I met the Baal Shem Tov Today
Or: Clever and Kind
It was said that the Baal Shem Tov before he emerged and began to teach
was a crossing guard — he took students to and from the Study house.
A humble occupation but none more important: to protect kids on their way to and from School.
Today I was driving down Big Bend Boulevard. Big Bend Boulevard is four lanes
two each way the road so named because it once led to a big bend in the Meramec River.
It is a large road for a walking street. In front of me a bumped up car –
white what was left of the paint — the rear lights extinguished I believe
(they had tape all over them).
The man driving I saw his hand go up inside his car — lucky I was to see it at all
we were all traveling pretty fast down Big Bend Boulevard — he pulled up and stopped with his hand up in the air and I saw a duck and six, seven little ducklings following crossing that big road in the middle where there are no stops and this man pulled up short right in front of them so all the cars behind him had to stop, me first and then he did something clever in addition to kind:
He pulled over into the next lane as they entered it and barreling down that lane was a big truck it had to stop too and that man angled his car so the truck could not pass the duck momma and the little ducklings they made their way to the other side the ducklings so little they had to jump up to make the curb but they made the curb.
Not only did this man do a kind thing he did a clever thing and it’s that combination of clever and kind — If we were all clever and kind we would triumph over the other side and the unprotected would make their way and jump that curb to safety on the other side – I think so.
Now: was this a black man a white man was he going to a job did he need a job had he come onto hard times was he an immigrant man trying to figure out how to get by was he hustling to make a living was he looking for a break in a hard hard life could he not afford to fix that dent of a car he was driving?
It makes no difference to this story because I caught up with him and I know.
I told him I saw the whole drama and how lovely it was and I know the answers to the above questions but those pictures in your mind make no difference as they make no difference to me.
It makes no difference what kind of man he was other than he was a human being who on Monday, May 12, did something clever and kind and that is what it takes to make a difference in this way: be clever and kind.
I have been everything in this story: I have been that mamma duck I have been those babies vulnerable jumping the curb –
Today I was that man driving the car clever and kind I have also been that truck
traveling the road too too fast to slow down safely.
I am every part of this Story.
How the Eggplant Got its Name
I named it
In ‘06 I was on loan to the Court Of the Ottomans
From Prince Ali the last of the Levantine kings of Hejaz
From the Court came the request
The love meal bint Abdullah
The daughter of Abdullah and her beloved
I had sent for the marriage tea with gold flecks
From the tea master
To accompany the meal
I was asked to create something
It was one of the holidays of the full moon
The full moon signifying the complete
Appearance of the newness drawn down during days of awe
And no challenge was too great.
There was a field of aubergines just beyond my rooms
We called them then nightshades
Or binjal in our dialect
al-badinjan in the tongue of my father
from the Persian badin-gan
my cousins in India where it originated the Sanskrit vatin-ganah.
I went and picked the finest of the field
Soaked them in salt to absorb the bitterness
From the nicotinoid alkaloids (related to tobacco plant of course),
I sliced the succulent aubergines
Stuffed them with a delicate tomato sauce spiced lightly
With fresh garlic and a perfect maltese basil
And drizzled it all with the finest olio vergine I have found
(the great olive oil must suffer)
Which at that time was the DiGregorio from the other side of the mountains
Where San Francesco once walked.
In the kitchen the aubergines were cooking
the Imam came for a taste (always a pest)
He stuck his finger into the tender aubergines
And fell out in a full faint right there.
The first words the Imam uttered as he returned to us were,
This is the most delicious dish I have ever tasted
Thus the name that has accompanied the dish
I created that night
The Imam fainted.
I thought it an indignity
I was flamboyant with olio that night
The delicate aubergines remembered by the transmissions of false histories
The oil was too expensive and the Imam fainted dead away!
That’s not the way it was.
Later that night I served the delicious aubergine
To the bint Abdullah and her beloved Ovadia
Followed by the wedding tea from the tea master
With the gold flecks
They drank the tea under a canopy of linen created for just this occasion.
