Coiling the Serpent

Aher: Are You the Other or Just Other?
are you other
I am other, the one
left behind after the great ones
rode off on their donkeys

I am
essence of otherness, those
for whom the common ways
hold no appeal

he has followed me
to the end of the kingdom
desperate for persuasion, but I
I choose not to return

where there were two, now
there is one.

what went wrong?
I could no longer sit in comfort
with my brothers
something was wrong

yet what was it? I
simply lost faith, could not
keep the faith, brother, and so
I must return by an other path

it is on this other path
as an other, the other, the one
now alone, whose name
though expunged remains

it is on this path
that I now must deviate, no
it is not into greece that I go
as you all have thought, no

not there, since there
I also would be other, an-
other on his own, seeking
along a pathless path

not there but into otherness
there is another way, a way
unknown until much later
in history

yes I am of the future.
later you shall see, if you can
that my path is the well traveled,
not yours, since

are we not really all others
and that in reality I am not
the first, only the first of many
in this God-forsaken land

somehow it seems
as if your path is now the path
of the other, otherness, an-
other way from what once it was

and so this path
that I took long ago
turns out to be a truer path
at least for now, brother

won’t you join me, turn
my way, away from your way,
into a new way, way
ahead of where we now are

yes I am other, embodiment
of otherness, alone, stripped
of his name yet given
a new name, which

will turn out to be
a better name, chosen
by God who knows all
even into the details
Aher—Hebrew for “other”—is the name assigned by the Talmudic sages to their colleague Elisha ben Abuya, who rejected his religion after an intense mystical experience.

Ancient Jewish Love Potions and Charms (R-Rated)
Warning: I cannot take responsibility for the effects or side-effects of the following potions and charms. You are advised to read and enjoy these, NOT to actually use them!

Love Potion #1
Crush one sprig of bergamot, leaves and flowers,
in a granite mortar.
Add two splashes of apple-cider vinegar,
and the shell of a ()
and crush to a paste.
Store in an open ceramic container
and bury in the earth or in sand.
After sixty days dig it up,
pronounce the tetragrammaton over it seven times,
and loudly say, in the name of I am Who I Am,
Rah Rah Torah, Torah Torah Rah,
Rah Rah Torah, Torah Rah Rah
until the paste grows warm.
Rub the paste on your belly
and on the belly of the one whose love for you you wish to enflame.
Store on ice in an air-tight container.
Keeps for seven years.

Love Charm #1
in the name of the seventy-seventh name of the Holy One
light a fire for me in the heart of shulamit daughter of rebecca

Love Charm #2
I call on I Am Who I Am
to inflame the loins of paulina
daughter of ( )
so that smoke will rise and the sun will dim in shame

Love Potion #2
to a salve of mint and olive oil
add one handful of ( ) powder
and gently encourage Barbara daughter of ( ) to inhale the smell
long enough so that she cannot see straight
and before nightfall comes naked into my tent—
o adonai, El, god of our ancestors sarah and abraHam,
make her laugh at my jokes and hang on my every word,
I am who I am, right? so, I deserve this at the very least from You

Love Charm #3
In the name of Wise King Solomon, ruler of the jinns, away with you Liliths, pebble charms, night spirits, obsessions and compulsions, and other pain in the ass thoughts, and with help from YHVH God of the Jews, ruler of the universe, and with a little help from a magic ointment I just secretly rubbed on your genitals, come to my tent when the moon has set, your blood on fire, your loins burning with desire, your hot breath heaving, and press your wet naked body against mine until you drive me crazy and wild with desire. Then, afterward, leave the way you came, so that I can get s3me sleep. Unfortunately I am forbidden to reveal the secret formula of the ointment, on penalty of strangulation.

Love Potion #3
Stimulate your beloved’s eight upper sefirotic chakras with this special potion that will bind her to you well into the world to come.

Combine one part each of the following in a large mortar and grind to a fine powder:

crown = keter the godhead
right temple = chochmah wisdom nutmeg
left temple = binah understanding poppy seeds
heart = tiferet resolution fenugreek leaves
right hand = chesed lovingkindness peppermint leaves
left hand = gevurah strength or power almonds
right thigh = netzah eternity myrrh
left thigh = hod glory or majesty coffee beans

Mix with extra-virgin olive oil to form a smooth, fine paste the consistency of an ointment.

Beginning halfway through second night before the first lunar crescent after the third full moon after the morning of Yom Kippur and continuing for seven nights, have Tamar put a minute dab of the paste on each of her upper eight sefirotic chakras. Be careful not to get any of the paste in her eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, or other orifices.

While doing this, meditate on the sefirotic chakra you are applying the paste to.

If she does not cleave to you with the passion of a thousand virgins on their wedding night, wait until one night before the next full moon and try again.

Repeat until the desired effect is achieved.

