A few years ago I had the honor of being interviewed by bestselling author William Simon (view the clip) for an autobiography about my life. We never actually completed the book, but you can read an excerpt here below about how I found my teacher.
Michael and his family were now settled in Israel, living a penthouse lifestyle with a housekeeper, a garden fountain, and many enviable high-tech conveniences. He and Olga had chosen the comfort of Rehovot, twenty miles south of Tel Aviv, where they could hear the sounds of the night and see the galaxies without shrill interferences from city lights or sirens.
After two years of work with F4 Phantom fighter aircraft, Michael could breathe easy—he had completed his required military service. The dental clinic was successfully producing a dependable and attractive income. And he was wealthy enough to own an imported large black Buick sedan. Many people would have put their feet on a desk and said, “I’ve made it.” But not this man. In the silence of Rehovot, Michael was still in distress over the same questions that had kept his life in turmoil for so many years.
Then came a day at the dental clinic in 1978 when a clean-shaven man showed up for an appointment. He arrived at a time when Michael was busy trying to repair one of the clinic’s machines. Chaim Malka had the chiseled bone structure of a European though he was from Morocco. Despite being college-educated, he held a job as a factory maintenance technician.
Gentle and helpful, Chaim announced that his dental work could wait and pitched in to help Michael with the repair job. Talking while they worked, the two men discovered a shared interest in Kabbalah.
Soon they started getting together in the evenings to read Kabbalah in each other’s company. By this time Michael could hold his own in conversational Hebrew but still struggled with the ancient, Biblical version of the language. Chaim began reading out loud so the two could keep pace. The nightly sessions quickly became their driving focus—five hours at a stretch, five nights a week.
The pair of dedicated seekers examined the ancient Kabbalah texts, puzzling over every sentence. They asked each other questions and shared possible interpretations. They kept trying, hoping to find some small truths they could unravel. But only in popularized versions offering superficial observations could they grasp meaning. These simplistic writings didn’t provide the depth these seekers needed; the words were entirely lacking in anything scientific—like reading comic-book versions of classic literature. Yet whenever they went back to the classic Kabbalah, they hit another stone wall.
There was a huge gap between where we were and where the books were. We couldn’t bridge it.
Stunned from all sides, left feeling helpless, Michael haunted the bookstores of Israel buying everything on Kabbalah he could find. He went through periods of despair strong enough to make him feel like giving up. But the desire kept renewing, compelling him to continue the effort. For Chaim the compulsion wasn’t as strong but he loyally stuck it out.
The two traveled together to visit various Kabbalah teachers, one after another. Michael saw that Chaim was more tolerant of the Kabbalah instructors they met. If a teacher was unable to provide proof, Chaim was soft in his criticism while Michael’s reactions were impatient and demanding.
My character hasn’t changed since I was a child. I’m extreme in focusing on obtaining my goal, hardly able to think about anything else. The rest of life is secondary. Even when I was with my family, I was thinking about the purpose of life.
I could sense that the issue was about the forces that manage our world and I had a gut feeling that the answers were in Kabbalah.
They were frustrated at not being able to unlock those answers. In time Michael came to realize that when nature gives you such a desire to know the truth about life, it also provides the means to find the answer. This was the fuel that stoked his motivation to keep searching.
Michael found a respected teacher of Kabbalah in Jerusalem. He and Chaim studied with this Kabbalist almost every evening for six months, even though it was an hour and a half drive each way. Today Michael says of the experience, I gained nothing that stayed with me.
He no longer remembers for certain how long the two friends wrestled with the Kabbalah texts on their own and sought help from teachers who had no valid answers to offer. At least two years, he thinks. Maybe three.
One evening, on an impulse, Michael set his mind on the one thing he could think of that he and Chaim had not yet tried. Some twenty miles to the north was the town of Bnei Brak, known for its orthodox population. Perhaps there they could find someone able to explain Kabbalah in a rational manner. Chaim agreed and on the spot the two of them bundled themselves up and stepped out into the cold, blustery winter night. They got into Michael’s car, shared the hope that the heater would start working quickly, and began the thirty minute drive to their hoped-for enlightenment.
Rain was pouring down as they drove past a handful of non-descript stores into a town so small it was marked by only two crossroads. Now eight o’clock at night, the streets were all but deserted in the frosty darkness. Would this trail lead nowhere? Just another useless drive? Another night wasted?
A lone man was out on the street, one of the very orthodox, dressed all in black. Michael stopped the car, wound down a window, and called out a question mostly as a joke, a sour attempt at humor in a mood of desperation. “Where do you study Kabbalah around here?”
It was an absurdist moment equivalent to asking a stranger in New York City, “Do you know my Uncle Max?” Even in an Orthodox Jewish setting, in Israel, the idea that some random stranger would have an answer to such a question was ridiculous. Worse, one simply doesn’t ask a question like this of an Orthodox stranger on the street. For the Orthodox, Kabbalah is the opposite of religion.
But the man in black responded as if the request were an everyday thing.
“Turn left and go all the way down,” the man said. “When you reach the orchard, you will see a house on your left.”
Following the man’s directions, they arrived at an orchard of orange trees. And there was the house, situated just as the man had described, but tucked away and decrepit, looking like a scene from a horror movie.
After one exerts in every possible way, he is ultimately brought to the right place, Michael says.
