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A Mind-Blowing Lesson

By Tzvi Fishman
11/4/2011, 12:11 PM

As we mentioned, in honor of Parshat "Lech Lecha" we posted some of Rabbi Kook's writings on Eretz Yisrael on the homepage of Why there of all places? Take a look in the Torah at the Brit between Hashem and Avraham - where was it stamped? The Covenant of the Land is intinsically tied to the holiness of our lives. This is what distinguishes us from the nations of the world. In the meantime, here's another chapter from "Heaven's Door." Shabbat shalom.   

Heaven's Door

Chapter Six- A Mind-Blowing Lesson

“You speak excellent English,” I noted with pleasant surprise.

“I was born in Jerusalem,” he said. “When hard times came upon the city, my family was compelled to move to Egypt. My father was a great Torah scholar and Kabbalist. My grandfather too. They knew all of the Torah, Mishna, Gemara, Zohar, and Jewish Law by heart. They were the pillars of the world, the humblest of the humble, possessors of Divine Inspiration. Every night after midnight, they would rise out of bed to say the special Midnight Lamentation over the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple. They would drag me out of bed, even when I was a young child, and take me with them in the middle of the night to the synagogue to pray. After my bar mitzvah, we moved back to Jerusalem. When I was twenty, I was chosen by the community to go to England to study agronomy, so that when I came back I could help the old yishuv – settlement - establish an economic base for the growing Jewish population, so we wouldn’t have to be dependent on our Turkish rulers, and on charity from abroad. That’s how I came to learn English, during my agricultural studies in London.”

“You certainly have an excellent memory,” I said.

“Yes, but if you don’t go over the things that you’ve learned, the mind forgets, so I am pleased to have the opportunity to sharpen my English with you.”

“Can I ask you some questions?” I ventured.

“By all means,” he said. “Though I don’t promise you that I will have all the answers.”

“In addition to the tremors in my hands, I’ve been worried that I may have Parkinson’s Disease. Do you know what that is?”

“Of course,” he answered. “Let me look.”

Our conversation was put on hold while he glanced off to the side in profound concentration, as if he were focusing in on a CAT scan of my brain. His eyes closed as he meditated, and the wrinkles in his forehead deepened. It wouldn’t be right to say he was attractive in the normal sense of the word. From the slight slur in his speech and his gaunt cheeks, I guessed that his upper teeth were missing. His eyes were set deeply in their sockets, giving the impression that he was far away. His eagle-like nose looked like it had been broken.  But his intimidating demeanor all changed when he smiled. His wrinkles turned into a hundred crinkles and his eyes sparkled with joy. With his little laugh, he suddenly looked like a mischievous elf, or some benevolent angel. 

“There is a little problem,” he said, as if he had received a fax with my diagnosis, “but if you remain a penitent and don’t return to the mistakes of the past, it will go away, with the grace of God.”

He glanced at me, as if to make sure that I was listening before he continued. “There is a verse in the Book of Isaiah that says, ‘Return and be healed.’ The Lord created us with healthy bodies, and gave us the rules for proper living. When we follow His teachings, we are rewarded. But if we stray from His way, then things start going bad. For instance, if a man commits sins against his body, by overeating for instance, his body will react in a negative way. If he has improper character traits, like anger or pride, his soul will be negatively affected. Since the soul is clothed in the body, its blemishes are transferred, like carbon copy images, to the physical side of man. Likewise, if a man commits sins against others, like theft or malicious gossiping, his evil will return full circle to haunt him. If he takes illicit sexual pleasures from this world, the holy life force that he squanders will leave his body depleted and susceptible to disease and other misfortunes. Do you understand?” he asked.

“I think the general principle is clear,” I answered, not certain that I had grasped the full meaning of his words.

“There is a very wise teaching of our sages that I will try to twist into English, though it depends on the Hebrew words. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi of blessed memory said, ‘Know what is above from you: an all-seeing eye, an all-hearing ear, and all of your deeds are recorded in a book.’ In Hebrew it can be read, ‘Know what is above is from you.’ We ourselves are responsible for the Heavenly decrees that fall upon us - may God have mercy on all His creation.”

“It sounds like a sophisticated computerized system. Everything a person does down here below triggers an automatic response from above.”

“Excellent. That is the general way that God conducts the world. But the system can be over-rode by penitence. When a person repents, he transforms the judgment he deserves into mercy. In effect, his repentance over the misdeeds in his past turns him into a new person, so the former sentence against him no longer applies. The illness and suffering that was sent to warn him to mend his ways is no longer needed. He has learned his lesson and changed for the better. That’s why penitence is the ultimate cure for all of man’s ills.”

“What about the problem I have with my prostate?” I bluntly asked, it being one of my biggest fears.

Once again, he turned slightly aside in thought. “Let me take a look again,” he said, as if he were putting me through some type of spiritual MIR.

“It comes from the same source,” he said. “You should know that semen is the strength of the body, its life force, and the light of the eyes. If it is emitted excessively, the body decays, a person’s powers deteriorate, and his vitality withers. King Solomon, in his great wisdom, warned that a man should not squander his strength on women.”

