near”:

Various Rabbi’s teach:

vayiagsh means that he touched him, that he shook his hand – perhaps through that simple gesture diffusing anger and displaying attention and presence.

vayigash means that he offered words of consolation – perhaps sharing with Joseph important words of understanding and sympathy.

vayigash means that he made a personal sacrifice – perhaps in terms of offering his own humility and leaving hubris and ego behind for the sake of family peace.

Our tradition is full of different ideas and thoughts about what exactly transpired during that exchange. Perhaps a simple yet compelling handshake, maybe words of consolation, an act of personal sacrifice. We do know that the act of reaching out, certainly mattered to Joseph.

There are different ways in which we too can reach out to others, be it at times of joy or sorrow. The richness of our tradition is that it is going out of its way to emphasize that there are different paths to take – depending on circumstance and context. Such reaching out must be guided by a sense of who we are dealing with and what they may need. Such interactions must be guided by sincerity, by honesty, and by love. What is clear is that when facing challenges – be they personal or professional (or other) – that “reaching out” can change and ease difficult situations. And even if Judah had been unsuccessful, at least he could say, “I tried”

This week’s Torah reading offers hope for reconciliation… if these brothers could learn to get along again, so can any of us. The tale emphasizes the importance of something as simple as a handshake, of how important it can be to reach out and make contact. As we head into the New Year of 2021, leaving behind a year no one could have imagined, I hope you will remember the difference a simple gesture can make, and the impact that reaching out can have, to those around us.

Wishing you and your families a Happy New Year!

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