One Minute Torah: Vayigash 5779

Through four years of high-school, 50 minutes a day, I sat in the Hebrew class of Yehudit Bass.

Through four years of high-school, 50 minutes a day, I sat in the Hebrew class of Yehudit Bass. She was an older Israeli woman, with jet-black hair always tied in a bun, tall, proud shoulders, and high expectations of her students. In Mrs. Bass’s class, I encountered some of the greatest writing of modern Hebrew: Tehilah  by Shai Agnon, HaMatmid by Chaim Nachman Bialik. When she was pleased with our work, her smile was magnificent. When she was displeased, she could bring a student to tears.

Every paper we wrote for Mrs. Bass came back with corrections–tikunim–which we were expected to fix. Sometimes, she sent back corrections on the corrections–tikunim al ha-tikunim–and these, too, we were expected to return to her. When a piece of our writing really caught her attention, sometimes for good and sometimes for bad, she would write at the top of the page the dreaded words: g’shi eylay.  I cannot translate this phrase, because the English language does not include the word gsh. What she meant was, “Come talk to me.”

Language boxes in our thinking, and English desperately needs a word like gsh. It means to approach someone with intention, to draw near in the hopes of affecting a change. Our parshah this week is called VaYigash (the future, masculine form of the verb), and it opens; VaYigash–Judah to Joseph. For context: at the end of last week’s parshah, Joseph revealed the goblet that he had planted in Benjamin’s sack, and decreed that Benjamin must become his slave. I imagine Judah took a very deep breathe, before stepping forwarding–gshing–to plead for Benjamin’s freedom, offering himself up to slavery in Benjamin’s stead.

The verb gsh  appears 125 times in the Tanach (Hebrew Bible). For example, VaYigash–Jacob to his elderly father, to receive the blessing Isaac had intended for Esau (Genesis 27:22). Nigash (past tense)–Moses to the mist on Mt. Sinai, to hear divine secrets (Exodus 20:18).  VaYigash–Elijah the Prophet before the nation, to rebuke them for their rebelliousness (Kings I 18:21). Usually, gsh occurs within a power differential. Always, gsh suggests a pause before engaging.

Sometimes, an interaction preceded by gsh results in manipulation, disappointment or harm. But gsh is also the prerequisite for a type of interaction that I think many of us crave, and yet we are often too timid or distracted to make happen.  So many of our social interactions are flyby or casual. We shoot off emails, we grab coffee, we hangout–in person and online. Gsh requires one person to look inside, and then step out to another with thought and commitment. Gsh implies a desire for an interaction to have impact.

As a teen, if the word gsh appeared on the top of my Hebrew essay, I would show it to a friend and roll my eyes, expecting sympathy. But on a deeper level, I also knew that that word meant Mrs. Bass was invested in me. She was demanding, because she cared. She wanted me to approach her, to step out of my comfort zone, so that I, too, could learn to care.

Years later, my husband and I invited Mrs. Bass to our wedding. She asked if an authoritative Eben Shoshan dictionary would be an acceptable wedding gift, and I said, “Absolutely!”  Inside the front cover, she wrote in her familiar script, using flowery language, some of which I had to open that dictionary to understand:

’מות וחיים ביד הלשון”, משלי י’ח, כ’א”
,לאילנה ודוד היקרים
;מלא חפנים ברכות ואחולים לרב
,מאחלת תמיד
יהודית בס

“Death and life are in the hands of the tongue,” Proverbs 18:21
To My Dear Ilana and David,
The fullness of blessings and great wishes fulfilled,
I wish you always-
Yehudit Bass