In the morning she sent me the following message:
The eggs have been planted.
I took that to mean that the wedding meal was successful
In every way
And from that moment on the beloved aubergines
Were known in our court
Sunday, June 8, 2014, Pope Francis, President Shimon Peres and President Mahmoud Abbas gather in the Vatican to pray for the gift of peace in the Middle East, #weprayforpeace. For the first time Jewish, Christian and Islamic prayers will be held together in the Vatican. Italian, English, Hebrew, Arabic. We are watching 1 Henry IV 2 Henry IV in St. Louis, Missouri. English.
Pay attention to this day
Why not peace through prayer
Why not in the Vatican
With its conflicted history
Why not President Peres and President Abbas
And all the histories of violence and recrimination:
History-less-ness declare at the beginning of peace-making
Forgiveness and the absence of history.
Why not here in Shakespeare’s sequence
Its terrible history
Insult and shame and lust and vengeance and
On this day can we let it pass without
Acknowledging the intersection of events of small and great
Intersecting right here right now
This resting place in an oasis of one century 21
Here the United States of America
In this noble heart-line city
Named for the Louis who himself brought two Crusades:
Louis IX 13th c.
Captured by Egyptians in his first Crusade
Settling Aco Caesarea and Yafo
Building defenses for future Crusades.
He would go on two of them dying at the eighth crusade
Known as the only Canonized King of France
Responsible for mass burnings of the Talmud
Expanding the Inquisition in France, the nobility of his titular:
“the lieutenant of God on earth.”
Louis — I live in your city of the future and am speaking
Peace and forgiveness
On a day that happens this way
Like/Unlike all other days.
In this set of histories we are watching
Crusades are in the future
On this meadow in a park
They are the past.
How this intersects Here Now
Without a pause and a breath and a
Feeling for the past and a prayer for the future
And an Intention for Something
Out of something Old –
This is the Story.
Oh St. Louis person of the past
Lieutenant of God on earth
Turn over your dominion to the peace-makers
The peace-making that will arise out of uncertainty.
Oh past: One day you will Give up your certainty
And Inevitable peace will be made face to face
The peace-makers will have to put our histories in our pockets
Isn’t it worth a temporary
Let us all take our histories when we are making peace
And put them in a notebook
For peace-making we have to begin and we have to begin
For now we will put our histories away
Peace starts now
With a prayer
With an intentioned history-less-ness
We may trot our stories out later but for now –
We are listening.
Let the peace start now
We will earn each other’s stories
When we sit and eat together
When our children come to know each other
When we listen to each other’s music
When we recite our poetry to each other –
When we come to know we are more similar
Than we are separate
Then we will unpack our histories
And tell them like a story redeemed for sacred rite from
Let the peace start now.
O St. Louis
O lieutenant of God on earth
Give up your title
Turn your acquisitions over to the peace-makers
This prayer for peace –
O St. Louis
The heart-line of a new country
In this place named for you
We are listening to each other
We have our stories in our pockets
Let the peace begin in the most unlikely places
The most unlikely ways.
Let it emanate outward from every known and unknown place
Why not St. Louis.
Why not the great river cities
Plant an olive tree
Why not Rome in prayer
Italian, English, Hebrew, Arabic
Italian, English, Hebrew, Arabic
Italian, English, Hebrew, Arabic
Why not every place human being turning to human being and speaking
I am you and
You are me
And we are all
It was Naso, the longest parashah in the Torah, always read on the Shabbat before Shavuot, before the great wedding celebrating the enduring wisdom given to us because we had prepared in one version and because we did not in another.
Was it a complete gift this wisdom or did we turn ourselves inside out and twisted ourselves into a posture of acceptance some crazy yoga that we submitted to methodically and daily in order to gain the gift: here is your wisdom, nicely packaged it’s now in book form first it came as thunder and lightning but some time into the future after you are done with the telling you will begin the writing then it will be a book then it will return to lightning in digital form and you will return to telling because the words are on the wind in the rain maybe once in a while you’ll project them on a wall or write them in a journal to remind you that the word has shape and also to remind you that the word does not have shape it has sound. The return to thunder.
