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Some Million Dollar Questions

By Tzvi Fishman
11/11/2011, 11:11 AM

We just received a new question at our website from a married, Orthodox man. You would think that religious Jews wouldn't have to ask these type of questions, but many do, indicating that these matters were not learned the way they should be. For those of you who value the importance of these laws, you can find the question and answer on the site. For everyone else, here's the next chapter of "Heaven's Door".   

Chapter Ten – The Rendezvous   

I arrived at the gas station with plenty of time to spare. There was at least another hour to go before sunset. Compulsively, I must have looked at the coffee shop and up at the big yellow sign a dozen times, to make sure I was in the right place. Surprisingly, I wasn’t that hungry. Motorists entered and exited the coffee shop at a steady pace, but I no longer felt a pressing need to eat. Once I had gotten through the morning’s crisis, when I thought I’d go out of my mind, it was pretty clear sailing after that. I discovered that I didn’t need to eat or drink every minute, and that I could control my passions.  But I was pretty sleepy, maybe from dehydration, like the clerk in the car-rental agency had warned. So I let myself drift off to sleep in the car, figuring it was a good way to pass the time until Saba Yosef arrived to go fishing.

I woke up at six-thirty. The colors of sunset already saturated the sky, like the brushstrokes in a painting. The sun had sunk below the mountain to the west of the gas station. The Sea of Galilee was a few hundred yards to the east, hidden behind a grove of tall palms. I got out of the car to stretch my legs, and to get a first glimpse of Saba Yosef, who was due to arrive any minute. The darkening sky over the ascent of the Golan Heights was absolutely cloudless with not even a raindrop in sight. Maybe that was why the old man was delayed in coming – maybe they were still praying for rain.

When the amber hues and reddish glows of the sunset faded from the sky, I figured I might as well have something to eat. Obviously, that’s why Saba Yosef had chosen the coffee shop, so if he was late, I wouldn’t have to go searching for food. On the other hand, I remembered that he had told me not to break the fast until he arrived. The truth is I wasn’t sure. Maybe it was some kind of test. My stomach was starting to grumble, and my head was once again starting to spin. I had fasted till sundown, wasn’t that enough? Maybe the old man wouldn’t show up till midnight. How did I know? I didn’t have any phone numbers to call. I didn’t have anyone to ask.

I suppose I was still in limbo, neither here nor there, impressed by what I had seen, and impacted by what I had learned, but very confused about which direction to take, not having decided whether my encounter with the old man was to be a catalyst of real change, or just an interesting experience that would wear off and fade away with the passing of time and a return to my old habits and unholy ways.

So when another ten minutes went by, I stopped walking in circles around the gas station and entered the coffee shop.

Inside was cool, with familiar American music, and a smiling waitress. I walked up to the take-away counter and waited until the worker made some other customer two coffees to go, then wrapped them in a bag with napkins and packets of sugar, and concluded the transaction.

“First, I’d like a large bottle of mineral water, and then you can make me a coffee too,” I told him.

“Anything to eat?” he asked.

“I’ll have one of these salads. What are they?” I asked, pointing to the saran-wrapped salads in the counter and hoping that Maimonides would have approved.

“We have a plain salad with cucumbers and tomatoes, or a chef’s salad with tuna, hard-boiled egg, and cheese.”

Before I could make up my mind, a pair of headlights flashed in the coffee-shop window and a bearded man emerged from a car. It was Baruch. He entered the small diner just as I was grabbing a hold of the bottle of mineral water.

“Tell him to wrap everything up to go,” he said. “You’ll eat on the boat.”

Talk about coming down to the wire! It was a little thing, but I had the feeling that SOMEONE was looking after me from up ABOVE, if you know what I mean. As if Craig Peters, from a small town in New England, had stepped into the Twilight Zone.

Baruch was waiting for me by his car.

“Where is Saba Yosef?” I asked.

“I dropped him off already. He’s meeting us at the dock,” he replied.

“Can’t I eat a little something?”

“Not yet.”

He told me to leave my car at the gas station and to get in with him. We drove another five minutes toward Tiberias. When he didn’t volunteer any information, I broke the silence.

“What is Miriam’s Well?” I asked him.

“Some three-thousand years ago, the Children of Israel were slaves to the Pharaoh in Egypt. Then God instructed Moses to lead us out of bondage with miracles and wonders, like the splitting of the Red Sea – are you familiar with that?”

