The subject of alchemy and its controversial association with Jews has been debated from the time that its original goal was defined as “the transmutation of base metals into silver and gold” and the name of the first alchemist associated with a Jewess named Maria the Jewess, also called Maria the Prophetess or Maria the Hebrew, who lived in ancient Egypt around the first century CE. In the book The Jewish Alchemists: A History and Source Book, the author Raphael Patai traces Jewish alchemy from antiquity to the nineteenth century and reveals that Jews were major players in what was for centuries one of humanity’s most compelling intellectual obsessions.
What is also of interest is the contrasting identifications which have become associated with the characterization of the “alchemist” itself.
The Alchemist as the Self -Made Billionaire
The ancient depiction of the alchemist as someone who could transform the base metals to precious metals and namely “lead to gold” has taken on a more contemporary role as one who could almost “mint” his own money and live life without any financial or other concerns whatsoever.
This definition provided an interesting analogy for contrast to individuals who place their trust in g-d (Hashem). In Chapter 4, The Gate of Trust in G-d, of the epic work of Duties of the Heart, the author R. Bachya ben Joseph ibn Paquade, demonstrates in ten compelling ways how trusting in Hashem is even better than being an alchemist.
Rabbi Shais Taub presents a fascinating description detailing the ten ways that Trust in Hashem outweighs any advantage of the alchemist. The heading of the presentation is entitled: “Shaar HaBitachon Lesson 4 with Rabbi Shais Taub.”
The link to the talk which is well worth watching is below:
Rabbi Taub summarizes the ten explanations by saying that “even if people fantasize that being the best solution to all my problems is being an alchemist and I have it made, and that even in Spain a thousand years ago at the time of Rabbi Bachya being an alchemist would be a great life, that what is even better is to be Trusting in Hashem.”
In other words, the alchemist is depicted as the epitome of someone with a complete materialistic outlook, and who at the end of the day cannot be assured of his wealth or illusion of prosperity versus the person whose trust in Hashem will enable him to be assured that his faith will be rewarded by Hashem whose ability to deliver is unlimited and is eternal.
The Alchemist as the Transformer for Good
A contrasting image of the alchemist is what captivated my own interest in the movie Milton’s Secret. According to the director Barnet Bain, the movie is based on the teachings of Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now) and is a powerful metaphor for today’s unprecedented times.
The story is about a twelve-year-old Milton Adams who feels his world is in crisis. With his parents stressing about their careers and finances, and the neighborhood bully tormenting him, he is constantly anxious. But when Milton’s Grandpa comes to visit, he witnesses in him an entirely new way to live and learns a secret that will change his life forever.
The actual prop that is used to change Milton’s perspective is a beaker, which Grandpa gives as a birthday present to Milton and describes it as the “first tool of the Alchemist.” The reference to the Alchemist is viewed as synonymous with goodness and a person who views life from the most positive vantage point.
Indeed Milton uses the bleaker and the associated image of the alchemist as his message to an audience of parents, and this message becomes the most defining point of the movie:
Not to be a spoiler, but the essence of the speech contains the following words:
Imagine you are a beaker and what you choose to put inside the beaker is what matters.
You could fill the beaker with hate and fear and worry and you will be miserable
You could fill the beaker with love and caring and miracles can happen
The war will end and people can be different and people can change and become different
That is the SECRET
We can ALL CHANGE
Take the empty spaces and turn them into gold
My grandfather calls it alchemy – your best friend or parent or neighbor all can become alchemists
The message of transformation
Whether we consider the Alchemist in the materialistic role who views life solely from the “what is in it for me” or as an agent for change, we can still take the comparisons and reflect on how to view the topic of TRUST – and apply them to our own lives, and particularly to your own marriages.
In the book “The Speed of Trust”, the author Stephen M.R. Covey, discusses the perspective of building Trust Accounts. In particular, he defines 13 Behaviors that build trust. The behaviors are as follows:
Behavior # 1: Talk Straight
Behavior #2: Demonstrate Respect
Behavior #3: Create Transparency
Behavior #4: Right Wrongs
Behavior #5: Show Loyalty
Behavior #6: Deliver Results
Behavior #7: Get Better
Behavior #8: Confront Reality
Behavior #9: Clarify Expectations
Behavior #10: Practice Accountability
Behavior #11: Listen First
Behavior #12: Keep Commitments
Behavior #13: Extend Trust
After citing the behaviors, the author encourages the reader to examine the behaviors from the vantage point of creating an action plan for addressing any deficiencies in character.
OUR OWN ACTION PLAN
During these days leading up to Tisha B’Av, we have an auspicious time to examine those areas of behavior that we could alter in order to build our own Trust Accounts. The basis of the destruction of the Second Temple of needless hatred can be aggressively treated by rebuilding love. And, the main ingredient for restoring the love is to transform our homes into bastions of Trust starting with making Trust in G-d the number one priority. In addition, we need to take a lesson from Milton Adams speech of becoming alchemists in the context of change and filling our own beakers with love and caring.
Without concrete action plans, our intentions may remain just that. But if we visualize that even taking on two of the Behaviors cited above, we can start to bring the Third Temple into our own homes and turn Tisha B’Av to a day of joy. Let us start today!
 Stephen M.R. Covey, The Speed of Trust (New York: Free Press, 2006) pages 127-230