Near and Far in Goshen

Rabbi Bradley Artson
Rabbi Bradley Artson
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson

Abner & Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Vice President, American Jewish University

Rabbi Dr Bradley Shavit Artson ( has long been a passionate advocate for social justice, human dignity, diversity and inclusion. He wrote a book on Jewish teachings on war, peace and nuclear annihilation in the late 80s, became a leading voice advocating for GLBT marriage and ordination in the 90s, and has published and spoken widely on environmental ethics, special needs inclusion, racial and economic justice, cultural and religious dialogue and cooperation, and working for a just and secure peace for Israel and the Middle East. He is particularly interested in theology, ethics, and the integration of science and religion. He supervises the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program and mentors Camp Ramah in California in Ojai and Ramah of Northern California in the Bay Area. He is also dean of the Zacharias Frankel College in Potsdam, Germany, ordaining Conservative rabbis for Europe. A frequent contributor for the Huffington Post and for the Times of Israel, and a public figure Facebook page with over 60,000 likes, he is the author of 12 books and over 250 articles, most recently Renewing the Process of Creation: A Jewish Integration of Science and Spirit. Married to Elana Artson, they are the proud parents of twins, Jacob and Shira.  Learn more infomation about Rabbi Artson.

posted on December 1, 2013
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

Vayiggash is perhaps best translated as to "come-closer." The verb is most often used in the Torah to depict a lessening of physical distance between one party and another. But it can have a psychic component as well, signaling imminent rapport and rapprochement, or its opposite - the possibility of failure - and thusly all the heightened tension that comes with drawing too near.

Our Torah portion begins with Judah's plea for Benjamin's freedom. His soliloquy attempts to bridge the vast misunderstanding between the brothers and the powerful viceroy of Egypt. "Now Judah came-closer to him and said..." (Genesis 45.18) We know Judah's words melt the iron mail around Joseph's heart, they pierce his shell of outer indifference till the dam finally cracks and tears flow forth. But what comes afterward? Even after Joseph reveals himself - "I am Joseph, is my father still alive?" - there remains a gulf: "They could not answer him, for they were confounded." Joseph pleads: "Pray come-close to me - Geshu Na." But Joseph still senses hesitation for he launches into a soliloquy of his own. "Do not be pained, do not be angry with yourselves for having sold me here...."

For some hurts, even the most earnest of apologies, even the most wholesome of pardons may not mend a fabric so severely torn. If we recall, for example, Jacob may have reconciled with Esau, but he could never live in harmony with him. 'Jacob bowed seven times until he came-close to Esau.... The maidservants and their children came-close.... Leah and her children came-close. Rachel and Joseph came-close." But once it was over there was separation. Esau and his camp journeyed southeast toward Seir, and Jacob traveled west to Canaan. (Genesis 33) Would the same hold true for Joseph and his brothers? Would they know reconciliation and civility but never anything more?

Perhaps the thought occurred to Joseph. Amidst his speech, he says to his brothers, "Hasten to my father and say to him: Thus says your son, Joseph: God has made me lord of all Egypt, come down to me...and you shall stay in the region of Goshen, which is near me." (45.10)

The region of Goshen is remarkable on several accounts. On the lower Nile, the northeastern delta provides good pasture for flocks. Moreover, it is geographically closer to Canaan than Upper Egypt, all around, a generally sensible move for a family of shepherds who would continue to think of Canaan as their homeland. But the invitation is also remarkable for what it is not. Quite strikingly, it is not a request that Jacob and his family come reside in Joseph's palace(s), be it in Heliopolis, Ramses, or anywhere else in the center of the country. Goshen was a significant part and parcel of Egypt, but it was also some distance away. "And Joseph made ready his chariot, and he went up to meet Israel his father, to Goshen." (46.28-9)This was no quick walk up the street.

Yet perhaps in this there is a lesson. The expression 'to Goshen' in Hebrew is a contraction of Gesha Na - "Pray, come-close." More than anything Joseph wants his family near. "T'is my brothers, I seek," he once remarked to a total stranger. But often, to satisfy a desire for psychological closeness requires a measure of physical or even temporal distance. What Goshen then becomes is a needed stretch in space and time, a middle ground, if you will, not quite the culture of Canaan, and nothing like Egyptian aristocracy. Goshen becomes that place where Jacob and his sons will journey toward and sojourn in, and serves as a mecca where Joseph can make his visits. But in the time between these visits, and in the physical distance between palace and prairie, there remained for Joseph and his brothers a space to contemplate failure, fortune and forgiveness. To come any closer, it would seem, they needed a place both near and far.

Shabbat shalom.