What I Understand About Red Sauce

We understand from the Zohar that the mishkan [the Sanctuary] was perfect meeting place of the upper and lower worlds, and it is in the wonder of that confluence that the mishkan derives its power.

There was something right about the mishkan, you said, because the first Temple and the second Temple they were both destroyed, but the mishkan, the mishkan endured.

Remember Sforno*, I said, he gave us four reasons why the mishkan remained intact.

Yes, but Sforno was Italian, you said, and all his metaphors are pasta and sauce.

Pasta is the perfect metaphor I said, when you understand red sauce, you understand everything about the mishkan. The perfect red sauce, I said, the clear and certain superiority of the red sauce, that elevation of the lowly tomato to holy consequence, the interpenetration of spices, herbs, flavors, tomatoes, the sauce the identity of its ingredients but the ingredients not the identity of the sauce, as if there is something that makes it sauce that is larger somehow, more consequential, of another substance even, than that which makes it up. That’s the thing about the perfect red sauce, when it’s made right you cannot pick out the individual tastes, unless it’s a wrong sauce, then you know there’s too much basil or it’s too heavy with oregano or bay leaf or too olive oily, but when the sauce is right it’s a perfect blend, and it just is, not this or that, it just is, the perfect red sauce — it is many and it is one, many ingredients one perfect taste — not a combination of independent tastes but one glorious irrefractable, irreduceable taste. The perfect red sauce — this is, in a word, the mystery of sauce — the perfect red sauce.

Yes, of course, you said, Sforno understood this quite well about the mishkan. It is the perfect blend, as it is written in the Zohar, All the aspects of the Upper World were established in the Lower, so that the two worlds should be firmly knitted together.

And, when God commanded Moses to make the Mishkan, Moses stood bewildered, until God showed him the pattern, that is, the sauce. “And see that you make them after their pattern, which is being shown you in the mount” (Ex. 25:40).

* Ovadiah ben Jacob Sforno, Italian exegete, philosopher, and physician, born at Cesena about 1475, died at Bologna in 1550.

Great Librarians


A Founding Father’s Books Turn Up
— NY Times, Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dear Dr. L.,

I feel so many opportunities in the course of life these days to
think of my teachers from the old school. You have weathered the
years well. Not only do you live in my imagination, and my memory,
but what you taught me by virtue of standards and models alone has
enriched my life and I am sure account for the measure by which I
parse the world in my own little way, sometimes to my frustration
for what you planted for me has grown slowly or not at all in other
places, ways, people (heaven forbid that I am judging but – I am).

Often I feel how I would like to inform you of this or that –
something I have read or something discovered that you would
appreciate – in the other world you are no doubt preoccupied with
greater pursuits, sitting with texts, taking sunshine with the great
Rabbis, pouring over the manuscripts you couldn’t identify in life
but suspected were of the hand of this scribe, that scribe, sitting
with the Holy One in the great yeshivahs on high learning the mystery
texts that disappeared in life and are now in the great libraries of
the next world — yours is a blessed existence I am sure.

I was just reading something in the newspaper that delighted me and I
am sure would have delighted you, and if it’s not available there, I
want to share with the one person who I know would chuckle and I can
see that smile curling the corners of your mouth hesitating towards
the peak where you were thinking “this is funny” but never daring to
expose your feelings in so blatant a way (no doubt an emotional
residue from your pause in England on your escape route from the
Nazis to the rare books collection at the College where we met).

Dr. – in the town where I live they recently identified 74 books that
belonged to the library of one of our early Presidents who of all the
Presidents of our youthful country was the most bibliophilic. I just
had to tell you. They have had these texts in their collection since
1880 [!?].

One of the founders of the university in my town — a grandfather of that less than
friendly friend of our people Thomas Stearns (who became English and snooty)
and whose grandfather seems to have been a colleague at Harvard of the donor
of President Thomas Jefferson’s books — that grandfather and founder of the university in my town received
a certain part of President Jefferson’s retirement collection of books around 1880.

That must seem to you a rather simple pursuit when I consider that
you were the curator of ancient books identifying for our modest
College manuscripts from several millennia by location and
sometimes even scribe.

These books of President Jefferson have been in the collection in the
library of my town since 1880 and – this is the part I know you would
appreciate – the President labeled his books with his initials “TJ.”
Isn’t that wonderful? The scholarly resources of the university
library just identified the books as belonging to President Thomas Jefferson
and in my town they are celebrating this remarkable find [lost-and-find].

