Sunday, September 15, 2013

Ben Zoma's Pilgrims: Part Three--The Gate of Power

Standing before the stone archway, the Professor, the Billionaire, the General and the Actress eyed the Beggar with a mix of elation and weariness.  While they were thrilled to have reached the second gate, the first leg of their journey had taken its toll.  They were torn between their calling to continue and the fear and weariness tempting them to turn back.

As if reading their minds, the Beggar announced: “Once you pass through a gate, the pathway back is barred to you.  Your road home lies ahead, onward to Ben Zoma’s tomb.  You are now entering the gate of power.  Know, as you go forth, that only the truly mighty will make it to the third gate.  Four rivers guard that passage, one for each of the four of you.[i]  You must ford them, leading in turns along the way.  Remember to travel between dusk and dawn, for the power of your souls rouses at night.”  He paused for a moment, unwrapped one of the many bandages covering his limbs from his right arm, and handed it to the Actress, who placed it in her pack.  “Perhaps you will find a use for this in a time of healing,” said the Beggar.  “Now be off, all of you—if you prove yourselves strong travelers, I will see you at the third gate.

The sun rose and the Beggar disappeared behind the archway.  The exhausted travelers slept all day, then woke at nightfall and resumed their journey.  Moving over smooth road under the light of a full moon, they made good time.  At daybreak, they feasted on the fruit of a spreading pomegranate tree, then rested in its shade.[ii]  The next night, they had not walked very far when they arrived at the first crossing.

The river was a deluge.  Gushing with tremendous force, it carried a torrent of house-sized boulders.  On the opposite bank, ten chieftains sat in the doorways of ten goatskin tents.  The travelers called to them from afar, but their cries were drowned out by the crash of water and stone.

“This is impassable!” lamented the Billionaire.  “The river will crush us however we cross.”

“No,” said the General.  “I will lead the way.  For if this is the path of power, the task of leadership falls on me.  All of my adult life, I have learned the art of war—which is, in the end, about the exercise of power. Follow my instructions and we will make it to the third gate!”

The Actress interjected: “That’s not how the Beggar explained it.  He said that each of us must lead across one of the streams.  We need to take turns, General.  Our power is greater when it is shared.”

“We’ll share our resources,” replied the General, “but for an operation of this order, someone must assume overall command.  I’ve got the leadership experience here—twelve years with the Army Corps of Engineers, confronting just this sort of challenge. The only way to ford this current is to build a bridge.   Listen to me and we’ll get it done.”

Over the next two nights, the General led the effort to gather logs and lash them into a pontoon bridge.  But every time the travelers tried to launch the bridge across the stream, boulders battered it away.  With each successive disaster, the General’s fury mounted.  He ranted and raved, blaming his failure on the others’ incompetence.  Finally, they rebelled. 

“This is folly!” cried the Billionaire.  “Enough is enough.”

“I believe there is a much easier way,” said the Professor, who had been studying the river carefully. We wait it out here for two more nights.  I’ve got high hopes that on the third, we will all cross safely.”

Trusting the Professor, the Actress agreed to her plan.  The Billionaire was skeptical, but he decided to go along out of antipathy for the General.  And so, for the next two nights, the Professor, the Actress and the Billionaire rested while the General raged on, now futilely throwing up doomed bridges on his own.

On the third night, the Professor led the Actress and the Billionaire down to the river’s edge.  They watched and waited.  Sure enough, as the sun set, the current slowed.  By the time three stars twinkled around the waning moon, the river had stopped completely, leaving in its place a dry, paved bed, which the travelers crossed easily.  Strangely, as they climbed up the far bank, the goatskin tents and chieftains vanished.  Still, they were safely across, on solid ground.

“What just happened?” asked the Actress.  She turned to the Professor: “How did you know?”

“Knowledge is power.[iii]  When we arrived here, I studied the scene.[iv]   The rolling boulders got me thinking, and the ten tents and chieftains added weight to my hunch.  Turns out my guess was right—this is the Sambatyon, the Sabbathday River.  It’s renowned in Jewish lore, for it is unnavigable on weekdays, but the whole river rests on Shabbat.  Legend has it the ten lost tribes reside on its far shore.[v]  We first camped here last Saturday night, so I guessed that six days hence—tonight—the waters would cease with Shabbat’s arrival.  And now, my friends, since the day of rest saved us, let us celebrate Shabbat before we move along.” 

So that night and the next day, the travelers rested peacefully, savoring their honey cakes and sharing stories—except for the General, whose resentment did not ease even when the group resumed their journey at Shabbat’s end.

Back on the trail, they passed through a winding canyon, then arrived at the second crossing just before sunrise.  Like the Sambatyon, this river flowed with terrifying force.  But here, instead of stones, enormous logs careened down the current like battering rams. 

