It all began with the arrival of Av, the blazing month of mid-summer, when the Professor, the Billionaire, the General and the Actress each dreamed the same curious dream for nine nights in a row. Since they did not yet know one another, each of the eventual Companions was unaware that they shared their nightly vision of the majestic mountain, flanked by a pristine river, glorious orchard, and ancient white-domed burial cave.
They were unaware, too, that everyone’s dream ended with the same encounter, with a wizened Sage from ancient Israel who introduced himself as Shimon Ben Zoma—yet each dreamer heard Ben Zoma’s voice as his or her own—as if he was speaking out of the dreamer’s own mouth, imploring, “Come home to me!”[i] So each of the dreamers, thinking themselves alone with this uncanny nightly vision, dismissed it at first, then tried, with mounting difficulty, to ignore it.
But a few weeks later, on the first of Elul, the last month of the Jewish year, as summer turned almost imperceptibly toward fall, each of them arrived indepdently, as it were, at Kennedy Airport and boarded El Al flight 1836 for Tel Aviv.
Why did they follow this strange call? None of them could really answer that question; each still thought the idea more than a little crazy. But the dream’s strange power tugged at them; they were drawn onward like deer to a flowing brook.[ii]
And for each of them, the time was right. They were all highly accomplished, at the pinnacles of their chosen fields. And yet, just beneath the bright, shining surface of their success, each was struggling mightily.
The Philosopher was a renowned professor, the long-time chair of her department in Charlottesville, Virginia and author of both academic essays on epistemology and pop-philosophical self-help books. Known for her celebrated wit, she was an omnipresent guest on the media circuit. Once, when Terry Gross asked her, “Is there anything you don’t know?” she half-joked: “Yes—how to say, ‘I don’t know.’”[iii] And yet, of late, she felt completely clueless. The day after the Supreme Court recognized gay marriage, she proposed to her longtime partner. The partner said nothing—then left, that very night, for another woman with whom she had apparently been carrying on a three-year affair. Now, as the Professor’s personal life imploded, she found herself alone, without a single friend to whom she could turn for support.
The Billionaire had made his vast fortune in software development before his thirtieth birthday, then retired to a mansion on Puget Sound, where he wrote a semi-regular op-ed column in the Wall Street Journal. He owned 17 cars, 2 yachts, and vacation estates on four different continents. Rising politicians and rock stars vied for his friendship and he dated a steady stream of swimsuit models. In other words, he had everything he had ever dreamed of attaining. And it all amounted
to. . . well, nothing.[iv] Which is to say, he was desperately bored.
From his command position in the Pentagon, the General had instant access to the Secretary of Defense and even the ear of the President. He was a decorated veteran of the first Gulf War, and the nation’s leading authority on 21st century counter-insurgency tactics. But back on the home front, he was mired in defeat. Twelve years earlier, on his daughter’s eighteenth birthday, he and his wife had sat up long past her curfew, waiting for her to return from a celebration with her friends. At two am, his wife could no longer keep her eyes open. She went to bed, cautioning him: “I know you are angry. I’m angry, too. But you are her father. Think before you act. Talk to her.” Alas, when his daughter finally came through the door at 3:45, reeking of alcohol, he didn’t think or talk with her. “You betrayed my trust!” he bellowed. Then he slapped her, hard, breaking her nose.[v] Since that awful night over a decade ago, his daughter had barely spoken with him. Now she was about to give birth to his first grandchild—and had forbidden him from visiting. He feared that he would never see the next generation of his family.
The Actress lamented, “Always the bridesmaid, never the bride” for she had now been a runner up for the Oscar three years running. She garnered critical praise and box office bounty—but just couldn’t beat out Meryl Streep or even Jennifer Lawrence. Every time she fell short of the prize, she sank deeper into despair. In search of consolation, she started a sad affair with the married director of her latest film, knowing that it would end badly and leave her feeling even worse about herself. Which, of course, it did. So when she called her agent and told him that she would be taking an unplanned vacation in Israel, he told her to take as long as she needed, since he didn’t see any new projects on her horizon.