Frankly, I was completely taken aback. Not that I was a prude and embarrassed about the subject, but hearing this from a 120-year-old rabbi came as a shock. Once again, he looked down at the writings of Maimonides, then explained in English, as if he knew it by heart.

“The Rambam states, ‘Whoever overindulges in sexual intercourse ages prematurely, his strength is diminished, his eyes become dim, his teeth decay, and many other ailments inflict him. Medical experts have stated that for every person who dies from an assortment of ailments, a thousand die from sexual excess. Therefore, a man should exert caution in this matter if he wants to live a healthy life. He should only have relations with his wife when he is feeling good and vigorous, and when he feels a heaviness and tightness in his loins downward, as if the strings of that place are being pulled taut. A man in this situation should engage in marital relations and this will bring him health.’”  

My first reaction was to dismiss what he was saying as primitive mumbo jumbo, but I was already falling apart in my fifties, and he was 120 and still going strong. Plus I hadn’t come all the way to Israel to argue. But his explanation had caught me off guard, and I was at a complete loss for words. The truth was, I hadn’t exactly been a saint all my life, if you know what I mean.

“You enjoy sports, don’t you?” he asked. “Don’t trainers advise athletes not to engage in sexual activity before sporting events in order to preserve their strength? It’s the same idea. The Rambam simply carries it further from a medical point of view.”

Not knowing what to say, I waited for him to continue.

“Maimonides is telling us that many diseases wouldn’t develop if a man conducted his sexual life with his wife in a limited, modest fashion. Like in your case. Apparently, you have made some mistakes in this area, am I wrong?”

I nodded my head in concession. What was the point of denying things? He probably had a DVD download of my life on the satellite dish of his brain.

“Listen to what the Rambam writes: ‘Whoever conducts his life, according to the guidelines that I have set down, has my guarantee that he will not become ill all of his life till he reaches a ripe old age and dies. And he will not need a doctor, and his body will function as it should, and he will stay healthy all of his days, unless his constitution was damaged from the time of his birth, or if he became accustomed to bad habits in his childhood, or if some plague or pestilence fall upon the world.’”

“Wow,” I said, letting out a deep breath. “That’s really something.”

“It isn’t enough to hear it – you have to apply the teachings to your life. In your case, this is especially true. Your present medical concerns are not your real problems. They are merely symptoms that something is spiritually damaged underneath. You have a Heavenly decree pending against you. Ever since your arrival, I have been trying to annul it, but the Heavenly Court doesn’t agree.”

“A Heavenly decree against me?” I asked feeling a sudden hole in my stomach. “What does that mean?”

“In most cases it means that after a series of warnings, if a person doesn’t desist from his erring ways, his sentence is sealed, and his time on this planet is limited. Like with a sandglass, when the sand runs out, the time is up. Usually, when a person expresses regret over the mistakes of the past, and makes a commitment to start anew, the decree is torn up. But in your case, no matter how much I appeal in your behalf, my prayers are turned away. Perhaps you really haven’t yet made a sincere decision yet. Penitence can erase the blemishes of the past, but you yourself have to make a new beginning.”

He looked at me with his incredibly serious, four-thousand-year-old eyes, eyes that had seen everything, the folly of momentary pleasure, and the destiny that awaits all those who turn away from the truth.

“’Vanity of vanity, all is vanity’” said King Solomon. “’The end of the matter, when all is said and done, is this - fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every doing into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be bad.’”

Instinctively, I understood what he was saying. I knew that I had to make changes in my life. But the absolute seriousness and immediacy of the matter was something I hadn’t expected.

“If you continue on with your established ways, your ailments will get worse. If you change, the decree will go away. But don’t think it will be easy. It is very hard to change. When most people learn what you have just learned, they start out with good intentions, meaning to alter their ways, but when they try to bridle their lusts, the evil inclination rises up against them with all of its strength and persuasion, and people give up the fight. A person has to be a real warrior to win the battle. And I see that you are still tormented with doubts.”

He looked at me, but at the same time right through me, with a gaze that made me shiver. I was trying to believe what I was hearing, and to be as true as true could be. But maybe I had been playing games so long in my life that I could no longer tell the difference between the mask and me.

“The truth is that I have been feeling despondent lately about the decline in my health, and the fact that I’m getting old, as if some great weight were over my head,” I confided. “Maybe this is the decree you are talking about.”

“Getting old?” Saba Yosef said with a twinkle that lit up his face. “I’m twice your age, and I don’t feel old yet. You’re still a young man. The question is – how are you going to live the next half of your life? In a healthier and holier fashion? Enjoying life with the love of your youth? Or suffering from a worsening prostate and Parkinson’s?”

מיקרופון PS. Don't wait for the last minute! My books make for wonderful Hanukah presents for family and friends! You can have Amazon ship them directly to their home addresses without further shopping hassle. And if you don't like this idea - who cares? I love you all anyway!