Story for Rejoicing with the Torah

Every Rosh Hashanah, something new is drawn into the World
For Simchat Torah

Several years ago we had Simchat Torah and it was raining. It was a difficult time, we were perched at the edge of war. There was a small group at the synagogue, we took out our borrowed Torah, and the moisture in the air raised an animal smell from the Torah scroll that drew me into the text. I popped into the story and walked around in it.

Simchat Torah fell that year on the first night when there was winter in the air. Cold. Rainy. We unrolled the Torah scroll on some long tables so everyone could look at it before we gathered the Torah scroll up in our arms and danced around the room.

Someone made a Torah joke, “I want to eat it,” quoting the Psalm (34:9), taste and see that God is good.

I felt that if I would have sat there longer, maybe a week, maybe two, and stared into the scroll, the entire story would have gobbled me up in a way I only at that moment felt in my bones.

We sat there with the Torah in front of us in silence, inching closer to the scroll, leaning in towards the skin spread out on the table between us. The jokes stopped, the children had strayed from the table but the adults stayed as if bound to the story in the scroll by invisible fibers of relation. We all felt the release and deep cleansing exhalation of meditation. We shed our separate skins and entered the story, drawn into the tale by the smell of it, the taste of it, the touch of it. I wondered if we were going to enter the story, step into it, how long would we sit before the tale simply drew us in like fire?

Perhaps we would pop into the story again, walk around in it for a while, and pop out.

Then it was Simchat Torah the next year, we had acquired our own Torah. After celebrating we sat quietly with the Torah, our new Torah, now the one we own, laid out on the table in front of us. A blanket of thoughtful silence covered all of us.

Again, something curious arose out of the Torah, something that is out of the Old Story the Scroll Story that drew us down into the text and into the dream where the Torah thrives. I felt it. The quiet I suppose is awe, isn’t that what awe is, to be surprised into silence? Maybe it was the death of Moses, the sadness of the ending story, the stream of consciousness of those last few lines, the story accelerating as it does into an ending but not closure. A seam.

I had written a story about S, the angel who wanted the song I sang, the Arabic holy chant. I sang the song onto her answering machine, then I stopped singing the song. I felt like a minstrel, a peace minstrel, a PC minstrel, and I couldn’t sing the song anymore because I was angry and scared and wondering if it was true. I even rewrote the story and turned the chant into a song “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” and I began to sing that, because it’s easier, but it’s another song.

I had been in the very places that were then erupting. I went there alone. In 1995 I took a break and went to study music in Israel. I studied Arabic music with a master of the oud. I drove three hours from Jerusalem every week to an Arab town in the north where I sat with my master and listened for the sound that is common to us both. We met only in the music and that became our language.

There have been many Jewish and Arab masters of the oud, but it is certainly the music of Abraham, from a place before the separations, before the alienation of Abraham’s children, Isaac and Ishmael. I suppose that is why I went there, to play from a place deeper than the divisions. I heard it in my blood in my bones, it was a mystery to me how why I heard it but I heard it and I went to learn it at the source.

There was a great master of the oud in the Negev near Beer Sheva who played for the court of the King of Morocco. The present King of Morocco personally invited him back, an offer he extended to all the Jews of Morocco, but few returned.

I had written about my experiences in a series of stories I call the Oud Stories. What do I do with them? I didn’t know how to integrate my own experience just then. I was playing the instrument but some of the songs I couldn’t sing. In rabbinical school, I took a year and studied Arabic, again I wanted the source connection that I felt in the holy texts I was reading, the deep level of rootedness that connects us, the commentaries of Saadia on the mystical texts written in Arabic, the Rambam writing in Arabic, I wanted to read them in the original. I did and I found it and I felt it and I learned it and it was correct. Sometimes I am aching with my own knowledge now, I don’t know what to do with it.

Maybe I know too much, maybe I know too little.

Just before Simchat Torah we usually have the Nachmuna, celebrating Rebbe Nachman, the first Jewish modernist story guide master. The year I am remembering, we set up the tables in a large rectangle with smaller tables around the perimeter. We sat in the center with no music stand, only a small table behind us, after three tunes my voice opened like a human flower and my sidekick and I played effortlessly and passionately for about two hours. Rebbe Nachman sat in the corner smiling.

That year we held the Nachmuna again during the intermediate days of Sukkot on Saturday night.

I made up a song about Rebbe Nachman, with a simple accompanying minor seventh riff, describing the life and work and lift of Rebbe Nachman. I told the whole story in song, including a fragment of his last unfinished story, which we have put to music, called “the great heart of the world.”