If nothing happens, apply the remaining ointment to your own chakras, throw yourself into the Sea of Galilee, and walk on water (or at least try). Alternatively, go to the Dead Sea and try to walk on water for 90 days or until you turn into a pillar of salt—whichever comes first.

If neither of these works, go to Meron and pray at the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, apocryphal author of the Zohar.

If all else fails, return to Jerusalem to receive a full refund in valuable ancient coins.

Angels in Love
An angel manifested on Earth as a human being in order to guide a woman who had lost her long-time husband.

He was a goodly angel but not entirely pure and without karmic residue on his wings.

He was successful at his task in some ways but a failure in others.

The problems began when the angel became attached to the woman, and because of his karmic baggage began acting strangely and unangelically. He forgot his mission and lost himself in the relationship and in so doing began to manifest, for purposes known only to God, some of the unangelic, unbecoming behavior he had brought with him from one or more previous lives, or from the fragments of other people’s souls he had inherited.

The original plan, to guide the earth woman, had included, as a bonus, burning off the last of his own karmic residue so that after he shed his earthly body he could ascend to heaven and stay there once and for all. In other words, his mission to guide the woman was meant to help her and also himself. Aren’t all such missions like this? We are here for the other and also for ourselves, or vice versa. Is this not the meaning of besherte–a match made in heaven for a specific purpose?

Having burned off a great deal but nowhere all of his karma, the angel had hoped that this deed would be the last before he was set free from his body in his lifetime as a human being. He had been allowed to incarnate this time through his deeds caring for and guiding his mother into the next world. These deeds had negated a good portion of the selfishness he had acquired in past lives. He had begun as a human, died who knows how many times, then been allowed to return to Earth in order to purify himself so that he could return to and remain in the world-to-come.

Although he was in love, things were not going well between him and the woman. Still, he was unable to detach himself from her and also from his previous karma, forcing the woman to terminate him as her angel. She had fallen in love with him too but because of her karma could not allow him to be with her any longer. This was painful to her, too, for she had become attached to him as well.

After the breakup the angel realized that the woman also was an angel, sent to heal him, to help him burn off that remaining karmic baggage. He had had a sense that this was the purpose of their meeting and falling in love. She did not know that she too was an angel, just as she did not know that he was an angel.

Her mission as an angel was to guide him through the last months and eventual death of his earthly father and also to help the first angel burn off the karma that cause the difficulty he had opening his heart fully to love. The idea was that her guidance with his father would open him to fully loving her and allowing her to love him.

Both angels had incarnated in human bodies just before they met.

She guided the other angel successfully for a while and also helped him with some health-related tasks and healing from some other relationships he had had both in past lives and in his current incarnation.

She wanted a relationship with him that would fully heal both of them, but unfortunately the combination of his karma and hers kept this from fruition, and she had had to end it. Part of her karma dictated that she become very bound up in earthly matters to the point of forgetting and not even being interested in getting in touch with her angel nature.

She had become very attached to her human life and enjoyed being a human woman. She had had a good, long marriage to an earth man, given birth to two sons, and had granddaughters.

These angels were half-human, half-angel, and as such were unique in the angel world.

As was said, she was not aware that he was an angel, nor that she was an angel, and he was aware that he was an angel but only later in the relationship became aware that she was too.

This kind of angel blinked on and off, off and on, moving from angel to human and from human to angel, then back to human, and so on. They were never either angel or human. The problem with these angels was that all was fine when they blinked on, but when they blinked off and reverted to their human forms, there were problems. If both had been aware of their angel-human dual nature, they could have burned off each other’s karma and also been happy human lovers, healing their broken parts, since although they were angels, with varying degrees of self-awareness, both wanted to be happy in human bodies on earth, at least in their lifetime, and then ascend together to the world-to-come.

The first angel desperately had wanted to incarnate in order to burn off his remaining karma, so that he could fully love again, something he had been unable to do over many lifetimes. He had been given yet another chance to do this by being incarnated on earth—actually, he asked to be incarnated—and hooking up with the earth woman who wasn’t aware of her angel nature. His task had been to guide her earth self through the remaining phases of her grieving period, enabling her to love again, and also to awaken in her the awareness that she too was an angel. And of course she wanted to be able to fully love again, and so she had hoped that the man—the other angel—whom she didn’t know was an angel—would be her partner in this.

Alas! Their work was incomplete. The man would need to incarnate again (and perhaps again and again) in order to fulfill his yearning to fully love and be at peace with himself. The woman would need more time and help to fully let go her husband, realize her angelic nature, and herself fully love again.

Alas! Eichah! Their relationship was not meant to be.


4/11/18 to 11/27/18
Louisville, CO

The trilling cantorial outburst
Stops at the outer pane. Inside
Behind a low wall of potted plants
Some obscure man sits, typing.

Me of course, dabbling
Next to the steam heater, percolating.
I will bake bread today,
Let the panes absorb the scent and steam.

