Sunday, September 15, 2013

Ben Zoma's Pilgrims: Part Four--The Gates of Wealth and Honor

“What a difficult journey you’ve set for us!” the Professor, the General, the Billionaire and the Actress told the Beggar.

“According to the struggle,” the Beggar replied, “so is the reward.[i]  But you, not I, have determined the path.  I just guard the gates.  This one, your third, marks the road of riches.  Only the truly wealthy will make it to the fourth.”

“Here,” said the Beggar, handing the companions eighteen gold coins, “these may be of use along your way.  Now go, for, dawn is coming and you must gain ground before you stop to rest by day.  If you prove worthy of riches, I shall meet you again at the final gate.”  Then he disappeared into the orchard.

The Companions[ii] entrusted the Billionaire with the gold pieces.  “In this test of wealth,” said the Professor and the Actress, “surely it is your turn to guide us.”

“Yes,” agreed the General.  “Wherever you go, I will go.”[iii]

And so the Billionaire led them.  As they walked, the surrounding trees and brush grew denser and denser until they formed high, impenetrable walls on either side of the ever-narrowing trail.  When the sun rose, the Companions found themselves ensconced in an elaborate labyrinth, with paths forking off in all directions.[iv]  As if that were not disorienting enough, each of those paths was paved with marble so sleek it rippled like flowing water, leaving them with the discomforting illusion of solid ground falling away beneath their feet.[v]

Shortly after daybreak, the travelers slept.  When they resumed their journey at nightfall, they were completely discombobulated.  They decided to turn left at every fork—and eventually found themselves back where they started.[vi]  Next they turned only right—and again wound up where they’d begun.  Once more around, they alternated left and right turns, starting with a left—same result.  On their fourth attempt, they alternated again, but this time commenced with a right.  And yet again, they came full circle.

But this time they were not alone.  A weather-beaten boy rode up on a donkey laden with saddlebags. [vii] 

“Hello!” hailed the Companions.  “Who are you—and how do we get out of here?”

“And to you,” said the boy, “I offer greetings
For this, the first of all our meetings.
Circling paths that lead the right ways—
I’m the Master of the Maze.[viii]
Turn and turn and turn about—
You must find your own way out.
But precious goods I’ll sell to you
If my riddle you answer true:
Prince or pauper—which is which?
Tell me, who is truly rich?”

“You’re just a child,” said the Professor.  “What are you doing out here?”

“Near is far and far is near
And things are not as they appear.
All that glitters isn’t gold
And what looks young is very old.”

“All right,” said the Professor.  “I’ll try the riddle.  If wealth is measured by loyal friends and good health, then I am very rich, indeed, for I am graced with dear companions and strength enough for our shared journey.”

“Well done,” replied the Merchant.  “You are rich enough to buy my goods.  What would you like to purchase?”

The Philosopher turned to the Billionaire: “You’re leading this round.  Choose for us.”

He looked through the Merchant’s saddlebags and pulled out a large sack overflowing with melons, cucumbers, leeks, onions and garlic.[ix]  Addressing both the Merchant and the other Companions, he said: “We’ve eaten nothing but these damn honey cakes for weeks.  We need some variety in our diet.  I’ll take the produce.”

“Very well, then, that will cost six gold pieces,” the Merchant replied.  Then, eyeing the Billionaire directly, he added a warning:  All that you choose, you’re free to share, but on the road, it’s the buyer’s to bear.”  He collected his payment, mounted his donkey, and mysteriously vanished.

Dawn was breaking, so the Companions set up camp, feasted on their bounty, and then slept soundly.  When they resumed their journey after sundown, the Billionaire followed the Merchant’s instructions and stuffed the remaining fruits and vegetables into his pack, which added considerable weight.  Still, bolstered by the fresh food, he led, at first, with newfound confidence.  But who knows how many wrong turns later, at the end of a long and wearying night, the party wound up, yet again, right where they had started.

The Merchant of the Maze awaited them.

“Five times now you’ve gone around
Clueless where the trail is bound.
I’ve got more to sell to you
If another answers true.
Serf or sultan—which is which?
Tell me, who is truly rich?”

This time the General stepped up: “On this journey, I’ve discovered that real wealth lies in the legacy we leave for future generations: our children and grandchildren, students and disciples. I only pray I haven’t learned this too late.”

“We shall see,” said the Merchant.  “But for now, you, too, have proven rich enough to sample my wares.” 