My beloved teacher, I just had to share this with you. I find myself
in awe at the world as it has formed and the one whose image you
placed in my mind, in the distance between the two I fill with your
demonstrated excellence.

I knew you would enjoy this story and if I could peek into the other
world for just a moment, I would witness again the corners of your
mouth beginning that managed rise north-wards, not quite a smile but
you and I know how funny life is.

Your student always,

James Stone Goodman

Gathered Up

First holiness of time
keep the Sabbath
then subdue the space
build the sanctuary.

And everyone who excelled in ability
and everyone whose spirit moved
came, bringing to God an offering
for the work of the Tent of Meeting
and for all its service.

what is lifted up
if we are lifted up
every gift is good —
there will be plenty of money
maybe too much.
There can be too much money.

at the beginning of the enterprise
we brought too much money.
The stuff we had was sufficient [Ex.36:7]
and our teacher asked us not to bring any more.

There is always the temptation
even when doing the holy work
to bring too much stuff.

Enough, our teacher said,
enough stuff
— bring your bones

jsg, usa

O holy Shabbes Inspiration Vayakhel
Maqam Hoseini
D [1/2] E-flat [1] F [1] G

Each Shabbes is associated with a maqam
Cognate maqom
Signifying Place.

River on Wheels

Coming down the mountain
like a river on wheels
two tablets inscribed
mi-zeh u-mi-zeh [Ex. 32:15]
this way and this way.

Ba-zeh v’gam mi-zeh
This and also this. . . [Kohelet 7:18]

This and that
except — there is no that
only this and this
just as mi-zeh u-mi-zeh,
this and this.

You and me
God and you
Me and God
Matter and spirit
Good and Evil
Male and female
Left and right
Yin and Yang
The two triangles
Halakhah and Aggadah
Law and Lore
Gevurah and Tiferet
Severity and beauty
the good and the not-so-good.

Mi-zeh u-mi-zeh,
this and this.

[Sometimes I feel so
Separate —
ordinary and separate.
A few drop dead experiences, please —
in the midst of ordinary.]

This and This.
Mi-zeh u-mi-zeh
this and this
no that

no that at all.

O Ki Tissa
Maqam Hijaz
D [1/2] E-flat [1 1/2] F# [1/2] G

Our Teacher

Our Teacher

You asked me why our teacher
was not present in the story this week.

He is present, I said, but hidden —
or quiet, I said,
he is the you in the first line [27:20]
Now you shall command them
then he recedes to where he lives
— the heart of the story
the quiet center.

For all the qualities we could remember him for —
we remember him for humility, you said.

Our teacher is an empty vessel, I said,
plenty of room for God.
He also leaves room for his students
he recedes so creativity can happen
there is no place empty of God
the vessel cannot be too empty
but it can be too full.

No room for God in a vessel too full,
you said.

So he does not come into the Land, I said,
and he does not preside over the sanctuary –
two activities of expressed leadership.
He presides elsewhere
the spiritual center —
none of our story could have happened
without him.

We know, you said,
but need reminders —
the difference between
what is rooted
and what is derivative —

what is source
what is appearance —

what is heart
what is skin.

jsg, usa

Maqam Sigah
Half-flat ¾ 1
Every Shabbat has a maqam, a musical figure,
associated with it.

Trying to Make Sense, part 3

Trying To Make Sense, part 3
A matter of Responses, not Answers
Or: I Tried To Bring My Whole Heart

I have written in two previous pieces about the challenges occasioned by the death of my friend and the response of his brother in rising out of the mess of violence and pushing beyond his own borders. In his doing, so did I. I was brought into the story and found my own participation exceeding any expectation (see “Trying to Make Sense, parts 1 and 2).

For me, I felt myself thinking it through. It was challenging to me, being a part of it to the extent I was drawn in by my love for my friend and his (deceased) brother. For my friend, the brother of the deceased, I think he was following instinct and a few basic principles guiding him in his own life, in a non-theoretical way, that has prepared him in ways he did not imagine to face the most difficult challenges that have been laid in his lap.

For me, I was sometimes confidante, sometimes rabbi to this Catholic family, sometimes officiante, mostly friend.

As I was writing these pieces, I met with my friend and we discussed the ideas I was tracking with words. My assumptions were basically correct: my friend was working on instinct, what it felt like to do the right thing when he wasn’t sure what to do at all. “It just felt right,” I often heard him say, and one action led to another action until there was a sequence of events that led to what felt to me a startling and challenging shape of story.

The newspapers and such picked up some of the story as it was well known in my town, but I felt the story was larger than the treatments I had read and I wanted it told correctly. It felt like a big story to me.