Perhaps a rabbi or two will be tempted
By these nocturnal smells. His wife
Patting her turbaned head as if in a dream
Will then wail over the voice of the cantor:

My cake is burning!
My cake is burning!
And all the city’s splendid doves
Will come flying.

Coiling the Serpent
EMBRACED in the mysteries of Talmud
Are ordinary solitudes in which
Even hemlock cannot take hold

Days of nights, laughter
Sublime, fruit
For a king

I have sought a way to tell you
That one time your sullen lethargy
Turned me away from the sun

The trilling of your birds
Evoked within me the noise
Of the Yucatan, hot and steamy in November

I tried to erase my past and live for the moment
Which meant disappearing into your sheets
For days on end

The volcanoes of the moon would then erupt
With monumental finality
Argument within argument

Your clear, pure essence
Shaped into shapelessness
Until a turnaround

When fury
Replaced calm and all was undone
Word by word, deed by deed

We whose lives had been spent in discussion
Turned on each other to the point
Of excommunication

You coiled the serpent around me, I
Threw away your pots, broke
Your mirrors, symbolic heart

The two diamonds meant to polish each other
Simply ground to ugly, pocked dust and grit
Until the whole show came to a halt

A man is not this, a woman not that, they
Share no nature but do share nature
Especially when taut and torpid

Not this, not that, not this, not that
Like the great Hindu flabbergasters
Who discarded half-truths, untruths, bad arguments

Our nether sides in relationship struggled,
Titans of a darker side, while our
Lights were lean and lame

You can reconsider and rewrite the past
But cannot alter its verity, love,
The way candles burn to the bottom and may continue burning

Yes, we could have lain
In bed all day all night, reasoning from deep
Legal, intellectual arguments to the point of orgasm

Instead we chose separate cities, truths, complete
Irrevocable fabrication, sound
Within the still core of agreement, peace without friendship

Drink up before the moon is full, hail
Chief of the interwoven threads of argument
Distributed for all time in gold-lettered, leather-bound volumes.

Dialogue in the Desert
You were there in the beginning
Whatever I say will make no sense
Put the blade away
I will arrange stones in a pillow
A dream will descend a ladder
We will wrestle for hours
The future is yours
Things will
Be just

Going Up in Smoke
(Reb Zalman—Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, of blessed memory—passed away in August 2014. This poem was written several years earlier.)

What I would like you to do,
Reb Zalman says,
Is to look around you, don’t
Stare at your watch so often, light
A candle each night,
Two on shabbos before you pray,
And how you should pray. I want
You to think about the real way to get into
The Zohar. It won’t be through your head,
But through your heart, the way
A comet enters the solar system, penetrating
The darkness with a single solitary blinding flash
Of light as if a spark from the moment of Creation. Get
Out of your head, do you get that? The
Ishbitzer rebbe says to always burn the moon
While engaged in study. Oi. What
Exactly does that mean? You
Think about it and get back to me. It is good
That you have conversed with the Ari, that
You did your only mikveh in his mikveh, even if
The people who witnessed you are narrow minded and do not
Realize the enormity of the place and time, what
It means in history, how
Best to pray so that a beam of light shoots out
Into the holy cosmos and reflects back through your eyes,
But only when you have surrendered yourself to the sunlight
Illuminating each leaf in the forest you say you have lived in
Since you were a child. Abandon your books,
The concentration in hokhmah; light up the heart chakra. No,
That’s not what I really meant, but maybe that’s the only way you can
Be not where you think you should be but rather
Where God means you to be. Close your eyes and contemplate
Precisely why you did not travel to Meron even though you might not
Have slept much or at all or perhaps even burnt up in a bonfire. Do you get that
This is the way of the Ari and his followers? You could have come sooner. But
I did not want to bother you. Perhaps, but I can sense your heaviness
Even at a distance, and certainly when we are in the same room, or sitting
Next to each other. I know which books are yours
Now even without the stamp with your name. Not all
Of them, of course, but certain ones. They belonged to another time. I
Realize that, or you would not have left them behind, though
Maybe you have memorized them
Or do not need
The physical book. Let us davven
Together, and I will show you. Thank you for your siddur. Although
I will have a hard time reading it, still
It will inspire. Reb Zalman said,
Look around and check your watch less often. What
Time is it?

