Translations of kabbalistic texts are by Rabbi Larry Tabick, The Aura of Torah. Translations of the Torah and other commentaries are from Sefaria, except where otherwise noted.
To help with understanding the kabbalistic and Hasidic commentary, we will be following the PARDES model of Torah interpretation, starting from the simple textual understanding to more complex modes
The story of Joseph reaches its climax this week, as Judah and the brothers refuse to leave Benjamin behind. Judah passionately pleads his situation to the Egyptian minister, leading Joseph to reveal his identity. The brothers reconcile and the cycle of brotherly conflict that the Torah begin with Cain and Abel comes to a conclusion.
Then Judah went up to him and said, “Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh.”
THEN JUDAH CAME NEAR TO HIM: May my words penetrate into your ears (Midrash Rabbah Bereishit 93:6).
Rashi is solidly at the level Peshat — plain meaning — of the phrase “Judah went up to him.” Judah physically moves closer to the Egyptian minister so his words have greater impact.
Rabbi Tabick brings us a text from Simcha Bunim of Pschische, which cites a different part of Midrash Rabbah Bereishit 93:6. There the rabbis of the midrash compare the different meanings of “closeness” in conflict. It can involve fighting, compromise, or prayer. The rabbis derive this meaning from a comparison of the way וַיִּגַּ֨שׁ, “to draw near” is used in different scriptural texts.
Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 96:3
R. Elazar said: [Judah] stated [all these intentions] explicitly to Joseph. If it is for battle that I must prepare myself, I am coming; if it is for persuasion that I must prepare myself, I am coming, if it is for prayer that I must prepare myself, I am coming!
This is an example of Derash, using the comparative method among scriptural texts to develop an interpretation.
How would describe R. Elazar meaning? If you were going to do a sermon, how would state the main lesson?
Simcha Bunim was unusual among early nineteenth century Hasidic rebbes in that he embraced modern Western cultural forms and science. His teachings have similarities with later Mussar teachers, emphasizing the development of middot and individual responsibility. Let’s see what he does with the interpretation in the Midrash.
Simcha Bunim of Pshiche, early 19th century, Poland
In the midrash the verse, “Then Judah came closer to him [Joseph],” it says that coming closer can only be for battle, for conciliation, or prayer. Commentators on the Torah pose the question: Surely Judah was [already] standing and talking with Joseph, and vice-versa, so why [does the text use] the expression “came closer”? Now, it appears that prayer is accepted only if you pray from the depths of the heart and the essence of your soul — such a prayer is received favorably. Similarly, in the case of war, you must arouse yourself with all your inner powers in order to fight with your opponent, and similarly with conciliation — consider this carefully. So this is the meaning of [the phrase] “Then Judah came closer to him” — that Judah “came closer to” his own essence, and on this basis we may explain the midrash.
In order to fight, persuade, or pray successfully, you must draw from inner strength — you have to come closer to who you are.
There is also a midrash on this verse that says that Judah was able to draw deep into Joseph’s inner needs (Midrash Tanchuma Buber, Vayigash 2:1) — that at some level Judah was able to speak to Joseph at a soul-level.
Midrash Tanchuma Buber, Vayigash 2:1
This text is related to Proverbs 20:5: The counsel in one’s heart is deep water, but one with understanding will draw it out. DEEP WATER: This refers to Joseph. However wise Joseph was, Judah came and vanquished him … To what may this be compared? To a cistern which was so deep that no one was able to go down in it. There came one who was astute enough to bring a long rope. So he reached his water and drew some out of it. Thus Joseph was deep, but Judah came and drew out of him.
If Simcha Bunim was going to complete his drash by also reflecting on this midrash, what might he say? (Bunim’s students complained his published sermons were incomplete and inaccurate — so perhaps he did also fill out his lesson with this other midrash.]