Profound and Stupid: More Raza de-Purim, the Secret of Purim
The story had become profound and stupid. Profound and stupid, I changed the title of this part of the story as soon as I wrote it: Profound and Stupid, a continuation of the Raza de-Purim, the secret of Purim.
At the end of the fast of Esther that year, I had made the two hour trip to the prison house where I had been assured [e-mail] that the auxiliary chaplain would meet me at the gate since I had visited there only one time previously and did not know the set-up. I wasn’t entirely sure I was approved to visit this particular prison, though I had e-mailed also the head chaplain in the capital who referred me on to the individual chaplain. I am trying to be diligent but sometimes I feel like I am visiting the Bastille –I should just sneak in and out.
I made the trip anyway. When I arrived at the prison, I parked illegally and much closer than I did the first time I visited, having been advised that first time by the heavily tattooed guard who buzzed me in and out. The staff at this prison house was extremely kind to me the first time I visited, there was a chaplain to meet me and he escorted me to the chapel, and the inmates themselves escorted me out and I had the sense they were protecting me (a new feeling but not unpleasant).
This time there was no one to welcome me. The guard who buzzed me in didn’t recognize the name of the auxiliary chaplain. “There is no auxiliary chaplain,” she said definitively. She buzzed me through anyway. “Go upstairs and get your squawk box [personal alarm gizmo] and some keys. You’re on your own today.”
The prison is built like a camp out of depression era limestone that was mined from the area during the WPA, I believe. It has an interesting look from the outside, the textures of the wild limestone set within the formal patterning of brick, it is quite beautiful; within a series of buildings surrounding a large open perpendicular space which is referred to as the yard.
I walked up the stairs once through the gate to a window with bars and an opening on the bottom to push through the supplies from the room behind. In that room are alarms and radios and large circles of keys that open, I assumed, the various classic locks that kept muscular control over this depression era structure.
All I had was an ID which I had gotten from the State, convincing them through two TB tests and a conversation with a retiring prison guard [orientation] that I was qualified to visit four prisons that had Jewish inmates who were eager to welcome me to their institutions.
I stuck my head into the opening of the window with the bars and the sets of keys and squawk boxes, radios, etc. and said to the uniformed guard, “I’m going to the chapel.” That’s all I knew, I’m not sure I remembered exactly where the chapel was but I did recall it was at the far end of the yard because I remembered that the accompanied stroll back to the metal doors last visit was a long walk.
“You want keys?” the guard asked me. “Ok,” I said. I had no idea what to do with them, but they are keys, I thought quickly, and I’ll just figure out how to open the doors that do not open for me.
“You got tags?” he asked.
“No.” I think tags were small metal cut-outs that you leave in the barred room in exchange for keys and radios and such.
“Go make a copy of your ID.”
I went walking down the hall until I saw a copy machine in an office and I walked in and without asking and made a copy of my ID card.
I returned and passed the copy of my ID card to the uniformed guard behind the bars and I saw him hang it on a hook and he passed through the hole in the bars a whole ring of keys, at least forty keys, and a squawk box.
“Thanks.” I walked away with the keys to the whole place having no idea what to do with them, which door opened with which key, etc., only knowing that the inmates are not allowed to touch the keys. I was on my own.
I made a few wrong turns and couldn’t find the yard for a frantic moment or two; I was overwhelmed by holding the keys and became disoriented. I went to the window and there was the yard below me.
I exited out to the yard through one of the doors that move electronically and slowly and opened by showing my ID to a camera. I was alone in the yard. I tried to stuff the keys in one pocket of my jacket and the squawk box in the other but there were too many keys for a pocket.
I strode to the rear of the yard and walked into an open door where a group of men where taking off or putting on their clothes, I think it was a gym.
“Are you looking for the chapel?” How they knew this, I don’t know but I did not look like an inmate, they have uniforms and generally wear bright orange knit hats.
A guy took me outside the locker room and pointed me to the building next door.
It was locked up tight but I had the keys. I started going through them one after another, and it wasn’t too difficult to figure as this was a large door and I began with the largest keys. I opened it.
Inside I found a light. Every single room was locked inside. I found the room I was in the last time, a larger room with some tables and a chalkboard, some instruments and a little stage, obviously a place where several groups share prayer and study privileges. I found the key to that room too. Now I was inside and I was alone.
I had learned at another institution I visited that if I opened the door, people tended to wander in. I made sure the outer door was open and within a few minutes an inmate came in and sat next to me, staring straight ahead at the altar-platform in front of us. This was clearly a room used for prayer rituals.
“Mario,” he said by way of introduction.
“James,” I said.
He asked me who I was and I told him.
He told me how he had discovered the Hebrew Bible in a cell when he was first incarcerated. He told me he read it through, cover to cover.
I asked him if he remembered the story of Esther and he remembered everything. I told him that today was the Fast of Esther and I told him a story of someone whose name he might recognize and her holy fast and a story no one knows about how she broke that fast. A contemporary story.
