I had a dream. G*d was sitting in front of the Big Book, gazing into my life, chewing on the end of a pencil. I heard a voice, a specially created voice, unlike other voices yet the words clear. G*d asked me this question: “what are you going to do?”
“What can I do?”
In my dream, I was laying on my couch in front of the television. I switched on the tube, remote control so I didn’t have to move (America is so great). It was time for Ted Koppel, I was expecting Ted Koppel but it was Rabbi Tarphon (first century) in robes and sandals. He was standing behind Ted Koppel’s desk and he explained to me from out of the tube: you do not have to do everything, but you do have to do something. His more precise words were “it is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
I rolled over on the couch, popped another fat free fig newton into my mouth, changed the channel to something safe and thought, “what can I possibly do by myself?”
The great Hillel (first century) was staring at me from channel five; he was nineteen inches long and he answered me from out of the tube, “in a place where there are no human beings, strive to be a human being.” I picked up the remote control and shut him off but his words lingered in the air, like a ribbon of light they drifted through the air space of my living room, “in a place where there are no human beings, strive to be a human being.”
I turned off the tube altogether. “Leave me alone,” I muttered and I headed for my favorite city of refuge, Schnucks (the local supermarket chain) for a little late night shop. I pulled into the west lot at Schnucks and parked in the same spot I always park in. The lot was almost full, as usual, only this time the doors did not open. Schnucks was closed. This Schnucks is never closed.
I began to panic, I depend on Schnucks for a lot more than food, and I returned to my car. In the parking lot I noticed the other cars, I wondered what all these cars were doing here if Schnucks was closed. In the cars I saw them all, Hillel, Tarphon, the Rambam (Maimonides, thirteenth century), Yosef Caro (sixteenth century), sitting behind the wheels of shiny new Mustangs and Chevies, Yochanan ben Zakkai (second century) looming over the others in a Dodge pick-up truck, like it’s a drive-in and I was the show. They were all looking at me, smiling and waving.
“All right, already,” I said to them. “So what am I supposed to do?” Hillel got out of a tan Mitsubishi and said, “love peace, pursue peace. Love human beings, and draw them near. . .” He was holding a basketball and wearing pump Nikes. Rabbi Tarphon stuck his head out of a Ford 4 X 4 and said, “the day is short, the work is great, the laborers are sluggish, the reward is much, and the Master is pressing. It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
“Yalla,” he said, which means “get on with it” in Arabic street slang.
“Yeah, but, the days are long, longer, it seems, every vision fails. There is no more any prophet, and everything is shut up before us, shut up and sealed.” I was quoting a poem.
“Sha!” Hillel said. He looked so funny holding a basketball. “Sha! Don’t separate yourself from your community. . .and how dare you judge another human being until you stand in that person’s place?” Rabbi Tarfon stretched his arms out towards me and asked, “how long will you rake words together and use them against us?”
Sitting in the car with Maimonides was my daughter D, she got out of a Jeep Cherokee and Maimonides gently helped her to the ground. She came over to me. She was holding a turquoise blue bubble gum cigar that had written on it “it’s a boy.”
“Where did you get that cigar?” I asked D.
“One of the guys gave it to me. He wanted to share his happiness with us,” she said.
“All my life I’ve been wondering what happiness is,” I said, feeling very philosophical no doubt due to the company.
“Me too,” D said. She was nine years old — how I love the way she talked. “He had a baby,” D said. “He’s passing out cigars. The Talmud says a person should do three things in their life: plant a tree, make a baby, write a book. If you can’t do them all, do one of them. They’re all about leaving something behind, so even if you don’t have a baby, you can make something that stays.”
“How do you know this?” I asked her.
“That guy over there told me,” she pointed to the Jeep where Maimonides was behind the wheel. “Yalla,” she said, “do you know what that means Daddy?”
“Yes,” I said.
They all started their engines like it was a road race and they zoomed off down Hanley Road.
Make something, leave something, yalla, I recalled what a dangerous place Schnucks is for me at night, and we were going home. I was thinking about all the oases of peace that mark out small territories and claim them for the future, and the conviction that something is worth making because we believe in it.
“Daddy, are you afraid of the future?” D asked me.
“Then, yalla, let’s get on with it.”
Nine years old, having picked up a little street Arabic from Maimonides, she gave me what I need to get on with it. Yalla. I awoke not knowing whether it was day or night, whether I was awake or still dreaming, but with a feeling of such clarity and recall that I now wonder whether it was a dream at all. Perhaps I imagined them, all the great teachers, or they imagined me.