Parshas Vayigash; Connections If one were pressed to give a unified title to our sedra this week, I think it would be ‘connections/meetings.’ The sedra opens with Yehudah drawing near to Yosef, the brothers are then knowingly reunited as brothers, and Yaakov avinu makes the journey down to Egypt and meets his son Yosef for the first time in 22 years (see rashi 37;34).

In fact, the first word of the sedra, and its title, means a connection. Let’s elaborate on this point a little before going on to discuss the central meeting of the sedra; between Yaakov and Yosef. The word ‘vayigash’ means connection

. It literally means ‘and he drew near’ ie a physical move towards connection between two people,’ and the root gimel & shin always convey this message. (I heard this bit from R’ Tugenthaft many years ago). For example, gesher, (with the gimmel shin root) means a bridge, ie a physical connecting of two sides. So too geshem, rain, is that which connects heaven and earth.

And gashmiyus, physical objects, actually provides the connection between the physical and spiritual worlds - most mitvos are done via doing a physical act, and many involve uplifting physical objects eg a bracha elevating food, our bodies etc. Furthermore, the common denominator between the letters gimmel and shin is that they have a gematria centred around the number 3. And the maharal explains that the number 3 also means a connection between two parts; 1 epitomises single completeness, 2 is multiplicity and the start of separation (bracha, meaning ‘an increase,’ has the root letters beis, reish, and kaf, which are all based around the gematria ‘2’, HaShem split the waters and land on the second day of creation, and machlokes - the ultimate friction/separation between 2 sides - was formed on that day). Three is the complete bonded unit by joining up the two different parts. Thus, a third line can create a triangle, in which now every side touches every other side in the shape; again, a connection. Similarly, the word for a chain (the object created to connect) is shalsheles, which is a repetition of the letters shin and lamed - again both based on the gematria of 3. Likewise, the pasuk in koheles (4;12) informs us that ‘the 3-threaded string will not break quickly,’ (‘vehachut hameshulash lo bimheira yenasek’) since it is sufficiently strongly bonded together to withstand snapping. And it is probably no coincidence that it is 3 tefillos which provide us with the core spiritual diet of our daily lives, as do the 3 regalim, nor the fact that our religion was based upon the tripod unit of 3 avos (who each founded one of these tefillos and are each paired with one regel; see Tur orach chaim 417 in the name of his brother for the avos-regel pairing.)

The other manifestation of this idea of 3 being a connector/unit of connection is that in halacha the general rule is that once an event has occurred 3 times one can assume it will continue to occur. For example, the gemarra says that once a family has 3 consecutive generations of talmidei chachamim then Torah will not depart from its descendants. We call this application a ‘chazaka,’ eg an ox that gores another species 3 times is no longer considered tame (and will now pay the full damages); for the third action of goring shows that the previous 2 were not mere flukes, but that they form part of a pattern which tells us about the nature of this ox as wild, as well as about its future behaviour - that we can now safely assume that this ox will gore again in the future. (‘3 strikes and you’re out’ sorta thing.)

In fact, so clear is it that after doing something 3 times one will repeat it, under certain circumstances performing a practice 3 times has the status of a neder, vow, and is included in the hataras nedarim which most do before rosh Hashanah. Anyway, introduction over (!), let’s discuss the main meeting of the sedra; the meeting between Yaakov and Yosef. Rashi (46;29) brings that when Yaakov met Yosef, whilst Yosef was crying on his father’s shoulders and embracing him, Yaakov avinu was reciting kriyas shema. Why? And further, if we manage to explain why Yaakov was saying shema, why was Yosef not doing the same?

There are those who suggest that the time for shema arrived, and whilst Yaakov thus needed to say the Shema, Yosef was exempt from this mitzvah for the meanwhile, for he was performing the mitzvah of kibud av. (see, for example, sifsei chachamim) However, one could ask; why did Yaakov not pause a bit before meeting Yosef and recite the Shema; why wait until Yosef was crying on his shoulders? Maybe one could put forward a slightly different explanation...

There is a story told about Rav Boruch Ber Leibovitz when he was a small child. His father once hit him for doing a child-like act, and little Boruch Ber started crying. Immediately, whilst he was crying, he got up and took a siddur and started to daven mincha. His father asked him why was it now that he suddenly jumped up and davened mincha? Answered Boruch Ber that ‘either way I’m crying, I might as well channel these tears for tefillah’ (see R’ Pinkus’s shearim betfillah page 45). Perhaps this is exactly what Yaakov avinu was doing here. We have said that the reason why Yaakov avinu is paired with the festival of skukkos is because of his middah of tiferes; ie the ability to use and elevate everything for the service of HaShem (just like on sukkos we use the elements of the natural world; s’chach, lulav, esrog, etc for mitzvos.) And his long-awaited meeting with his son Yosef was no exception.

Knowing that he would have a natural emotional uplift upon seeing his son,

Yaakov’s greatness entailed him using and channelling this emotional rocket for avodas HaShem; he thus used it to power his kriyas shema. Thus, Yaakov was not necessarily using this opportunity to fulfil his mitzvah of kriyas shema; this saying of the shema was an added expression of closeness and gratitude to HaShem for being reunited with his son; fuelled by this wave of emotion.

And perhaps this is why Yaakov recited shema and not shmone esrei upon meeting Yosef; [apart from the fact that bechol levavecha means serving HaShem with both one’s yetzer tov and yetzer hara (rashi); again the idea of using everything to connect to HaShem] it is on a practical level one earth-shattering short line which sums everything up -

we try to end yom kippur with such emotion in that line too. And why did Yosef not recite shema too? Yaakov’s greatness was to turn this emotion to avodas HaShem, and Yosef’s greatness?

This was to turn the emotion and his will to say shema too, and use it all to do his mitzvah of kibud av.

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