Friends, brothers, fellow Jews, lend me your ears. I come to bury the Diaspora, not to praise it. Before getting back to the final two chapters of our serialization of “Heaven’s Door,” take a look at what the holy Zohar teaches about the resurrection of the dead in parshat Chayei Sarah:
“Come and see, it has been established that all of the dead of the Land of Israel will be the first to rise to resurrection, because the Holy One Blessed Be He will shed upon them the spirit of life from Above and grant them renewed existence. Regarding them it is written: “Your dead shall live” (Isaiah, 26:19). This refers to the dead of Eretz Yisrael who will rise to life first.
“In contrast, what follows in the verse, “My dead shall arise” (Ibid,) refers to the dead of the others lands. Of them it is not written that they “shall live” – rather they “shall arise.” The spirit of life will only enter their bodies in the Holy Land of Israel, and for that reason, regarding those who die in the Diaspora, it is not written “shall live,” but “shall arise.” Therefore the dead of the Diaspora will arise without the spirit of life, and then they will be made to roll in underground tunnels all the way to the Land of Israel, and only there will they receive their souls, and not while they are in the Diaspora where the impure rule of the Sitra Achra (Other Side) holds sway, so that they will be resurrected only in Israel in the fitting manner” (Zohar 131A).
Dear friends! Our Sages warn us that the long underground roll to Israel will be very painful indeed, in order to purify the individual from the uncleanliness that he acquired while living in foreign lands. Why put yourselves through such unnecessary anguish when you can simply hop on an air-conditioned jet and come home now? You too can be among the first when the resurrection arrives. If it was a new Star Wars movie, you’d rush to be the first in line to buy a ticket. Isn’t your soul a little more important?
Chapter Fourteen – An Unwelcome Discovery
As we drove back to Safed, I couldn’t tell whether Saba Yosef was meditating or sleeping, so I didn’t ask the questions I wanted to ask.
Reaching the cottage, Baruch spoke briefly to someone over his cell phone, and then said goodnight. It turned out to be a changing of the guard, since the family didn’t like leaving Saba Yosef alone. Within a few minutes, another great grandson, or great great grandson, entered the cottage and kissed his Saba’s hand. The old man patted him on the head and gave him a flick, sending him back on his way. The young night guard hesitated, glanced at me uncertainly, and only retreated when the old man assured him with further waves of the hand that everything would be all right.
“One of the children always stays here with me during the night,” the old man explained. “Not because they are worried that I might fall down and break a hip, God forbid, but because it is written in the Torah, ‘It is not good for a man to be alone.’ According to the Kabbalah, when a man is alone in his house at night, a female spirit called Lilith comes to sport with him while he sleeps, to make him impure.”
At first, his explanation sounded weird, but I was reminded of times when my wife was away, when I was drawn at night to the computer, exploring “adult” sites on the Internet for hours until it was suddenly dawn.
“Are you tired?” Saba Yosef asked me.
I blushed, hoping he wasn’t reading my thoughts and seeing all of the X-rated movies I had watched. “Not at all,” I replied, eager to continue our conversation. Back in New England, it was still only afternoon, seven hours earlier than Israel, and my biological clock hadn’t yet made the change, so I didn’t feel like sleeping. Plus, you might say I was spiritually charged, and I wanted to take advantage of the time I still had with him. I wasn’t sure when he would ask me to leave, and no doubt a long line of people would show up in the morning, seeking salvation from their problems.
“I have some prayers to say,” he said. “Let’s take a ten minute break before we resume.”
After he stepped into the small adjoining synagogue, I walked out to the patio to fill my lungs with the cool forest air. Except for the light on the porch and a lamp at the gate of the yard, the surroundings were dark. In the distance were the lights of Safed, playing hide and seek amongst the pines of the forest. Overhead were splotches of stars. I thought about calling my wife, but I decided against it, not wanting the reality of my life back in America to impinge on the mystical world I had entered. I was afraid that the practical, down-to-earth voice of my Miriam would act like a pin, bursting my bubble.
When I returned inside the darkened cottage, Saba Yosef was back at his desk, carefully pouring oil from a small vial into a larger bottle. Only a lamp lit the study, filling the room with a Rembrandt-like glow.
“What do you use the oil for?” I asked him.
“Olive oil is good for all kinds of aches and pains,” he answered.
“To use as an ointment. Especially when its warm. ”
“Can I speak to you frankly?” I asked.
“Of course. About whatever you like.”
“I don’t want to offend you.”