We made the slow-hand havdalah somewhat in the Shlomo style that I love, and after we were finished we packed up our instruments and on the way out to our chariots, my sidekick said, “I haven’t done the mitzvahs of the Sukkah yet.” I gathered the lulav and etrog out of my space van.

With my two sidekicks, we went into the Sukkah and in St. Louis, Missouri, under the middling Sukkot moon, the waning, we performed the two mitzvahs of spending a time there and of the four species. We talked about the elusive third mitzvah, joy, and the limitation of helping each other with that. But I was wrong. Completely wrong. It was the third one we could help each other with the most, and I felt it underneath the middling Sukkot moon. I knew it just as I was speaking the opposite idea. “I don’t know a darn thing about ‘ach sameach’ [entirely joyous],” I said, but what I felt was just the opposite. I felt, for that moment, underneath the moon with my two pals, completely joyous. I forgot everything and I had fulfilled the three mitzvahs just as the tradition prescribes.

We then welcomed the guests, the seven shepherds, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, David. They entered from all sides, I noticed that none of them came in through the front opening. Each one of them had something to teach, which I have written in another story, but here is a synopsis: Abraham spoke about love, Isaac spoke about discipline, Jacob spoke elegantly about beauty, Moses spoke about bravery (his was a long discourse), Aaron spoke about dignity, Joseph spoke about stick-to-it-tive-ness basically, and David spoke about acceptance.

I wrote a story called my favorite Sukkot teaching about the moon as a metaphor for what is new and Godly that is drawn into the world this time of the year, the wisdom the Godliness the newness that plumps with the moon. We begin to draw something wonderful, something Godly, something holy, something that hasn’t been here before into the world every Rosh Hashanah, when it is hidden, like the moon.

We are now past the full moon of Sukkot as I am revisiting this story — still hidden. But not entirely.

addendum to Simchat Torah

I went to sleep but couldn’t stay there. What I call my mind was not delivered into the calm, I knealt at the delta but the elusive alpha and omega of sleep was lost to me, not forever, just until I finished this.

I re-read the last piece I wrote, thinking about the chase for something pure and absolute in the music and cultures that I have gone to the sources to study. I couldn’t grasp myself, my understanding, the hard tutorial of my own life. And peace, the most elusive notion of all, beyond my control for sure but even beyond my ken.

I picked up the reading which I often save for late at night. I read, then tried to put myself to sleep with meditation, the “being alone together” as Rebbe Nachman called it. I couldn’t sleep.

I picked up the New York Times and read the most recent installment of a series called Writers on Writing: “After Twenty Years, Meditation Still Conquers Inner Space,” by Alice Walker.

Here is the ending:

Heaven. Now there’s a thought. Nothing has ever been able, ultimately, to convince me we live anywhere else. And that heaven, more a verb than a noun, more a condition than a place, is still about leading with the heart in whatever broken or ragged state it’s in, stumbling forward in faith until, from time to time, we miraculously find our way. Our way to forgiveness, our way to letting go, our way to understanding, compassion and peace.

It is laughter, I think, that bubbles up at last and says, “Ho, I think we are there.” And that “there” is always here.

I am wild for sleep now, good night.

jsg, usa

Jeremiah’s Plan

Jeremiah’s Plan for Peace

Behold, the days come says God
— Jeremiah 31:30 ff.

A new agreement
a starting over always
My teachings shall I place
in your deepest —
in your hearts.

I will be God
you will be human beings
we will each live
up to our dream
of one another,

Certain knowledge
no one will blame
accuse or intimidate —
everyone will know Me
from the littlest to the
highest
starting now.

The past –
entirely forgiven.
I have forgotten it
we will cease calling it
past.
it is now
— the future.

Who lights the fires of the future?
Who writes the stories?
The sun by day
the passing of the moon
the lights by night
who stirs up the Sea?

If you can measure heaven above
search out the earth below
— just as likely
I will abandon you.

Never.

jsg, usa

Marabout

This is the story we discussed at study. More stories of contact to come, next: the Bosnian Sufi – Kabbalist connection.