What a week. Great ascent tempered by a plummet back to reality, ta-da ta-da little sleep and much wrestle with the dreaded mind-slip and the question mark associated with the mysterium: what to do, and the great vulnerability of being a human being alive but fearful of the drift downward. Fear full. Reminder: drift Up.
Then the blessing in its three parts from the book of Numbers, Naso, and great stories from several years ago from this same Shabbos. The way Rashi reads the blessing: material. Blessed will you be with possessions, this from the Medrash.
The way the Mesillat Yesharim reads it: everything is a test. You get good: a test. You get bad: a test. Everything is a test. Mesillat Yesharim, also known as R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, eighteenth century, his story and his writings speak to me and I think I ran into him at the house of study that bears his family name in Venice. He is another who had a maggid that spoke to him – through him invoking the teachings that came from Elijah the prophet, the poor guy was hounded out of Venice to Amsterdam and eventually to Aco where he died in a plague.
From the Sefas Emes the sense of shleimut, wholeness, to be blessed with shalom is to be blessed with wholeness, some sort of inner point of blessing that opens from the one the individual the instance to the many the All the Universal. The Sefas Emes calls this the inner point of truth. The inner point of truth: When you have that you have everything. Peace is a vessel. It contains blessing.
In the Sefas Emes version, the three fold blessing is given in the singular opening onto the plural, one and many, the individual as it opens onto the universal the universal always sheleimut/shalom/l’seim lekha shalom — to bring the blessing from the individual instance to the universal application, the conduit from the one to the many – to break through your skin and live in G*d.
The inner point of truth this is shleimut/shalom the inner is experienced as the universal. Wherever G*d dwells there is blessing, wherever there is blessing there is shalom. I am you and you are me and we are all together.
I love the partial the broken individual incomplete, the fragment the wounded. I love the separate because it integrates and even if not it is whole. I am stunned by this teaching each time I revisit it.
This year Shabbat Naso always the thought of the blessing as we enter the last leg of transformative-gift getting that is the durable wisdom soon soon and sitting in the minyan that night a guy from Thursday night meeting fresh off of heroin and tonight he is fresh on I can generally tell from looking at him. Later that night quietly he lets me know: I used today. I gotta stay close to this, he says. I want this so bad.
You are here with nothing I am thinking Rashi – but your dearest possession right now is your sobriety. Get clean and that one possession will open onto all other blessings, without that blessing – nothing. He knows this. Yeah yeah he says. We are talking in code a language so abbreviated only Rashi and his band of deconstructivists would understand. They spoke in grunts and hand signs, shakes of the head and so do we, they left only a one or two phrase resting place in language for the future.
It’s a test man, all of it, you will be tested daily. Today a test, tomorrow a test, each day a deadly quiz and if you fail it today you can make it tomorrow. One day at a time. Luzzatto. Go home to your Mom’s house tonight and take tomorrow fresh. Do-over, every day new. That’s not a blessing?
With the Sefas Emes we are entirely at home stoned or sober: the trip is internal, find your peace the inner point of truth within don’t forget the generosity of this: each part is a whole, each instance opens onto the All. Only Everything is everything. Find your peace, from the Sefas Emes, the inner point of truth: shalom, shleimut. Humble and opening Up.
Every day new. Every year another chapter on the story as it winds Up.
You shall not hate your brother in your heart, you shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of your neighbor (Lev. 19:17 ).
You shall not take vengeance, not bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am God (Lev. 19:18).
Two friends are learning in the house of study.
One: what do you make of “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” in context?
Two: You shall not hate your brother in your heart, hmmm, that’s where we begin, cleansing the heart of hatred.
One: Of course, that’s obvious. Brother!
Two: Brother! Like us.
One: You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of your neighbor. Now that we understand it in context, it’s unusual isn’t it, this progression from you shall not hate to you shall surely rebuke, why would you rebuke your neighbor? What has your neighbor done? Say your neighbor is a drug addict.