El Al 1836 was a red-eye, departing New York just before midnight and arriving in Tel Aviv at 4:30 pm. The Professor, the Billionaire, the General and the Actress all slept most of the trip and were still drowsy as they made their way through customs, then exited the airport, each searching for their own pre-arranged limousine waiting just outside. But as they headed toward the curb, they discovered that there was only one limo in all of Ben Gurion airport. Eyeing them, the driver stepped out and opened the rear door. The Billionaire immediately climbed in.
“What are you doing?” snapped the General, “this is my car!”
“Excuse me, both of you,” interrupted the Professor, “but I booked this service from back home.”
“As did I,” insisted the Actress.
“Well, then,” said the driver, “we seem to be at an impasse. Perhaps I can help. I have instructions to pick up the passenger who is traveling to the tomb of Shimon Ben Zoma. Which of you would that be?”
“Me,” they answered in unison.
“Isn’t that interesting,” noted the driver. “Come in, all of you.” They took their seats and, roused from their travelers’ torpor by this most unlikely coincidence, began to take notice of one another for the first time.
“Just one thing,” the driver added: “I cannot take you as far as Ben Zoma’s grave. No one can, for in the end, the road there becomes impassable for all but those who go on foot. I can get you to the gateway. From there, you’re on your own.”
For the next two hours, the passengers sat in stunned silence as the driver headed north, following the superhighway along the coastal plain, then traversing a series of narrowing back roads up into the Galilean hill country.
Just as the sun sank out of sight, the car slowed to a stop at the base of a large stone archway. The air was very still.
“Where are we?” asked the Professor.
“You are here,” said the driver, and without further ado, he ushered them out and started to unload their bags.
“Hold on!” barked the General. “You can’t just leave us here in this God forsaken place! I’m ordering you—wait here while I check out the situation!”
The driver looked at the General, gunned the engine, and drove away.
The Billionaire glared at the General accusingly: “Now look what you’ve done! You and your orders have left me stranded here!”
“Left us stranded here,” cried the Actress. What do we do now?
No one answered. Then a strange voice called out from the long shadow stretching behind the stone gate: “Who are you and why are you here?”
Out stepped an ancient beggar, his limbs wrapped with ragged bandages but his eyes afire.[vi]
“Speak up, all of you! Answer me: who are you and why have you come?”
Finally, the Actress stepped forward:
“I am here on account of a dream. One month ago, I dreamed the same dream, nine nights in a row. There was a mountain, a river, an orchard, a tomb. Then Shimon Ben Zoma beckoned, “Come home to me!” I know: it’s crazier than the craziest role I’ve ever played—and I’ve had some doozies. Yet here I am.”
“Do you know what’s even crazier?” said the Billionaire, “I had the exact same dream!”
“Me, too,” muttered the General.
“Extraordinary, “ said the Professor. “I, too, dreamed this dream. How unlikely could this be: a pack of dreamers in search of a Talmudic sage dead for 2,000 years. It makes no sense whatsoever. Yet here we all are.”
“Unlikely, yes,”— replied the Beggar, “but you have done well. This vision invites great blessing, though it will not be easy to realize. In dreams begin responsibilities.[vii]
An arduous pilgrimage awaits you. To reach Ben Zoma’s tomb, you must pass through four gates, each of which will test whether your worthiness. I am the gatekeeper and this is the first, the gate of wisdom. As you journey from here, know that only the truly wise will arrive at the second gate.”
“How will we know the way?” asked the Billionaire. “Is there a map?”
“Not the sort that you expect,” replied the Beggar. “For where you are going, there is no roadmap—but if you seek with diligence and sincerity you will find the path. For the true way is very close to you, in your hearts and on your lips. Follow it.”[viii]
“What the hell does that mean?” roared the General.
