Kabbalah of the Serenity Prayer

Rebbe Nachman On the Serenity Prayer
— From the King and the Emperor

All the repairs are made from Rosh Hashanah
until the Eighth day of Assembly [Shemini Atzeret]
the unification made on Simchat Torah
when Chava Eve and Adam are united
face to face
after having been created back to back.
The Holy One separated Adam and Eve
to reunite them at the end of the 22 days
on Simchat Torah
the time of the wedding
the dancing like the dancing
the Holy One performed for Adam HaRishon
the first Adam
— the wedding party
of holy angels and chariots
descending for the dance.

Through these 22 days
we each merit
our true matches
each Adam for his Chava
each Chava for her Adam –

So it is on Rosh Hashanah
that Adam and Chava
travel to Uman.
It was there that the chair
the Rebbe saw in heaven was created
the one that held all the matches in the world inscribed on it.
He asked
how wilI I make a living?

You will be a matchmaker
and so every year in Uman
Rosh Hashanah
they go searching for their soul-mates.

We are taught even after we find our soul-mates
and marry them
we spend our lifetime searching
even after we marry
we spend a lifetime searching out
our beloved’s uniqueness.

We are gathering Chesed [mercy]
these days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot
from the bottom up
the Chesed within Hod [beauty]
the Chesed within Netzach [victory]
until we merit Chesed within Chesed on Sukkot —
we call this
gathering down the Chassadim.

Then the light of Chesed is completely revealed
and it sweetens all the judgments.
Something new drawn down during the Days of Awe.

Now, through Sukkot, we merit new ideas
and those dinim those laws of life
written and sealed through Yom Kippur
are sweetened now with the light of Chesed.

We have drawn down so much new in these days
we are making the adjustments
and separating the ones we can
from the ones we cannot.

God, Chesed in Chesed, master of the Chassadim,
grant me the shalvah [serenity]
to accept and make the adjustments
the courage to separate the ones we can make from the ones we cannot
and the wisdom to know the ones we can make
from the ones we cannot make.

Let us make the adjustments
separating the ones we can
from the ones we cannot.



An Intention for Yom Kippur

You Smell Good But You Don’t Have To

A message for Yom Kippur

In the Yom Kippur Siddur[prayer book], there is a well known prayer that begins the erev Yom Kippur liturgy: in the yeshivah[academy] on high and the yeshivah down below, al daat ha makom, with the knowledge of the Holy One, we are free to pray with those who have transgressed, sinners, outcasts, strangers, losers. We are free to pray with them on this night, so, on all other nights, we are not free to pray with them? We don’t pray with them? We don’t associate with them?

Everyone is present tonight, everyone whether in or out we are all in tonight, or we are all out. We are all strangers tonight, or none of us are strangers. But tonight, we are together. There is no other tonight, or we are all Other tonight.

In Israel, the doors to the synagogues are left open, so that even the most secular Israelies can pass by, sit on the steps or stand on the streets and hear the sound of Kol Nidre being chanted in the synagogues. It is truly the closest thing we have to one people, this night, in Israel during the chanting of Kol Nidre.

No one is outside the camp on Yom Kippur. There is another prayer on Yom Kippur, what I have named my Yom Kippur prayer book after: Ketoret. It means incense. In the traditional machzor, or High Holiday prayerbook, there is a chapter about the laws of incense that was prayed in the morning liturgy. There was great significance attached to this section of the liturgy. The Arizal taught that careful praying of the section on incense alone brings a person to teshuvah-transformation. In the Zohar, there is something about incense in the prayers that is purifying.

Incense was blended with great precision in the Holy Temple and burned on a golden altar morning and evening. There were eleven spices in the blending of the ketoret, including one called the chelbenah, a foul selling spice. The chelbenah teaches the necessity to welcome the stranger, the sinner, the outcast, the other, into our prayer community, especially on Yom Kippur. There is no other. Or we are all other.

There is a personal dimension — each person too has an emptiness, a space, a darkness, a brokennesss that needs to be healed, to be integrated, to be included — it is our chelbenah, and when we integrate the chelbenah it is the key in finding our wholeness. Who is the whole person? The one with the broken heart, said Rabbi Nachman (he knew).

This is the transformational healing that we pray for on Yom Kippur, that no part of the self, nor anyone from the community, be separated from the whole.

When there is no other we are all other and whatever separates us diminishes, or whatever insulates us from the heart of suffering dissolves. We become the heart of suffering. We are the heart of suffering, all of us.

We have five prohibitions on Yom Kippur, taken from the directive in the Torah to afflict our souls. We do not wash, we do not wear leather, we do not have physical relations, we do not eat, we do not perfume ourselves. We afflict our souls, we move ourselves symbolically towards suffering because we soften to the heart of suffering, we are the heart of suffering, we are all other, we are all strangers. We are, none of us, outside the camp.

There is no outside the camp tonight.

jsg, usa

Shofar on the New Moon

Shofar on the New Moon

Tiku va-chodesh shofar—

bakesseh –
le-yom chageinu

Make a tekiah on the month with the shofar

when it’s hidden/bakesseh

on the day of our chag [Sukkot] — Psalm 81:4

The moon is the image of the growth arc this time of year. It begins with Rosh Hashanah, the new moon, the first of Tishri. The new moon is barely discerned; that’s the nature of what we draw into the world — every Rosh Hashanah — something entirely new, dimly discerned, but something Godly.

It’s ba-kesseh, hidden, on Rosh Hashanah and is somewhat hidden until Sukkot, when it becomes fully plumped, like the moon.