“More or less,” I told him.

“All of the forty years that the Jews were in the wilderness of Sinai, God miraculously provided them with water by a well that followed them wherever they journey. This is Miriam’s Well, named in the merit of Miriam who guarded over Moses when he was cast into the Nile River as an infant. When Miriam died, the well vanished. It was the Arizal who revealed five-hundred years ago that its underground source flowed miraculously from the Kinneret, here, in the Sea of Galilee. Only he knew its precise location, which is constantly changing with the tides of the water. We know this from the writings of his foremost student, Rabbi Chaim Vital. He was a great Torah scholar and mystic in his own right, but after studying months and months with the heavenly Arizal, he couldn’t grasp the deep pathways of Kaballah that the Arizal was teaching him. So one day, the Arizal took him for a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee and had him drink from Miriam’s Well. From that time forth, his eyes were opened and he could understand the secrets of Torah.”

“That’s going to happen to me?” I asked in wonder. “I’m going to be able to read people’s minds, heal cripples, and understand the language of birds?”

“Well, I wouldn’t say that. Everyone according to his own level. In your case, if it knocks out your skepticism enough so that you can understand the things that my great grandfather is trying to teach you, that will be a very great thing.”

“I thought the mikvah of the Ari was supposed to do that.” 

“You Americans can be tough cases to crack. You come with a lot of shells. Maybe if you immersed in the mikvah of the Ari a hundred times, something would begin to wash off.  But after your fast, a good, stiff drink from Miriam’s Well should open your spiritual eyes and put you on the golden path.”

My guide slowed the car and turned off the highway onto a bumpy dirt road that cut through a banana grove. In the beam of the headlights, you could see the small green bunches hanging in unripe clusters.  

“You should know that this is a very special thing,” Baruch said. “To my knowledge, my great grandfather has awarded this privilege to only two other seekers, and they were both Torah scholars already seeped in the esoteric paths of the Torah. He himself has never taken a drink from the Well.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“He says he wants his insights to come from his learning and prayers, without any miraculous aid.”

That really scared me. I mean, what if it changed me completely? Did it mean that I would end up with side-locks, wearing a big skullcap, and dressing all in black? I had the feeling that I was getting into something too deep, losing control, and that now was the time to back out.

I could hear the boat’s motor even before we reached the dock. Two not very powerful lampposts lit up the small, cove-like bay.  Most of the boats were long, open sea vessels, belonging to fishermen, with nets piled neatly on their bows. Clutching my arm, as if he sensed that I wanted to run away, Baruch led me down the dock to a small, cabined craft whose motor was running. Saba Yosef sat inside the cabin reading Psalms, the hood of his robe covering most of his face. At that moment, he looked more spooky than holy. I was freaked out. I wanted to go home to my own Miriam, and live happily ever after, without getting involved in this insane adventure. Just going out on the sea in the blackness of night was madness to me.

Without letting go of my arm, Baruch pushed me ahead of him onto the boat. A youth on the dock untied the moorings and threw them onboard. The Captain turned the wheel and inched the throttle forward. Before I could protest, the boat slipped away from the dock.                   

Saba Yosef didn’t look up from his prayers, so I figured he did not want to be bothered. As the boat distanced itself from the shore, a flock of squawking white birds followed after us. Maybe they mistook us for fishermen and hoped to feed on our catch. But as the boat gained speed and headed out to sea, I realized that the birds weren’t following us – we were following the birds! If they veered toward the starboard, the Captain turned the steering wheel and set the point of the boat in their direction. If the flock swerved toward the portside of the craft, the Captain set his course in their direction. All the time, the old rabbi kept praying, trusting in the birds to lead us to the mystical Well.

Soon, the seaside city of Tiberias was a magnificent sparkle of lights behind us. The only other vessels sailing in the darkness were disco ferries that took tourists on night cruises around the harbor. Shining with light, they looked like candle lit birthday cakes floating on the sea’s calm waters. Gradually, the blare of their music faded as we sped even further out to sea. The moon seemed to take a part in the navigating too, sending a beam of light that lit up our way. The white birds soared just ahead of us like a squadron of angels. Finally, Saba Joseph glanced up, and I sensed it was an invitation to approach him. I thought he was going to ask me about my fast, but he didn’t mention it at all. Motioning me to sit down beside him at the small table in the cabin, he asked me if I knew who Abraham was.