Again, the Companions deferred to the Billionaire who offered another six gold pieces in exchange for a bulky clay pot of quail preserved in olive oil and a bulging pouch of salted fish.[x]  “I’ve been craving meat since leaving home,” he said to the others, adding, “and it will give us all strength for this interminable trail.”  Again, the Merchant and his donkey immediately disappeared.

The following night, when the Companions returned to the trail, the Billionaire’s pack was even heavier.  The others offered to carry some of the food, but he insisted that, as the Merchant had instructed, the load was his alone to shoulder.  Groaning under the heft of the extra supplies, he walked aimlessly with the other three behind him; this time it was still dark when they all ended back at the dreaded intersection where the Merchant and his donkey stood waiting.

“Circle, circle—that makes six.
When will the maze reveal its tricks?
I’ve still more to offer you
If the next one answers true:
Baron or beggar, which is which?
Actress—tell me, “Who is rich?”

Answering the call, the Actress said, “Nothing is more precious than each passing hour.  Since I have ample time to make this pilgrimage, I am a wealthy woman.”

“Excellent,” replied the Merchant.  “You, too, have earned your riches.” He turned to the Billionaire: “How would you spend the group’s last gold coins?”

“On wine,” said the Billionaire, reaching for a cask and strapping it to his pack, “for wine gladdens the heart, and my heart is heavy with hopelessness and defeat. [xi] 

“Wait!” chimed the Professor and the Actress.  “You’ve spent twelve gold pieces on luxury foods that won’t help get us out of this maze; in fact they’re already dragging you down.  Why would you give the precious little we have left for a reckless extravagance like wine?”

“I respect his choice,” replied the General, “even if I would choose otherwise, for we have trusted him to be our guide.”

The Professor and the Actress reluctantly nodded their assent and the Billionaire handed the merchant the coins.  After the Merchant vanished, the Billionaire poured a glass for each of the Companions.  They toasted l’chaim, then made their way, once more, through the maze.

Their progress was excruciatingly slow, for the Billionaire’s body throbbed with pain at every step, yet he insisted on bearing his laden pack alone.  Imagine, then, the desperation and despair as, just before sunrise, they rounded a turn that brought them back, for the seventh time, to the beginning—and the waiting Merchant.

Overcome by frustration and fatigue, the Billionaire slipped on the slick marble path and landed flat on his back, helplessly pinned to the ground by his own possessions like an overturned turtle.

When the General offered him a hand up, he refused, out of pride and embarrassment.  But as the Billionaire lay there, looking up at the half moon and the bright morning star sparkling against the rosy dawn, he felt his infinitesimal smallness against the world’s enormous beauty.  Slowly, his shame gave way to awe, then gratitude.[xii]

He was still on his back, in a sort of reverie, when the Merchant came over and addressed him: “Down is up and up is down.  Now who wears the rich man’s crown?”

The Billionaire laughed and said: “For almost my entire adult life, I’ve gotten whatever I wanted—and gained nothing.[xiii]  For my Companions were right.  I’ve burdened us with foolish things when, together, we’ve had all that we require from the start.  Keep our gold, I paid it in good faith, but please, take back the food and wine and give them to someone truly in need.  Who is rich?  Those who can see their own blessings, who rejoice in what they have and share with those who have not.”

As soon as he finished speaking, the walls of the labyrinth instantly fell away and the Companions found themselves at the foot of a high mountain, beneath another stone archway.  In place of the Merchant of the Maze, the Beggar greeted them.

“The seventh circuit proves the charm—and testifies to your wealth and worthiness.  Welcome to the fourth gate, the entry to your last trial, the path of honor.  Only the truly honored will complete this journey.  If you show yourselves worthy, I will meet you for the final passage to Ben Zoma’s tomb, which lies beyond the mountain.”

The Beggar disappeared behind the stone arch, leaving the Companions to plot a course for after dark.  The entire morning they searched, high and low, but failed to find even a trace of a trail.  All the while, the towering peak loomed over them, snow-capped and daunting; they realized they had to blaze a route to the other side but had no clue where or how to cross over.  Finally, the General spoke up: “We’re going to face an arduous ascent this evening, so we’d best call it a day and get some rest.  Perhaps when we wake, at dusk, the night will offer us a sign to indicate the way.”  The first chill of autumn filled the air, so the travelers slept huddled together on a bed of freshly-fallen cypress leaves. 

They woke just as the sun sank in the western sky, opposite the mountain.  Its last rays bathed the peak in brilliant alpenglow.  The Actress looked up and gasped, for there, on the crest, stood a perfect vision of the Oscar statuette, the Academy award that had so painfully eluded her in recent years.  The glinting gold knight beckoned her upward, to the summit.