Something new, there is so much hope in that. Every Rosh Hashanah we draw something new into the world. Like the moon, on Rosh Hashanah, the new moon of Tishri, we do not discern it. The newness, the wisdom that we draw into the world, begins to plump just as the moon. Through Rosh Hashanah, during the deep inner work of ten days of teshuvah-transformation, through the atonement of Yom Kippur, still not fully realized, plumping with the moon but still not entirely revealed until Sukkot.

On Sukkot, the newness that we draw into the world is fully expressed. Like the full moon of Sukkot, the fifteenth of the month Tishri, that which was partial, unexpressed, hidden, not quite actualized, becomes visible and realized with the full moon of Sukkot. Sukkot is the culmination of the growth arc that we celebrate during these Days of Awe.

From the kitchen
wisdom will rise
from the dinner table
the true peace
integrative peace
from the hidden sources of wisdom
knowledge will plump like the moon.

This could be the year.


R. Eleazar said, “this day is called
‘the concealing [keseh] for the day of our feast:
tiku va-chodesh shofar, bakesseh, l’yom chageinu [Psalm 81:4]

Because the moon is still covered and does not shine. Through what then will it shine? Through teshuvah and the sound of the shofar, as it is written, “Blessed is the people that know the trumpet sound, because, O God, they shall walk in the light of your countenance” (Psalm 89:15). On this day the moon is covered, and it does not shine until the tenth day, when Israel turns with a perfect teshuvah, so that the supernal Mother gives light to her. Hence this day is called the day of atonements (kippurim), because two lights are shedding illumination, since the higher lamp is illuminating the lower. For on this day the moon receives illumination from the supernal light and not from the light of the sun.

Zohar, 13th c.
100b – 101a

Every Rosh Hashanah new light issues from Ein Sof into the attribute of Malkhut for the entire year, to give life to the worlds Beriah, Yetzirah, and Assiyah (the three lower worlds), to nourish them, to sustain them. This light and life force contains the life force of the world, the year, the soul of the entire year, however, on Rosh Hashanah, it is still in a state of “bakesseh.” [Psalm 81:4, Tik’u va-chodesh shofar bakesseh l’yom chageinu”, Blow the shofar in the new moon, in the time “appointed” on the day of our festival, the world bakesseh means also “hidden” as well as the time “appointed”] On the new moon, what we seek is still hidden and obscured.

On Yom Kippur, it comes forth as revelation in the higher realms, and on Sukkot it is “of our festival” there is more revelation at the level of makif, and on Shemini Atzeret it comes to the level of penimi, inwardliness, and that is the meaning of the gathering on Shemini Atzeret. And after that it flows through malkhut day by day in a revelation below in the worlds of Beriah, Yetzirah, and Assiyah. And this is how the most high chesed from the level of keter is drawn into the kindnesses of atik and malchut on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and from malkhut into all the worlds.

From Kuntres Uma’ayan
Ma’amar 18
R. Shalom Dov Ber Schneersohn, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe

A Blessing On the New Moon

Master of Mirrors,
let me see with the unclear mirror, the dark images,
the images that are only discerned at night,
by moonlight.

God of the light and the dark,
release me from distractions,
bind me with invisible fibers to the deep story —
the right words, not the simple words
not the easy ones not even the sweet words
I want the true ones.

God of the right and wrong
don’t sweet talk me, draw me into the deep.
Carry me not in your pocket but sling me like a satchel
over your shoulder.
Let the truth plump like the moon,
the dark moon, the dark candle,
the candle at the hearth with all its shadows,

it’s the moon, it’s the moon, the dark candle,
the reflected dark dark dark —

jsg, usa



When he [Aaron] is finished atoning for the Sanctuary, the Tent of Meeting, and the Altar, he shall bring the living he-goat near. Aaron shall lean his two hands on the head of the living he-goat and confess upon it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their rebellious sins among all their sins, and place them upon the head of the he-goat, and send it with a designated man to the desert. The he-goat will bear upon itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land, and he should send the he-goat to the desert.
— Leviticus 16:20 -22

And the he-goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be stood alive before Hashem, to provide atonement through it, to send it to Azazel in the Wilderness.
— Leviticus 16:10

I am writing this sitting on a hill in a Wilderness somewhere in the United States of America. I am here for purification, I think, maybe rededication, yes, that is exactly what I have come here to do. I haven’t spoken for days.

I have brought an instrument to make music with, a notebook to write in, a book.

There are many animals here, it is a wild place. I am a guest here, the Wilderness, this is clear to me. I asked the goats, the horses, the brush rangers, the bottom dwellers to allow me to squat on their ground, to pray here, to play my instrument. It was pretty, but it was not why I came.

On the fourth day, this day, I began to ask for forgiveness. I sank deeper into silence and an animal I cannot identify (it had somewhat elaborate horns, I am not an outdoors man) wandered by and nibbled from a loaf of bread I carried with me. I spread a piece of bread with peanut butter, Jif smooth, and the animal signaled to me in some abstract, trans-species way its approval.

Then the animal spoke. It’s about forgiveness, isn’t it — the animal said.

Yes, it’s about forgiveness.

Give me your burdens, the animal said, I am a load-bearing animal, I am a yoked animal, I submit to the yoke of your burdens and I carry them gladly into the Wilderness.

So I took my burdens — my self consciousness, my separation, my isolation, my flight, fear, especially my fear — everything that separates me from God and all I love the most, and I laid them on the shoulders of the animal. On the back of this beautiful yoked beast I gave up my fear, and I watched as the animal disappeared into the hills.

