A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Chevrutah, Part II

Some of you in my mussar class (The 613 Habits of Highly Effective People) are pressing against the limits of chevruta. You wonder about the propriety of moving beyond the text of the class to the personal, you are afraid to do so. I wrote previously that chevruta study should not be limited to the text (nor can it be free of the text) that you are studying. It must include reflections from your own life and tales from your own experience.

But in our society, so focused around the sanctity of private space, sharing deeply emotional experiences is unusual - and even "impolite." But Torah is illuminated when lived experience confronts tradition and each informs the other. What prevents us from opening to others in this way? Why do we cover up - and what are we covering up?

We follow in these weeks the story of Joseph. Throughout the story Joseph is covered up and then revealed. His famous katonet pasim, the "technicolor dreamcoat" is a source of his brother's envy. They strip it off of him. In the house of Potiphar, his refuge in Egypt, Potiphar's wife strips Joseph's clothes off of him. Eventually he will be dressed in the clothes of an Egyptian nobleman and his brothers will not recognize him.

This cycle of enrobement and revelation has its emotional counterpart this week, in Parshat Vayigash. Judah, unaware that he is speaking to the brother that he nearly killed, pleads with Joseph to have mercy on the brothers. Finally, Joseph "was no longer able to hold back" and bursts into tears. "I am Joseph" he reveals.

The Sefat Emet points out that this is preceded by Judah's speech, which begins "Judah approached him" (Gen 44.18). He writes

The 'him' here refers to Joseph, to Judah's own self, and also to God. The meaning is as follows: Judah offered nothing new in his words [that is, there was no argument here that the brother's had not previously made to Joseph] nor did he have a good claim with which to approach Joseph. But as he clarified the truth of the matter, salvation came to him. 'Truth grows from the earth' (Ps 85.12).
The Sefat Emet suggests that in Judah's approaching Joseph there was immense power. The act of reaching out beyond the boundary of self was revelatory. It cut through Joseph's pretense so that he could no longer be false and v'hitapek, "he could no longer hold back." Joseph's reaction is to finally reveal the truth, "I am Joseph."

But the Sefat Emet is also pointing out to us that this psychological unveiling is at the same time a spiritual revelation. He renders the verse as "Judah approached God." As Judah reaches across the boundary of self, cuts through the cloak of concealment and defense he also reaches across the boundary of the material into the divine within himself and his brother.

I want to suggest the chevruta learning has the same potential. We can cut through the falsity and pretense that we use to get through the business of everyday life in these moments. There is nothing inherently bad about our initial reluctance to reveal something real from our own experience. We need these garments of self and identity in order to function in the world.

But two souls revealing something more true beneath the veil have the ability to uncover great truth and to access the deeper divinity that is trying to reveal itself - that source of divinity that is trying to make itself manifest through the process of self-examination and teshuvah that is part of mussar.

But it starts with one of the two people in the chevruta "approaching" first - just as Judah had the courage to do.

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