Thursday, June 26, 2008

Before Words

I am a cello that plays itself, creates itself, listens to itself, takes pleasure in itself.
I harmonize with myself, fight with myself, lament and exude in myself.
I have no audience except for myself.

I am the ever altering pulse of life, enjoining vitality to duet with death,
transmuting the vibrations of strings into vibrant breath.
I am the melody to which the winds of fate sway on a mundane day,
and the deep bellow of content that grounds the way.
I sound eternity into time with my every bow’s brush,
my fingers pluck the strings that separate night and day.
I resound with mystery and tremor, even when I hush.
My silence signifies the truly new, the wholly other,
the pause from which all emanates I never dare to rush.

For in the pause, existence hinges,
my freedom rosins up, since nothing is contingent.
The heavens in the hollows of my soul,
whisper to each other their predictions,
but my next move will suffer no depictions.
My past may be explained, my present analyzed,
but my future walks the bridge of noreason,
appealing to the ears, but never to the eyes.

For you see, I do have an audience, several, in fact,
who watch me as I stroke a wooden vessel of fine craft,
but they do not hear the wordless words I speak,
too busy admiring the wood and the bow, and my arms,
and thinking about their week.
They speak of my virtuosity,
write reviews encapsulating me to satiate their curiosity.
But do they hear me as they return from the theatre in their cars,
when they go to their dull work, twirling in their chairs, rearranging their desks
or when they play my CD to entertain guests?

I play for the omnipresent corners of the universe,
I bow to the applause not of laws and maxims,
but to the pastures of consciousness,
to those who inhabit their worlds,
and graze not in the details, but in the sheer magnificence—
who role in the snow, because they are snow,
or revel in another creature’s face,
because its countenance unveils that it is boundless.

I do not play the cello. I play the me.
But if I did not say I played the cello, would you understand?
Listen to my words as the soil does.
Rescue me from myself, but do not capture me.

The Last Storyteller

One can imagine a last storyteller, who in addition to no longer being able to recite the prayers or light the fires, or travel to the woods, can no longer tell the story and can no longer even speak. From the depths of his soul, this storyteller issues forth a still small voice, the tekiah gedolah of his unbeknownst and unclouded Godliness, a blast not even loud enough to wake the birds, but a blast whose vibrations are just strong enough to disturb the slumbers of the heavenly hosts.

The Magic Trick

It was one of the angels’ birthdays. He was turning five, an age when everything seems incredible. God said to him, “Do you want to see a magic trick?” The angel eagerly replied that he did. God said, “Look.” The angel looked and saw that a world existed, but the sight was not as pleasing to him as it was when God pulled animals out of his hat. The magic trick was too intricate for the angel to appreciate. The angel told God that creating a world wasn’t magic; it was creating in a world that was the difficult part, making something out of something, not making something out of nothing. So God banished the angel to the world that he had created in order that the angel might come to recognize the awesomeness of his power. Instead, however, the angel found the real magic to come in manipulating God’s power. He had no cares for the creation of fruit trees, but God knows he loved to pluck from them. The angel sought to show that more divinity lies in rearranging things than in forming them. Although God banished the angel, he found truth in the claim of the devil’s advocate, and so he said to himself, “I will withdraw now, that way the world will be left to morph into magical things.” And so God put the world in one of his filing cabinets, where he stored all of his magic-tricks-in-progress, tagging a reminder note on the front telling himself to open it and check on the world in a certain amount of days. (Different versions of the story give different lengths of time. This storyteller believes that God wrote “Tomorrow,” and that every time he saw the note he understood it to mean the next day).

By now the angel is an old man, breathing out the last of his breaths. But he is not sad to go, for death is his magic trick. God said, “Now you see me,” but the angel says, “Now you don’t,” and vanishes.

The last part of the magic trick, the reappearance, or as some call it, the prestige, is of course, God’s rebuttal to the angel. And every now and then God is allowed such victories, as when he opened the filing cabinet that was housing his world and brought down plagues and commanded the Sea of Reads to part, and brought down manna and commanded the Hebrews to part with their gods. Who knows what will happen when he opens the filing cabinet again? Some say that the last time God opened it, he forgot to close it all the way, and so while we can’t see much of God’s office, we can hear him practicing for his next big trick. “What precisely can we hear,” you ask? A long blast of a ram’s horn, it sounds like from over here. Perhaps the sound’s vibrations will shake the cabinets, spilling forth our world. Perhaps that is the trick. We are not the spectators of the magic trick, after all. We are the trick itself. But the real trick, if you ask me, is that we are both. And for that, we have both God and the angel to thank.