I lifted up my hands and said, to the trees, to the sky, to the stones, to the dirt, to the dirt especially, to the mud:

Is this the way it works?

From a distance I heard,

Yes, this is precisely the way it works.

jsg, usa

Ruby and the Dome of Truth

A version of this story appeared in the newspaper of my town on the morning of Rosh Hashana one year. This is a story that kept growing, something new drawn down with every telling. I followed it around, the story, with a pencil and a pad of paper. I’ll include more of it later.

Ruby and the Dome of Truth

A Rosh Hashana Story

I remember an afternoon in the middle days of summer. I am sitting on my front porch. Someone comes walking down the sidewalk in front of my house, I recognize him. Tall, no older than I am, he carries his height uncomfortably on his skinny bones. He slouches and shuffles and I, of course, recognize this walk. It is Ruby.
Ruby lives down at the other end of Sutherland street, at the end of the block, where it intersects with Radclift. He is an only child. Both his mother and father are elevated as well. I have sympathy for Ruby, for although he is one of the gangsters of the neighborhood, he smokes and buys beer and he knows all the girls of questionable reputation, I love Ruby because he has always been kind to me.
On the afternoon I am remembering now, Ruby and I were maybe fourteen years old. I am still a kid, but Ruby has been an adult for years. On the afternoon that is fixed in my memory, Ruby came walking down the street. It was unusual to see Ruby walking at all. Ruby always commandeered rides from friends with cars. But on this day, Ruby came walking down Sutherland street, that is shuffling and slouching down Sutherland street, dragging a large dark green canvas duffel bag behind him. Ruby had not been home in almost a year.
Ruby had been at what used to be called a reform school, a training school for boys in trouble, called Boys Republic. It was a legendary place that our parents referred to when they were trying to control us. Parenting was not nearly the enlightened set of strategies that it is today, and all of us were threatened with Boys Republic so often that the dreaded Republic embedded itself in our imaginations and deterred us from criminal behavior. The only person I have ever known who had actually been sent to Boys Republic was Ruby. And on the summer afternoon that he returned home, I was sitting on my porch.
After a year at Boys Republic, Ruby was in no hurry to go home. I waved to him and he came up to the porch. I hoped my mother wasn’t watching because she was always suspicious of Ruby. He sat down on the steps, as if he had nothing but time, and we began to talk.

“Where you been?” I knew, of course, but I wanted him to tell me.
“Boys Republic. Just got out.”
“What was it like?”
“The worst.” He didn’t want to talk about it.
“I guess I gotta go home now,” he said. “I got a P.O.” A P.O. is a probation officer. I had to ask.
He was smiling out of his deep, sad eyes, and I swear I saw something in those eyes that looked like tears and over what I could not imagine.
“It was great talkin to you man,” he said. “I wish I could stay here all day.” He got up and shuffled off down the street, heading for the end of Sutherland street where it meets Radclift, to the yellow house in which he lived.
As he walked away I saw the great slouching of a wounded bird, dragging his feet because they were heavy and because something had wounded him too deeply to pick his feet up. He slouched away the big wounded bird that he was, having left behind whatever innocence he had at the Boys Republic, going home.
That’s about the last thing I remember about Ruby. I know we went to high school together, but Ruby lost some of his prominence in high school, and I don’t remember anything else about him, until I saw him again, twenty years later, at my father’s funeral.

He came to our house for the prayers that night. He walked in, put a yarmulke on his head, and stood in the back. I saw him from where I was on the other side of the room. He didn’t look nearly as big as he used to; he also had lost that wounded bird look.
When we were done praying I went right for him. We hugged. He wasn’t much taller than I was. We went off in the corner to talk.
“Ruby,” I said, “do you remember the day you came home from Boys Republic?”
“No man — I don’t remember.”
He didn’t remember! So I reminded him. “I was sitting on the front steps of this house, you came walking down the street with this big green duffel bag, you stopped and we sat and talked. You don’t remember?”
“I don’t remember. Those were some heavy years for me, I try not to think about it.”
At this place in the story, I might write that I regretted bringing the whole subject up, but the events that brought us back to each other after twenty years was life – cleansing enough to strip away the caution that we use in everyday conversation. My Dad had passed away, we were praying to the God of our ancestors in the house I grew up in at the seam in time when the last link to the neighborhood was about to be packed up and sold off, when soon I would become a man without father and mother, when all of these events enveloped us in a dome of intimacy and truth-telling that trusted truth enough to speak it fearlessly in ways we would ordinarily not, especially to former exiles to Boys Republic whom we had not seen in twenty years. He appeared in that time and place in my life where we stood safely under the dome of truth, willing to speak unedited reality to each other without fear. Not only did I not regret bringing the subject up, I pushed ahead.

“I was sitting on the porch of this house the day you came back from Boys Republic, Ruby. You sat on the porch with me. You were coming home but you didn’t want to come home.”
“I remember now,” Ruby said quietly.
“I died there,” Ruby said.
“At the Republic, I died there. Something in me died there,” he said, “and it saved my life. I hated it and it scared the hell out of me and I fought it as long as I could, but I kind of died into something there,” Ruby said. “I got my life taken away from me and it was the best thing that ever happened. Sometimes you have to go to the edge to find your peace. That’s what happened to me at the Republic. It saved my life.”
If I had any doubts before, there were no doubts now. There we were, after praying in my parent’s house, the last time any of us would spend there, standing under the dome of truth speaking the most honest words we knew to each other.