Two: Oh my God.
One: Stay with me, your neighbor is taking drugs. You don’t approve. You see it, you have evidence, you may have even witnessed it yourself. It’s not a theoretical problem. You remember Benjy don’t you?
Two: Poor Benjy. Nobody knew what to do for him, so we did nothing.
One: Yeah, well that’s what we got going here. You don’t approve, you know something is wrong but you may not even know what it is, but something is not ay-yai-yai so you rebuke your neighbor.
Two: You rebuke him?
One: Yeah, you do something. You tell the truth, even at the expense of relationship, you approach him and say hey, I’m worried about you, you do this, you do that, you don’t put him down but you have got to do something. It’s not a theoretical problem.
Two: You got that right.
One: You rebuke him, because to have that knowledge and do nothing? I’m not using rebuke here in the sense of shaming him but in the sense of saying: stop. Drawing a line. Maybe even getting in his face. Hey – get some help. Or maybe even going to somebody else.
Two: Wow. What a concept. Just like with Benjy. We did nothing, and you know what? When it came down, I felt kind of. . .you know. . .responsible. I really did!
One: Yeah, so did I. You know why? Because we didn’t rebuke him. But the verse continues, don’t think that I came with just this one word to rattle in a bottle like a coin. . .
Two: Oh stop with that stuff.
One: Let’s continue with the verse, you shall not hate your brother in your heart, you shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of your neighbor (Lev. 19:17 ). Not bear sin because of your neighbor, that means, like with Benjy, it was our responsibility to rebuke him, but not to bear his sin. With Benjy, sin means sickness. Because it was, after all, his problem. But there’s the rub: it’s his problem, still we are called to rebuke him, but not to carry responsibility for his sin. It’s his sickness, but still, we are called to do something.
Two: Yeah, wow, I remember with Benjy. When Judy did say something, Judy rebuked him, he turned it against Judy. Who are you, Benjy said to Judy, to get in my face? It’s my business, what’s wrong with you? he said to Judy. So Judy ended up feeling bad, bearing Benjy’s sin, but you know what? That was part of Benjy’s problem: place the responsibility everywhere but himself. I really see it now.
One: Yes, now let’s finish with our verse. Leviticus 19:18, You shall not take vengeance, not bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am God.
Two: We rebuke, but we don’t hate, nor do we bear the sin — it’s Benjy’s problem, not ours — and when he Benjy plays us like he did? We don’t get vengeful. The guy is, after all, sick. Not only do we not get vengeful, but we bear no grudge, we don’t judge him. That’s the hardest part. As a matter of fact, we love him. We love Benjy because only out of love will come the right action. Only through love will the healing happen.
One: You shall not take vengeance, not bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am God. That’s the way of God, to know that if healing is to happen, it has to happen through love. No matter what our history is with each other, we cannot be a source of healing or help or truth or transformation for each other — because that’s what it takes with someone like Benjy, with someone like me, I’m no different from Benjy! — that’s what it takes to be a healing force in another person’s life. No expectations, no blaming, no shifting of responsibility, no avoidance, no revenge, no judgment, only the truth. And love. It has to come out of love. Only love has that kind of power to heal.
Two: That’s what we could have done with Benjy. Here’s the principle: lead with love, always. It seems so simple, but it isn’t easy, and it isn’t obvious.
One: Maybe that’s the deal with these two verses. Notice that we don’t lead with love, but we come to love, after having moved through don’t hate, surely rebuke, don’t bear sin, don’t take vengeance, don’t bear a grudge, but — love. I am God: the way of love, the true course of transformation.
One: Good session.
Two: Yeah, thanks. Be here tomorrow?
Rabbi James Stone Goodman serves Congregation Neve Shalom, and the Central Reform Congregation, in St. Louis, Missouri.
