Making that Soulful Connection

Parashat Vayigash

As Delivered at Temple Emanu-El on December 14, 2018

Tonight, I want to talk about relationships — those relationships that we hold dear in our lives — I’m talking about the platonic, but nonetheless loving relationships. For me, in the last ten years I’ve gone through many: Relationships from high school or during my college and young adult years when my friends and I were inseparable, and yet despite the powers of technology, phones, and social media, many of them have disappeared from my worldview. And yes, I understand that phones and technology work two ways, and so I say to myself,” Oh, well it works both ways, why haven’t they called me?” And I simultaneously evaluate why I haven’t called them either.

Perhaps you too have had this experience throughout your life, relationships that were once so dear that have dissipated into the universe, perhaps even replaced by new friendships. Maybe you and the other party simply grew apart or you worry that it has been so long since either of you reached out and now you’re not really sure you’d like to extend a call at this point… After all, what would they say, and how would they react? Would they reject you? Would they welcome you? What would happen? Maybe the apathy toward the relationship has come from some sort of laziness to the whole endeavor…I mean, it’s not easy to maintain serious relationships, it takes a lot of effort, and perhaps we just haven’t made it a priority. Or perhaps we have reached out to no avail. We’re the only one who makes the call, they never returned the courtesy, and so we understandably let the relationship fade away.

Our Torah portion this week, Vayigash, is all about relationships. Leading up to this portion, Joseph is the head of Pharaoh's court, handing out rations in Egypt during the famine that he predicted. Joseph’s many brothers have come down from Israel seeking food for their father and the whole family. As all of the brothers, except for Jacob’s beloved Benjamin came toward Joseph requesting food, none of them recognized that he was the very brother they had left for dead just a few years back, but Joseph knew exactly who they were — the brothers that destroyed their relationship with him, leaving him for dead because their jealousy was too strong.

After giving his brothers a hard time, Joseph eventually sent them away, asking that they return with the remaining brother from their family. The other siblings were his half-brothers while the remaining brother was Benjamin, born to Joseph’s mother, Rachel. This detail should not be lost in our understanding of the family dynamics that play out in this portion. After negotiating with their father, the brothers convince Jacob to let them take Benjamin down to Egypt, swearing that they’ll bring him back. It is in this section that we learn how deep the relationship is between Benjamin and his father Jacob, because Joseph tries to keep Benjamin in Egypt. But when faced with this scenario, one of the brothers steps forward to Joseph and pleads, asking to switch spots with Benjamin. For this brother knew that not bringing Benjamin back to his father, Jacob, would surely kill him. Because Benjamin’s relationship with his father was so dear, that the Torah says it was  נַפְשׁוֹ קְשׁוּרָה בְנַפְשׁוֹ (Gen. 44:30), that Benjamin’s soul was wrapped up in Jacob’s soul.

This is the turning point of our story. Joseph, taken aback by the willingness of his brothers to protect their family, Joseph reveals his identity. He is so struck by the relationship his brothers have with one another and with their father that he comes clean about who he is. It’s important to highlight the use of the term nefesh from the verse, because it emphasizes such an elevated level of relationship. The text doesn’t say that their hearts and minds were bound to one another, rather their souls. Lest we rely only on this example, the phrase occurs in one other location in Torah, and that is the relationship between King David and his beloved friend, Jonathan. Jonathan was instantly drawn to David, after meeting him, our Torah shares, “When [David] finished speaking with Saul, Jonathan’s soul [his nefesh] became bound up with the soul of David; Jonathan loved David as himself.” We have both an example of a relationship between family members being raised to that of a soul bound relationship and we have the example of friend’s souls uniting.

I believe the key to the preservation of our relationships is to build a bond in which our souls truly unite. God did not set up a world of souls to form only surface level friendships, but real, deep, soul-connected relationships. 

The Sages of Pirkei Avot ask us to acquire for ourselves a friend, k’nei l’cha chaver (1:6). The Hebrew is that we should actually “buy” for ourselves a friend. The Sages want us to put as much emphasis on how we acquire our friendships as we do research the material items we purchase — think of the hours we put into researching a car, a home, or the next computer. Usually, when we buy something we are sacrificing something else in its place — we save up for that new car by not going on a fancy vacation one year, that sort of thing. We build up a relationship by sacrificing the time we might use for other things. In this way, we are deliberate in the way that we acquire our friends.

Now we must evaluate: Who in our life is worth setting aside time for and what are we sacrificing in order to build up that relationship? Going back to where we began: Who do you wish to rekindle a relationship with as you move into the new secular year? Are there people you haven’t made the time for recently, but you’ve been thinking about them because you know your soul is somehow bound up with theirs? What’s holding you back and can you break through those barriers?

As we continue to trudge into the darkness of winter as the winter solstice approaches, be that light for a friend you haven’t reached out to in a while, the one you’ve been meaning to connect with on a deep, soul-level. Like Benjamin to Jacob and Jonathan to King David, we understand the power of a connected soul. Now we must take the advice from our Sages of Pirkei Avot and be deliberate about our time in acquiring or reacquiring your friendships. True friendships our God’s gift to us in the binding of our souls. May we be freed from the excuses that hold us back from these meaningful relationships, and may our renewed connections lead us to a more fulfilled and blessed life.

כן יהי רצון.

May this be God’s will.

Shabbat Shalom.