“What is it?” asked the others.

“Don’t you see it?” she cried.  “There—on the mountaintop!”

“What?” replied the Billionaire, “the sunset?  Yes, it’s beautiful.”

“No!” exclaimed the Actress, “the Oscar statuette!  The honor I’ve been chasing my whole career.  It’s perched right up there, almost within my grasp!”

“We don’t see it,” said the Companions[xiv].  “But we believe that you do, and are meant to.   It seems the final turn to guide falls to you.  Lead on.”

So they climbed, for two straight nights, beneath the waxing gibbous moon.  Despite the absence of a defined path, at first they gained steady ground and altitude; the closer they came to the summit, the more passionately the Actress drove them, her eyes afire in pursuit of her long-sought honor.  But the second night, their efforts stalled at the foot of a steep moraine, littered with ice and scree.  Any hard-earned headway they gained was invariably wiped away when one or more of the Companions would slip and tumble back to the base.  Luckily no one was seriously hurt.

“It’s up there—we can reach it!” pressed the Actress, urging them on.  And for her sake, they tried, repeatedly.  But without ropes, crampons and axes, forward progress was impossible.

Weary beyond words, they stopped to catch their breath.  Firmly but supportively, the General spoke: “My friends, we can’t make it this way.  There must be another option.”  He paused to consider, then continued: “Sometimes, in order to ascend, one must first descend. [xv] I’ve seen this in battle.  To storm a difficult hill, first you secure the valley.  It’s time to head down, to try a different approach from below.”

“But we’re so close!” lamented the Actress.  “How can we turn back now?”

The Professor put her arm around her shoulder and whispered kindly: “We’ll get you there.  Hold fast to your vision.  It’s just that sometimes, what appears to be the shortest road proves impassable, while the seemingly long route provides the only passage.[xvi]

The Actress reluctantly agreed, though it pained her grievously to turn her back on the mountaintop and the honor that awaited her there.  They descended together, along the mountain’s flank, entering into a deep, wooded valley filled with strangely beautiful flowers that glowed silver, like finest moonlight, even though the moon itself had set hours ago.  They walked and walked, through this dream-like landscape until they came, at last to a meadow.  And then, at the meadow’s edge, they spied a spectacular old Moorish building, rising like a dream, its crenellated arches ablaze with light.

The eager Companions ran up and as they got closer, realized it was a synagogue.  The door was locked, so they knocked.

No answer.

They knocked again.

This time, an elderly woman opened and asked, “What brings you here at this hour?”

“We seek the path of honor, which lies beyond the mountaintop.  Can you show us the way?”

“Perhaps I can help,” she said, “but only one of your company may enter and confer with me. Choose who you would send, then let the others wait outside.”

The Professor, the General and the Billionaire motioned the Actress to step forward.

She embraced them all, then approached the Old Woman, who invited her in, handed her a cruse of pure olive oil, then closed and barred the door behind them.

Outside, the three Companions rested in the meadow.  With the luminous silver flowers shining all around them, they marveled at this magical place.  Then, just as the first blue glow of dawn rose in the sky, a gazelle leapt in front of them and started to prance back and forth with utmost grace, pivoting and soaring on her powerful hind legs like a ballerina.   Her movements seemed to call forth other forest creatures, who gathered around her in an expanding circle that took in the astounded Companions. 

The small ones came first—mice and moles, rabbits and rock badgers, then hedgehogs, foxes and porcupines.  The larger ones followed: sheep and goats and wild asses, ibex and oxen and antelope.  All gazed, spellbound, at the gazelle, who, as she danced, drew near, in turns, to each of the other creatures.

As they took in this miraculous display, the Companions realized the gazelle was actually feeding the other animals as she frolicked about.  All night, she had foraged for each of their favorite foods, to present them, joyously, come dawn.  Inspired by her endless generosity, the Companions pulled out their remaining honey cakes and offered them to the gazelle, who graciously accepted their gifts and invited them to join the dance.[xvii]

Meanwhile, back at the synagogue, the Old Woman ushered the Actress into the sanctuary.  It was a cavernous room, and in place of the usual pews and prayer books, thousands of oil lamps filled every nook and cranny.  Some blazed brilliantly, some simmered, and others seemed on the verge of flickering out. 

“What is this?” asked the Actress, feeling for the cruse of oil in her pocket.

