26 December 2009

Presence

When Judah approaches his brother Joseph in the Torah that closed for this Shabbat, Vayigash, Judah, in an act of reconciliation with his brother says in Genesis 44.18, "Please, my lord, let Your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant. But the Hebrew, וַיֹּאמֶר בִּי אֲדֹנִי, יְדַבֶּר-נָא עַבְדְּךָ דָבָר בְּאָזְנֵי אֲדֹנִי allows for a very interesting opportunity to purposely misread the text and see the formal "lord" used by Judah as in fact a reference to God, which may render the text, "God is with/in me and your servant speaks directly to God." The Slonimer Rebbe, in his text נתיבות שלום says that especially in times of trouble, we learn that God doesn't answer our prayers directly--especially our direct requests for specific, material things--as much as God is with us, present, in our turmoil and pain. There is a logic to this--that since the days of the Mishnah one is taught that "acceptable" prayer should be made without any distraction and what is more distracting than a person is suffering, unable to move beyond his or her pain in order to focus on Divine matters beyond the self. But when Judah, in prayerful words to his brother, says, בִּי אֲדֹנִי, he is saying in fact that he can offer his prayer of pain in a non-distracted way specifically because he figured out that in fact God is with him.

Joseph needs to hear this confession--and he is about to return the favor, overcome with emotion himself--in order for the brothers to be reconciled.

A sibling relationship that began with rivalry, jealousy, and competition and that led to a staged "murder," being sold into slavery, falsely accused, sentenced to jail and only then freed by the very power that was the source of jealousy in the first place--Joseph knew well his own suffering and the ultimate source of his gift to interpret dreams. In his own confession to his brothers he says, "So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt." Whereas he once saw himself as the sole source of his own strength and inspiration, he has the humility and presence of self in relationship to the Divine to create room for reconciliation.

Presumably, the Slonimer Rebbe is saying to us that we each have this potential to learn, through introspection and prayer, that in fact in our darkest struggles we are not alone, that God is with us, not rescuing us materially but abiding, present. It means that pain is a natural part of our existence but that it yields great wisdom when we are able to simply understand that transcendence is not an instantaneous proposition.

People in therapy get these insights once in a while and once in a while they come through daily prayer as well. They are hard earned moments, building blocks for our own moral and psychological development.

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