“I think I’ll survive.”
“Well, it’s just that, we’ve learned so much. To apply these things to my life, I’ll have to change almost everything.”
Once again, he opened the large volume of Maimonides in front of him and read:
“To a person who is sick in body, the bitter tastes sweet, and the sweet tastes bitter. Similarly, those who are sick in their souls say that evil is good, and that good is evil, turning darkness into light, and light into darkness. What is the best medicine for their soul? To go to the wise, who are physicians of the soul, and they will heal their maladies by instructing them in the ways that will restore them to the proper path.”
“I am certainty glad that I found you,” I said.
“You have found the Rambam and wisdom of the Sages. I am just repeating their words.”
“What’s left to learn?” I asked.
“Look at all of the books in this room,” he replied, motioning with his hand. “A person could learn all his life and still be just beginning.”
There were literally hundreds of books, cramming the bookshelves around the room. All of them were in Hebrew. I waited for him to continue, hoping to get an abridged Reader’s Guide version for American tourists.
“For one thing, a person should learn to appreciate the value of silence. Telephones and cell phones are wonderful inventions, but when overused, a man has no free time to think. Radios and television have made the brain obsolete, turning it into a vestigial organ.”
Briefly, the aged and wizened scholar glanced down at the book.
“Speech is a gift of God, distinguishing us from the animals, so a person must watch over his tongue. Idle conversation leads to gossip and slanderous talk. Even in our daily needs, we should not talk too much. As one wise scholar said, ‘I have found no better remedy for the body than silence.’ Words should be few, but full of meaning. Even when teaching. Students should be spoken to gently, not with shouting. King Solomon said, ‘The words of the wise, spoken softly, are heard.’ Flattery and smooth talk are to be avoided. A man’s inner and outer self should correspond. We must deceive no one. A person must always value the truth.”
His words were punctuated by a sudden flash of lightning, and then a tremendous clamor of thunder. Instinctively, I glanced toward the window.
Saba Yosef recited something in Hebrew. “Blessed be He who answers prayer,” he said with a happy smile. “Even though our rainy season is over, if it rains now, it will be a favorable sign from Heaven.”
Sure enough, a strong wind rattled the trees outside, and a heavy rain started to beat against the planks of the house, as if it wanted to force its way inside. Something fell down outside on the porch, and a chair tumbled noisily across the yard. For a few seconds, another crackle of lightning blackened the electricity in the study, and another outburst of thunder shook the cottage walls. Rain battered down on the house.
“Baruch Hashem. Baruch Hashem,” the Rabbi said in reverent thanksgiving. “Thank the good Lord for His never-ending kindness.”
“It sounds like your prayers were a roaring success,” I quipped, glad for his happiness.
“The prayers of my students and all the people who joined us. I am only a gardener with the responsibility of taking care of the plants in my yard.”
Another bolt of lightning burst with such force, it could have lit up the world. With the accompanying blast of thunder, it felt like the eye of the storm was directly above the house.
“Nonetheless,” Saba Yosef continued, referring back to the book, “even though silence has many virtues, you shouldn’t get the wrong impression. While an indulgence in the temptations of this world will certainly lead to no good, total abstinence from what a man needs is equal folly. A person should not say that since all of the temporary pleasures of the world are vain, I shall not converse at all, I will give up meat and wine and forsake getting married, nor will I dwell in a respectable home and wear presentable clothes. This man is a sinner as well. A person is only to refrain himself from things which are not permitted. Thus practices such as abstinence from marital relations, excessive fasting, all sorts of self-mortification, and turning oneself into a hermit are to be shunned.”
I was sure glad to hear that. My tape recorder made a clicking sound, indicating it was time to change tapes.
“Every man must strive for holiness, according to his level, and direct his doings toward the knowledge of his Maker. Thus a man should not engage in exercise just to have a fine-looking body, but in order that his body and soul be healthy to know and serve God, for it is impossible to understand deep esoteric matters when one is ill and aching. And a man should not engage in an occupation to amass great wealth, but to provide for his basic needs – food, clothing, shelter, and the necessities of raising a family. So too, when he eats, drinks, and has relations with his wife, his goal should not be to obtain his personal gratification, but to maintain his body in health and vigor. Instead of partaking in everything that he craves, like a dog or an ass, he will choose foods that are healthy, and will avoid eating things that are harmful, even though they may taste sweet.