I told him that God’s name is not mentioned in the book of Esther which is curious and crazy and I made the interpretation that it’s a sure sign that God is everywhere in the story, so full in the events and the personalities and the choices that we are at the level of all-over-God, God everywhere, in everything.
“I’m with you,” he said.
He knew what a Rabbi was and he then told me his whole story, from the age of sixteen to the present, which I imagine was about fifteen years. It was a tender story, clear and full of details, well parsed for meaning and a good sense of where it would go when he left this institution. He wanted to return to the small town he came from and he planned to go to College and I believed him.
Another guy came in and he greeted me in a rather formal, well rehearsed way. “I won’t ask how you are doing – for that is a question and I may not know you well enough to ask you a question. I will not inquire what’s new as that is empty and meaningless and meant only to break ice and engage in small talk. I will simply bless you in the way of my tradition. . .” and he switched to Arabic and quoted some of the holy Koran, which I was familiar with. I know some Arabic blessings and introductions, so I responded in kind. His name I will call him Elyasha.
He didn’t seem to know Mario so I introduced them. One of the Jewish inmates saw the door open from across the yard and he came, he didn’t know Mario either or Elyasha though he had seen them around. I introduced them.
We began to engage in a little circle of dialogue. Elyasha left soon, and returned after five minutes with a few other guys. “You’re the rabbi!” he said, “I should have known!” He must have asked around outside the chapel who is the guy with the not-orange hat in the chapel sitting around waiting for people to arrive.
There were two other individuals affiliated with the Jewish group who were present the first time I was there but absent this time. I asked about them.
“Sent away,” one of the Jewish guys, Jacob, told me.
“What do you mean?”
“Too much trouble, they sent them to a smaller camp.” I felt somewhat responsible since it was in part their letters to me that brought me to that camp in the first place.
“They started asking for too much.”
Now there wasn’t enough of them left in this camp to meet on the Sabbath. The prison rule in our state is that a religious group and its rights are defined by five members. In prison a minyan is five, and since the two had been sent away they only had three by my count.
“The Muslim brothers will join your group,” Elyasha said, “we’ll be here every Saturday and we’ll show you how to go about getting what you want.” Elyasha knew a lot it seemed about working the prison system. “The Muslim brothers and the Jewish brothers will make the prayers together,” Elyasha said, “you’ll have a group this Saturday and every Saturday.”
It was getting close to the time that I was supposed to leave. I asked the Jewish brothers and the Muslim brothers which way was east. Elyasha showed me the corner where the Muslim brothers faced east and made their prayers.
“Come with me,” I said, “quick,” because there were some other people starting to come into the room looking as if they were the next group.
We went into the corner facing east and I opened up my hands and sung out pretty and slow the holy blessing from the Priests in the book of Numbers:
Ye-va-re-che-cha Adonai ve-yish-me-re-cha.
May God bless you and protect you.
Ya-eir Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha vi-chu-ne-ka.
May God’s face shine for you and be gracious for you.
Yi-sa Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha ve-ya-seim le-cha sha-lom.
May God’s face always be lifted to you and give you peace.
As I was singing, I explained there is no partial, no individual, no incomplete – every single instance opens up onto the universal, and every partial resolves in the whole — everywhere God dwells is whole, quoting the Zohar.
I said something about salaam, shalom, or shleimut, wholeness, integration. To bless is to dip below and reach above, the root below and the root above, the b’reikhah the pool of blessings, the wild chute that whisks you into the root above, to the All, shleimut, to be blessed with a sense of everything, to live in a larger space than the separate self, the isolated, the un-integrated, the broken, the incomplete.
By this time the Christian brothers were coming in, they were the next group — a program called IFI I think — the room was filling up behind and some of them were watching us.
Their leader came over to me and said, “what is that you are singing?”
I told him basically the same things I told the Jewish and the Muslim brothers. He was holding my picture on my ID card that I had copied to get the keys.
“You’re the rabbi,” he said, “you’re supposed to give me the keys.”
So I gave the Christian brother the ring of keys, he seemed to know what he was doing, and I asked him for my picture just in case they questioned me on the way out.
The Jewish brothers and the Muslim brothers escorted me through the yard, on the way Elyasha scribbled something on a piece of paper, we were talking animatedly until I realized I was alone. There is a certain line they cannot pass in the prison yard and they were standing quietly on the other side until I turned around mid-thought and realized where they were.
I thanked them and hugged them all, told them I would be back in two weeks. “We’ll be here,” said the Muslim brothers, “all of us.” Elyasha gave me the paper he was writing on.
This is what was written on the paper Elyasha had given me:
Brother, your presence here is engulfed with the love of forgiveness. Please do what you can for all in this community.
Is there something in this story that is not-God? I am searching for it, this continuation of the Raza de-Purim the secret of Purim, though it began for me anyway profound and stupid and I could have missed it, I could have missed the whole thing, I could have not taken those keys, I could have turned around and gone home. I could have made a complaint about the fictitious auxiliary chaplain, I could have returned the keys telling the truth to the guard that I had no idea what I was doing. I could have missed the entire drama. Instead, I showed up, watched something profound and stupid unfold into something profound.