I Can Translate Amichai but Cannot Talk at All
I cannot talk to anyone
Who cannot translate Amichai

Each night before going to sleep
I try but do not understand
Each word yet manage
To make some sense anyway
Fitting into the spaces between words
Where holy fire caresses
Like migratory birds in flight

Why I prefer this place
The prayer of touching
Thinking I can translate Amichai
I do not know or why
I cannot talk to anyone
Who cannot translate Amichai
In fact cannot talk at all

I Have Sought You (a Jewish liturgical poem)
Boy have I sought you
All the days of my life with an intensity
To outmatch the sun’s
Yet till now have never found you

Even though I have studied the desert sands,
The ocean’s waves and high mountain trails,
Although I thought I saw you
Among the prairie flowers and swampy rushes

And then one morning
Searching the airy atoms
That permeate the early-morning breeze
Flowing through the window and across my nostrils—

There I swear I found you
At long last in the very breath
Going in and out of my body
There at last I found you

Really, whom I have sought all my life
In earth’s every faraway corner,
Near and far
In the heavens and beyond

I now watch you
Watching me in a simple
Artless way, propelled by something beyond,
Rising and falling on our own

Clouds high above
Lined with
Celestial visions
And lost music

Early, before the sun rises, I listen
To the robins and jays,
You, my soul, you
My breath, just You. . . .

Inside Abraham’s Tent
A visitacion had not occurred
For some time
And now he sat on one side
Of the long row of beat-up wood tables
Piled high every which way with books
In a language he did not understand
He tried to explain
That at one time blood sacrifice
Was the rule
And asked why
If blood were the essence of the life force
He was being asked now to pour it on the earth
And suck on the dry dead meat
Came a marvelous shimmering
In the language he did not understand
Translated into the language he did
So that his brain was bifurcated,
All thought dispelled, an odd quietude
As he was being asked to stretch
The part of his mind that understood
To that part which did not
Although the languages were not the same
A visitacion had not occurred for a very long time
So that now, with the darkness taking shape outside
And overhead the clear penetrating ethereal white light
Of the moon before the harvest,
All before him began to dissolve into the simple
Of the letters assembled on the page
In such a way as to evoke in him a lost forgotten music
So powerful he wanted to shout, cry, escape
Into and through the roof
Ascend from a base built of years of solitude
Transfixed in waiting for the too good to be true
To come true once and finally and for all
His sexual power too stirred
So that overall the effect blocked even his
Compulsion to question everything, just
Whew was all he could say after it was all over
Shaking hands, I wanted to go through the roof,
Not because I was mad, all mixed up . . .
The shimmering blindingness of the light
Permeated into his centres, circulating,
Becoming the meat, bleeding now,
Explained, power drawn
From the words in the language not understood,
Revitalized, coming down, once
Starved, now only hungry. . . .

Into the Mojave I Drove (a Qasida)*
Into the Mojave I drove
In my Subaru Outback
Camping in hard-packed dirt
Dry as Ezekiel’s bones.

Beer cans are everywhere,
And jumping cholla, California scorpions,
Dung beetles, broken glass, charcoal.
You get the picture.

There was little more
In this empty, desolate place as I began to doze
Under an empty, desolate sky,
Forsaken by mortals these many years,

Under a few scant stars, ruminating
On the legions of beer-swillers
Noble hunters, Isuzu troopers
And troops of party poopers who once

Had been here,
Their memories upon memories
Overflowing the dry riverbeds
With scores of wars, “fores!,” smores, whores, and bores.

And so, as I was saying, I nodded off, or so I thought,
Since, whaddya know, more real than real
An old girlfriend’s face pops up among the litter
Of dead brain cells, the mother of all recollections.

Long, tall, mean, dirty blonde, and rangy
Wearing fading Levis and a holy T-shirt
With the word ODE front and CAMEL back,
And, wouldn’t you know, a cross around her neck.

Her perfume struck me
Like the delicate scent of a camel in heat.
I asked her, “Gazelle, my gazelle,
Bring me some Chateau Lafite.”

Not to spoil the visage with too much
Vintage reality, I woke up, not sure where, who,
Or why I was, except that before me
Was my faithful camel.

She was long, tall, mean, dirty blonde, and rangy.
Her calves bulged, her eyelids drooped,
Her thighs were lithe, her ears music
To mine.

Not only that
But being a connoisseur of camels
I knew, though dazed, that mine
Was the fairest of all, fairer than any gazelle,

More worthy of fawning over. Yes, and her name
Was Ofrah, a nice Jewish name in a God-forsaken place,
A familiar face with a trace of a smile
Like the Mona Lisa herself,

Which reminds me of you, my lustrous patron. You are,
O friend, beyond hyperbole in your brilliance,
For even at your dimmest you outshine the sun, moon, and stars
Together. For sure you are brighter than my camel.

I cannot praise you enough, just as I cannot braise
A camel steak enough before eating it.
I cannot laud you enough, just as I cannot think
Of sublime rhymes all the time, doggerel be damned.

Your bloodshot eyes, your long nose, your missing fingers—
These cannot be over-described
Like young singers on their first tour
With the right stuff. But this is fluff compared with you.

I cannot even compare you to a summer’s day
Since it is always summer here,
And so not knowing how it will all turn out,
How to end this panegyric, I will get me to the barbecue.