While the Professor, the Actress, and the Billionaire slept by day, the General eyed the torrent of timber and devised a plan.  When the others awoke after sundown, he informed them: “Our biggest obstacle here is also our best opportunity.  We must contain these logs and create a catchment.  We dam up the river, then wade across the backwater.”

“And how do we do that?” challenged the Billionaire. “If we get into the river to catch those logs, they’ll drown us.”

“We snag them with our ropes,” replied the General.  With that, he enlisted the others’ help in rigging up a net, which they anchored to a large stump, then cast into the current.  Seconds later, the first log crashed into the net—and tore it to shreds.

“There goes all our rope!” cried the Actress.  She turned to the General: “So what do you propose we do now?”

Consumed by frustration and anger, the General unleashed a harangue of curses and stormed away.

The remaining three travelers sat on the bank and pondered their choices while the river thundered on indifferently.

“Surely you know a thing or two about power,” the Professor said to the Billionaire.  “What do you suggest?”

“Well,” said the Billionaire.  “I haven’t always been rich and powerful.  My father abandoned my mother and me when I was twelve.  He left us penniless.”

“I’m sorry,” said the Actress.  “That must have been rough.”

“Yes,” replied the Billionaire.  “Mom worked odd jobs for minimum wage.  We lived from hand to mouth and spent many a night in the shelter.  And yet when I look back on that time, I think that in some ways I was happier then than I am now.  Mom and I were so close, we took care of each other.  Now I spend my days obsessing over how to stay on top.  Last year I was #23 on the Forbes 400; this year I fell to #67.  It’s pathetic, really, because I still have more money than I could spend in ten lifetimes.  But when you’re at the pinnacle, the only way to go is down.  And the faster the rise, the harder the fall.  I had more drive—more passion, more life—when I was just starting out.  When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.[vi]

“How did you strike it so rich?” asked the Actress.

“Well, I wasn’t a scholar like the Professor here,” replied the Billionaire, “but growing up like I did, I was street smart.  I used my wits.  Beat the system.  I recognized the subtle opportunities that everyone else overlooked.”

“Ah,” said the Professor.  “A trickster!”

“A what?” asked the Actress.

“Trickster,” repeated the Professor.  “He’s a common character in folklore. The underdog who doesn’t play by the rules.  His cunning triumphs over conventional strength.  Br’er Rabbit.  Coyote.  Or Jacob, conniving to steal the blessing from that macho older brother Esau.”[vii]

“That’s it!” exclaimed the Billionaire.  “That’s how we get ourselves across this river.  We use the power of the trickster, the way I built my business.  You don’t compete head to head with Micrososft on their terms, you outwit them on yours. When Coyote needs a dam, he doesn’t construct it himself.  He tricks Beaver into building it for him!  My friends, we are Coyote.  Let’s get ourselves a Beaver or two.  I’ve got a plan.”[viii]

The Professor and the Actress listened carefully, then went to work.  For the rest of the night, the travellers gathered poplar shoots and sprinkled them liberally along the muddy riverbank.  Come morning, they slept.

By the time they awoke, at dusk, a large brood of beavers had eaten their offering and commenced to build a massive dam upstream.  With their unsurpassed knowledge of the river, with its secret underwater currents, the beavers expertly steered the careening timber exactly where they wanted it; soon an impressive logjam barricaded the stream, leaving a calm, shallow drainage below.  The travelers crossed easily, with the Billionaire in the lead and the irate General bringing up the rear.

The next night was dark, with just a crescent moon to light the way.  But by the time the group reached the third crossing, their eyes had adjusted well enough for them to behold a fearful sight: this river was teaming with grizzly bears riding down the current.[ix]

“I knew I shouldn’t have let that Beggar take my gun!” complained the General.

“What would it matter?” asked the Billionaire, eyeing the constant stream of beasts.  “They just keep coming, way too many to shoot.”

“Well,” said the Actress, “at least they’re staying in the river.  They seem to have no interest in us as long as we’re on dry land.”

“But how will we cross?” asked the Professor.

“We must find a way to kill them,” the General insisted.

“No,” said the Actress.  “I don’t have the answer, but killing them just isn’t right.”

“Right?” barked the General, “what do you know about right in the exercise of power?  When I dial the White House, the President takes my call.  Do you know why?  Because when I go to war, I win.  This is the gate of power, where might makes right.”

“That’s not power,” said the Actress, “it’s intimidation.  There are a lot of bullies in Hollywood, too.  But in my world, the people with real clout are the ones who don’t have to flaunt it.  Those with true power wield it judiciously.”