They parked and walked up to the house. All was dark inside. The place seemed vacant. Wind-driven rain splattered in through broken windows. The two agreed the search was futile. Suddenly they spied a single beam of light coming from under one of the doors. Michael boldly threw open the door to reveal a half a dozen old men dressed in the traditional black suits of the Orthodox, each with an immaculate white beard. Against the bitter cold of the unheated room, all of the men were bundled into heavy sweaters, wearing black gloves, and with scarves wound round their necks. Old wooden chairs were pulled up to a battered table with cracks so big they could have propped a book in to use as a bookstand. At one end of the table, in a solid armchair and with a carved pedestal for resting his book, sat a man all the others deferred to.
No one seemed surprised at the sudden arrival of the two strangers. “We heard that we could study Kabbalah here,” Michael announced. Without a word, the leader gestured that they should take seats.
The men continued to read by the light of a single overhead fluorescent lamp, exchanging very few words. It was not at all a kind of study that Michael had come to expect. The leader was not explaining, the others were not questioning, probing, or seeking. Just reading. When they did speak a few words, Michael recognized the tongues as Yiddish and the long-unused language of ancient times, Aramaic. He spoke neither, nor did Chaim.
After observing this curious scene for a few minutes, Michael gave in to his customary impatience, nudged Chaim, and gestured with his head: “Let’s go.” Chaim, ever the kind gentleman, whispered that it would be impolite to leave. Michael grumbled his agreement to wait.
The session ended not long after. The leader, whom the others addressed as “Rabash,” asked Michael and Chaim where they were from, what work they did, and what they wanted. Their answers seemed to satisfy him. In Hebrew he said, “Give me your phone numbers, I will fix you up with a teacher.” Chaim gave his number but Michael was so disappointed and put off by what he had seen that he didn’t even bother.
The pair had not succeeded on their mission. On the way home, with the howling wind echoing their feelings of emptiness, Michael complained bitterly about this failed attempt, like so many others. One after another, the teachers had all proved to be just storytellers who had no answers for their questions. And this group was even worse. They were all so old—six ancient men, what could they offer?
The next day at work Michael answered the phone to hear Chaim’s excited voice. The old man had called as he promised. He had decided on a teacher for them, someone who would speak to them in Hebrew. Michael said there was no point in going back. It was just another waste of time. But Chaim had been trained in a yeshiva, a religious school, and so had a natural reverence for religious people. He argued that they should try it at least for a while. When Michael held out, he begged. Against his better judgment but for the sake of their friendship, Michael gave in.
They returned that same evening, driving the thirty minutes again in darkness though this time in better weather. Arriving at the house, they met the teacher who had been assigned to them. Michael was not reassured. As the man led them to another room, Michael took his measure. He was about sixty-five or seventy, short and bent, ill-looking, with red eyes and the obligatory white hair and beard. The man introduced himself as Hillel Gelbshtein and invited the pair to address him by his first name. Out of deference they called him “Rav Hillel,” using a traditional title of respect.
Later Michael would learn that Gelbshtein was the modest grandson of the man who had started the Jewish religious movement, Chabbad. Hillel left the Chabbad movement at age eighteen after being introduced to Kabbalah and had since then dedicated his life to the study of it.
Gelbshtein had brought copies of the Zohar and a companion book, volume one of The Preface to the Wisdom of Kabbalah, for each of his two new students. He began teaching them from the Wisdom volume. Michael braced himself: he and Chaim have already been through this very book—not once but several times. They had not understood a thing.
But when Rav Hillel opened the book and started explaining, within the first paragraph or two I suddenly felt my eyes and heart opening. His vocabulary didn’t contain anything about “believing,” or what you “must do.” Instead, it was a precise, scientific explanation of the structure of reality, the laws that operate in this world and in the spiritual world.
Within two minutes, it was obvious that what he was telling us was logical and real. I felt within that nature was really operating the way he was describing, and that I and all humans were functioning that way. His words were without emotion, but because of the accuracy of his explanation of nature, I found them very, very moving. I was burning with excitement. Numerous contradictions I had not been able to reconcile suddenly came together. He was putting the pieces together. He was creating a colorful mosaic. My disappointment was transformed into delight. I felt washed with a joy unlike anything I had ever felt, a sense of relief and warm satisfaction.
I became filled with fierce excitement. At last life felt like it was worth living. My attitude to life and to the world improved. I even became more tolerant of people I realized I had been difficult with.
Every day I woke up with a feeling of joy, burning with desire to get to my lesson, listening to my recording of the lessons in the car on the way, thinking constantly about how the things I was hearing corresponded to everything that I had learned of science and medicine. I began to understand myself. I began to understand all the past years of my search. And I began to understand how this connected me with all of human history.
With each step of becoming in touch with the wisdom of Kabbalah, I could see more clearly how the physical world follows spiritual laws and forces. And how Kabbalah even describes how the planets and galaxies of the entire universe behave.
From early on, Michael had felt some intangible connection between the leader of his early morning group, and Baal HaSulam, author of the greatest modern books explaining and interpreting the Kabbalah’s most seminal works. Michael and Chaim had poured over his writings and studied them closely yet never managed to grasp the knowledge that they offered. In time Rav Hillel satisfied Michael’s curiosity; indeed there was a connection between the two men. The real name of the author revered as Baal HaSulam was Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag, who had died some thirty-five years earlier. The leader of their little study group, Rabash, was that man’s eldest son, Rabbi Baruch Ashlag.
Michael’s mysterious sense of connection was finally explained. The man who spent his mornings and evenings teaching a handful of ancients in a run-down house in the orchard had been trained in Kabbalah by the greatest Kabbalist of the 20th century.