“Each lamp represents a different soul living in the world,” replied the Old Woman.  “And each burns in accordance with the honor its appointed soul has accrued.  Those whose lamps flare brightly possess honor in abundance; the dimmest ones represent those who have frittered their honor away.”

The Actress gulped.  With great trepidation she asked, “So. . . where is my lamp?”

The Old Woman led her to the gilded ark at the front of the sanctuary and drew back its jeweled curtain.  Inside, where one would have expected to find Torah scrolls, it was empty—save for a set of four lamps, all guttering, having exhausted the last measure of their oil.  Beneath those lamps were inscribed the names of the four Companions.[xviii]

Deeply shaken, the Actress looked out the window to her left.  By the light of the breaking dawn, she could clearly see the gold statuette glittering on the mountaintop.  Seized by covetous craving, she opened her cruse of oil and prepared to feed the dying fire of her lamp, to fuel her honor and secure the prize she’d desired for so very long.

But as she moved toward the ark, she glimpsed the scene outside the other window, on her right: the frolicking gazelle feeding the forest creatures, and her Companions offering up their honey cakes as they joined in the dance.  She watched for a long while, in contemplative silence, then drew back and turned to the Old Woman.

“For years, I have chased recognition and renown, at the cost of almost everything else.  I’ve bolstered my own ego by putting others down, and acted as if honor was a scarce commodity, rationed out so that whatever others receive must come at my expense.  I’ve lived life as a competition, and despite my success, always fell short, for in that game, there’s no satisfying the craving, no matter how much you achieve.  But now I see: the harder I pursue honor, the more it eludes me.  To hoard it is to lose it.  Because with what matters most in this life—kindness, compassion, and love—all that we ever really have is what we share.”[xix]

The Old Woman smiled and escorted the Actress back up to the ark, where she poured the oil from her cruse into the lamps of the other three Companions.

Their flames shot up, together with her own—and so did the sun, at just that moment, ascending over the mountaintop and filling the sanctuary with golden light.   Then the ground roared and rumbled beneath their feet, and started rising toward the heavens.  Outside, too, the entire meadow was rapidly moving upward, even as the opposing mountain fell away.  When the tremors stopped, leaving the former valley now as highest ground, the gazelle leapt away toward the climbing sun.  The Actress stepped out of the synagogue and, weeping with awe and joy, embraced the other Companions.

And so the Beggar met them all.  “Well done, my friends,” he said.  “Walk with me, by daylight this time, the final passage to Ben Zoma’s tomb.  They strolled like this, together, all day, laughing and singing beneath the warming sun.  At dusk they arrived at the place they all immediately recognized from their shared dream: the white-domed burial cave, nestled in an orchard, beside a pristine river, at the foot of a majestic mountain.

“Do you know what day it is?” asked the Beggar.

“No,” said the Companions, who had lost all track of time.

“You have journeyed for forty days.  You departed on the first of Elul.  Tonight marks the tenth of Tishrei—Yom Kippur.  Take the white cloaks from your packs, robe yourselves, then fast and meditate here for the next twenty-four hours.   Now, I must go.  But I will return to you at the time of the closing of the gates.”  

[i] Avot 5:26, in the words of Ben Hei Hei

[ii] Having come this far in the narrative, I now refer to my band of travelers honorifically as the Companions.  The word is the usual English translation of the Aramaic chevraya from the Zohar, where it refers to the mystical disciples of the great master of that text, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

[iii] Ruth 1:16

[iv] In Jewish tradition, the motif of the labyrinth is typically connected to the biblical story of the city of Jericho.  In the book of Joshua, the Israelites circle Jericho seven times, blowing their horns, before its walls fall down.  In medieval Jewish iconography, the path around the city is commonly depicted as a labyrinth.  See Daniel Stein Kokin’s article, “The Jericho Labyrinth: The Rise and Fall of a Jewish Visual Trope”.  In an article in Reform Judaism magazine, Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis elaborates on this symbol: “Jericho stands for all the miksholim (meaning ‘stumbling blocks’ or ‘obstacles’)—the challenges we have to face if we are to go forward in
life. . . . The way past our obstacles is rarely ‘straightforward.’  Often we find ourselves going in circles, or having to make detours.  As often as not, the best way to our goals is not the shortest way. . . . Thus our ancestors grasped in the story of Jericho the metaphor that life is full of reversals: that sometimes the way toward your goal may actually take you further away from it for a while, as a labyrinth does.”

[v] See the famous story of the four rabbis who entered the Pardes—the grove of esoteric, mystical teachings—in Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 14b: Rabbi Akiva said to them: “When you come to the place of pure marble stones, do not say, 'Water! Water!' for it is said, 'He who speaks untruths shall not stand before My eyes' (Psalms 101:7)". 