Marabout

What is Marabout?
I think it has to do with cement.
Cement?
Yeah. He’s here on business. Cement I think is what he said.
Is that his business suit?
My son Jake was referring to a long gold and patterned robe that he wore, surely close to seven feet tall this African man, he attracted our attention along with everyone else in the gate area. He was with another man. The other man had brought him to the check-in, airport New York, but was not accompanying him on the trip.
Tall African man, shaved head, no English. The other man translated for him, walked him through the check-in ritual at the gate.
That’s when I stepped up.
Look, I said to the English speaking man, I’m on the flight to Baltimore too. If I can be of any help, I speak French. I thought I had heard them speaking French, and another language I didn’t recognize.
In the gate area, I found a small Pakistani man to escort the tall African man to the baggage, to retrieve his luggage and find his way out of the airport in Chicago, his destination, not mine.
As we got on the airplane, we sat near each other but the roar of the plane was too loud to talk. I helped him get an apple juice and I watched him go through the ninety nine names of God with a string of silver prayer beads he had in his briefcase.
We arrived at Baltimore and my son and I got bumped from our plane to St. Louis and onto the same Chicago flight that our African friend was on. We explained this to him and to our Pakistani helper, who did not seem to understand much more English than the African man.
We checked in and sat down near the gate. I introduced myself to the African man again, this time using a familiar form of my name that seems to register easier with non-English speakers. He introduced himself to me, Idrissa.
Idrissa. I wrote it out. No, he said, write me in Arabic. I wrote it out in Arabic, and he corrected a mistake. Good, he said, you write Arabic?
Yes.
Write your name, he instructed me.
I wrote out my name in Arabic, and he looked at it for a while. Then he took out a piece of paper from his briefcase, wrote his name and my name in proximity, and made a series of jottings, pictures and calculations with lines and numbers underneath.
What is this? I asked.
Marabout.
What is Marabout?
Maybe your wife has left you. She has gone away somewhere. You have a problem. You come to me. I give you certain sacrifices and do certain calculations, your wife, she comes back to you.
I was wondering whether I understood him correctly, particularly the part about sacrifices.
Sacrifices?
Sacrifices.
My son was watching all this from a seat across the aisle from us.
Marabout is not about cement, I said to him.
Sacrifices, I said slowly to Idrissa, is it something psychological?
No.
Sacrifices, I said, is it something spiritual?
No. Sacrifices. Offerings.
My son strung some beads for Idrissa. Do you have a wife? I asked Idrissa.
Yes.
Does she have holes in her ears?
Yes.
Here, these are a gift.
Thank you, he said, and he put the earrings into his briefcase. He had a high pitched giggle that did not match his appearance.
He finished his calculations and began to tell me my future. Some can be repeated, some cannot he said. I am about to change professions. I will make a load of money. My son will marry and raise up many children. He also will have a lot of money.
Then he described the sacrifices that my son and I are required to make in order for these things to happen. They must be made soon. Mine will be rough.
What is he saying? my son asked.
You are going to have a bunch of kids. I am about to change professions. Lots of money all around.
That’s good, Jake said.
One other thing, good news — your sacrifice does not involve animals.
Sacrifice? What’s my sacrifice?
Too holy to tell you now, I will tell you later when I can give it some respect.
Sacrifice?
Yes, that is what he prescribes. Sacrifices. It has something to do with Marabout.
Idrissa gave me his card, it read clearly, Marabout.

Later I looked up Marabout.
It comes from the Arabic, murabit, which means one who is garrisoned. It referred originally to a member of a Muslim religious community who lived in a ribat, a fortified monastery. Marabout is a Muslim holy man. When Islam came to western Africa in the 12th century, its proponents became known as al-Murabitun (Almoravids), and every missionary who organized a community was known as a Murabit. In the 14th century, when the Sufis came to the Maghreb, northern Africa, any organizer of a Sufi fraternity became known as a Murabit, or a Marabout. A Marabout is a Muslim holy man, a mystic, a Sufi.
Who is this priest, this Kohen that was prescribing sacrifices for me in an airport waiting room in Baltimore? I realized who I was meeting here: Myself. My Levitical progenitors. The sons of Aaron, pursuers of peace, the priests and Levites of the Jerusalem Temple dealing in sacrifices, though we did not call them sacrifices, they were not something psychological or something spiritual, they were what they were, the avenue of approach, korbanot, signifying coming closer to God. They were not like anything.
Be like the sons of Aaron, seek peace and pursue it (Avot 1:12). Is this what he was doing? Seeking peace in the Levitical way, the prescribed peace offerings? He seemed so certain about their efficacy.