I wrote this story at a seam, the new year Rosh Hashana, a seam for us, a yellow stick – em on the loop of our lives, a tag that reads 57** years since the creation of the world as we reckon time, because Ruby’s story is the Rosh Hashana story. The theme of Rosh Hashana is the story of Ruby, the acceptance of the yoke, submission, the release of this, the acquisition of that, the awakening from below and the awakening from above.
It’s about awakening, that’s the purpose of the shofar, the ram’s horn, to awaken us to living, to the beautiful truth everywhere around us and within us.
We stir, as it were, the desire in God to nurture, to protect, to heal. And every Rosh Hashana, we draw down something entirely new into the world, something that has never been here before. Sometimes you have to make room for it, you have to clear something out for something new to move in, open up and empty out, to let go and grow.

jsg, usa

On 9/11

Praying On 9/11

This new Manichaeism,
The forgotten religion of the Manichees
Who imagined the cosmic struggle
Between good and evil.

The struggle of pure good and pure evil
The notion that God has enemies.

I wonder if the geographers
Of the vacant center
Could have imagined
What we have seen.

I feel adrift
In a rudderless boat
On a dangerous sea.

Then I forget that for a while
And pray for the God
The great God
The One God
The unclaimed God,

To send healing
And guidance
To the sick
And unprotected.

Join me
Direct your holiest
In the direction of
The empty geography of Ground Zero.

Let your prayers and your blessings
Overflow like a fountain.

Do you remember —
When we welcomed the seven shepherds,
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob,
Joseph, Moses, Aaron, David.
Moses took me aside
And whispered this:
Be brave, he said,
I thought I had misunderstood him
It was not a word I use often,
But this is what he said:
Be brave.

I heard it.

jsg, usa

#3 Yoel Street

Behold a Rebbe Nachman story for the days of awe.

#3 Yoel Street

In 1995, I took a sabbatical and went to Israel. I wanted to study with the Chassidim in Jerusalem, but I didn’t know how to get in with the real deal. I got involved at the New Age yeshivah, it was nourishing but not entirely satisfying for me. I wanted to go to Meah Shearim.

Meah Shearim is one of the oldest Jewish settlements outside the Old City of Jerusalem. Meah Shearim was also walled off. In the nineteenth century, it was dangerous for Jews to live outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. They came to live in Meah Shearim beginning in 1875, and for many years Meah Shearim was protected by a wall that could only be entered through a series of gates. Tradition has it that the gates numbered one hundred, and that is what the name Meah Shearim means, one hundred gates. The name also refers to a verse in Genesis 26:12, “Then Isaac sowed in that land, and received in the same year a hundredfold (in Hebrew meah shearim), and God blessed him.” There are many Chassidic yeshivot, places of learning, shtiebelach, places of prayer, and thousands of Chassidic families living behind the walls of Meah Shearim.

Meah Shearim is always teeming. The streets are narrow and pedestrians dodge the buses. There are cars parked on the streets of Meah Shearim, but people fill the streets, the sidewalks, the middle of the streets, mostly black hat Orthodox, Chassidim in long kapotehs, black coats, their wives, their children. The language of the street is Yiddish. If you follow Meah Shearim street south, towards the Old City, you will notice many Chassidim wearing knickers, long white socks, striped coats, and white knit yarmulkes. These are the Breslov Chassidim, and their yeshivah is on the southern end of Meah Shearim street, near the Russian Compound.

During the time I spent in Jerusalem, I would inquire of people who I thought would know where I could learn in Meah Shearim. There was sometimes a shiur [lesson] here, a Melaveh Malkah [Saturday night celebration of stories and songs] there, I heard that the Munkaczers chanted their mournful niggunim [songs without words] late Saturday nights, but I didn’t have anyone to go with, and I was too shy to go alone. I was preoccupied with music and other studies, so I tried to push it out of my mind. But I couldn’t push it out of my mind.

I didn’t go to Meah Shearim. Until one summer. I was alone much of that time staying in my friend’s apartment in Jerusalem. I spent much of my days practicing music and studying. The New Age yeshivah where I learned was a block away, so I made many sessions there.

They had a series of lectures at the New Age yeshivah on teachings from Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav, taught by a Breslov writer-teacher from Meah Shearim. I went to the second installment. It was wonderful listening to one of the true Breslovers from Meah Shearim give the shiur [lesson] on the Rebbe. I had always been enchanted by Rebbe Nachman the great story master.

I sat in the front row. After the session, I went up to the teacher from Meah Shearim and I said, “all my life I have wanted to study at the source, do you learn in the Breslov yeshivah?”
“Sure,” he said.
“Could I come and learn there?”
“Of course,” he said. “We learn near there every afternoon, from two to five, you are welcome to come.” He gave me the address and directions.

It wasn’t the main Breslov yeshivah but a tiny yeshivah right off of Meah Shearim street. I went the next day. I took a bus through the center of Jerusalem, it turned off down Strauss street and headed east toward East Jerusalem. I got off in front of Lichtenstein’s book store, and walked another block down the hill to a four crossing intersection known as Kikar Shabbat though it was nowhere marked that way on any sign that I could discern.

It was a center of combustion. To the left, the west, were streets of small storefronts, candy stores, baby stores, many book stores, fleishig [meat] markets, fleishig restaurants, milchig [dairy] markets, milchig restaurants, a bank on the corner, men’s hat stores, women’s hat stores, wig stores, women’s dress stores, one after another little shops. Everyone was walking fast.