“And I think you have it backwards, General,” said the Professor.  “It’s right that makes for might.  The power that endures is grounded in moral authority.  Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Rosa Parks.  They understood the power of goodness to change the world.”[x]

Once again, the General stamped off in a huff, leaving the rest to take counsel together.  They sat by the river for a very long time, both terrified and entranced by the fearsome beauty of the bears roaring downstream.

A ferocious howl of pain broke their reverie.  Upriver, the General had fashioned a primitive spear and harpooned a bear.  Spewing blood, the wounded creature crawled up on the bank and collapsed at the stunned travelers’ feet.  The General ran over to finish it off.

“No!” yelled the Actress, throwing herself between him and the bear.  “You’ll have to kill me first.”

As the General tried to shove her out of the way, the others leapt to her defense.  “You’ve done enough damage here!” shouted the Billionaire.  “Get out!”

“You’re a bunch of damn fools!” raged the General, backing away.  “Go ahead, get yourselves killed.”

The Actress laid her hands softly on the bear’s head, which seemed to comfort him, then took the Beggar’s bandage from her pack and wrapped it over the wound. Turning to the Professor and the Billionaire, she said, “Collect yarrow and juniper leaves.   Infuse them in warm water for a compress.  It’s my naturopath’s recipe.  Perhaps it will help to heal him.”

Over the next two days and nights, they sat vigil at the bear’s side, taking turns applying the compress to his wound, tying it in place with the Beggar’s bandage, and stroking his fur.  Gradually, the bleeding—and his howling—ended.  By the third night, he was completely healed.

He rose up on all fours and lumbered over to the river’s edge, then returned to the travelers. With great tenderness, he nuzzled them toward the stream.

“He’s trying to show us something,” said the Professor.

“Yes,” said the Actress, lowering her head to his.  “I think he is offering to take us across the river.”   She climbed, ever so gently, on to his back, and sure enough, the bear swam her to safety.  Then he went back and carried the Professor and the Billionaire in turn.  After setting the Billionaire on the far shore, the bear prepared to rejoin his kin downriver.  But the Actress pointed to the General, standing alone on the other side.[xi]  The bear shook his head and snarled, as if to say, “Not him!”  The Actress embraced the bear and pointed again.  “Power,” she whispered, “begins with forgiveness.”

And so the bear went back for the General, swam him to dry ground, then disappeared downstream.

“Thank you,” wept the astounded General, to both the bear and his companions.  “I am so sorry.  So sorry.  Thank you, all.”

The following night, the four traveled by starlight only, for the moon was new.  Because it was so dark, they heard and felt the fourth river as a surge of blustery wind well before they saw it—a churning maelstrom of treacherous whirlpools and waterspouts.  When they reached the bank, the Professor, the Billionaire, and the Actress turned, together, to the General.  The Actress spoke for them all: “The Beggar warned of four crossings, one for each of us to lead, along our way.  This is the last.  It’s your turn.  We trust you.  Find your power and we will follow.”

The General looked and listened carefully, then broke down, sobbing.

“Find my power?  I have none.  The power I’ve lived for is an ugly lie.  I’ve wasted my days trying to impose my will on everyone and everything around me—and in doing so, unleashed a rage that’s destroyed almost all that I hold dear.  Too late, I fear, I’ve learned that you can’t control the world, and if you convince yourself that you can, you doom yourself to frustration and failure.    So here I am, my friends, an angry and impotent shell of a man.  My life, my power—it’s all a sham.  What a joke!  I’m commanding armies when I can’t even govern my own impulses!”[xii]

“Like all of us,” said the Actress,  “you are learning.”

“Anger and self-deception. . .” sighed the Billionaire.  “Been there.  I get it.  When my dad left us, I hated his guts.  And as I grew up, I hated myself for hating him.  So I managed to sort of convince myself I didn’t give a damn.  I numbed myself with lies, shut him out of my heart—him and everyone else.  I refused make myself vulnerable—and in my refusal, I lost myself.  I was alone.  And deeply, deeply afraid.”

The General nodded, leaning now on the Billionaire for support.  “My gig is up.  My anger can’t hide my dread.  I’m a coward.  I always told my troops that good soldiers don’t fear.  Turns out, I’m not a very good soldier.”

“Not true,” said the Actress,  “You are a fine soldier.  And you are not alone.  I’ve been terrified every step of this journey.  Yet here we are, all of us, with just one river left to cross.”

“Courage. . . ” said the Professor, “. . . courage is not the absence of fear.  Fearlessness is no virtue.  Courage is summoning the faith and wherewithal to go forward despite the fear.”[xiii]

“And power,” added the Billionaire, “is being strong enough to open your heart to whatever life brings.”  He looked the General straight in the eye: “We are learning together.  You are a man of courage and strength.  Lead us, General.”

A long silence.