Note: A qasida is a poetic form originating in north Africa and popular in medieval Spain and other countries. It follows a fixed pattern, beginning with a deserted campground and daydreams about the poet’s beloved. Then there is the poet’s camel, about which the poet expends much wind. And finally, there’s is the poet’s patron, about whom the poet oohs and ahs. It is a serious poetic form used, for example, by Yehudah Halevi, the famous Spanish-Jewish medieval poet, in several of his best-known poems. This poem is a spoof of the qasida.

Jacob and the Angel
Jacob wrestled the angel,
Who dislocated his hip and blessed him.
All who have wrestled the angel
Know him by the way he walks.

They wrestled in the desert,
In the mountains, his parents’ home,
In his own. He grasped her small waist,
Squeezed hard. She
Choked him from behind, blocked
His sight. He drummed her ears
And sat on her chest until she gasped,
Kissed her neck, practicing for Esau. She
Locked her thighs around his head, practicing
For her wedding. They raced
To the horizon, panting,
Leapt into the sky, touched the moon,
Returned, embraced the sun, swallowed
The stars. Jacob wrestled the angel
He had created and now wanted destroyed
Although he loved her more than anything
In his life. The angel wrestled her creator
As if her life depended on it, which it did. She
Knew if he struggled long and hard enough
He would indeed win. He knew
If he struggled hard and long enough he
Would indeed win.

In his dream
A ladder had descended to earth and down
Walked angels and up again.
One of these angels, his angel, the angel
He wrestled, was the most beautiful
Of angels, almost a woman, and after
He beat her and she blessed him, and he
Limped away, she was a woman, his
Angel, who had blessed and scarred him
For life. She
Now returned as she came and Jacob left
This place for another, limping, noticeably
Out of joint, marked for life, but visible
To those who knew that sign, who
Themselves had wrestled that angel, their
Angel, won, were blessed and marked, and
Left her domain . . .

. . . And Jacob had a dream
In which a man with a knife sliced
Through two ribs until they should have
Separated but remained attached by sinew.
The man cut and sliced
With his razor-sharp serrated knife,
But the bones remained joined. They
Were so close the knife
Could not go between. Jacob
Moved toward the man and held the ribs
Slightly apart, exposing the layer of soft fat
Between them and told the butcher
To cut them apart now, which he did. And
Jacob beheld the separated bones
With their soft edges and awoke with his own bones
Aching as if with growing pains or
Even more so with the sharp pain
In his hip from the angel he had wrestled the night before.

Jacob struggled with the angel and won.
The oneness they had been was no longer
And he felt the sharpness of the pain of being apart,
The soft fatty edges of his being, tender and hurt.
The angel was now diffuse. He wondered
If the victory were real until he stood up to walk
And felt again the forever change in his hip socket
And remembered that in the real-seeming struggle
With his angel he sometimes had felt the unreality
Of its existence and wondered
Whether the angel had created him as well.

The Kabbalistic Unification of Harry and James
My mother’s father Harry died of diabetes
In 1921 at age 26
Followed by his brother James
Who died in Napa State Hospital

I would like to think
That when they immigrated from Belarus
To the U.S. they, having heard the possibly Jewish Harry James on a 78,
Took his names as their own

Or perhaps Harry James met them on the Hamburg Line
And combined their names into his
Unifying the best of a weak pancreas and a weak brain
Into the sweet sound of success

Lion in Winter
[Note: “Ari” is the acronym for Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-15720, the famous kabbalist who was born in Jerusalem and died in Sefad, in what is now Israel (1534-1572)]

The Ari came to me
He is here with me now
The Ari came to me
He is with me now

He came to hear
The tzaddik’s niggun
He came to hear
A tzaddik’s niggun

The Ari is with me now
He came to me tonight
He came to hear the tzaddik’s niggun
The song of the holy tzaddik

He talks to me
He is with me now
He talks to me
He is with me now

The Ari
The Ari
Came to me tonight
He is with me now.

The Metaphor of the High Priest
On the day of at-one-ment
We enter the holy of holies
The temple of love

We tie a white thread around one leg
And a gold chain around the other
Lest the thread turn red and we cannot get out

We empty our hearts
We beat ourselves
For our faults and limitations

We acknowledge our contractions
How we are both very far
And very near

In order to ask our lover for forgiveness
We must bare all to our higher self
Must forgive ourselves

We must sacrifice what is precious to us
Splash our blood in the four directions
Prostrate ourselves on the cold earth

Only when we have emptied ourselves
Have engaged fully
Given totally

Then and only then
Does the holy name emerge
From the depths of our souls

A name without letters or sound
A sound without a name
Without dimension or number