Across the street from Meah Shearim was a labyrinth of more streets with many synagogues, yeshivot [houses of study], kollels [houses of advanced study], book stalls, sellers, scribes, religious objects, everywhere. I took the first side street off of Meah Shearim street, across from the walls of the Meah Shearim compound, and three doors down I passed through a gate that connected to a low lying brick wall and into #3 Yoel Street, Yeshivat Shuvah Yisrael, Return O Israel, the text that is read in the synagogue from Hosea on Shabbes Shuvah, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

I walked into a hallway with a kitchen on the left, next to the kitchen was an Israeli style bathroom with the sinks outside and the toilets in small rooms within. Everything was dirty. The hallway led to a large room in the rear which was the synagogue and where there were always individuals studying in chevrusa, in groups usually of two, chanting the texts out loud to each other.

I passed a smaller room in front which had a long wobbly table, the unstable table, and some industrial shelving where the holy books were stacked. This was the room in which we studied. The unstable table had two long benches, one on each long side of the table, and we shuttled the table up and down the length of the room with the benches with it to make the teacher comfortable. He liked to sit at the western end of the table. I arrived there early and helped to prepare the table for our teacher.

Our teacher showed up at precisely two o’clock. He unpacked his water bottle and a bag full of sophisticated recording devices which he set up on the table in front of him. He recorded all of our sessions studying the Rebbe’s texts. He wore a white shirt, a white knit kepah [yarmulkeh] and sometimes over it one of those long fur lined Russian caps. His eyes were always soft and searching. He greeted us warmly and we began to study.

There were six or seven other men around the table. No one talked much to anyone else. Everyone was dressed differently. It was an interesting looking group and I was curious to know the stories of everyone around the table, but it never came up. In a month of studying every day, except Shabbat, we barely talked to each other. We arrived at two o’clock, set the room up and put our noses into the texts and didn’t come up for air until five o’clock and everyone scattered.

We talked but always about the texts. We became quite familiar with each other, but always in the context of the sefer, the book we were studying. We knew each other’s names, we often cited each other’s comments days and weeks later, but we never exchanged a morsel of personal information.

Toward the end of my time there, my thirteen year old son Jacob asked me “where are you going today?”
“Meah Shearim.”
“Can I go with you?” I thought for a second, “sure. . .why not. I’ll tell you what, you come with me to the yeshivah, leave me there, I’ll study for the first hour and then meet you out front, and we’ll go into town.” Town meant the Midrachov, the commercial part of West Jerusalem where kids hung out.

We drove down to Meah Shearim, by this time I knew the place like it was my neighborhood, I knew just where to leave my car, where to eat, where to buy books. We parked the car and walked down to Kikar Shabbat, turned the corner and stood on Meah Shearim street, next to the Hundred Gates and the high walls and the teeming throngs of Meah Shearim and a dozen Chassidic dynasties. “This is it,” I said to Jake, “watch carefully where we are. I’ll take you to where I am studying.”

Meah Shearim street was completely torn up by street workers, you could hardly walk on it in some places, they were repaving the street and replacing much of the stone sidewalks. It was even more of a balagan [confusion] than usual but we made our way over the rocks and turmoil to Yoel Street. “Watch carefully,” I said to Jake.

I went to #3 Yoel street, through the gate, and stood there just before the open door of the yeshivah. “You know where we are? That’s Meah Shearim Street over there, this is a little side street, Yoel, #3, don’t forget. Come get me right here in one hour. Meet me here, by the gate, on the stone wall.” We sat down on the stone wall to make sure he had his bearings, I asked him twice, three times, and sent him off.

Before he left me, he turned to me and asked in a completely uncharacteristic Jake way, “is it safe here?” “Yes, it’s safe here,” I said, “but be careful.”

I walked inside the yeshivah and prepared the table for our teacher. I moved the unstable table away from the wall just the way I knew he preferred, sat down, and waited. Everybody arrived and we began.

I couldn’t concentrate on the texts that day. As I was sitting there staring into the texts, I realized that I had just sent my son off into a world with which he had no familiarity.

I stared into the text and realized that we had all just moved into an apartment on a street in Jerusalem I myself was not familiar with. I had the address and the phone number in a notebook in my pocket. I hadn’t given it to my son. What if he gets lost? How will he find us? How will I find him? What if he gets into something here? What if I can’t find him?

It’s a labyrinth out there, a maze of mystery, I myself could easily get lost any day. What if he doesn’t find his way back? I was beginning to panic, I couldn’t wait until the hour was up, and when it was, I bolted out of the room and into the street in front of #3 Yoel street.

No Jake. I looked up and down the street, I sat down on the wall next to the gate where I told him to meet me. I waited one minute, two minutes, five minutes, ten minutes, no Jake. I went to the corner of Meah Shearim street and Yoel street and looked up and down for him. By this time, the work crew had torn up the street even more and you could barely walk though that didn’t deter the Egged buses from careening down the middle of the streets in their customarily fearsome way. No Jake.

I went back to #3 Yoel, the stone wall, sat down on it, no Jake. Fifteen minutes after the hour, twenty minutes after the hour. I went back to Meah Shearim street, hopping over the upturned stones like a mine field, up and down, looking for Jake, no Jake, a half hour, I wondered where the nearest police station was and began to prepare my best Hebrew for the police.

I returned to #3 Yoel. No Jake. I stood in the courtyard and hollered as loud as I could “Ja-a-a-a-a-a-a-ke!” I turned around and there was Jake, sitting on the stone wall in front of the Shuvah Yisrael yeshivah, next to the gate just as I had instructed him, eating candy from a bag.

