Yom Shlishi, 16 Iyyar 5779
Tuesday, 21 May 2019
Parashat Vayiggash 2013

Parashat Vayigash
Rabbi Lea Mühlstein

6 December 2013

Coming face to face

We live in a world of virtual encounters: we communicate with each other by phone, email, text message, instant message, FaceTime and through the whole wide world of social media. All these new ways of communicating have shortened distances: my family, who live in Germany, are now just a WhatsApp message away; when I first moved to England we wrote letters. I’m not kidding, when I moved here 16 years ago, I spoke to my family on the phone once every couple of months, now my free calls to Germany are included in my regular landline charge.

But the surge in the number of ways, in which we can communicate electronically, has at the same time brought distance between people. I regularly call my colleagues on the phone because I’m too lazy to pop down a few flights of stairs and I know I’m not alone in doing so. And even worse, have you caught yourself, like I have numerous time, becoming distracted from conversations that we are having with someone actually sitting in front of us or next to us, because our phone has beeped to let us know that a new text, or email, or other instant message has arrived?

In this week’s Torah portion Vayigash, we read about Judah’s famous encounter with his brother Joseph. Judah initially does not know that he is talking to Joseph. He comes to the king’s vizier to plead for the freedom of his youngest brother Benjamin, whom Joseph had framed as the thief of his silver goblet. The Torah portion opens with the words: “Vayigash eilav yehuda – Now Judah approached him.” Rather than just seeking an audience with Pharaoh’s official as the brothers had done previously, Judah approaches Joseph – he seeks a more intimate encounter to plead for Benjamin, an encounter face-to-face.

The face-to-face encounters are what brings about a change in attitude of Joseph towards his family – first the face-to-face encounter with Benjamin, described in last week’s parashah (Genesis 43:30-1), and then the encounter with Judah. Joseph can no longer look just rationally at his own past and at the prospect of his involvement with his family in the future. Meeting his brothers face-to-face, Joseph is overcome by emotion. Why didn’t Joseph ever let his poor father know that he is doing okay? Surely as the king’s vizier, he could have easily sent word to Jacob. At the very least, we might have expected him to use the first opportunity of his brothers’ initial visit to reveal himself. But Joseph was probably stuck in a painful emotional deadlock, which could only be broken through a face-to-face encounter.

The face-to-face encounter holds a prominent place in the thought of the modern Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas. In fact, Levinas’ concepts of ethics and justice are based on this face-to-face encounter. According to Levinas, the face of the Other calls me into question and summons me to respond. In his “Basic Philosophical Writings”, Levinas says: “[t]he I is not simply conscious of this necessity to respond, as if it were a matter of an obligation or a duty about which a decision could be made; rather the I is, by its very position, responsibility through and through. [...] Hence, to be I signifies not being able to escape responsibility.” What Levinas is trying to say is that when we meet another person, we are reminded of our responsibility for that person. It is always, as the Levinas’ scholar Michael Morgan puts it: ‘a plea of the weak to the powerful or the poor to the rich.’

When Joseph comes face-to-face with Judah, he is able to transcend his own anger about the ill-treatment he had suffered. He realises that he is the powerful one and his brothers are weak and dependent on his mercy. At last, Joseph becomes aware of the fact that it is up to him to reconcile with his brothers and reunite with his family. And he responds to the plea of Judah's face not just by granting the request for Benjamin's freedom but by revealing himself as Joseph, their brother.

Our Torah portion thus reminds us of the importance of actually talking with people face-to-face. The manifold ways of electronic conversation are useful to maintain relationships but in order to build and repair relationships we must present our face to the Other while looking into the Other's face. So that these face-to-face encounters can remind us of our responsibility for others, of our power to help.

Knowing that, the words of Arik Einstein, the godfather of Israeli music who died aged 74 just before Chanukkah this year, do not seem like a naive dream, that "you and I can change the world."