It is not a symbol
Not a sign
Nothing we do not already know

This name is neither sacred
Nor profane
Neither up nor down

Inner or interior
Outer or exterior
Neither esoteric nor exoteric

Not spiritual, not special
Not real and not unreal
Neither here nor there

It is not a mystical name
Nor a magical one
It is and is not

It is not the name
Intoned by the High Priest
To which a whole nation bowed, kneeled, and prostrated

No. This is another name
A name called by any other name
A nameless name

Not alien
Not terrestrial
Neither godly nor human nor angelic

Because there is no high priest
Never was
And never will be

There was no temple in the desert
No holy of holies
And never will be

There were no animal sacrifices
No scapegoats
No Moses, Aaron, or Levites

There is and was none of this
There is only the now between us right now
In the space we create in ourselves in our selves

The Myth of Rabbi Akiva
Four entered the Pardes, the orchard, and only one emerged unscathed. Or did he? (Note: Pardes has several meanings, but here we consider only “orchard” or “paradise.”)

It is said that upon existing the orchard, one died, one went mad, one became a heretic, and one, Rabbi Akiva, left unscarred.

Yet later on, he believed that Bar Kokhba was the Messiah, supported the revolt, and ended up being skinned alive by the Romans, becoming, ultimately, a martyr. Is this emerging unscathed, unscarred?

During the Passover seder, we read of the four sons—the foolish one, the shallow one, the wise one, and the one who doesn’t even know to ask questions. During the holiday of Sukkot, we learn that four different types of people are necessary to form a community: the. . . . Thus, too, the small rabbinic “community”—chevra—that entered the Pardes, looking for what—enlightenment, deeper meanings in the Torah, a vision of God? All four were needed for a complete experience. In ourselves, too, in our own quest: The mystical experience, the quest for meaning in life, for something deeper, for direct contact with the mystery of life—whatever you want to call it—involves these aspects of ourselves as well. How so?

We go a little mad, separating ourselves from ordinary reality. Yet, the world has its own madness, right?

We die to our old selves. To leave our bodies, to explore the unknown, to break away from ordinary reality requires the death of part of our selves.

We become other, like the supposed heretic, Aher, Rabbi Elisha ben Abouya, my favorite of the four rabbis, if only because the other rabbis called him “other” and shunned him, removing his personal name from the Talmud but leaving him in nonetheless as Aher. Yet, was he shunned?

Rebbe Meir, a student of both Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Elisha ben Abouya, incurring the wrath of other rabbis, has his opinions included in the Mishnah, but only anonymously. This was his punishment. And he did not enter the orchard with the other four rabbis.

I actually do not think Elisha ben Abouya is left in as an example of what happens when you go into a deep experience with doubt. Rather, most of us would feel doubt in such a situation. Few of us can enter or leave a Pardes (a paradise) with no doubt whatsoever, with complete faith. Jewish history is strewn with the skeletons of our ancestors who strayed from the correct path, beginning with Moses.

Instead, I think that the strayers, including Aher, are actually the true visionaries, since they step outside the box and expand the experience of the faith. For instance, the Talmud is full of Hellenisms, and some of the greatest of the sages had Greek names, e.g., Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, Eliezer the Great, another rabbi who, by the way, incurred the wrath of his more conventional, group-thinking colleagues for challenging the majority and refusing to form a consensus. Yet this is how the Sanhedrin—the congress of seventy—operated during a capital trial, in which members were encouraged to look for evidence or arguments against condemning the alleged criminal from death.

Contrary to the conventional interpretation given to the outcome of the experience of the four rabbis in the Pardes, I believe that Rabbi Akiva, originally viewed as the goodie-goodie, also did not emerge unscathed but rather lost his judgment regarding bar Kokhba and was blinded to the truth. He, then, left the Pardes not unscathed but blind. The madness of Ben Zoma was not ordinary madness but divine madness—he saw God and came out in a drunken state, ecstatic. Ben Azzai emerged unscathed too, or rather, scathed only in terms of ordinary reality, to which he had died. Aher came out other. The green shoot broke, meaning he had grown up under the experience, and instead of blindly doing something he didn’t believe in, he came to accept his own truth; he emerged true to himself, which meant leaving behind Judaism. Or did he? Maybe he left behind the Judaism practiced by his colleagues, including his student, Rebbe Meir, who came after him on horseback later when the latter was leaving the Jewish community for the Greek one.

Aher too was forward-thinking, or presaged a later trend in Judaism, namely, toward philosophy. Leaving aside Philo of Alexandria, the slew of medieval Jewish philosophers, including Saadya and Maimonides, drew nourishment from Greek philosophy, the philosophy of the Other. In spite of anger toward them, and accusations, book burnings, and the like, these men have come to be seen by nonmainstream Jews, and by nonJews, as representative of another worldview. Curiously, in most Jewish communities where Maimonides is studied, only his religious works like the Mishneh Torah seem to be studied, not the Guide of the Perplexed. It is interesting to wonder how someone like Aher would have responded to this book. Maybe, in fact, the Joseph to whom the Rambam writes this book, is Aher, or a latter-day version. Thus, Aher perhaps represents that part of Judaism and Jewish thought the rabbis were aware of but were not ready to deal with, so they kept it but disguised its name, actually emodying in the name the essence of that truth.

