I’ve prepared a series of stories with days of awe themes. I’m going to post them over the next several weeks.
Arguing with the Rabbis
Rav said, all the ends have passed, and the matter [to save the world] depends only on repentance and good deeds. Shmuel said, it is enough for the mourner to stand in mourning.
— b.t. Sanhedrin 97b
I ran into Max at the copy store. Max, what are you doing here?
The last I heard Max had been chasing a girl somewhere in the Carolinas and following a laughing guru. He is always chasing a girl, his father had told me, and he is always following a guru.
My Dad died.
Oh Max, no, I didn’t know. I’m sorry.
Don’t be. He lived a good life. We took some time finding each other but I think we did.
We talked about his Dad for a while, and then Max talked about himself. He was now chasing a woman in California.
We went back to his father.
You know my father sat on the Kotzker rebbe’s lap, Max said.
Max, your Dad is the third guy I’ve met since I moved here that sat on the Kotzker’s lap, which is curious since the Kotzker died in 1859. Max laughed and his eyes lightened.
When he died, I dreamed that Louis Armstrong came to the funeral and sang What a Wonderful World. Would Louis Armstrong do that for anyone other than the Kotzker? For sure, said Max, I am the Kotzker’s son. How remains hidden, but I am the Kotzker’s son.
I have to go visit Barbara now Max. She went into the hospital and we’re not sure she is going to come out, but she is the Kotzker if anyone is, you remind me I have to go see her now.
When I saw Barbara I reminded her that she was the Kotzker and she agreed. I saw some things, Barbara said. There is a man with a round head who only appears when, you know, you are going to get out of here. He is hidden in Intensive Care somewhere, and I saw him. The nurse said you only see him when you are going to make it. I saw him. He told me to be real quiet and let God give me what I need. Want to hear my prayer?
God grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change,
The courage to change the person I can,
And the wisdom to know it’s me.
It works for me.
For me too.
It’s the spark that was missing.
The spark that gives life to all else. The spark was missing. Don’t you feel it?
The spark was missing and my soul was diminished, but not any more. My soul has been elevated. How is a secret of God.
She put her finger to her lips and went to sleep. I kissed her on top of her head and left, knowing that she was going to be all right.
Everything was going to be all right. This I knew.
That night I had a dream. I dreamed that I was making blessings for peace. As if the blessing and the activity were so wedded that the deed followed the blessing in the natural sequence of intention and action laid deep into reality, like the bless and make holy sequence, the bless and do sequence.
In my dream, the peace was a necessary consequence of the blessing. I was surprised that the blessing brought such power. I know that to say a blessing and not perform the deed is a disruption of the spiritual integrity of intention and action, of prayer and deed, a blessing for nothing. I said the blessing and as I said it, peace happened. It was the new year, Rosh Hashanah, and when I said the blessing, something entirely new, an unimagined peace, was drawn into the world.
What was the blessing? I couldn’t locate the language. I even tried to return to sleep and continue the dream, I searched for the words between sleeping and waking, but I couldn’t find them.
It was like a formula, secret, lost, unrecoverable. But the feeling state was sustaining: the sense of possibility and resolution that is called peace. I felt it, the possibility of it, the sense that if I could only find the words, the peace would follow.
It was the kind of peace that had worldly, worldwide consequences. It was that kind of peace.
I told Dina about my dream. You can’t find the words? she asked. You’ve got to find them and ask for everything that you want.
It’s not about me. It’s about the world. It’s like the rabbis arguing about what will sustain the world. I don’t know; it’s elusive but there is something that will save us. Maybe it’s the lost prayer for peace, maybe it’s the thirty six righteous ones, maybe ten thousand, maybe one. Maybe all of us finding the inner tzaddik.
But don’t you want your personal peace? Aren’t you praying for your children?
Every moment. With every breath. But here is another version: maybe that’s the difference between Rav and Shmuel. Rav is waiting for the world to transform itself with transformative deeds, and Shmuel is waiting, standing in his mourning, in his grief, for what is not, without expectation for what is supposed to be. He is open to whatever God or nature or human beings or whatever it is he believes in to disclose the next chapter; he is always waiting. He is in-between, a beinoni, the in-between person.
But doesn’t he want something special? In between what and what?
He is between his sadness for what has not been, and his expectation for what might be. He is in-between, standing in his grief for what was not, but without expectation for what is next. It is an exceedingly holy place to be, and his argument in the Talmud is himself. His posture. The holy waiting, but it is a waiting without attachments. No expectations. In-between, don’t you think?
I don’t know. Seems like such a difficult way.
Sure it’s difficult. He’s saving the world, not with this not with that, but with waiting. Waiting for — what? God only knows. Maybe not even God.
I am waiting, too, God says. Surprise me.
Mencachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787 –1859) was a legendary Chassidic leader of Russia and Poland whose teachings stressed the emes/the truth. He is called the Kotzker.
Rav and Shmuel were two famous rabbis, founders of the Babylonian Talmud, of the second and third centuries CE, who were leaders of great study centers in Babylonia.