“Jake! Where’ve you been?”
Jake has many expressions in his eyes. Sometimes his eyes are soft and engaging, sometimes they are full of mischief, sometimes his eyes are teasing, sometimes they are deep pools, attentive, penetrating, this time they were all of these. I looked into his eyes and he stared straight back into mine, mischievous, attentive, serious, kind, soft, loving, teasing, and calm. Steady. He said, “I was here. The whole time. Where were you?”
“You weren’t here. I looked everywhere for you.”
“I was right here the whole time,” Jake said. “Sitting right here, that’s the truth.”
“You weren’t here. I looked.”
“I was right here. The whole time.”
“No,” I said.
“Yes,” he said softly, his eyes opening wider and burrowing deeper into mine.
“Jake,” I said, “I was here.”
“So was I,” Jake said, “the whole time. I was here.”
He was holding a white knit yarmulke in his hand, similar to the one my teacher wore. “Here,” he said, “it’s for you. The Breslovers wear them.”

Confused, I looked around, there was no other place like this one. “Is that what really happened?” I asked out loud, not to Jake in particular but to the stones, to the wind, to the Chassidim, to my own Chassidic progenitors, to the stories, the songs, the beautiful texts and dirty yeshivahs. To those here, and those not here. “Is that the truth?” I said, my hands stretched out in front of me, looking up into the sky.

“Yes, Dad,” said Jacob, “that’s the truth. That’s really the truth. I was right here the whole time.”


Every Saturday night, we sing a song which repeats the chorus “do not be afraid, my servant Jacob. Al tira avdi Yaakov.” What might Jacob be afraid of?

There is a story in the midrash about Jacob, who is also known as Israel, on his deathbed. All his children are surrounding him. Jacob is afraid that he had not fulfilled his responsibility as a father. He is wondering whether he gave his children the most fundamental thing, the most essential teaching. His children are looking down at him and smiling, they say, “shema Yisraeil, listen Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, God is in our hearts, Adonai echad, God alone.” Jacob’s children tell him that the most essential teaching is in their hearts, and they got it from him, their father Jacob. Don’t be afraid, they tell him. In an expression of profound gratitude and relief, Jacob/Israel says “Baruch shem kevod malchuto l’olam va-ed,” thank God.

I told the story of my son Jacob, the Breslov Chassidim, Meah Shearim, on the evening of Yom Kippur one year, and there was something missing in the telling for me. I was up the entire night, something pulling at me from without, something pulling at me from within. The next morning I realized that I had written a Rebbe Nachman story, with lost princes, exile, return, but who was the lost prince, my son? Or me.

Contractions and Concealment

Another story from the days of awe series.

On the phone with Andy

Tzimtzum: the contraction or concealment of God

“I was reading last night about the holy Ari and tzimtzum,” Andy said.

God is withdrawing. It’s a tzimtzum, for sure. I knew it, Andy said.

It’s God in conflict with Itself, Andy said. Tzimtzum — it comes from that duality, Gnosticism, that God could be in conflict with Itself. God withdraws in the sense that God is still surrounding, but there are places where God isn’t, in an inner way, like a bagel.

This was Andy’s new take on tzimtzum, Andy’s chidush [newness]. If you write about this, Andy said, make sure you mention the bagel. There’s this space where God isn’t, deep in the center, where God allows us to free-fall. We reach out, or in, or not.

Hakadosh Barukh Hu [the Holy Blessed One] is withdrawing, Andy said, but the Shekhinah [the inner Presence] is entirely accessible. But She is the subtext. The Shekhinah. She’s subtle. We have not made her overt. Except for Shabbes.

That’s what happened at shul the Shabbes after 9/11, I said, the Shekhinah, what was hidden become known, what was subtle, unloosed. Overt.

We went to the center and I think we were not afraid. We went to the center, where even if God had accomplished a tzimtzum there, a contraction, an emptiness, it was quiet, comforting strangely comforting, was it because it was the center or was it because we had all arrived there together?

Maybe that is what happened to us at shul that Shabbat, 9/11, I said, we went to the center where it was empty but quiet, and because when we sat in the center emptiness, we knew that all around us, or perhaps underneath us, in the deep story, or around us in your imagery, was God. Still. Waiting.

God waiting for us to redeem the world. I am always waiting, God speaking. I am always waiting, God says.

The Shekhinah is always entirely accessible. On Shabbat she comes out of hiding, and that is why we welcome her so eagerly.

It happens, in spite of ourselves, and no one has the power to interrupt that flow, the process. It happened to us that Shabbat, and we all sat there when the prayers were over, we sat there looking inward, and we sat there looking into the center of this disaster where God had exited, but we felt the presence everywhere around us, underneath us, enveloping us, waiting, waiting.

I am always waiting, God says.

Then Andy spoke again. Tzimtzum is a choosing to not be there. Not a choosing without conflict, it opens up the world to tremendous conflict. But something has to die for something new to be reborn. And the redemption when there is such a great destruction is dangerous and difficult. One has to ascend into the darkness in order to redeem the world, to make the Great Tikkun.

The Ari opens that up for us, Andy said.

All we have to do is to be, because God is waiting for us to redeem the world.

Andy kept speaking. The notion of Kabbalah is passive, an act of receptivity, it’s not active. It’s Kabbalah, it’s received. It’s not what I’m giving, it’s what I’m getting.

That’s what we are doing, we are engaged in the struggle for the heart of the world. There is a struggle in the world, different forces, that’s what makes the world move, Andy said. Carry on, it is precisely the separations and the differences and the necessity to enter into conflict with what opposes you that drives the world.