Are you Muslim? he asked me.
Jew. Yahud.
Ah. So close he said.
Close and far.
Yes, we will both have to make sacrifices. We will each have to give away something we think is dear. I am working on it. Truth and justice, peace, he said, and he winked.
We began to discuss the names of God that are cognates in our sacred languages: ir-Rahman, ir-Rahim, Rahmana, HaRahaman, the Compassionate One, giving, without restraint, and those that are not cognates. We sat there in the waiting room, moving through the beads, praying the names of God that are common in our holy languages, teaching each other the ones that were not common.
My son and I got on the plane and flew to Chicago with Idrissa. I found the Pakistani guy and in Chicago they went off together toward the baggage claim.
Before he left, Idrissa held me, asked me to write down my phone number and address. I will be calling you, he said to me in French, I think, I am not sure which language he was speaking.

Dad, what is the deal with your new friend? Jake asked.
Muslim holy man, I said. He sees into the future, and as far as I can tell, long term it looks pretty good.
We left Idrissa in Chicago and during the short leg from Chicago to St. Louis, Jake and I got to frame the story in a way we wanted to remember it.
You know, Jake, I said, we were praying together. When we were going through his beads? We were speaking a common language. It was the one language we truly shared, the names of God. That’s a good sign.
This conversation occurred precisely at the time when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was heating up. Jake and I agreed that we had experienced a secret glimpse into the future. Like Abraham, we ascended to the top of the chariot of Ezekiel, it was covered with the dew of light. We saw the possibility of peace, real peace, deep peace, sacred peace. Maybe through us, maybe through our children, maybe that’s why it was Jake and me meeting Idrissa, two generations, one completing what the other could only begin, making our sacrifices, our offerings, for peace. A peace that might take generations, a peace that could not be completed by the ancestors, a peace that only the descendants could realize.
There was something broken in the generation of the parents that only their children could repair, this from the Zohar, the classic text of Jewish mysticism. Something broken in the generation of Abraham that only the children of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael, and all the Isaacs and Ishmaels of the future, could repair.

Several days later, I came home from work and my daughter said, somebody called for you. No English. I couldn’t understand him.
Did he say anything about sacrifices?
Sacrifices? Yeah, I think he did.
Since then, he has been calling frequently, chattering away with me about sacrifices, about the future, about the necessity to give your overflow away, because when you have as much as I am going to have, you have to give it away in order to keep it. I think that is what he said, I’m not sure because he wasn’t speaking French for sure anymore, but if I understand anything of what we have been talking about, I will receive just what I am willing to give away.
Great sacrifices will be required of us all, but if we have the courage to let loose of what we think we own, what we think we are, we will receive whatever it is we want, even peace. Peace above all.
Seek peace, he said, I think, pursue it.

A few days after the Twin Towers catastrophe, I came home and my daughter said to me, he called again.
Who?
The guy who speaks French, or whatever it is he is speaking. Your friend from Africa, the holy man.
What did he say?
Not sure, she said, his voice was sadder this time, but I did hear this: Marabout? he said, Marabout – not this. Marabout is peace. If you kill peace, you kill God.

Rashi’s Plan

In honor of Rashi’s 902nd yahrzeit [anniversary of passing]
29th ofTammuz

Rashi’s Plan for Peace [see Rashi on Genesis 45:24]

Rashi, Bible scholar, (1040-1105 CE), Troyes, France

I was visiting with Rashi the poet on a hillside in eastern France,
it was winter. Snow on the ground. We were sitting on bales in a circle as the sun began to set. During our discussion, Rashi’s daughter I think her name was Miriam, was speaking in quiet tones from behind a screen to her father.

My daughter reminds me, Rashi used a word in medieval French for reminds,
there is a plan for peace concealed in the text. Rashi then told us three ideas, his plan for peace.

It was getting dark so Rashi lit some candles. He also gave us grapes about then, they were translucent dark, blue black, almost lapis, I had never seen such grapes. Rashi opened with this: don’t get theoretical. Stay away from general principles. Make peace person to person, not theory to theory. We were all eating grapes.

The second thing he said was to take small steps, one at a time, make peace manageable. Peace will take time. Start with an agreement, a treaty.

Here’s the third thing: Peace starts now.
Stay out of the past, out of guilt, recriminations, who did what to whom, stay away from blame and shame. Let the peace begin.

By this time it was dark. The candles had burned down. There were no candles left. Rashi asked me to get some icicles from across the field. I brought back four or five icicles, Rashi put them in the candle holders, lit them, and we continued learning.

Rashi said, the first light, created day one, was specially created, the light that sustains but was hidden away for the future.

As he spoke I saw him gather the light with his hands, like he was moving the air around above the flames, like he was gathering light into his arms.

james stone goodman
united states of america