“This is for you to discover. For now, heed my advice: you must make this journey by night. Take to the road after sundown, and make your camp at dawn. On the path that you have chosen, daylight is blind. Sleep while the sun shines. Your vision will come with the darkness.[ix]
Now give me your bags. The items you have packed will not help you here. I will provide you with all that you need.”
With astonishing strength, the Beggar heaved away their baggage, thereby relieving them of, among other things, the Professor’s classic works of Western philosophy, a key to the Billionaire’s Swiss bank account, the General’s .40 Glock pistol, the Actress’s I-pad, and four high-powered flashlights. In return, he handed each of the travelers a well-worn backpack, water bottle, coil of rope, white cloak, and generous supply of honey wafers.[x]
“You’re out of your mind!” said the General. “What kind of rations are these? And at the very least, give us back our flashlights. How can we travel by night with no light?”
“To go in the dark with a light is to know the light,” said the Beggar. “To know the dark, you must go dark.”[xi] He pointed them toward the faint path on the other side of the gate. “Your time is here.” Then he turned, once more, to the Billionaire, the General and the Actress: “For each of you, I have an additional gift, given in accordance with who you are and what you will need along the way.” He gave the General a hammer, the Billionaire a large gold nugget, and the Actress a most unusual scroll—primeval looking, yet entirely blank.
“Don’t I get a gift?” asked the Professor.
“You already have yours,” the Beggar replied. “Your challenge will be to find it.
Now go. Darkness has fallen. If you prove wise travelers, I will meet you again at the second gate.”
[i] Talmud, Brachot 57b teaches that whoever sees Ben Zoma in a dream will gain wisdom. The idea of each person hearing a sacred call in his or her own voice comes from the classic teaching that at Mt. Sinai, each of the Israelites heard God in a uniquely personal manner.
[ii] See Psalm 42: “As the deer yearns for streams of water, so my soul yearns for You, O God.” This is also a reference to the ayelet ha-shachar, the “gazelle of the dawn” which figures prominently in the Zohar (and below).
[iii] Talmud, Brachot 4a: “Teach your tongue to say, ‘I do not know.’”
[iv] Ecclesiastes 2. The author—by Jewish tradition, King Solomon—acquires enormous wealth, only to conclude, “all was vanity, a striving after wind.”
[v] See Numbers 20, where, overcome by anger, Moses disobeys God and strikes the rock instead of speaking to it—and is punished as God denies him entry into the Promised Land.
[vi] In a well-known Talmudic story, the prophet Elijah tells Rabbi Yehoshua that the Messiah can be found outside the gates of Rome: “He sits among the lepers whom you will find unwinding all of their bandages at the same time and then covering their sores with clean bandages. The Messiah is the only one who unwinds and rewinds his bandages one at a time, thinking, ‘I want to be ready at a moment’s notice if I am called’.” Sanhedrin 98a
[vii] From a poem by W.B. Yeats, later the title of a short story by Delmore Schwartz
[viii] Deuteronomy 30:11-14: Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, "Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?" Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?" No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.
[ix] Much of my story is inspired by my reading on the kabbalistic masterpiece, the Zohar, particularly as discussed in Nathan Wolski’s fine book, A Journey into the Zohar.
Wolski notes that the Zohar is, in many ways, a pilgrimage story: “According to the Zohar, the world is best experienced from the perspective of a wanderer. Only a traveler has the fresh eyes from which the deepest dimensions of Torah and reality can be fathomed." Also of note: throughout the Zohar, the protagonists, a band of mystical Companions, do their sacred work at night. As Wolski writes on pages 143 and 144: “The nocturnal delight—the nightly study vigil from midnight till dawn—is, alongside the zoharic praxis of ‘walking on the way’ the most important mystical ritual found in the Zohar. . . Throughout the night, the Companions’ words of Torah below emit an aphrodisiacal quality, arousing the male and female grades of divinity, who, after a night of playful courtship, finally unite in the intermingling of the day and night immediately preceding the dawn.”
[x] See Exodus 16:31 and its description of manna
[xi] Wendell Berry, “To Know the Dark”