We are readying ourselves the best we can for the Great Tikkun [adjustment]. God too is in exile. God is waiting to be redeemed. That’s our part. Let God be God, with all the attendant struggles, and don’t you know that God is in conflict? You do know, you are feeling it now in your blood in your bones God in conflict, God turning in on Itself. That’s God in tzimtzum.

Let God be God, what about us? asked Andy.

The Rosh Hashanah prayer says Hayom Harat Olam, usually translated as “today is the birthday of the world.” Harat means both tremble and birth. Today the world trembles, today the world is born. We are the midwives, every day we are giving birth.

What are we doing? Standing here. Today. All of us. We are saying the kaddish from the center of our hurt, ground zero, where it’s empty and quiet and dark. All around us: God. In the middle, emptied out, God’s tzimtzum, God waiting somewhere, God in exile from Itself, in conflict with Itself, God waiting.

We are saying the kaddish. We didn’t choose the Kaddish [memorial prayer for the dead], the Kaddish chose us. God choosing us is stronger than we choosing God.

Remember how you taught The Kaddish, Andy said.

Remind me.

We are standing in the crucible. We are “tzvishn [between].” That’s the kaddish, the prayer we howl into the darkness that ignores the dark, it’s the belief in the power that saves and comes from the most wondrous place imaginable and unimaginable, not just peace we are praying for, but great peace, and life, for us and for everyone, and say it: amen.

Now I remember, I do remember, I said, the kaddish and how we poise ourselves between acknowledging the hurt yet praying for the coming of God’s kingdom, not death, not one mention of death, only great peace, God’s kingdom, peace everywhere all the time, and say it: AMEN.

May there be great peace, unbelievable peace, unimaginable peace, unity, wholeness, inconceivable wholeness, for us, for all the world, and say it: amen.

We are praying for peace, with every breath, every word, every song, all the silences, all the sounds, from the emptiness deep deep within, from the quiet place, from the center, all around us — God, but at ground zero — we are praying with everything we have. God is waiting for us to redeem the world, we are always waiting, patient, quiet, present.

God says, I am waiting too.

jsg, usa

Arguing With The Rabbis

I’ve prepared a series of stories with days of awe themes. I’m going to post them over the next several weeks.

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

I ran into Max at the copy store. Max, what are you doing here?

The last I heard Max 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 Max, 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 Max 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, Max said.

Max, 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 1859. Max laughed and his eyes lightened.

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? For sure, said Max, I am the Kotzker’s son. How remains hidden, but I am the Kotzker’s son.

I have to go visit Barbara now Max. She went into the hospital and we’re not sure she is going to come out, but she is the Kotzker if anyone is, you remind me I have to go see her now.

When I saw Barbara I reminded her that she was the Kotzker and she agreed. I saw some things, Barbara said. There is a man with a round head who only appears when, you know, you are going to get out of here. He is hidden in Intensive Care somewhere, and I saw him. The nurse said you only see him when you are going to make it. I saw him. He told me to be real quiet and let God give me what I need. 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.

That’s good.

It works for me.

For me too.

It’s the spark that was missing.

What spark.

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.

In my dream, the peace was a necessary consequence of the blessing. 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. It was the new year, Rosh Hashanah, and when I said the blessing, something entirely new, an unimagined peace, was drawn into the world.

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 that kind of peace.

I told Dina about my dream. You can’t find the words? she asked. You’ve got to find them 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 lost 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 way.

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.

jsg, usa

Mencachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787 –1859) was a legendary Chassidic leader of Russia and Poland whose teachings stressed the emes/the truth. He is called the Kotzker.

Rav and Shmuel were two famous rabbis, founders of the Babylonian Talmud, of the second and third centuries CE, who were leaders of great study centers in Babylonia.

In Italy, the Sun and the Moon

Italy, the Sun and the Moon

The Sun

On the first drive into Umbria, the sun was setting. We saw fields of sunflowers, large squares of bright yellow from a distance, sunflowers turning their heads towards the sun.

From the window of the place where we stayed, we overlooked a valley and the sunflowers down below were often a subject of conversation.

The artist next door explained to us that the sunflowers were a replacement crop, planted where once there were tobacco fields. There were not nearly as many tobacco fields as there once had been in this area; as in the United States, there was some government subsidy to the tobacco field farmer, support for a crop that is not as profitable as it once had been.

The artist explained to us, “the sunflower now is proud and tall, but you will see, before you leave, their heads begin to droop. They look so sad before they are harvested.”

The name for sunflower in Italian is girasole, which is not sunflower, as in English, but the flower that spins with the sun. The sunflower spins for the sun, acres of them. It seeks the sun, spins around to face it, proud and defiant in the early cycle of its growth, but we saw it, not long before we left, the sunflowers dropping over with the weight of their own fullness, fields of them uniform in their sadness. Like the face that appears in a cloud or in the swirl of oil in water, like a chair seen from a distance on the lawn of a house in the moonlight, it was unavoidable interpreting the sunflowers.

There was surely something sad in the flowers drooping in the yellows, facing east in their unmoving expectation of renewal. But by the time we left, the sunflowers had humbled themselves into a new posture, the anthropomorphic sadness was unavoidable, but they could have been read as patient, prayerful even. They were about to be harvested. For all their growing throughout the long days of the summer, this their goal: to give up their seeds, arc towards the ground as the summer days shortened and loaded them up with seeds. They drooped with the weight of their crop, their purpose to produce seeds, the heft of the seeds drawing them down towards the ground. To be bowed with their own fecundity — how is that sad? Still it looked sad, maybe this the harder idea: not sad looks sad, to be stuck with appearances this way playing the heart when the head knows better.