Unwelcome Addition to the Seder
Monday, April 14, 2014
Written in a symbolic Place of Vulnerability
The Haggadah is all about the telling, by Onkelos the teaching, by Maimonides the showing. The story changes and it remains the same. We always have one foot in the personal and one foot in the universal.
Each year we squeeze the story for more of what it means — for the individuals for the community the nation the world — for the concentric circles to which we all belong.
What it means, it’s a good question, but not the only question.
Attached to this year’s meaning is the silent heart of grief, which always precedes the what-it-means question.
The world: still cracked. Hate corrupts, love repairs. We know this. But the first response is always the silent heart of mourning, which is the silent heart of suffering, which is the opening to the heart of wisdom. Some time into the future we will respond by knowing: what to do.
For now: open a moment to the silent heart of suffering, still a part of our story, our story a part of the world story.
Pray for peace in the grandest and most individual ways: the peace of the near and the peace of the far. And healing for the losses, and some sort of comfort for us all.
Make everything holy
Wash yourself clean
Eat something green
Separate physics from spirit
Tell a good story
Get more clean
Bring back spirit into physics
Spit out your hurt
Make an Everything sandwich
Have tea together
Pay attention to endings
Insist on happiness
The Story of Passover
We were discussing the mystery root in Torah n-g-d when those two guys walked down the outer walkway on Saturday morning. They were speaking Aramaic; who speaks Aramaic anymore.
They had been parsing the name of the place we could hear them as they were walking up: neve in Hebrew, from the couple of verses in Isaiah where it appears, a place for animals a kind of sanctuary like an oasis.
Then when we were studying inside later that morning we went on about that n-g-d root. We were in the book of Exodus, Yitro, they mentioned (one of the visitors did) that when we are eating together in verse 12 — before G*d — that when we are eating with heavies the glow of the Shekhinah is present. He was quoting a story from the Talmud, I looked it up it’s Brakhot 64a that Rashi was referring to, and I was getting a little suspicious of these guys how they knew so much Rashi.
Don’t you love the changes that are happening in this story? he asked to no one in particular, because one listens to the other, hears something right, takes it home, takes it inside, and changes everything? I do, I do love that, I said.
And look the other one said, we have these verbs in chapter 19, verse two, the root n-g-d for the word in the next verse: this is what you will tell to the rest of them. The same root in Haggadah, n-g-d, from to be across from, or corresponding to, as if in the telling is always the correspondence between language and the thing itself, but it’s the story, it’s the word it’s not the thing itself so the root is n-g-d in the telling, making the correspondence between what you say and what it is.
There is always that space, that distance between language — all language — and symbol and the thing itself what is symbol-ed we are trying to make that correspondence and that’s why our language is so elastic. Don’t you love it? I said I do, I do love it.
Some time later I was studying with S but I was dreaming about telling the story and when it’s told the necessity to be understood, especially the holy telling of the Haggadah and the Maggid section in the Haggadah the telling and the n-g-d root that is lurking within both those words, that sense that there is a story and then there is what the story is about.
Then on Thursday night we were talking about the telling of our own stories and every time we tell it we squeeze it for more of what it means. There is the story and there is the telling and with every telling there is more truth, more truth squeezed through the telling, the telling and the thing itself. The more we tell it the more we know of what the story is about, the thing itself, so the root is somewhat dual in that sense of corresponding to: n-g-d, and I am loving this root for its essential correspondence of one thing to another and its hiddenness within every story the thing that the story is about and they are not the same. They correspond and we tell it and tell it to coax out the deeper reality(ies).
One night when we were playing music we made that groove where I started talking about my aunt who was married to a gangster and she was the funniest person I knew. Until I met her sister who was living up in the Catskills, and she was the funniest person I knew and by then I was grown up, almost thirty, so my sense of funny had changed I suppose and every time I visited her it was like I was the audience sitting on her divan and she did twenty minutes that was so hysterical I could hardly sit but this was just the way she talked. Maybe she didn’t have anybody to talk to; she lived alone after all in a tiny little place in Monsey.