Four entered the Pardes. One went mad, one died, one was cut off, and one emerged unscathed. I would argue, in conclusion, that in other important ways as well we have read this story all wrong, that in fact Aher has lived the longest—Jews are considered Other. Otherness is a subject of study, writing, and research in the academic community, where the concept of the “other” has become a cliché. We are the outsiders, and as outsiders we have acquired a kind of privileged status. Our society as a whole values nonconformity, just as it also values conformity. There is the rebel without a cause, the outsider, the lone wolf, the last good man, the social activist, the person who stands up to evil and corruption and wrongdoing.

Madness, on the other hand, once valued more highly in the spiritual community, is less valued. The word “mad” seems to have more pejorative connotations than positive ones—mad about you, mad for love, madman, mad mad world.

Death, too, is feared and avoided and embraced, depending on the generation and the cultural. Death is a mixed blessing. In general, American society does all in its power to stave off the grim reaper, with some exceptions, e.g., the hospice movement.

And the life represented by Rabbi Akiva, the brilliant scholar, contemporary of Jesus, family man, model scholar, paradigm of brilliance—his is the life embraced by some and rejected by others.

Yet in the end he too, scathed by the Pardes, emerging blinded, seemed to have absorbed the lessons embodied or symbolized by his comrades: He did not fear death; perhaps this was because he witness Ben Zoma’s death and knew that death is not just physical but metaphorical and thus not real, or real in another sense. He was crazy to think the Jews could beat the Romans at their own game, and yet he wasn’t afraid of this craziness, perhaps something he learned from Ben Azzai, namely, that madness is in the eye of the beholder and sometimes madness is visionary. Madness appears differently to different people. Likewise the lesson from Aher, to celebrate one’s otherness, to be true to oneself, to take the risk of alienating one’s community, for a cause.

Aher too represents the fact that we are other than God. Aher learned that some people cannot go mad with love for God, some people cannot not be affected dramatically, and some people cannot die, in all the complexities of this word, after a transformative experience. This too Rabbi Akiva learned as he supported bar Kokhba, opening himself up to torture, death, and subsequent martyrdom. In all the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva is the most like Jesus, who also risked his life for his beliefs, if one believes the accounts in the New Testament.

The story of the Four Who Entered Pardes recounts the preparation of Rabbi Akiva for martyrdom of the kind experienced by another rabbi, Jesus. Rabbi Akiva, like his comrades, did not emerge unscathed, as is usually described, but very much scathed, but in the same double-edged manner as his comrades. The story is not so simple, the characters not so one-dimensional, the interpretations not so neat and pat. Perhaps Jesus can be described similarly.)

This is expressed in the famous words “water, water,” expressed later by Rabbi Akiva, when the Four saw water covering marble, perhaps in one of the heavenly halls. Things are not what they appear to be, so do not be led astray by appearances. The true reality is something else … and yet that reality has to include as well illusion, for is the illusion the water or the marble? What is the truest reality? Perhaps both are real, as real as we will ever know as human beings.

The Talmud of Death
In the next world,
Said the School of Hillel,
Nonbelievers will contemplate the world
Beyond that world until they emerge
Again in this one, that they might learn
The telescoping principles of life.

Shammai said, Those who forgo the truth
Of this world or cloak it in misperceptions of the next
They shall forsake eternal life. Still,
When all is said and done,
The easygoing truths of Hillel will win
Over the stubborn hardness of my school.

Rabbi Akiva said
There is no afterlife. Why
Should we be concerned
With the world beyond this world
When God is our province?

Rav brought it all together, saying: In our time
We venerate the sages of old but do not forget
The music of the desert. We bake, eat bread,
And give to the poor, humble ourselves once a year in the dust.
We watch the movement of Torah through the valleys,
Under the great desert, make love to our wives or husbands,
Saturate ourselves in the scents of life.

Those who obsess about death are distant
From God. There will be no red heifer in our time
To purify them. We must purify ourselves in the eternity
Of this world. Only then will the next
Come into view like the rising moon emerging
From cloud wisps