For my friend, he was rising out of the mess of the tragedy of his brother’s death and creating a memorial in character that honored his brother and cleansed himself of something of the residue of senseless death. He had also given a boy who made irreversible mistakes another chance at life. Whether the boy takes it or not only time will tell. As for the boy’s family, also willing to burrow deeper into the story, they have a chance to create something out of this tragedy that may some day do more good than they know. Much unimagined reclamation, repair, possibilities were emerging out of the simple act of – what do I do next? It feels right.

Was it right? I was asking myself. Was it right for my friend to invite the family of the perpetrator to the memorial at the site of his brother’s death, so fresh, by a tree in the parking lot at the coffee shop where he was run down? This was such a hard question for me at the time, too hard to answer, so I didn’t. I went with my instinct too. If my friend felt it was right, that was good enough for me. I tried to bring my whole heart into the events.

Later I would think through: was it right? I was looking for that answer and I realized that the expectation was wrong. The answer wasn’t clear so I gave up on the notion of answer entirely, and I came to the notion of response.

As a response, my friend’s acts of magnanimity, openness, willingness, largesse of spirit, release of negativity, his unburdening felt like a darn good response to an awful situation. I had entered the realm of responses, good responses, a much more shaded and intuited and gradated realm than the simplified ultimatism of answers.

I learned a story a long time ago from a book of classic stories. I read the story in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps, first published in 1957.

One of my favorite stories in that book begins with a man being chased by a tiger. The tiger pursues the man off the edge of a cliff. The man hangs on to a ridge just below the edge. Above him is the tiger, below the rocks and the sea. “What does he do?” the master asks.

The students offer all the standard, that is obvious, answers. He takes his chances with the tiger, he climbs down the cliff, he jumps into the sea, he distracts the tiger, all to which the master shakes his head. Negative.

“He is hanging on a ledge by his fingertips,” the master says. “He looks next to him where a vine is growing out of the rock. On the vine is a strawberry. He picks the strawberry and he eats it.” End of story.

I told this story for years before I understood it myself. At first hearing, it seemed to be about living radically in the present, but that seemed too obvious, and not satisfying to me.

One day I was telling this story and someone in the group interrupted with, “what the heck does that mean!?” I couldn’t answer. After having told the story myself dozens of times, I could not articulate clearly what it meant to me.

I knew the story was powerful for me. I knew it the first time I heard it. I knew it meant something large, but I couldn’t say what it was. The story moved deep inside me and there it lurked for years without definition. Now I wanted it out, I thought about it for weeks, I waited, I wrote about it, and it came.

I will now violate a principle taught to me a long time ago about explaining stories. You can say too much, especially about great stories. The world’s great stories are big enough for people to enter and find their own way around, but I am going to identify some of the ideas that moved me through this story.

Firstly, we are not likely to answer the master’s question because we are inhibited by our own thinking. We have been set up to think about the tiger, the cliff, the sea, etc., but not about vines growing out of the side of the cliff, and surely not about strawberries. We are thinking about the tiger and the sea. There are other possibilities.

Secondly, what the master suggests is not an answer at all, not in the way we are accustomed to thinking about answers anyway, but it is a response. Responses are different from answers. Could it have been another response? It could have been. The problem, of course, in some sense still exists: the tiger above, the sea below. Or does it? Perhaps the problem has been transformed by a response. What the master offers is a response.

There may be no answer. Or: the answer may be so elusive and difficult that we cannot locate it just then. How difficult it is to be moved away from answers and given to responses, how hard to be stripped of solutions and given to strategies, to be led away from arrivals and onto journeys, from “supposed to be” to “what is,” from linear to lateral, from being there to getting there, from goals to process, from answers to darn good responses.

Find your response, the story taught me. Make it a good one. Think differently than you are accustomed to thinking. Make your response informed and careful. It may be exceedingly lateral, that is, not obvious, like learning something new, growing beyond your complacency, something unexpected and challenging. Whatever it is, it is a sacred gift back to the world. And so individual.

Your response may be political, it may be entirely personal, the push beyond the present limits of your self where you used to feel right but no longer. You do not have to do everything, said the master (Rabbi Tarfon, Pirkei Avot 2:16), you only have to do something. A darn good something: your holy response.