Finally, the General spoke: “My friends, if I have any courage, it was nurtured by your own.  And your kindness and wisdom have saved me on this pilgrimage, time and again, despite myself.  Perhaps, thanks to you, I know the way to cross.  But I cannot lead.”

“What is the way, and why can’t you take us?” asked the Professor.

“Do any of you know the tale of Nachson ben Aminadav?  My mother used to tell it to me when I was a boy.”

“I don’t,” said the Actress.  “Will you share it?”

“When the Israelites found themselves trapped between the Red Sea and the approaching Egyptian army, Moses commanded the people to go forward.  But no one moved.  They were paralyzed by fear.  Moses prayed to God, to no avail.  Then Nachshon ben Aminadav took matters into his own hands and leapt into the sea.  Only then did God part the waters so the people could pass through.”[xiv]

“A leap of faith,” said the Actress.  “General, will you be our Nachshon?”

“Alas,” the General lamented, “I can’t.  I don’t know how to swim.”

“Then we will go together and I will swim for you,” said the Billionaire, stepping forward.  “If only we hadn’t lost the rope.  There must be some way for us to lash together.”[xv]

“This is an act of healing,” said the Actress, handing him the Beggar’s bandage.  “Use this.”

The two men roped together with it.  Then the General plunged, eyes wide open, headlong into the maelstrom, the Billionaire right behind him on the line.  The Professor and the Actress leapt to join them.  The current swept them all downstream until a powerful waterspout raised them skyward, then touched down gently at the base of a stone arch, in the middle of an orchard. 

The Beggar stepped forward to receive them: “Greetings, and well-done, Companions.”  You have proven your power.  Welcome to the third gate.”

[i] In her book, A River Flows from Eden, Melila Hellner-Eshed notes that the Torah verse most commonly quoted in the Zohar is Genesis 2:10: “A river issues form Eden to water the garden and from there it divides and becomes four branches.”
The river is the favorite of many metaphors for the stream of divine emanation, flowing between Godhead and humanity.

[ii] Pomegranates are one of the Torah’s seven species.  They are traditionally consumed on Rosh Hashanah (which, in our narrative, is just two weeks away, as the travelers arrive here around the full moon of the 15th of Elul).  They symbolize fertility, and are said to contain one seed for each of the 613 mitzvot.   In the kabbalistic tradition, they also symbolize the mystical experience.  The famous kabbalist Moshe Cordovero wrote a book called Pardes Rimonim—the Orchard of Pomegranates.

[iii] The exact phrase is attributed to Thomas Hobbes, though many trace it back to Hobbes’s mentor, Sir Francis Bacon.

[iv] “When you study, study by a river—so as the waters flow, so may your teaching flow.” Babylonian Talmud, Horayot 12a
[v] Among other places, the legend of the Sambatyon is told in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 65b.
[vi] Bob Dylan, “Like a Rolling Stone”.

[vii] “. . . All tricksters are “on the road.”  They are the lords of in-between.  A trickster does not live near the hearth; he does not live in the halls of justice, the soldier’s tent, the shaman’s hut, the monastery.  He passes through each of these when there is a moment of silence, and he enlivens each with mischief, but he is not their guiding spirit.  He is the spirit of the doorway leading out, and of the crossroad at the edge of town. . .”
For this and more, see Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes this World: Mischief, Myth, and Art.

[viii] Coyote is the consummate trickster figure in native American tales.  He has an encounter with Beaver in an Apache version.

[ix] I want to acknowledge and thank Nina Spiro for providing the inspiration for this section.

[x] Of the use of power, particularly by minorities, to create social change, Audre Lorde writes: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change."  Also see Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 7a, in which the Ginai River splits for Rabbi Pinchas Yair, to allow him to perform the mitzvah of redeeming captives on the other side.

[xi] The “other side” is a reference to the kabbalistic notion of sitra achra—the demonic, or everything in the universe which stands in opposition to holiness.

[xii] “He who is given to anger—his life is no life.”  Babylonian Talmud 113b.

[xiii] The notion that courage is the absence of fear is perpetuated by Rebbe Nachman’s famous saying, “All the world is a very narrow bridge and the main thing is not to be afraid at all” (lo l’fached clal).  But there is another version of this aphorism.  Much of Rebbe Nachman’s wisdom was delivered orally, on Shabbat, when writing was forbidden.  When they day ended, his disciples would do their best to recall what he had said.  Some heard the teaching as is quoted above.  Others, however, wrote down a slightly different wording, in which the main thing is lo l’hitpached clal—meaning not to feel no fear, but, instead, “do not fill yourselves with fear”—or don’t let your fear govern your actions.

[xiv] Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 37a and many collections of Midrash

[xv] Avot de Rabbi Natan: “Who is mighty?  One who turns an enemy into a friend.”

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