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
How will the world be saved? Isn’t that what they were talking about? Maybe there was no dark question that preceded their argument. Maybe it was just their tilt toward ultimate questions: how will the world be saved? Maybe it was not a rebound question at all, not a shadow question, but the truth as it rose in their interrogation of existence: how will the world be saved? Through transformation or through the center — the heart of the matter, through the heart of sadness, through all the dark possibilities of danger. It’s not simple and it’s not light this discussion, and it’s not reactive. It’s the way they saw the world, light and dark.
— from “The Legend of the Thirty Six”
I ran into Ruben at the copy store. Ruben, what are you doing here?
The last I heard Ruben 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 Ruben, 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 Ruben 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, Ruben said.
Ruben, 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 1869. Ruben laughed and his eyes lightened.
It was the Kotzker, wasn’t it? Ruben asked. Now Ruben’s face was full of mischief. My father was the Kotzker. Tell me he wasn’t!
He wasn’t, unless you dreamed it.
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?
Maybe your Dad was the Kotzker. Sure — your Dad was the Kotzker and he came to tell us that the truth, above all it’s the truth that sets us free. Always lead with the truth, your father taught. Your father was the Kotzker and he taught one thing: the Emes.
That’s it, said Ruben. I am the Kotzker’s son.
How remains hidden, but I am the Kotzker’s son. You certainly are.
I have to go visit Marian now, Ruben. She went into the hospital and we’re not sure she is going to come out, but she is the Kotzker if anyone is, and she is my best friend, and I have to go see her now.
When I saw Marian I reminded her that she was the Kotzker and she agreed. I saw some things, Marian said. There is a man with a round head who only appears when you are going to get out. He is hidden in Intensive Care somewhere, and I saw him. The nurse said you only see him when you are going to – you know — to make it. I saw him. He told me to be real quiet and let God give me what I need.
Is that what you’ve been doing?
Yes. 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. I bless this bread, then I eat it.
In my dream, the peace was a necessary consequence of the blessing. In the dream, 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.
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 the kind of peace that made the world safer for children, it was the kind of peace that the generation in which it was made was proud to leave to the next generation.
Here is your world, we have tended it well and we leave it to you as a gift. It was not the kind of prayer that was personal, as if this is what I want — tend my little life in such and such a way — but it was the peace of the world, it was the resolution of old conflicts and the triumph of civilization. It was something both elusive and obvious. It was that kind of peace.
I told Carol about my dream. She opened with an interpretation.
You can’t find the words? You’ve got to find them! You have got to find the elusive peace 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 elusive 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 path.
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.