When speaking to B’nai Mitzvah students about God and how difficult it is to define or describe something so sublime, I say to them, it’s the same as trying to define love.

Parshat Vayigash

How do we define love? How do we explain something so emotional, something that each person experiences so differently, with countless derivations—romantic, filial, lust,

each changing according to our relationship with the individual whom we are showing and receiving our love.

The students agree that it is indeed hard to define something so intricate and profound.


This week’s parsha contains one of the most touching descriptions of love.

In describing Jacob’s love for his son Benjamin, we read nafsho keshurah b’nafsho,

“his own life is bound up with his [Benjamin’s] soul.”

The word nefesh, in the Bible, means the essence of life.

Keshura means knotted, tied, or bound.

Jacob’s essence is bound up in the soul of his child.


Is this the Torah’s definition of true love?

When one’s own essence is eminently linked with another?

When two souls are as interwoven as the threads of a tightly bound knot?


Harvard professor David Nozick defines love as the attempt of two people to expand their own definition of themselves to include the other person.

There is an element of our ego disappearing in this expansion.

In opening ourselves to love and all the inherent vulnerability, trust, exhilaration, and even terror, we multiply the depth of our own nefesh.


Medieval biblical commentator David Kimchi explains this verse to mean that because of the great love Jacob bears for his son Benjamin,

Jacob’s soul will leave him if the brothers return to Egypt without Benjamin.

Benjamin is inexorably linked to Jacob so that when something happens to one it is as if the other directly feels the blow.[1]

And in the same way, joys experienced by one are so too felt by the other.

We grow to incorporate the needs, desire, and hopes of those we love.

Rather than “I,” we are part of a “we.” Harm one and the other cries.

And our cries are not a matter of choice. We don’t choose to feel pain when a loved one suffers, but we suffer that pain whether we want to or not.[2]

Jacob understood the high cost of love. He lost his beloved Rachel at an early age. Rachel’s two sons Joseph and Benjamin were especially precious to him, emblems of her.  

When Joseph was lost to him, it was a double loss—grief for his son, and his wife again.

In the words of Rabbi Bradley Artson, his loneliness was the sorrow of a soul longing for its other half.

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This parsha urges us to consider all positive and negative permutations of love…. Parental love which is dominated by the terror of letting go, and parental love characterized by a loving foundation which enables a child to discover their own neshama. Romantic love that deepens and expands our own nefesh such that when the other isn’t a part of our lives we feel incomplete, and romantic love which suffocates. Platonic love, the devotion between friends who truly know each other and are there unconditionally, and platonic love which lacks mutual devotion.


I think about times of deep love in my own life.  

The soul-stirring, soaring, beyond words, experience.

And the accompanying vulnerability, and the possibility of loss.

As we bind ourselves to another, the possibility of pain is so much greater.

Someone once said, that truly loving is one of the most terrifying and risky of human endeavors; and it’s true.

And yet, it’s only through this risk that our neshama expands, opening up to join with another soul.


Nafsho keshurah b’nafsho, one soul bound up in another soul. Intertwined and tightly knotted. This integration of two souls is a divine union, our opportunity to share the unity of the Eternal. May we each have the courage to open ourselves up to nafsho keshurah b’nafsho, the binding of two souls, and experience the divine in this sacred act.

[1] Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, The Bedside Torah (Contemporary Books: New York), 2001, p. 80.

[2] Ibid.