“Likewise with cohabitation, he will not indulge himself whenever lust consumes him, but he will set his heart on having righteous children, on pleasing his wife, and on giving his natural functions their proper measure so that he will be healthy and fit to serve God. Even when he sleeps, if he does so to rest his body and calm his mind, so he will be healthy to serve his Maker, then his sleep also becomes the service of God. This is what King Solomon said in his wisdom, ‘In all of thy ways know Him, and He will straighten thy paths.’”
“I am still a bit curious about cohabitation,” I said, not at all sure I could transform myself into the holy man that Maimonides had in mind. “You mean to say that a man can only have sex with his wife?”
“I understand that extra-marital affairs may not be the most upright behavior in the world, but I thought that the adultery in the Bible meant having sex specifically with another man’s wife. But what if the woman is divorced, or a widow, or single?”
“Absolutely not. The Master of the Universe has sanctioned cohabitation strictly in the context of marriage between husband and wife.”
He paused before he continued, as if to give me the time to reflect on my past and let the weight of his words sink in. He wasn’t only the oldest man in the world – he was the holiest. Facing him, I felt like I was strapped into an electric chair, and that all of the rain in the world couldn’t extinguish the fiery current that was enveloping my soul.
“Even with one’s wife, a husband should behave with modesty and strive to sanctify the act. He should not always be with her like a rooster.”
“For the last few years, I have hardly had relations with my wife at all,” I said.
“That isn’t proper either,” he replied. “A man is commanded to please his wife and fulfill her needs. Do you want to hear more?”
“Yes. I’ve come here to learn.”
“Remember, these are the words of Maimonides, whom your school is named after. That implies that you recognize his wisdom just as much as I do.”
“I never knew he wrote about things like this.”
“He wrote about everything. For instance, marital relations should take place, not at the beginning of the night when the stomach is full, but in the middle of the night, after one’s meal has been digested, and when the husband won’t hear other voices and perchance think about other women. Neither of them should be intoxicated, sad, or in a state of weakness. The husband is not to force her if she is unwilling, but only with her consent, in loving desire and joy. They should cover themselves out of modesty, have relations in a darkened room, and not engage in immodest practices that upset the order of the universe. Whoever conducts himself in a holy manner, not only sanctifies and purifies his soul and refines his mind, if he has children, they will be comely, modest, righteous, and intelligent in nature, while all of those who carry on in an unruly fashion, like savages who walk in darkness, will have unruly children like themselves. This is what happened with your daughter.”
“My daughter?” I responded off guard.
“You don’t have a daughter?” he inquired in surprise.
“Why, yes, but what does she have to do with this?”
“The moment of conception doesn’t occur in a vacuum,” he explained. “If a man has holy thoughts when he is with his wife, and behaves in a holy manner, then the child that is born will draw down a holy soul. On the other hand, if he is consumed by mere animal passion, pursuing his selfish pleasure, or if he is thinking about some other woman, or conducts himself in a bestial way, then the child who results from such a beginning will be born likewise, with a fiery, rebellious spirit and a nature pulled toward everything unholy, and very often with physical problems as well.”
I felt like a pinball machine which went TILT!
BING! BING! BING! chimed the bells in my brain.
Give me a break, I wanted to say! Did the Computer in the Sky record everything, measure for measure, like an exact mathematical equation that won’t vary down to the billionth decimal point? Even when it came to the intimacy of a man and his wife in their bedroom?
When I looked at the old man, it was the first time that he returned my gaze directly, peering into my soul, with eyes that weren’t eyes, but mirrors, eyes that had witnessed more than four-thousand years of wars, and births, and sicknesses, and famines, and persecutions, terrorist bombings and rockets, eyes that had labored over thousands of holy books, studying all their secrets and truths. His eyes answered my thoughts with an absolute, “Yes, G-d takes note of everything.”
“Your daughter is very unhappy,” he said. “And she hasn’t been feeling well. She has been doing things that she shouldn’t be doing, her mind is confused, and she doesn’t have any money. If you like, I will pray for her tonight, and ask God to get her to call you. Don’t agree to wire her money. Instead, tell her you will give her money when she comes home. If you give her lots of love, God willing, you will see a change for the better.”
The truth was that I hadn’t spoken to the rebellious girl for months. The last time, I had gotten angry on the phone, saying that I didn’t want my daughter working as a waitress in LA and ending up a cheap lay for every producer who promised her a role. So I didn’t give much chance to her calling.
“Is my wife healthy?” I asked, figuring I might as well get an entire family readout.