Circumcision: Engraving Ourselves in the Divine Image

In Lurianic Kabbalah, the idea of tzimtzum ties cosmogony to theodicy. In Lurianic Kabbalah, the creation of the world begins, not with the contraction of God into the world, as earlier Jewish mystical traditions had posited, but with the retraction of God from the world. The retreat of the infinite to make way for the finite explains why there is something and not nothing and why the something that is the world is filled not simply with good but also with evil. Developed against the traumatic historical backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition, the exile of the Jewish people could be explained by the aboriginal exile of God. The Jews, far from being punished by God for any sin, were simply playing out the heavenly struggle, in which God sought to reunite with himself. For Lurianic Kabbalah, the exile of the Jewish people is, despite its violent reality, also a metaphor for the cosmic exile. The house of Israel is not only cut off from itself, and God severed from his beloved people, but God is alienated from himself. It is humanity’s task to repair the world, to piece together the shattered sparks of divinity and elevate them to their splendorous source. But humanity can only begin to exhume the dry bones of divinity, to resurrect the dead deity who was once Master of the Universe when it accepts the world’s imperfections and the imperfections of its Creator as real, yet alterable.

If God is cut off from himself, this provides new insight into circumcision as a kind of immitatio Dei. Just as Jews crush a wedding glass to remind themselves of the destruction of the Temple and the Jewish exile, even, and especially in times of great joy, Jews circumcise their baby boys as a way of celebrating life while remaining cognizant of its imperfections. According to some of the Sabbateans, when the Messiah comes, circumcision will be abolished. On this view, Jews circumcise as a reminder that the Messiah has not yet come. And if the discrepancy between Judaism and Christianity is precisely over whether the Messiah has come, it is quite fitting that Christianity broke with Judaism precisely by freeing its pagan converts from the “old covenant” and the commandment of circumcision. The early Church often cited the injunction to “circumcise thine heart” (Deut. 30:6) as proof that circumcision was not a physical act, but rather a spiritual one (see also Rom. 2:29). For Christianity, the circumcision of Christ from God in the form of the Crucifixion, in which Christ called out, “Oh Lord, why hast Thou forsaken me?” is meant to cleanse Christ’s followers of sin and relieve them of the “Old Testament” laws, of the “old covenant,” and thus, of circumcision. Ironically, however, it was Christianity that posited original sin, while Judaism, posited original purity. That the circumcision is carried out on the eighth day and not the first, testifies to the Jewish notion that we are not fated to imperfection and that redemption can occur in the world and not just in the soul. In the context of Nazi Germany, in which Jews could be discovered if by nothing else than by their circumcisions, the mark of imperfection takes on additional meaning. In this way, the circumcision is the Jewish symbol of iconoclasm, of the refusal to worship graven images. It is the mark of the stiff necked people’s refusal to bow to the Hamans and Nebuchadneczars of the world.

The Red Heifer

I am the red heifer of whom so much and so little is said. Most people do not realize that though I am called the red heifer, I am not in the slightest bit red. But that is the least of their misunderstandings. For they believe me to be some kind of feat, a rarity, a miracle, whose existence promises redemption and whose sacrifice fulfills it. They believe my blood possesses purifying powers, and that somehow my body holds the power to undo the smirch of death and reinstate a Holy of Holies in which the Divine Presence can dwell. But I tell you that even if I were red, no such powers would I have.