“Of course,” I replied.      

“When Abraham was a small boy, he gazed up to the sky and saw the sun. Figuring that it was the sun which had created the world, he prayed to it all day. Then, when the sun went down and the moon rose in the sky, he reasoned that the moon must rule over the sun, since the sun had grown dark and disappeared. So Abraham spent the night praying to the moon. Early in the morning, when the moon’s light waned and also vanished, Abraham realized that there must be a unique, all-powerful God who ruled over both the sun and the moon, and he began to pray to Him.

“Abraham’s father, Terach, was a wealthy merchant who sold idols. One day, when Abraham was a little older, his father had to go to the king’s palace to supply the monarch with idols that were needed for his royal estates. So Terach went off to the palace, leaving his son in charge of the store. Not wanting customers to waste their money on wood and stone statues, Abraham took a hammer and smashed all of the idols, except for the biggest one in the store. When his father returned, he saw all of the shattered idols. Only the biggest idol remained, with the hammer stuck in his hand. ‘What happened?!’ asked Terach in shock. ‘After you left the store, the idols got into an argument,’ Abraham explained. ‘Angered, the big idol picked up a hammer and smashed all of the others into pieces.’ His father was furious. ‘What kind of story are you telling me?!’ he shouted. “Idols don’t have any knowledge and power. They can’t get into an argument and smash one another. They’re just wood and stone!’ ‘So why do you worship them, father?’ Abraham asked him. ‘Why do you sell them to people when you know they aren’t real?’”

As he finished the tale, the speed of the boat lessened. When it came close to a stop, the old man stood up and walked out on deck. The motor became a dim hum as the craft gently rocked back and forth in the waves. The flock of birds hovered overhead, squawking in noisy circles. One by one, they fell out of formation and landed in the water, floating on the waves alongside the boat. Saba Yosef said something in Hebrew and motioned to the bow. Quick to obey, the Captain headed for front of the boat, carrying a bucket, which he lowered into the water with a rope. Then he scooped up the bucket, and carried it, splashing with water, back to deck.

“Drink a little,” Saba Yosef told me.

It was the first water I had swallowed all day. It was cool, freshwater, natural and sweet. I readily gulped it down, as I if were downing a big mug of beer.

“Enough,” the old man said.

Baruch took the bucket from my hands. He and Saba Yosef and the Captain were all smiling, so I smiled too. I don’t know why, but it felt like a festive occasion. Far away, the lights of Tiberias spread over the hillside at the other end of the dark and magical sea. The Captain returned to his station and pushed the throttle forward. The motor roared. The birds fluttered back into the air. Baruch helped his great grandfather back to the table. For a few moments, I was alone on the deck, under a canopy of stars, waiting for something to happen, to feel some mental explosion, telepathic signal, or X-ray vision. But I felt exactly the same. As the boat regained speed, I had to hold on to keep from falling. Then the Captain motioned me to return to the cabin, where I sat alongside Saba Yosef as Baruch brought over a bottle of mineral water, paper cups, and some fruit.

“It isn’t wise to break a fast by eating too much all at once,” the old sage said. “I will be attending a bar mitzvah in another few hours. With a family as large as mine, one of my great grandchildren is always celebrating a happy occasion, thank God. You are welcome to come along to the festivities. There you will get a good warm meal.”

In the meantime, I took a bite into an apple, still waiting for something to happen. Then I thought that maybe Miriam’s Well was like a time capsule that gradually works through the night.

“Like Abraham, you too have to smash all of the idols and false gods that you have believed in until now” Saba Yosef said. “Some people believe in their own knowledge and wisdom. Some people believe in money. Others believe in success. Some people think the mysteries of the universe can be solved by mathematics and science. And some people don’t believe in anything at all. You have to smash all of these false idols and notions and start believing in God.”

Baruch poured me a glass of water, but after drinking from the bucket, I was more hungry than dying of thirst.

“How do I do that?” I asked.

“First, by being serious. Second, by letting your cynicism drown in the sea.”

The funny thing was that I knew exactly what he meant, without having to ask him to explain anymore.

“Getting closer to God is difficult work,” he said. “Not hocus-pocus.”

“I’m ready to continue,” I said, taking my tape recorder out of my shoulder bag.

“You promise you will adhere to the things that we learn?”

“I’ll try my best,” I promised.

ישנוני Shabbat shalom!