[vi] Turning left at every possibility is a traditional solution to the problem of the labyrinth.  The modern master of fictional labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges, speaks of this in his tale, “The Garden of Forking Paths”.

[vii] Surprise “guests” appear regularly throughout the Zohar and usually turn out to be quite different from what they appear.  As Nathan Wolski notes in A Journey into the Zohar: “The companions will come across a wanderer—an old man, donkey driver, hermit, merchant, child—and they surprise by showing themselves the masters. . .  The spiritual world of the Zohar is always generated by encounters—between two or more people.  Mystical experience and insight are always the patrimony of an encounter with an other.”

[viii] “Circling paths that lead the right ways” is a translation of ma-aglei tzedek in Psalm 23.  The more common translation is “right paths” but this one, from Rabbi Harold Kushner, captures the sense of the Hebrew more accurately.

[ix] See Numbers 11:5-6, in which the people remember eating these foods in Egypt.  Note that all of these foods, symbolic of slavery, grow on or under the ground.

[x] Again, Numbers 11: “The Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat!  We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt. . .’”

[xi] Psalm 104:15

[xii] This is the quintessential wilderness experience.  As Lawrence Kushner notes in Honey from the Rock: “The wilderness is not just a desert through which we wandered for forty years.  It is a way of being.  In the wilderness your possessions cannot surround you.  Your preconceptions cannot protect you.  Your logic cannot promise you the future.  You are left alone each day with an immediacy that astonishes and chastens.  You see the world as if for the first time.”

[xiii] See Ecclesiastes 2: “I searched with my mind how to cheer my body with wine. . . I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings. . . . Whatever my eyes desire, I did not keep from them. . . . Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”

[xiv] In Midrash Genesis Rabbah, as Abraham and Isaac approach Mount Moriah, where God has instructed Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham turns to his servants and asks: “Do you see anything in the distance?”  They stared and shook their heads: “No, we see nothing special.”  Then Abraham addresses the very same question to Isaac.  “Yes,” he responds, “I see a mountain, majestic and beautiful, and a cloud of glory hovers above it.”  At this point, Abraham directs his servants to remain behind while he and Isaac continue on their mission alone. 

[xv] Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught: “All ascent requires descent.”
[xvi] Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 53b: Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah taught: "Once a child got the better of me. I was traveling, and I met with a child at a crossroads. I asked him, 'which way to the city?' and he answered: 'This way is short and long, and this way is long and short.'
"I took the 'short and long' way. I soon reached the city but found my approach obstructed by gardens and orchards. So I retraced my steps and said to the child: 'My son, did you not tell me that this is the short way?' Answered the child: 'Did I not tell you that it is also long?'”

[xvii] See the Zohar 3:249a-b as quoted in Nathan Wolski, A Journey into the Zohar:
The gazelle of the dawn (Psalm 22:1).  What is the gazelle of the dawn?  It is a particular animal, a merciful one, of whom ther is none more merciful among the animals of the world; for when time presses, and she needs food for both herself and for all the animals, she goes far away on a distant journey and comes back ringing food. . . When she returns all the other animals assemble near her, and she stands in the middle and distributes to each one of them. . . When does she distribute to them?  When the morning is about to dawn. . . . when the morning shines forth they are all sated with her food. . . She goes in the day and is revealed at night and makes her distribution in the morning, and she is therefore called the gazelle of the dawn.”

As Wolski emphasizes, in the kabbalistic imagery of the Zohar, the gazelle represents the Shechinah, the feminine divine presence that ascends to the upper regions of the divine being—the higher sefirot that are not accessible to human beings—in order to draw down the divine bounty for those below.

Note that the Hebrew ayelet ha-shachar, the “gazelle of the dawn” is also the name of the morning star.

[xviii] I have adapted the story of the oil lamps from a common folktale, in which the oil represents not honor but longevity.  For one version, see “The Cottage of Candles” in Howard Schwartz’s collection, The Day the Rabbi Disappeared.

[xix] Jerusalem Talmud, Hagigah 2:1: “Those who endeavor to gain honor at the price of another person being degraded have no portion in the world to come.”

In Honey from the Rock, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner notes: “Is this not the great childhood problem—and therefore the great human problem: To learn that it is good for you when other people love other people beside you.  That I have a stake in their love.  That I get more when others give to others.

That if I hoard it, I lose it.
That if I give it away, I get it back.”

No comments: