The Reader is reminded that this is a continuation of Undivided: The Redemption Inquiry. The fourth chapter of…
Part the First—Ill Winds: In which the Soule of Humanitie is greatly vexed in many realms of human endeavoure. The Author draws upon experiences in this and other incarnations. Much darkness, little light.
The Reader is introduced to the arcana of that most rare of intersections, The Festival of the Passover with the twenty eight year cycle of The Blessing of the Sun, the frame upon which doth hang the tale of this Tome. As told through one of the author’s encounters with an obscure religious sect at the celebration of The Feast of the Messiah led by the seventh generation ancestor of the future High Priest of the Redemption. A glimpse of light.
Build me an altar of unhewn stone, untouched by blade forged in fire. Only naked may you approach me and only naked I you. No more the need for the copper mirror, Venus’ artifice. My heart bursts at the thought of the Hebrew slaves reflecting their nakedness, at a time of bondage, magnifying the erotic. Freedom, the word for everything that is tumbling from your lips, you. Incinerated. A flash upon the golden altar. A military caravan left stranded by the side of the road. No need for killing. Words only. Your touch, your piercing glance, intoxicating aroma. There is no bounty I would not lay at your feet, no sense withhold, no gesture stifle. No more the wanderer, I bask in you, sovereign. Your sentries show me utmost respect. For that I tip them handsomely. There is no love in hell, only information. The entrance to love’s chambers is flanked by ferocious beasts who sing in antiphonal chorus and all the more her beauty praise.
Who languishes for want of bliss? Who settles for a lesser estate? The ghosts that cry underneath the ruins? Be still. There is an ancient vessel set atop an acacia shelf inside my lover’s cupboard. Behold every liniment of our liberation, the very word a book that bounces off the lips and cries, open. I will write that book and read it with you, each page torn out another feast. The road you travel one day after another delivers you from state to state. Yet at a certain speed and in a callow frame of mind you might not take note of it, the thawing of the hardened earth, the first stage of ripening. You are with me from seed to luscious fruit. Sky bright, trees bare, a crisp energy crackles the land. Leap. The mountain of Jacob and the mountain of Esau are one. Every word, our direction.
* * * * *
I let myself into the basement sanctuary of the Chabad House. It was just as the sun set on the festival week, the end of Passover. A ragtag assembly of hangers-on slowly gathered for the promised event, The Feast of the Messiah. We were a mixed bag of wide-eyed suburbanites, transplanted Brooklynites, and a smattering of out-of-town visitors. My family and friends were not enthusiastic about the obscure religious observances that somehow managed to grab my ear and pull me in. But it was here that I found the seedbed of The Redemption, the rectification of so much dissonance. At least in my own peculiar mental soundscape. My rabbi was gone. He and his wife had hightailed it to the mothership, Crown Heights. There would be large festive gatherings in the households of the hasidim and of Moroccan Jews that evening. The Moroccans really knew how to do it up—tables groaning with sweets, all variety of fish, dancing, matchmaking, ritual baths and the blessing of trees. A real communal hoedown, a cornucopia of fundamental humanity, the skeletal framework of life’s blessings.
Mimouna, as the Moroccan Jews call the festivities, has it all. The whole community boogies in the name of fertility, prosperity and freedom. The fruits of the exodus from bondage in Egypt. By contrast, the hasidic observance is downright dour. The emphasis is definitely NOT on the food. Bare bones ‘feast’. Wine, matzah, a little nosh. The sole focus, Moshiach. A spirit meal. In my rabbi’s stead stood Levi Katz. He was in town visiting his in-laws for Passover. The harsh fluorescent light was refracted as rainbows through his wispy blonde beard. John Lennon spectacles, slid halfway down his nose, added to the effect. The whole extraterrestrial look, rumpled wide-brimmed black fedora and floor length black duster. He had come from another planet to bring us the news. “Hello.” Footfalls on linoleum, the sound of chairs scraping. “Please take a seat for the first cup of wine.” He smiled a gap-toothed smile. We got quiet. “My name is Rabbi Levi Katz. Your rabbi has generously invited me to share a word with you at this seudah, this ‘feast’. Before I give you my download, let’s bless the first cup. Has everyone filled his glass?” The pock pock of plastic cups, the metallic scrape of screw top lids, the glug of kosher sacramental wine. I looked around the room and didn’t know anyone there. Nor did anyone else. Strangers in a strange room.
* * * * *
So here’s the deal, when it comes to being a part of anything. There’s two aspects of joining that are a shade different from each other. One is recognition, recognizing and being recognized. You are you, and that’s what they want you for. Specificity. And the other, which may be a corollary of the first, is harder to put into words. It’s the universality, it’s the loveliness. This is the hidden message of all the comic books that I loved to read, my guilty pleasure while waiting in the barbershop as a kid. Nick Fury and the Howling Commandos, The X-Men, and The Fantastic Four, and the entire pantheon of Marvel and DC superheroes, each with his or her own superpower, fighting for truth, justice and the American Way. I was never so sure about the American Way part of it, but then again I grew up in the 60’s and the American Way was not cool.
We were not all on board the Moshiach train back then. I didn’t even particularly think of myself as Jewish. Curtis Lemay and Timothy Leary—General Bomb-em-into-the Stone-Age and Doctor Turn-on-Tune-in-Drop-out—preached very different missions, very different ideas of who were the bad guys and who were the good guys. And what love had to do with it. A generation weaned on Peter Pan and the Wizard of Oz. Every year like clockwork, the universality of the family TV room. Once Salman Rushdie once told a reporter that he was a diehard fan of the Wizard of Oz since childhood. Maybe it gave him the courage to survive the fatwa of the wicked wizard of Tehran. His secret power, the power to write. Click his typewriter keys and he was home. I’m not sure why Cat Stevens thought that Salman Rushdie should die. But apparently in his incarnation as Yusuf Islam he said so to the British press. Hard to believe from the man who wrote Moon Shadow. Go figure. Go.
But the two teams inevitably have to line up against each other, each with its set of equal yet opposing superpowers. The Pandavis versus the Kauravis in the Gita. The Titans versus the Olympians. Cowboys and Indians, Communists versus the Free World, Nazis against the Allies. And we the people of Israel at war with our Palestinian brothers. I do not subscribe to the myth of universal slaughter preceding universal redemption. Although a sweet teacher of mine once told me, a friend of mine most loving and peaceful, that it was a great moment in a writer’s life when the image of murder arises in his writing. I was a killer as a young boy, as many young boys are. Fortunately for the world at large, I limited my carnage to the insect population in my backyard. I may pay for that on the day that the insect armies line up across the battlefield from the humans. I was also a rock thrower, a latter day David in the face of injustice before I had ever heard of his battle royale with Goliath. By the time I reached adolescence I had put childish violence behind me, and chose instead to do battle with words. But I had no idea what side I was on.
* * * * *
It was Passover 2009. I was a relative newcomer to hasidic circles. Still feeling the outcast, I was a few months into my obsession with the Song of Songs, tantric Judaism by my reckoning. Cosmic engineering via masculine and feminine mojo. All the more ironic as my own earthly union with Beth was dissolving. My then wife Beth, and our friends Jeff and Anya, pretty much figured I’d gone off the deep end with the heavy Jewish stuff. But for me this evening was a rare treat. A hotshot from Baltimore, reputed to be a true Renaissance man of the hasidic world, a protégé of a curmudgeonly and reactionary Israeli mekabul, aka an adept at the mystic arts of Kabbalah. Hard to know what to expect, genius or horror. Read the Israeli mekabul on the significance of letters and numbers and it will blow your mind. Genius. Read about his politics and it will blow it out the other direction. Horror.
“Eight days ago, on the eve of Passover, something happened in the cosmos that most of you probably were not aware of, Birkat HaChamah, The Blessing of the Sun. It rolls around only once every twenty eight years.” Pause for effect. I had just learned of this obscure observance and was intrigued. Launch. “Its intersection with Passover is even more rare. Birkat HaChamah is always on a Wednesday, based on Beresheit, the book of Genesis. The formation of the sun and the moon and the stars was on the fourth day of creation. Wednesday. There’s a series of simple calculations, using the fact that the 365 day length of a year and the actual length of the transit of the sun differ by one quarter of a day. Every four years a given calendar date advances by one day of the week. So you see it takes four multiplied by a week’s worth of years for the calendar to arrive back at the same day of the week. Twenty eight years. Simple, nu? That’s how we keep coming back to the day the sun returns to the place in the cosmos it occupied on the day of its creation. Over and over again. Each time round the 28 year cycle we empower it with our blessings to continue on its way, doing the work of the Creator. So what does it mean to ‘empower’ the sun? This is our conception of the sun, as Jews. The Levites in Temple times would recite psalms and the blessing first facing the sun and then turning their backs on it to face the House of the Unknowable One, the Cosmic Generator Room, as it were. To the ancient priesthood the sun was not the impersonal stellar mass of either Copernicus or Ptolemy, though theirs were forms of solar empowerment as well. It has always been our conception of the sun, how we hold it in our heads and cause it to exist in our minds, rather than our calculations, that gives it the power, within our consciousness, to bring life to the cold earth and move the sluggish planets in their orbits as we have mathematically defined them.”
* * * * *
|PARTITION. The Ovstrovster Rebbe, a holy ascetic, fasted daily for the entire forty years of his reign. Each evening he would break the fast with a crumb of hard tack and a glass of water, then begin again the fast of the next day. His father was an uneducated baker who recited psalms and shed tears into the bread as he kneaded the dough. His son, the future Rebbe, developed a revulsion for food. At several points in time other learned souls attempted to dissuade the young rebbe from further self-mortification, among them the great and holy Gerer Rebbe. The Ovstrovster remained undeterred. He was known far and wide for his simplicity, his purity and his learning. By the Ovstrovster Rebbe’s mystical calculations, he determined that the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, the eve of the political liberation and birth of his people Israel, had happened on a Wednesday. It coincided precisely with the every twenty eight year occurrence of what would become the Blessing of the Sun. That convergence, as the Rebbe determined, would have occurred roughly three and a half millennia before his lifetime. The same convergence was set to occur in 1925. The Ovstrovster was convinced that Moshiach and the final redemption from the bonds of materiality would arrive precisely on April 8, 1925, the day of the Great Convergence. His disappointment can only have matched his Messianic fervor. Three years later, at the point of death, the Rebbe’s skin turned to paper and his bones to the spines of books. [Katz, Krishna. The Once and Future Rebbes]|
* * * * *
Reb Levi’s speech and gestures waxed a bit manic as he rambled on. He left most of the audience in the dust. The crowd was barely hanging on, some breaking ranks to explore the second and third cups of wine with nothing more than a few scraps of matzoh to soak it up. Most of their faces were plastered with blank stares directed at the extraterrestrial rebbe. Others turned away to distract themselves in side conversations, or to stare at their cell phones. Standard operating procedure for synagogue affairs. I, however, was riveted. I had just found out about this obscure observance, which I found unaccountably cool—we get to renew the sun’s contract to continue to radiate its energy for the work of ongoing creation once every twenty eight years. Twenty-first century thaumaturgy. Humanity as demiurge. Co-creators with the Mind of the Prime Mover, the Source. In on the conception, and therefore the reality, of everything. Including the damn Sun! A really big thought. No wonder it doesn’t roll around any more often than 28 years. It doesn’t get much more shamanic than that. Or so I thought at the time.
The idea of the Feast of the Messiah was to ramp the focus up a notch from the physical Redemption out of Mitzraim, Biblical Egypt. “The name Mitzraim,” the rebbe reminded us, “translates as the Narrows, the Straits. The bottleneck between Africa and Asia. Could be any mental, emotional or physical or spiritual entrapment. The trap of believing that anything we perceive in the material world somehow exists in and of itself and possesses some kind of independent reality from our conception of it. Physicists have let us know in their terms, atoms and empty space, that what we see is by no means what we get. Neurobiologists and psychologists have gone to some length to demonstrate that what we perceive in the world is conditioned entirely by the machinery through which we perceive it. Philosophers have duked it out for centuries about whether or not we can know what we think we know. Seudat Moshiach, the Feast of the Messiah, was intended to evoke a Redemption from the narrows of materiality, above and beyond the Redemption from the bondage of Egypt.” Nirvana, samadhi, you name it. That was his game.
* * * * *
I too found myself daydreaming. Of ecstasy. Maybe the couple cups of wine supported only by a few crumbs of matzah were getting to me. In my drowzing mind Rebbe Katz morphed into a jazzed up Pied Piper of Chabad Lubovitch. The still air of the basement sanctuary transformed his voice, exhorting us… We must rouse ourselves and take the air. Throw open the front door and walk a jaunty walk down the street of our new neighborhood, happy to be wearing shoes. They make all the difference when you want to stroll about. The neighbors scatter like so many chicks in a barnyard. One stands at my feet and blinks at me, her head cocked sideways. I offer her crumbs and she seems content. There is a chill in the air. The sun is bright, a good day for a walk. Do not be deceived by the mundane appearance of the little brick row houses on my street. My street is a secret launching pad for intergalactic exploration. You are the first to be told of this. Keep it under your hat. The work of intergalactic exploration must be conducted surreptitiously, but in broad daylight. Ha!
Each of the little cells that feeds off the main thoroughfare contains a busy workshop for one of the parts of the grand project. None of them knows the whole picture, the master plan. Nor do I. I’ll show you my part of the blueprints when we go home. Right now we’re out for a breath of fresh air. Yes, it’s odd that no one else is on the street today. It can feel lonely or ominous. There’s a joke there that I am desperately resisting. The words in my ears refuse to obey the boundaries of their syllables, running into each other, jostling each other, fusing like little yeast cells. Something’s brewing. Soon we will be intoxicated. Behind one of these doors I’m sure there is a distillery. How else to make fuel for intergalactic journeying. I don’t think that’s my part. But I’m not sure. I don’t remember my assignment. I have forgotten the due date. I don’t know where to send my final project. Oh well. I think I’ll look for a large open space to do calisthenics.
I bang my head. It’s nothing. I strip off my clothes and leave them in the front yard. Nothing. I run through the streets wearing a top hat and smoking a cigar. Nothing more. I can do anything. All the nothing you could possibly want. I scatter seeds for wild birds. They take flight at one movement of my foot. I feel the thrill of their flight in the muscles of my chest and arms, rippling across my shoulders. I am a large bird circling and wheeling in the sky among other large birds. I dive and break the water’s surface. I laugh and sway in the breeze, a cattail among cattails, my legs and feet alive with the bubbling energy of all the life that touches me. I stare into the steel blue sky and see my own blank eyes staring back at me. What are they doing up there?
They are my beacons in search of a lover, someone who can swim and fly. I long to float in her arms, caressed by the delicate tendrils of her hair. We fuse briefly and pull apart again and again, remaining connected by the finest of filaments, each retaining a small piece of the other until at last, we are an undulating mosaic. My heart beats wildly in my throat. I match your imperfections with mine. The tension is delicious. I am all flow and I am a billion particles. I offer you my hand in play. That is my best offer. Take it.
* * * * *
The actual Reb Levi, the one standing on the linoleum floor in the basement of the Chabad House, smiled wanly, shifted from one foot to the other, and continued in his still slightly pressured patter. “Ok, now this is key. Deuteronomy 31 gives us the recipe, the specifications of assembly. ‘You shall assemble your men, your women, your children and your strangers.’” He raised a finger to count off each of the four types of assemblies and emphasized the last word, drew it out for effect. Strangers. Ok, don’t fail me now Reb Levi. One of the things I found really hard to stomach was the insistence in some Orthodox circles for translating the Hebrew word ‘ger’ as proselyte rather than as stranger. As in ‘strangers in a strange land’, the kickoff of Passover story. We were not proselytes in a proselytic land. I have studied and spoken on the text in Leviticus, Kedoshim, the ‘holiness’ tract, from which Western Civilization derives the Golden Rule. It not only says ‘love thy fellow as thyself’, but follows hard by with ‘love the stranger as thyself’. Astounding. A thirteenth century BCE desert tribe. In fact, of the thirty six mentions of the word ‘ger’ in the Torah, whenever the subject is clearly the treatment of strangers, the word is immediately followed by the ‘proof texts’ from Exodus 2 and 22. A painful page from tale of the Jewish people as strangers in a strange land, laboring under the heavy hand of Pharaoh. You could fill a whole library with the books that repeat or analyze this narrative in all its many variations. A library of pain. The library of last resort.