You must be thinking that if I am not red, I am not the red heifer and there must be another one somewhere. But this is not so. It's just that when your ancestors saw me long ago, I blushed, for they caught me singing to myself. And when I blush, I blush in my soul, which reddens my whole body. Your ancestors caught me singing a song, which I had composed, “yibaneh hamikdash” (He will build the Temple). And when they caught me, I was standing on my hind legs and pointing to the heavens with my front legs. They were impressed by this and believed that I had mystical powers as a result, especially since I was giving praise to their God. But they were wrong to think that I was singing about their silly temple; I would no sooner sing about the pyramids of Egypt. For “Hamikdash” simply means the holiness, it does not mean the “Beit Hamikdash,” the house of holiness. I was saying, “He will build the holiness,” meaning that the Almighty One will build the holiness in himself, in his heart. Would you say that the heart of God is made of physical gold and jewels and dolphin skins? Have you not learned from the tale of Mitus, about how the king whose touch is gold brings misery and stagnation upon his house? The red heifer who is red is a red herring, but the red heifer who is a heifer is not.

The Messiah

The Messiah had finally summoned the courage to redeem the world, and was on his way to bring about the end of days. But as he ran with great speed through the long corridor connecting heaven and earth, he thought to himself, at this pace, I will arrive on earth depleted of all energy and smelling of toil. Surely, this is no way for the Messiah to greet his world, for would a man arrive at his own wedding in tattered clothes? But I dare not walk, for the world needs me. Therefore, I will run to the world of thisness, but camp just outside of it, so that I may cleanse myself before my arrival. For who knows if showing up as I am now, people will not just mistake me for a mad and errant knight. Thus, the Messiah arrived on the outskirts separating the world of thisness from the world to come, and set up tent there near a large lake. In the morning he arose, said his morning prayers, and entered into the lake, intending to purify himself. But so refreshing were the waters, so cleansing were they, and so engulfing, that when the Messiah returned to his tent, he had forgotten where he was and what he was doing there.

By now, his tent and his clothes have withered into nothingness, and all that remains is his eternal nakedness. If only he could find his old, dirty clothes and put them on again, he would remember his task and be here in no time.

The King and His Scepter

Once there was a kingdom that had everything one would expect a great kingdom to have—soldiers, artisans, farmers, merchants, poets, philosophers, doctors, and priests. The kingdom was large and its land flowed with milk and honey. It had no walls, because it had no enemies to fear. But the kingdom lacked its namesake; it lacked a king. Of course, this had not always been the case. There had once been a king who had made the kingdom great. But he had vanished long ago. Nobody could even remember a time when they had seen him.

Despite the king’s mysterious disappearance, however, the kingdom managed to retain itself, to preserve order and law. For the king, though he had disappeared, was careful enough to have left behind a will instructing the inhabitants of his kingdom how to behave until his return. In his will, the king commanded his people not to take any king in his stead, but to be patient and to wait for his return. The king wrote in his will that he was embarking on a journey to find the most incredible scepter in the world, one that he had only imagined, but one that he was positive existed. The king explained that though he loved his people very much, he had to search for the scepter. In fact, it was because he loved his people that he sought the scepter. For the king believed that the scepter possessed special healing powers that would not just improve his kingdom, but would perfect it. He believed that the scepter could give sight to the blind, cure the ailing, raise the downtrodden, beautify the ugly, repair the crippled, and awaken the dead, and that anyone who held it could communicate with the animals and the trees of the earth as well as see into the secret motivations of men.

The king explained in his note, that although he already possessed a scepter made of the greatest gold and jewels, the scepter he sought was invisible. This was why he was disappearing. He thought that if he too became invisible that he would enter into the invisible realm in which he would be able to see the things that are often present, but always unapparent to the visible eye. The king explained that he was not leaving his kingdom, but only his kingdom as it appeared. He was not journeying into far away lands, but was simply traveling deeper into his own land.

Though the people continued to live in peace and were generally well provided for, they missed their king, without whom they felt uncomfortably ungrounded and unbearably at risk to the slightest changes. The people lived in fear not of an enemy army, but of a slight gust of wind, sweeping up their kingdom like a feather. Without their king, the people felt as if they were living in a kind of fairyland that was not real, but simply a story made up by a storyteller to communicate a point or a moral to his eager listeners. The people could not bear the loss of their king. But more than that, they could not bear the uncertainty of their loss. For if the people believed their king to be dead or long gone, never to return, they might consider moving on with their lives, and seeking a new king. But the king’s note bore on them as a torn garment of a kidnapped girl might bear on her parents. They simply could not give up hoping that their king would return.