I told her I thought she was now the funniest person I had every met, funnier than her sister my aunt (she wasn’t my blood aunt but I called her my aunt and she didn’t have much that kind of family) and her sister who I never called my aunt said you think I’m funny wait ‘til you meet my son. I didn’t want to meet her son because he was a professional comedian in what was left up there of the borscht belt and I figured he was just a lot of shtick and it would be embarrassing.
On one of my trips up that way she made a call and said he’ll be right over. Oh my God, she called her son and he was coming over to meet me and I didn’t look forward to it at all. I’m going to have to sit here and listen to his routines and pretend that it’s entertaining that old shtick and he came over — nice looking guy about ten fifteen years older than me — and he did about twenty minutes that was even funnier than his mother and way funnier than his aunt (who I called my aunt) and I was laughing so hard I could hardly stand it. Maybe this is the way they talk to each other all the time I had never heard such funny stuff in my life.
Some years passed and the gangster (who I took to calling my uncle as he was married to who I called my aunt and he was not connected so well to his own people) died and my aunt moved back to Detroit to be with her son (he wasn’t actually her son) and I had heard that she was ill and in a nursing home of some kind in a suburb so I went to find her.
It was Detroit and some time in May I think still in the interminable winter that seized Detroit every year in those days; cold and dark nothing growing no organic matter at all as far as I could tell but I did find a lone crocus at the corner grocery from a hothouse in Canada and I bought it and went searching for my aunt.
She was sharing a room with another lady and I swear I stared at them both for five minutes and couldn’t tell which one was my aunt she had diminished so. They were asleep I guess they call it and no doubt full of the drugs of quietude. It was her hair that gave her away to me; I never in my memory identified anybody by their hair this way but she was so different looking that it was her hair that gave her away.
I sat next to her bedside and she woke up and started talking to me in Yiddish. She thought I was my father and she kept calling me Harry and speaking to me in Yiddish and it was delicious being my father for a while as he had passed some years before.
I was my father for as long as she stayed awake and we talked about all the old people that she was remembering from when she was married the first time to Henry and had a store and so did my Dad and when she went back to sleep I left. I stayed somewhere near over night and came back for the last visit and she awakened again and spoke to me as my Dad and the crocus I had left there had bloomed. I kissed her on her head and said goodbye.
I told this story as we settled into the groove when we were playing music because her next husband – who my mother called a gangster — his name was another word for teaching in our language and that made the crazy segue to the last piece that S had taught this year, something new that tied everything together and came from Onkelos who translated all the Hebrew into Aramaic and made the translation of the n-g-d verb into the Aramaic for teaching.
It wasn’t enough to tell it you had to tell the story in such a way that taught it, so if you told it and it wasn’t understood it was not enough or if you told it in a different language it was not enough; it had to be taught it had to be understood it had to be a teaching with real dialogue. This from Onkelos’s translation into Aramaic.
Because the telling is not enough, you can tell it over and again but if you don’t squeeze it for all it means and it means differently when you squeeze it good then you are not getting at it all the way. You have to teach it as well as tell it, it has to be understood especially by the teller who understands more the more it is squeezed and parsed and examined and turned every which way to release meaning. You have to coax out all the secrets from their hiding places. You have to teach it over and above tell it.
That was new to me and pulled it all together and after I had finished telling the story of visiting my aunt and all of them of so many years ago I felt a great satisfaction pulling it all together as I was about to make my freedom trip so I talked this piece out loud then I wrote it and we settled deeper into the music as throughout all this telling I had not stopped playing quietly on my instrument as if everyone were visiting me in my living room though it wasn’t.
In the end I mentioned that my uncle who was a gangster, his name means teaching, that’s the part that pulls it all together and why I called this piece the story of Passover and it’s important somehow in the deeper sense and I won’t say any more as who knows the Feds may still be interested in my uncle as they swept down on my aunt after her husband died trying to track his untraceable assets and it took me ten years to tell the story at all much less mention any names. So I won’t. Besides, I’m not so clean myself if you know what I mean.