Prayer is About Coming Closer
How might we come closer to God in prayer? What are the physical acts that deepen the potential for relationship with God while praying? The rabbinic understanding of Yehudah’s actions in VaYigash offers some insight on these questions.
VaYigash opens with Yehudah approaching Yosef:
וַיִּגַּשׁ אֵלָיו יְהוּדָה וַיֹּאמֶר בִּי אֲדֹנִי יְדַבֶּר־נָא עַבְדְּךָ דָבָר בְּאָזְנֵי אֲדֹנִי...
Yehudah approached [Yosef] and said, “Please, my lord, let your servant speak a word in the ear of my lord…”
When Yehudah approached Yosef, whom he addresses as “my lord,” they were already in dialogue (see Genesis 44:16-17). Why does Yehudah need to come closer to Yosef at this point? As the Netziv1 puts it (in his comment to our verse):
לא נתבאר לפי הפשט הגשה זו להתקרב ליוסף מה היא, וכי יוסף לא היה שומע דבריו ממקום שעמד עד כה
It is not clear according to the simple meaning of the text: this approaching to come closer to Yosef, what is it? Hasn’t Yosef been able to hear [Yehudah’s] words from the place he was standing until this point?
The rabbinic interpretation of this verse offers many options for what Yehudah was doing in this moment. R. Yehudah said he was coming closer to do battle (למלחמה); R. Nehemiah said he was approaching to appease (לפייסו). But the majority opinion of the rabbis is the following:
בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) צג:ו
הגשה לתפילה שנ' "ויהי כעלות המנחה ויגש אליהו" (מלכים א יח:לו)
Bereishit Rabbah 93:6, ed. Theodor-Albeck, p. 1154
This approaching was for prayer, as it says: “And it came to pass at the time of the evening offering, that Elijah the prophet approached” (I Kings 18:36).2
Yehudah is approaching Yosef as a worshiper might approach God in prayer. We learn this from the similar use of the word vayigash when Elijah came to offer his prayer before God in the battle with the priests of Ba’al. Elijah’s prayer, which follows his physical approach, reaches its crescendo when he prays the following words to God: “Answer me, YHVH, answer me (ענני ה' ענני)!” (I Kings 18:37).
What does physical approaching have to do with prayer? In my experience, prayer is, at its core, an attempt to come closer to God. Indeed, while we might ask God for something specific or offer gratitude about our lives, the basic endeavor of prayer is drawing near. I sometimes feel distant from God, experiencing God’s presence as muted in my life. Prayer is a moment—an opportunity—to try to bring myself closer to God, and God closer to me.
The idea of coming closer to God as the fundamental act of prayer is made clear in the following midrash, which follows the explanation of the word vayigash in the above midrash:
תלמוד ירושלמי ברכות ד:ד, דף ח טור ב
רבי פינחס ר' לוי ר' יוחנן בשם מנחם דגלייא זה שעובר לפני התיבה אין אומר לו בוא והתפלל אלא בוא וקרב
Talmud Yerushalmi Berakhot 4:4, 8b3
R. Pinhas, R. Levi, R. Yohanan in the name of Menahem of Gaulle: The one who passes before the ark (i.e. leads the Amidah), do not say to him: “Come and pray,” but rather: “Come and draw near.”
The core act of praying is to come close (לקרב). Indeed, the connection between prayer and sacrifices is seen in this word. “Sacrifice” is a poor translation of the Hebrew korban, which is the catalyst meant to draw us near (karov) to God.4 Even if we do not draw near to God anymore with animal offerings, our desire to draw close—as represented by prayer with words—is consistent with that ancient instinct.
What is the main way Yehudah draws close to Yosef in this moment? Although previously he was speaking to Yosef, apparently he was making use of a translator (see Genesis 42:23). There was a linguistic screen between them. But in this moment of stepping forward, Yehudah speaks directly into the ear of Yosef. The scene is explained by the Or Ha-Hayyim5 (in his comments to Genesis 44:18):
כי דבר ידוע הוא כי מנהג המלכים ישבו לפניהם גדולי המלכות ושריהם ויועציהם והיה אם בא איש על דבר משפט או דבר מאת המלך לא יעמוד בהפסק בין המלך ושריו היושבים ראשונה במלכות וחוץ לעגול יעמוד ושם ידבר, וכמו כן היה מדבר יהודה עד עתה ואח"כ ויגש אליו פי' שנכנס לפנים ממחיצתו ועמד בין המלך ובין השרים כדי שלא ישמעו דבריו לזולת המלך
It is known that concerning royal etiquette, the ministers and advisors sat before the king; and if a person came to speak about an issue or matter before the king, they would not stand past those advisors and directly next to the king; rather they would stand on the outer circle and speak from there. This was how Yehudah was speaking until this point. Then when “Yehudah approached,” it means he entered through the screen and stood between the king and the advisors, so that they wouldn’t hear what he said directly to the king.
The Or Ha-Hayyim describes a scene in which Yehudah is distant from Yosef—so many advisors and courtiers stand between them. But in this moment of approaching (the model of prayer), Yehudah cuts through all those advisors and stands directly in front of the king.6 This is the goal of prayer: to cut through all the screens that stand in the way of our connection with God, and to simply draw closer.
In this moment of intimate encounter, Yehudah speaks directly into the ear of Yosef. The Netziv understands this to be in a whisper.7 Indeed, whisper is the language of our most intimate prayer, the Amidah. Why do we pray in a whisper? Partly it is to model our prayer on that of Hannah, who also prayed in a whisper, without volume (I Samuel 1:13).8 But the Zohar understands another reason for whispering in the Amidah: to draw God closer to us.
זוהר כרך ב פרשת תרומה דף קלח:
ועל דא צלותא בלחש כמאן דמליל ברזא עם מלכא ובעוד דאיהו ברזא עמיה לא אתרחקא מניה כלל... בעי לאחדא ביה ולאשתעי בהדיה בלחישו ברזא דלא יתרחק מינן ולא ישתבק מינן.
Zohar Terumah 2:138b
That is why the Amidah is said in a whisper, like someone speaking in secret with the king: while he is in secret with [the king], [the king] will not distance from him… [so too in the Amidah], you should take hold of [God] and speak with [God] in a whisper, in secret, so that [God] should not distance from you or forsake you.9
The orientation of prayer—and specifically the Amidah—is to draw close to God in relationship.10 When we whisper, we require the one we are addressing to come close to us, and to listen carefully to us. Yehudah, in a prayer-like act, drew close to Yosef, pushing past all the barriers, speaking in a whisper into Yosef’s ear, making sure that Yosef had to remain close to him in order to pay attention. Perhaps in our own prayer life, when we feel distant from God, we can also connect to the Amidah and its recitation in a whisper, to come closer to God, and draw God closer to us.
2 Compare Bereishit Rabbah 49:8, ed. Theodor-Albeck, p. 506. See the other interpretations of ויגש in Bereishit Rabbah 93:7, ed. Theodor-Albeck, p. 1166; Yalkut Shimoni Miketz #150; Midrash Tanhuma VaYigash 5; Aggadat Bereishit 22, ed. Ezra Kahalani, p. 255; Rabbeinu Behaye to Genesis 44:18.