They didn’t even think to hope that he would return with the magic scepter. For the people believed that even if the scepter existed in an invisible realm, it may as well not exist, since, its powers could only be garnered by touching it, yet as it was invisible, it was also untouchable. But more than this, the people hated the scepter, which they blamed for the king’s disappearance. The scepter was, to them, a delusion, a myth, that had seduced the king away from his kingdom and was keeping him hostage. Many of the people believed that the king had found the scepter, but that he didn’t want to give it up by returning to the visible world.

Seconds turned to minutes, minutes to hours, hours to days, days to weeks, weeks to years, years to decades, decades to centuries, and centuries to millennia, and yet the king’s people waited. Over the course of their waiting, their customs had changed some and their interpretations of the king’s disappearance had expanded and become more complex and creative, and conflicting. Some people thought that the king’s message had to be decoded; others believed that the king meant exactly what he said. Some believed that the note was a forgery and that the king didn’t even speak the language the note was written in. Others saw the note as something whose truth couldn’t be explained but whose power came from chanting it over and over again. Many people lived their lives according to their interpretations; many lived antithetically to their interpretations. But all conceded the importance of the king’s note to some degree or another.

One day, while the farmers were harvesting in the fields, the priests were preparing an afternoon sacrifice, and the poets were scribbling verses in the mud by the river banks, the earth began to quake and crumble. The earthquake was so powerful that everybody lost consciousness for a second and the entire kingdom was swallowed by the earth. When the people regained consciousness, tossed up onto mountains which had once been below ground, they could see a scepter of dust and clay emanating from a smoky fissure that was running through what had once been their king’s throne. The scepter levitated into the air and opened its mouth as if to speak. But words did not come out. Only a moan, the kind a woman makes when bringing life into the world. The people, too, out of some kind of impulse began to moan, and the earth, too, as if somehow their efforts might enable the scepter to divulge whatever tremendous thing lay inside of it. After much moaning, moaning which sounded both like the kingly muscle-flexing of a roaring lion and the humbled lamenting of a creature who has lost everything, the scepter, exhausted, fell to the ground. Out of its mouth poured the long lost king, naked and emasculated, but smiling and luminescent.

The king, holding the neck of his original golden scepter, stooped down to pick up the earthen scepter out of which he had just spilled forth. The king then planted each scepter beside him upright into the ground until each had turned into a tree. He then proceeded to build up his kingdom, entailing the help of all. Instead of building his kingdom in the shape of a circle as it had stood before, the king designed his kingdom in the shape of an ellipse with the two scepters turned trees as the foci. Pleased and exhausted with all that he had done, the king fell asleep…

Of Hashem

After the Destruction of the Temple, God was depressed. He refused to get out of bed and rule the world. His angels, who loved him dearly, tried to cheer him up by praising him, but God would not listen. They tried to pull him out of bed, but even when they succeeded, God simply stared out into space, his face as dull as the void out of which he had once formed the universe. As God refused to preside over his universe, the papers on his desk began to pile up, petitions from the righteous for spiritual guidance, pleas from women to open up their wombs, reports on the latest blasphemies being uttered and evil acts being invented. And the lineup of souls in front of the heavenly gates began to get so long, that those at the end of the line were closer to earth than the celestial abode to which they sought admittance. The gates had been closed ever since God’s fit of depression, for the angels reasoned that if the believers were to see their God in such condition, they would rather God and heaven not exist at all. For more central to their faith in God than the positive beliefs that he is all powerful, all good and all knowing, is the simple and low-standard assumption that he is not all sorrowful. Thus, even though God regretted having caused the flood and destroying his world, he was nonetheless pleased by the fragrant odors of Noah’s sacrifice. Now, however, there was nothing pleasing to God, not even his tears.