Changing the world, one person at a time. When it feels right, good, you just have to move your feet and grow. I understood this from a story about strawberries, from the crucible of life, from the experience with my friend, from a terrible death and its aftermath of grief and recovery, from the poetry of existence–nothing loftier than the stories of our own lives.

jsg, usa

Trying To Make Sense, part 2

Trying To Make Sense
Part 2: Sources

I wrote the story of my friend who was killed outside a coffee shop, run down by the thief who was fleeing in a getaway car. My friend had stood in line behind the perpetrator at the coffee shop, saw the boy take the less than ten bucks from the tip jar, followed the boy outside and was run over, sustained serious head trauma, died several days later in the hospital (see “Trying to Make Sense” part 1).
I accompanied his brother (also my good friend) through the next days, spoke his eulogy at the big Church at the funeral, attended the memorials at the site of his death (the coffee shop), accompanied my friend during his meeting with the perpetrator and his father when the boy was released from jail.

After having written as much of the story as I was willing to tell at the time, I thought it through more as I received many messages, comments, inquiries in the days and weeks since I had written and published the story in a variety of places.

I thought more about living through, that is beyond, one’s negativity; the possibility to release what we carry around within that we all know is poison. It’s not about whether we are justified in our anger, or vengeance even, it’s about living larger, expanding beyond the greatest challenge which is justified anger.

I may have every reason on earth to be mad, to be sad, to be frustrated, to be inconsolable – that is the worst – because I can make a good case for it. The question becomes more a measure of peace-making: how to make peace, if not with others, certainly with myself. Or: with others as a result of making it with myself.

I recall the story Swami told about the dog’s curly tail. You will not straighten out the dog’s curly tail, he said, but in the course of trying, you may straighten out yourself.

I am a source-text-go to the library-search out a book-tease out a little wisdom kind of guy. Every once in a while, I find myself acting like a find my silence-let the truth rise before me kind of guy, but this time it was the library.

I found my text and a good source for the wisdom I felt was being practiced, on me anyway, when inspired by the magnanimous gestures of my friend in growing up out of the terrible mess of the death of his brother.

In the holy Torah, the book of Genesis, after Joseph disclosed himself to his brothers, who had sold him out but still did not recognize him until that moment as the viceroy in Egypt he had become. He then sent them off with gifts to return to Jacob and the rest of the family in the land of Canaan, tell their father he was alive, and bring them all back to Egypt.

Joseph’s last words to his brothers were “. . .do not become agitated on the way” (Genesis 45:24). They have a caravan of goods, their brother had become a holy man, (“it was not you who sent me here, but God,” Joseph in Genesis 45:8), and they were going home to reunite their family. What did they have to become agitated about?

Rashi the poet (11thc.) offered three interpretations:

1) do not occupy yourselves with a matter of halakha (law),
2) do not take long steps,
3) do not quarrel along the way about the matter of his (Joseph’s) sale.

Rashi called this the pshat (the plain sense of the text).

That’s an interesting Rashi, I thought. This is how I have come to understand Rashi the poet, what he has taught me out of the past, and what I have come to know as a visionary plan for peace-making:

1) Don’t get theoretical. Stay away from general principles. Make peace out of relationships, person to person, not theory to theory.

2) Take small steps, one at a time, make peace manageable. Peace will take time. Start with something: a meeting between persons, between factions, a talk, a treaty. Start with a cessation of hostilities: no more hurt.

3) Peace starts now. Stay out of the past, out of guilt, recriminations, who did what to whom, begin the peace now. Stay away from blame and shame. Let the peace begin.

So it was I continued to write the story that my friends, out of their tragedy, had drawn me into and forced me to ask myself some of the most difficult questions I have asked.

Another one of my favorite teachings, perhaps another article, has to do with the difference between answers and responses. Here I will close with these responses, not characterized as answers. Answers — too elusive, too difficult for most of the situations that are this challenging — I will settle for responses.

Let them be good responses, thoughtful, rooted, unburdening.

james stone goodman, united states of america

Build It

the first objectification of the spirit
build the place out of Me
Make [of] Me a Mikdash/holy place

and I will dwell [Shakhanti/Shekhinah]
among them
within them. [Ex. 25:8]

The holy place
the union of two worlds
build it out of terumah
from the Aramaic root for two, [Zohar]

All the terrible twos of existence
integrated in the holy place—
the beit k’nesset
house of meeting.

The Holy One is always delighted
when we storm the upper worlds
and take the Shekhinah to dwell among us. [Zohar]

New souls
new souls all around.

Build your palaces
raise all the money you can
decorate well
but I will set my spirit
in the inner chambers of the heart.

I want your heart, G*d says,
that’s all I’ve ever wanted.

jsg, usa