The hooded figure glanced to the side, staring off into some profound inner space. Then his head tilted in another direction as if he were navigating a plane. Taking a deep breath, he completed his reconnaissance mission and refocused back to the room.
“Can I tell you the truth?” he asked.
“Of course,” I said immediately.
“Are you sure?” he repeated.
“Absolutely,” I said, mustering up my courage to hear the diagnosis.
“You won’t be angry at me?”
“No. Certainly not.”
“You live in a house with two stories, and half of the roof slants down like this?” he asked, making a motion that paralleled the slant of our split-level house.
“That’s right,” I said.
“And there’s a sundial on the front lawn and a feeder for birds?”
“You drive a large car, like a Safari or some kind of large jeep?”
“No,” I responded. “Both my wife and I have little Toyotas.”
“Maybe it’s a neighbor’s,” he said, taking another look into his wireless Google-Earth. “It’s a little down the street.”
I waited anxiously as he seemed to be receiving a new updated printout.
“Do you have some kind of animal in your house?” he asked.
“No,” I responded. “My wife doesn’t like pets.”
Pausing, he shut his eyes. His forehead pulsed with profound concentration. “Are you certain?” he asked.
“They’re showing me an animal, something larger than a dog.”
I wondered what he meant by “they,” but I didn’t ask.
“It’s lying on the floor,” he added.
“Oh my God,” I muttered. “We have a bearskin rug in our bedroom with its mouth wide open and its head still attached.”
The old sage nodded.
“Do you know someone who has only one arm?” he continued.
His question took a moment to register. Then I felt a ripping uppercut punch to my stomach, and a dizzying blow to my head, as if I had been clubbed with the hard-hitting leather of a heavyweight boxer’s glove.
“The principal of my school,” I answered.
“I’m sorry, but he’s in bed with your wife right now,” Saba Yosef said.
How can I describe it? It was the worst feeling I had ever had in my life. A combination of shock, of anger, of helplessness and rage. My good friend, my boss, in my house, in my bed, making love to wife, and I couldn’t do anything about it. Like the helplessness a person must feel when an earthquake splits open the ground beneath him. Everything wobbled. The foundation of my life, and everything I believed in, quivered, like that fateful moment on September 11 when everything in America had collapsed.
Was it their first time together, I wondered? Had she had other affairs before him? For how many years? How long had this betrayal been going on?
Another ominous, more distant sound of thunder rumbled through the night. Time seemed to stand still. The old rabbi sat with his head lowered, not looking my way. I couldn’t tell if he was sleeping or receiving another heavenly SMS.
Could I ever paste the pieces of my marriage back together and trust in my wife once again?
Slowly, I recovered my senses. I remembered that Hal, the principal of my school, drove a Land Rover, which he had obviously parked down the street from our house. The old man saw everything.
“Oh, no,” I sobbed, not knowing how I would get out of this mess. One sob followed the next until I was crying like a baby. I hadn’t cried like that in years. In decades. Never like that.
Maybe it wasn’t her first lover. Maybe she had more. Maybe she was as unfaithful to me as I had been with her all through the decades of our marriage. Suddenly, all of my being felt exposed and corrupted, reeking with a trail of girlfriends, lovers, adulteries, and secret affairs.
“It’s good,” the sage said softly. “The crying will cleanse you.”
“I’m sorry,” I sobbed.
“It is good that you are sorry. Now you will be able to get closer.”
“Closer to who?”
“To God. And maybe to your wife and your daughter.”
“How could she do it?” I said.
“You know how she could do it. You’ve done it yourself. Everything comes full circle. The sun rises and sets, then returns to where it rose. What a man does to others comes back to him. Remember what we learned. The things that happen to us, happen because of us.”
His words made me sob even more. I felt lost and abandoned, cheated and betrayed, disgusted with the deceit of my life.
“Forget about your ego,” he said. “Accept the pain as an atonement for all of your past.”
Eventually, I calmed down. The storm outside had also abated. It was now only drizzling outside. What was the point of being angry, I thought? What could I do? I was here, and she was there. The rabbi was right. Hadn’t I brought it all on myself with my own betrayals and sins? It was coming to me, I knew. Miriam’s unfaithfulness was in the cards all along. And I myself was the dealer. The rabbi, or fate, or whatever force you want to call it, had uncovered my shame.
I wanted to jump in a mikvah. To wash off the dirt and come out a new man. I even thought about never going back to America.
Should I serialize the last chapter or not?
While you're ordering your copy of "Heaven Door", check out other books that make great Hanukah gifts as well.