The Torah of Sex
In the Torah a famous passage compares
Sex with the floating visions of Jacob
The Patriarch. In the desert, while wondering,
It is said, he fell asleep under a date palm
And awoke, a woman
With red hair so high it stroked
The sun standing over him
Dripping water from her pitcher. Jacob
Our Patriarch leapt her way, grasped
Her left thigh with his right hand, squeezed
So hard the pitcher exploded
Into a thousand pieces. Dates
Dropping from the sky piled so thickly
The woman’s name never escaped her mouth.
She began dreaming, dancing, then reciting
Poetry so sweet the dates dried up.
Jacob smiled, laughed, released
Her thigh, pressed
Her until the heat from his heart
Penetrated deep. To the west
Unbroken hills of purple rock glowed
In the setting sun. Monsters flew
To and fro. The desert night’s coolness settled
Over the two sleeping bodies. Side by side
They dreamed in the Torah a famous passage
Compared sex with floating visions. Two are one, one is two,
One one, two two. In all the four worlds,
God said, I am the God of your ancestors, of you,
Your descendants. I give you
A passage that will be famous,
Subjected to many interpretations.
When you awaken, take the pitcher,
Repair it, fill it with dates, eat, then with water,
Drink. Love each other tightly,
That no one can doubt the reality
Of the hills, the colors, My Torah flowing
Underground. In this Torah
A famous passage will compare sex with the floating
Visions of our Patriarch Jacob when he pulled Rachel
From the skies into his sunburned arms. And they lay
Beneath the date palm until the rock beneath
Their head became the hundred
First name of the Creator.

Waterlily Fires
A place where distance
Between humans has been eviscerated
By a blinding flash of recognitions

Between brush strokes
Splashes of light
Remembrance of fire that was

I loved to sit in that room
Turn my back on the natural world
Finding a far-superior grace

On Friday I dissipated myself
A community of one in a small
Silver cup, overflowing into a fine-china dish

Imported from that other world, within
A time of its own

In my eagerness I knocked
Over the candles, setting fire

A shoddy, bumbling buck
Trodding a heavenly garden

Scaring off all the lovely beige does
In the waterlily room where not so long ago
Fire reigned almost eternal

Yes but could not help myself so was doomed
To wonder in my enthusiasms

Wheel of Fortune
In a scene in the Ramayana Sita stands on a mountain and shouts into a rainbow. At Angkor Wat Rama rides his chariot on a wall, and over the rainbow, rainforest trees extend their roots over the centuries until one day the temples will be sand. Then too the land mines will be dust.

Ezekiel saw this chariot in a realm of pure symbol. The Talmud says of four rabbis who entered the other world—pardes, the orchard—one emerged intact, one went mad, one became an apostate, and one died. Rabbi Akiva, the intact one, had cryptically warned the others not to say “water, water” when they saw a place of pure marble. Although they had neither chariot to ride, nor rainbow, their experience of water was akin to the experience of Lakshmi and his devotion to Sita. The wheels were the wheels of samsara, birth and death.

I climb an old trail that disappears into the high mountains above Glacier Gorge in Colorado. Below, the water weaves through the canyon, while above, tourists snap photos of the gushing falls. Are there connections? The Baal Shem Tov—the Master of the Good Name and the founder of the Hasidic movement—said imagination is the truest part of existence.

Have you had the experience of being with someone and the figure/ground morphs into a radiance of perception and things dissolve into pure colors and shapes in a spongy textured application of painted existence? The wheels turn, recycling desires to a future life or perhaps a past one.

We walk along the wall, overwhelmed and awed by the detail, yet elsewhere detail is scarce. Here there was time for such delicacy and completeness. Just outside the temple gates poor children line up selling large bunches of bananas for one dollah, suh. Is this what Ezekiel had in mind, or the rabbi who penetrated the two-waters mystery and in so doing exited the orchard with his marbles intact?

Water, water. Around the wheel goes water, grinding the grain of our lives until, worn down, it spreads like the future sands of Angkor Wat across the planet before being blown beyond the earth’s atmosphere and becoming the interstellar particles.

Could this be why the philosophers said God does not interfere in the individual moments of our lives? Or is this not true, since if it were, Ezekiel would have had no vision, or Moses, his? No, the wheel turns, whether on the wall or in the dream of Ezekiel, dividing the water. It is simple—water below, water above. The water of the sea of reeds as it divided during the Exodus. Water, water. To enter the orchard you need to leave behind all attachments, like the attachments that separated Sita from Rama and caused her to be so hard to regain. Like Rabbi Akiva, the only rabbi who left the orchard with his life and mind intact.

The two halves, that’s it. Water, water; Rama, Sita. Wheels and chariots. Male and female, divine and earthly, past and future. All fruits in the orchard, waiting to be imagined, pursued, then conquered, as Rama eventually conquered the demons who had stolen Sita. This, Ezekiel saw in his vision—hypnagogic, only real. Yes, the story is real, and the myriad details carved on the medieval walls by hundreds or thousands of carvers. Holding all together are those wheels, drawing the water that then divided, saving earlier the Israelites and later the seekers of the work of creation in the heavenly halls.

And what is this work? None other than swimmers narrating the two waters, divided on one level and though appearing divided on another in actuality one: There was only one water, one water only. Imagination is what was—and is—required and what informed—and continues to inform—these stories, however real or unreal they may sound.