Coming close to where we need to be

Rabbi Scott Shafrin is Associate Rabbi at Kol Rinah and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Light.


As we come to the end of the year, it can be tempting to focus on setting goals, creating resolutions, and imagining dreams for the year ahead. But all too often, we fall short of these goals and end up frustrated, whether we want to move ahead in our career, get in better shape, eat healthier, spend time with people close to us, or just relax more. All the more so, when we think about the larger problems in the world, issues of justice, of right and wrong, of the moral content of our souls and our universe, it is easy to get overwhelmed, throw up our hands and give into defeat before we have even really begun.

In this moment, however, all of the year is still in front of us. We are just on the cusp of beginning 2020, and it is in this space where anything we can imagine is still possible. So how do we get from possibilities to actual, meaningful change in the year ahead?

One answer comes out in our Torah reading this week. Parashat Vayigash begins by recalling that, “Judah drew close to him (Joseph), and said, ‘Please…’” (Genesis 44:18). Much is being said here in very few words. First, we must understand Judah’s situation: he is unknowingly facing off against the brother he wronged, a sibling who he cast aside, punished, and condemned,  who is now one of the most powerful people in one of the most powerful empires in the ancient world and who is threatening their brother, Benjamin. 

By all accounts, this is a terrifying situation. And yet, Judah does not run from Joseph; he draws near. That very act of coming closer to the situation he has every right to fear is one of the most profound spiritual changes in all of Torah. Stepping up, going all in, and pushing ourselves, even into frightening territory, is an essential first step in making the changes each of us want and need in this world.

Second, before he even begins, Judah asks, “Please.” Rashi, commenting on this unusual opening statement interprets Judah as asking God and the universe to allow his words to penetrate Joseph’s seemingly impermeable emotional armor. In essence, he is accepting the fact that, despite his best efforts, some things are out of control. He admits that he doesn’t have all the answers, that he doesn’t know the right words or arguments that will help him ensure his brother Benjamin’s freedom or secure the food their family needs, but even still, it is so important that he must try. 

Judah puts all of his effort into the words he must speak in order to save his family, even while he is unsure of exactly how to accomplish his goal. Being uncertain doesn’t stop him from acting, from taking steps to do what he knows are right and doing what is needed for himself and those for whom he cares. 

We may not have all of the answers to meet our goals or save the world today. Tomorrow may not bring us total clarity or revelations from above. Fortunately, knowing everything is not a prerequisite for getting started. 

So get out there, and draw yourself close to the things you desire in life, for yourself, your family, your community, and the world around you. Take the steps you know will move us in a better direction, even when it is scary, because the scarier thing is never to try, confining ourselves to last year’s mistakes simply because we are afraid to change.

And in the end, ask those around you, and the world, for a little help. No one ever changed the world by themselves, but with a little kindness, a small ask can turn into a brave new world.