The Moon

One night we watched the sun set from the balcony of the artist, where he often sat at the end of day, with friends and supper. After the sunset, he jumped up and led us to a small park on the upper reaches of the town to watch the moon rise.

“Oh wait,” he said, after he had locked his door,” he rushed back inside and brought out a large pair of binoculars that he strung around his neck. “My parents asked me what I would like as a gift, so I dragged them to Perugia and found the biggest pair of binoculars I could find,” he said chuckling.

We looked at the moon from the edge of the little park, then we walked down into the piazza for a late cappuccino, glass of wine, gelato for the kids.

To everyone he greeted, I heard the artist chattering in Italian about “la luna” and motioning to his binoculars. It was an event that night, la luna, we went to watch it the next night but it was cloudy, or we missed it, or we went to the wrong place.

The next night was the full moon, and I snuck up to the park at the top of the village for a late night sighting. Someone was there before me, standing next to the stone ledge that runs around the park on the top of the walled town, eleventh century, the best spot in town for moon viewing. I watched from behind, the person at the edge silhouetted against the moon, so large and full and present, myself in the shadows at the other end of the park, we both silently watching, perfectly still, then the person standing at the edge reached out, grabbed the moon, and rolled it across the universe.

On a Mountain

We settled for three weeks on the top of a mountain in Umbria, in a city built in the eleventh century surrounded by a wall. There was stone and brick walkways that all led down to the piazza in the center, where there were several bars and chairs and tables to sit in the evening.

There was a film festival when we first arrived. The directors of the films were often invited and occasionally they showed up. They were given keys to the city, they ate in the nice restaurant with the Sardinian chef, they took their picture there and left it with their autograph at the desk.

Last year, someone received the key to the city and cried. His picture was also displayed at the Sardinian restaurant.

When we arrived, the film festival was in full swing. The films were shown on a giant white screen that had been set up in the piazza. I watched a beautiful Italian film one night. I figured that I would understand the action of the film. The director was there and his style was tight shots of beautiful faces. I watched the entire film and realized that all I understood was that it was about two brothers. That’s all I knew. Maybe it was about two brothers, I wasn’t sure.

Another night, they showed the film East is East which appeared in my home town not long before we arrived in Umbria. It was also a wonderful film, and the director appeared. He received the key to the city. The film was dubbed in Italian, but they also showed two of his shorter films, which showed a great sense of humor and a tender sympathy for the point of view of children.

My friend who travels often to Italy sent me a small Italian cellular phone. I sent the phone number to Ellis, another pal from home. I rarely speak to Ellis when I am home, but when I travel, he calls me almost everyday.

Ellis called and I popped my head out the window of the mountain fortress where we were staying, I looked up at the moon and sent a clear message to the satellite overhead. The sound of our voices shot to the stars above, and surely someone on the other side of the valley was watching me, hung out the window, dangling in the moonlight out the wall of this protected town under the canopy of stars, one of which is the satellite that bounced my voice off its metal and sent it back to Ellis, half way around the world, in an instant.


My wife encouraged me to have a reading of the story, part of which is this story minus the epilogue. I wasn’t ready but I read the story anyway, to my wife, my daughters, and the artist who lived next door and had come to visit.

In the reading, I realized that the story had ended too soon.

I didn’t know you wrote stories, the artist said. I didn’t realize you were so observant.

I was embarrassed, so much of the story was about him, but I realized in the reading that it was about art, I suppose, the making of it, thinking it, performing it, living it. There was more of that in Italy than where I come from.

One day we sat looking at the mountains where walked the saints and mystics of Assisi, San Francesco and his comrades. We sat with new friends in a grove of olive trees from which fine olive oil is made. The mistress of the olive grove pointed up toward the ridge of the mountains, where Francesco walked, and said, “sometimes I sit here and I imagine I see him up there. Is that crazy?”

No, I said, and I told her the story of the Sabbath Queen and how we welcome her every Friday night. “We all stand and turn to the door and bow in the last verse. It’s a love song that sings her to her lover. Do we imagine her? Yes, that is always the point.”

“What is it about San Francesco. . .” she asked.

“Nothing. What San Francesco had was nothing and it’s the very thing everybody wants. His power was the power of nothing.”

We had lunch and discussed literature and art. There was an architect, a singer, a painter, all of them knew a great deal about American writers in addition to their own artists.

My wife mentioned that I write. “Oh yes?” They all said. “What do you write?”

“Stories,” I said.

“How wonderful, what kind of stories?”

They wanted me to read one of my stories and I realized that I spend a month, sometimes a year where I come from, and no one asks, not once, for one of my stories. At home I am often shy about bringing up a passage from a story that I have written, though I think of them often.

Still, I missed my home, and I felt a little like an expatriot story writer in Italy, and though I didn’t miss the secrecy of writing stories at home, I missed the collusion with the few people I know with whom I talk nothing but stories.

To one of those people, I sent a note care of the cafe where we frequent in my home town. In the note I described a coffee house I visited in Rome, where Keats, Lizst, Shelley, Byron sat and drank coffee, not far from their famous house, a pink house, near the Spanish steps. Now the coffee house is mostly a tourist place, but I could still feel the presence there of something beautiful, and exciting, and risky.

When I visited the famous coffee house in Rome there was a man sitting by the door, with a pink tie and a pink kerchief in his pocket that was much too large for his cream jacket, posing next to another gentleman who sat at a table and painted. It may have been all that is left of the former glory of this wondrous place, but I enjoyed it anyway. I loved it. I wrote about it.

james stone goodman
umbria, italy
luglio, 20__