* * * * *
|CONDENSATE. I have been to the librarian of last resort. She asked to see my library card. I emptied my wallet, my briefcase, my pockets, my suitcase, my shoes, my socks. That’s when she took out her magnifying lens, ivory inlaid handle, beveled-edge glass. Her large yellow eye stared through the glass at the matrix of objects splayed out before her. It was only then I noticed how fine her hands, how delicate her fingers, her plain manicure verging on puritanical. Oh how I wanted to be touched by those fingers, caressed by those hands. I felt the ghost of my present self floating supine, parallel to the ground, three feet in the air. I felt a tapping at the door of the warehouse of the wind, at the iron gate, by the ghost pillow. An electric shock ran down my spine, more like a fierce caress. Spectral fingers move me, shift my tectonic plates. I heard someone say, he killed his wife. I wanted to say, that’s not true. But my vocal chords were paralyzed. I was stuck in second gear. I had spent decades hunting for Job. By the time I found him, he would point his bony finger and rasp at me, it’s in the contract. And so it was. At first I tried to foster indifference. It didn’t matter, after all. Life is suffering. I thought my gig was to ride shotgun on the pain train.
Outside the tiny slit of a window in the alchemical study a beautiful grey blue sky moves across the fawn colored earth. She moved her fingers to the sides of my rib cage. A momentary thought, she’ll pluck out my liver. The twisted snake that winds its way through the center of my life took another subtle turn. An old joke. An empty gesture. A dropped missive in the quiet of the library. It is easy to hear the buzz of the Yellow Court. No official presence. A subtle tinge of paranoia. Who is sending me all these messages?
* * * * *
We have always been strangers in strange lands, the living proof text for a radical principle the world has yet to embrace. Very radical for a Bronze Age cult. Way beyond the Magna Carta’s illusory nod to the rights of the nobility. Ours was a declaration of rights to every citizen and every stranger that dwelt in their midst. I wonder when humanity will no longer need the experience of slavery to stoke the fires of compassion for our oppressed kindred. The diving board from which we leap the Red Sea. I was feeling edgy, didn’t want to be disappointed. Reb Levi continued,”From the time that we entered the Promised Land, it was declared that there be a shemittah year, a year of ‘release’, at the end of every seven year cycle. That is when we let the land lay fallow, the land’s Sabbath. The essential holiness of the land. We release our fellows from debt and indentured servitude, a time for gathering in, for an assembly of the tribe.”
He paused for a minute, took a sip of water and mopped his brow with the shockingly ornate kerchief in the breast pocket of his long black kapota. Its gaudy paisley design caught my eye. Too garish for American manufacture. Most likely a product of India. Strange tastes for an otherwise austere looking hasid. He continued once he’d refreshed himself and again plastered a disarming smile on his face, “Deconstructing Deuteronomy’s definition of assembly, after the first cycle of seven years we must hold the the assembly of men. After the second cycle, the assembly of women. The next, children. And now,” he turned and scanned the room slowly from behind his wire-rim spectacles to squeeze the last remaining bit of consciousness out of the flagging neurons in the crowd, “at the end of the full twenty eight year cycle we observe the ancient Levitical practice of Birkat HaChama. The assembly of strangers. The creation cycle is about to roll around again on the cosmic keyboard.” I was perched on the edge of my seat.
Reb Levi nodded as he inspected his flagging audience. “Let’s say the b’racha over the third cup.” The crowd complied, even those of us who were well into our cups ahead of the rabbi. We waited for him to continue. “So what does that mean, assembly of strangers? Well, I’m a futurist. This is near and dear to my heart.” A strange claim for a guy wearing a hat and getup that was seventy five years out of fashion. But I was willing to cut him some slack. A futurist! “This is the year when we as Jews reach out to all the other communities of thinkers and worshipers, scholars and artists. It is our duty to bring their knowledge home. Science, literature, art, other religions. It is our obligation to study it all. In each of us lies the possibility of placing another of humanity’s puzzle pieces in its jagged niche, to repair the fractured vessel of Creation.” I was screaming yes! yes! yes! inside my head. “The great rectification of all knowledge.” He stopped once more to let it all sink in. This rabbi, from an atavistic sect known for xenophobia and anti-Darwinism, was totally blowing my mind. He did some numerological sleight of hand and waved his arms around the trendier scientific ideas of our time—String Theory, Quantum Computing, Neuroplasticity— all the while waxing eloquent about some of the great paintings, works of literature, philosophy and musical compositions of world culture. I’m afraid he lost most of the crowd but wow, I was completely on board. I didn’t know what planet he came from, but all I could think was sign me up. Little did I know that in a few more incarnations Reb Levi’s vision would bear its final fruit.