As the lines outside of heaven grew, people began to wonder what was going on inside, but the righteous ones had patience, saying that God was omnipresent and that one’s reward was in God, not heaven and that the line to heaven is a sweeter reward than heaven itself. But a young child, who had been listening to all of the theological disputes and speculations, a child who had died of starvation on the day that would have been his Bar Mitzvah, did not understand what his elders were saying, since he was not well versed in the Scriptures to which they made reference. And so he ran off to make his own investigation of the matter, dashing straight off to the gates themselves. (He had been so far back in the line that he hadn’t even been able to see the gates). As he cut the long line, nobody noticed him, or if they did, they simply mistook him for an angel, so small and fragile and pure did he seem. When he arrived at heaven’s gates, two cherubim stood outside, guarding them with flaming swords. But the child was so emaciated that he slipped through the bars in the gates and they did not detect anything. Inside of heaven, the boy looked around, but he could observe nothing, only a long dirt road along which abandoned houses stood. There was no evidence that he was in heaven, for he saw no angels, no God, no commotion, no evidence of life. But he followed the one road to see where it would lead him. No sooner had he taken his first step on the road than he found himself at the road’s end, walking up a gold and purple carpet to the chambers of the Holy One. Running into the chambers now, the child made his way towards God’s private room on whose door it was engraved, “The Dwelling Place of the Lord: Do Not Enter.” The child burst through the doors without knocking, and as he entered, saw only God’s back. God was facing the other direction, staring towards his desk, out of the window and neither saw nor heard the child, so consumed in himself was he. The child unhesitatingly jumped onto the bed and threw his arms around the back of God’s neck, as a child who shows gratitude to his father for setting the stars in the sky and the grains of sand in the desert, with the kind of unsullied pride that children often have in their parents. The child’s weight on the back of God’s shoulders brought back memories for God, which brought back thoughts, which brought back joy. And in that moment the gates of heaven swung open and God turned around to face the source of his return to Godliness. Because the child was already dead, the light of God’s visage did not cause the child to die. Though, in a sense it did. For in the moment that God’s stare penetrated and illumined the boy’s being, the boy was brought back to life and returned to this world. The boy found himself on the bima reading from the Torah scroll for his Bar Mitzvah, in full health, chanting from his Torah portion. But the words that he chanted were unfamiliar to his congregation. It was as if he was chanting every word of the Torah in one. For from his rich lungs issued forth the unpronounceable name. But at this point the storyteller could record no more.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

On Spilling Seed

From where do we know that one is prohibited from spilling one’s seed?

An angel of the Blessed One told the following:

Yah sat in his bedchamber, in ecstasy, waiting for his beloved, Vah. She was to come to him within the hour. They had plans to consummate a great creation. But Yah’s desires ran wild and he could not contain his overflowing creative energy, which was arousing in itself. By the time Vah had arrived, our world had already been created. Yah’s seed had already sprouted into the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Had he waited there would have simply been the tree of life and Yah and Vah would have produced a world far greater than the both of them combined. Yah commanded us not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for if we did, we would know of his sin and would partake of it. But we did not listen, for the spilled seed can never be returned to its source.

On Moses

Moses stood on a mountain overlooking the Promised Land and sobbed. But his tears, contrary to popular opinion, did not signify a sadness at his inability to enter the land, to realize his full potentiality as a leader, to defy mortality, or to defy even the patriarchs. Rather, Moses cried, because he couldn't even see the Promised Land. Though he stood on the tallest mountain not more than half a mile away, Moses’ sight had been fading ever since he stood in the light of God at Mount Sinai. By now, he was almost blind. It was bad enough that he couldn't speak, except with a stutter, but now the old man had, by no choice of his own, lost his ability to see the world as it appeared. Trapped in insight, seeing only what the Lord himself sees, Moses could distinguish little. When he peered out of his eyes, he saw himself peering out of his eyes. And when he cried, he could see the tears only before they dripped down his face, when they were nesting in the backs of his eye-sockets.

Poor Moses! If only he had known that receiving revelation would have cost him his vision— would have supplanted his world of details and differences with a spirited blur of holiness, would have exhumed the parts of his existence that he wished to remain invisible and covered over the physical world that his eyes used to feast on in a blanket of mystical darkness— he never would have hiked up that mountain for forty days, but would have remained at the foot of it along with everyone else. But alas for Moses, the man who accepted the commandments with blind obedience!

Now Moses is buried somewhere, God knows where, on a mountain as lacking in a name as the Holy One Himself. And why does nobody know where the great leader saw his last sights? Surely, it is because Moses himself died not knowing. Who knows if Moses even died? Perhaps he never died, but simply stopped seeing, a fate far worse, and wanders to this day, blind, amongst the mountains, seeking not to enter into the land of milk and honey but simply to glimpse it, to see it as a land distinct from Egypt, from the desert, from the wilderness, from the soul.