Many many moons ago, deep in a forest in Jerusalem in the middle of the night I followed a long line of people filled with fear and excitement. It was the eve of Hoshanna Rabba, (lit., the “Great Supplication”), the observance which marks the end of the Festival of Sukkot. We were headed towards a rabbi versed in the mystical arts. There is a venerable tradition in the Kabbalah, that on this night a sage is endowed with the power to gaze at your shadow formed by the moon and see whether your penitence over Yom Kippur and the High Holidays has been accepted by the Almighty and you’ll be given another year to live. Some, like this rabbi, were also said to be able to glean details of your immediate future.
When it came my turn, the rabbi pondered the illuminated ground and assured me that I’d make it. He then told me that I’d be studying the Kabbalah.
The news that I was to survive was then of no moment, in my early 20s with thoughts of my mortality far from my mind. Little did I know that in bookends with the beginning of my Kabbalistic training in Israel there would be a close brush with death.
That I was to study Kabbalah also came as no surprise nor was especially prophetic. I had just started in the rabbi’s yeshiva the prior week at the beginning of Sukkot.
I had met the rabbi when he led a tour of Safed (“Tzfat”), the sublimely spiritual city in the north. One of Israel’s four holy cities, this was where the Kabbalah was reborn amid the Spanish Inquisition.
The rabbi told me that our encounter was no mere coincidence and he invited me to be the lone American in his yeshiva. Although the very reason I came to Israel was to study the Kabbalah I had some hesitancy that he would be the teacher of what I was so ravenously hungry to learn. Indeed, this was not the first time that a teacher had proclaimed as providential our encounter. Just a couple of years earlier I was trained by a prominent yoga master who started off with a similar refrain.
For clarity as to where I would go next I decided to stay the night at the grave of Isaac Luria, HaAri (the “Lion”) of Tzfat, the singular figure in the Kabbalah’s medieval revival. HaAri’s earthly remains were in the cemetery on the outskirts of the city, accompanied by a solitary lamp.
Alone, I prayed to God and implored this great teacher for guidance where I should go. The sky was overcast and it was completely dark. After a few hours I started hearing the menacing growls of dogs that surrounded me but I could not see. (I later read about the spectral canines in that cemetery who protected the souls of the Kabbalists).
I tried to flee from the site but kept tripping over stones and debris. I had no choice but to stay put until daybreak. I then headed to the bus station for a ticket to the yeshiva in Tel Aviv.
That first week in the Kabbalistic yeshiva I wielded a lulav (a palm frond) properly for the first time — to the four directions and heaven and earthward. I had written a thesis at Vassar on Native American medicine men and this reminded me of them. Now I was connecting with all of my heart, all of my soul and all of my might to the rituals of my tribe.
The first day after we finished prayers around 8 a.m., a cart was rolled out with bottles of whiskey. Never before had I drank in the morning without having been up from the night before. I soon got used to shots on Mondays and Thursdays after we read the Torah.
Although not Jerusalem, there are certain distinct advantages to being in yeshiva in Tel Aviv. At the end of the afternoon, I’d take a notebook and write while walking to Jaffa. During the warm months, rather than going to the mikvah (the ritual bath) each morning a few of us would head in our bathing suits to the sea. We’d wade out and then take off our bathing suits and dunk repeatedly to cleanse ourselves of the shells of impurity.
Eventually, there came a time when the rabbi who headed the school asked me to teach. I had by then taken classes from and met Kabbalists throughout Israel. Compared to them, I felt woefully unqualified for such an undertaking.
Once again I returned to Tzfat for direction. After a stop at the grave of HaAri I continued on to the Wadi Amud, the wilderness surrounding a stream headed on to the Galilee. In the Wadi was evidence of the civilizations that had inhabited the area for centuries. It is also where the Prophet Elijah was said to have undergone spiritual preparation and would one day return. I planned to fast for a few days in solitude.
The first day on an extended fast is usually the most difficult. I lay on the ground and slowed my metabolism. After a few hours a group of startled cadets came upon me. One asked his commander if I was dead. I didn’t want to speak and waved to allay his concerns. After they left I fell into a deep slumber.
I was abruptly woken by the click of the safety on a machine gun in the hands of a ranger who was pointing it at my head. He also had a dog on a tight leash. He was yelling and cursing at me in a torrent, telling me that where I was was off-limits, and I was in big trouble. I faked a calm and hoped the truth would protect me. The story seemed so meshugana that he could not help but believe it. Still, he told me to get the hell out of the area immediately and in which he didn’t want to catch me again.
I gathered my gear in my pack and headed towards Tzfat. I was weakened from not having eaten. When it came time to cross the stream I tried to toss my backpack to the other bank but it landed in the water. Then when I tried to balance across on rocks I also fell in.
I was not inordinately concerned about being soaked since I believed that I would make it to the city by nightfall. I climbed a couple of steep hills expecting to see Tzfat but instead saw the Sea of Galilee on the horizon. I’d gone the wrong way. Compounding my dilemma was as the temperature dropped I was starting to shiver intensely. I had never had hypothermia before but knew enough to recognize that it was setting in. My body was losing the ability to retain heat. As I sought shelter it soon became difficult for me to walk. I was crawling, dragging my pack when I reached an ancient stone building. The shaking was now violent. My only concern was that I could pass into sleep.
Dawn’s rays woke me, letting me know that I had made it. I was no longer shaking and had the strength and lucidity to get to Tzfat. From there I would continue on back to the States.
Many moons later my father died of a heart attack in my arms. I called one of my roommates from yeshiva to go over the Kavanot (intentions) by which I could assist his soul on its journey.
By now, the small yeshiva that I had been in had metamorphed into the international phenom of the Kabbalah Center. We reminisced about the group that I started with. My friend asked me “Do you remember Yaron?” “He runs the London Center and teaches Mick Jagger.”; “Do you remember Hagai?” “He runs the LA Center and teaches Elizabeth Taylor”; and so on.
I sometimes wonder if I’d stayed in Israel where I would be. I try to trust that what has transpired in my life is part of a Divine Plan. I still have a Kabbalistic practice to this day. As I write this in the hours leading up to Hoshanna Rabba I look forward to gazing at my moon shadow and what it may reveal about the moons to come.