(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...dibbuk chaveirim, clinging to friends...
(Genesis 45:14) ...vayipol al tzav'arei binyamin achiv vayeivk... (When Joseph revealed himself to his brothers)...he fell on his brother Benjamin's neck and cried...
I was on the high school debate team and one of my partners, who was also a dear friend, was Milton Hirsch. Among the passions we shared was the Chicago National League Baseball team – the Cubs. (We were in the bleachers the day Ken Holtzman pitched his no-hitter against the Dodgers.) Milt followed his studies into the law and has become a highly respected attorney in Miami (and the author of the definitive reference work on Florida law). And he wrote a novel entitled "In the Shadow of Justice." The hero is a judge named Clark N. Addison. As it happens, Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs, is at Clark and Addison Streets. Reading his book gave me an excuse to be in touch with him for the first time in many years. In fact, except for a quick call to ask him to help a friend in need of legal representation in Florida, the last time we spoke was in the aftermath of the death of a mutual friend from the same high school class, many years before.
I wrote to him, "There's a reason people fall out of touch. It has nothing to do with going separate ways or the atrophy of friendship. It has more to do with the intensity of a certain time in life that is so clear and so dear that the memories shouldn't be compromised by the future. The best old friends respect that for each other, without resentment or regret. But there's a reason out-of-touch friends renew their contact. And almost always, the reason is death."
I don't think you could call the relationship between Joseph and his brothers a friendship in any sense of the word. At best, you might term it a kinship, a relationship to be suffered out of necessity or convention. The last time he saw his own family, they tried to murder him and sold him into slavery! Joseph was no bargain himself-–obnoxious, arrogant and vain. To quote comedian Chris Rock, "I'm not saying they should have done it, but I understand."
So what is it that moves Joseph so much that he falls on his brother Benjamin in tears and then kisses each of the other brothers? It cannot be the halcyon days of his youth or the remembrances of frolicking in the field with a band of brothers!
My colleague Rabbi Aaron Pearlstein, of blessed memory, shared with me his theory that people only cry at a time of loss. The theory was never scientifically tested, but it makes a certain amount of sense. The moments that move us to tears are the moments when we realize the past has receded and a different reality has become the present. Funerals are such a time, as are births, b'nai mitzvah, and weddings. As Joseph stood clinging to his brother, he felt an overwhelming sense of loss – the loss of a history of antagonism and animosity. It was a loss that was necessary for a better relationship in the present.
There seems to be a contradiction. If, as I wrote to Milt, the powerful memories of friendship must sometimes rest undisturbed by the future, then our Torah-lesson is to cling to the experiences of friendship, not to the friends themselves. If, as in the case of the sons of Jacob, we are to cling to the relationship itself, then the past must be left to the past, and we must constantly look forward.
Of course, the two points of view are not so much contradictory as they are paradoxical, coexisting in their own particular ways. The clarity and intensity of our formative experiences deserve to be jealously guarded, even when they are not happy memories. As Jews, we have cherished and even romanticized Sinai, the symbol of our becoming a covenanted people instead of a ragtag band of refugee slaves. At the same time, we have carefully preserved the memory of that very slavery for the lessons it taught us and for the impression it made on our national psyche. Milt and I were hot and sweaty, squeezed among the Bleacher Bums who were progressively inebriated, on that muggy summer day. But it is the excitement of witnessing history as the Cubs' (Jewish!) pitcher retired twenty-seven Atlanta Braves without a hit that remains clear and predominant.
Similarly, memories of enslavement that do not recede are slavemasters themselves. Only by acknowledging the lessons of slavery and moving forward can body and mind be liberated. Joseph did not lose anything of importance to him as he rose to prominence in Egypt; each advance seemed to him to be something new. But when his brothers, participants in his earlier life, gave him the long look back, the relationship among them had to be reestablished to make the lessons of the past meaningful. And that's when the tears flowed.
The word for "clinging" in this teaching is dibbuk. You may recognize it from its more popular and Gothic usage, spelled dybbuk. A dybbuk is a soul that clings to another when it is time for it to be released from this world. It is a soul that refuses to die, exploiting another soul for its own purpose. Perhaps in that usage is an understanding of the time for every purpose, "a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing." All of our real Torah lessons are relationship lessons – with God at Sinai, in sibling rivalry, through family reunion, at Kenny Holtzman's no-hitter with a good friend on clear August afternoon. Sometimes you hold tight. Sometimes you let go.
Milt wrote back to me these words: "Oh, and by the way -- you don't have to wait for me to write a novel for us to exchange emails or phone calls."
Of course he is right. The lessons we learn from each other come only through communication. After all, until Joseph was willing to cling to his brother again, the brothers could not find their family voice to speak.
How can you learn Torah from dibbuk chaveirim? You have a friend or family member with whom you used to be close. Write. Call. E-mail. Remember. Renew. You don't have to wait for your friend to write a novel.