Monday, November 5, 2012

meetings with remarkable men

Actually, what I was after was a meeting with just one remarkable man. I had questions. He had answers.  Not answers in the usual way, but he could expound, he could encourage.  He could inspire. Influence. I could be bathed in his charisma. Be brought to tears by his wisdom. Stand in awe... Sit at his feet... You know the drill. Just your usual meetings with remarkable men.

I do have a rebbe who inspires in this way. And I heard him speak recently at a week long workshop at the Islamic Center  in Oakland, California. Yup, he's that inspiring. You heard me right. The Islamic Center. This is what makes him so inspiring.  The rabbi at the Islamic Center. It was also his birthday. He was turning 88.

He was more frail than I had ever seen him.  He was aided by a tall Shaikh with an exotic name.  There was even a zikhr in my rebbe's honor—an Islamic (Sufi, really) shared invocation of the Divine Name that can bring participants to trance, or tears, from the beauteous repetition of the holy name.  For me, it brought me to both.  Trance and tears.  To be in the presence of this remarkable man.  To think that I might not see him ever again.  To realize that the zikhr still holds so much power over me. And in the flickering contemplation at the back of my mind (or perhaps my heart) of the long-felt secret desire to convert to Islam, if only for the purifying effect of the zikhr.

But the power of my rebbe was such, that there was no need for conversion.  My rebbe himself practices zikhr.  He himself is a Shaikh. A Sufi master.  He practices something he calls multireligiousity, and advocates it mightily. Why limit yourself when there's so much out there in traditions not your own?  I'm pretty ambivalent about such a position. My Native American friends think it's dangerous horseshit. And they're pretty vocal about it.

But the argument is valid. Why should we be limited by the narrowness of our own natal traditions, when others are so (or equally) powerful?

My rebbe's not talking about appreciation-of-the-Other. Not talking about acceptance or tolerance. Or visiting each other's holy places and houses of worship. Not talking about broad-based scholarship. Not talking about fieldwork among. No. He's talking about practice. About becoming. And holding all of it (yours, his, mine), holding all of it in the same thimble. Drinking all of the medicine down. Becoming. Being. Experiencing.

My little rebbe and the tall shaikh are on the same page in this regard. You should have heard the shaikh's yiddishisms! A miracle, indeed.

But that's not quite what I wanted to say here.  What has brought me out of my long silence, after the death of my mother. Strange how her death brought me to a virtual paralysis of the fingertips.  For almost a year, I have hardly been able to write a word.  Strong mojo, that woman.  I still don't understand it. I had so much to say, and it was just washed away in the shock of her departure.

No, what brought me back to my keyboard was waking up to a dream this morning. And thinking that it was still happening. That I was still there.  It was one of those dreams. Hyper-real.  How could it not have happened?  It clobbered me. It shook me up.  Wagged its finger at me in admonishment. It taught me a lesson.  I'll show you, it said. You know. The usual dream stuff.

I needed to see Reb Zalman. I needed to confer with him about something urgent.  It had to do with the Biblical Hebrew word את in the first lines of Genesis.  It had to do with an important point in the film I'm making.  Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi had been too frail and exhausted to meet with the many of us who had wanted individual consultations at the workshop.  And I don't blame him.  It's the nature of remarkable men that we pull at them, that we want their baraka (or their bracha)... We followers must be an exhausting lot. But he nodded graciously at me, his acknowledgement. A little twinkle in his eye.  That in itself was precious, he was that holy in my mind.

But in the dream, I was given access. Here's the time. Here's the place. Here's the room number.

I took the elevator up to the 7th floor, and looked around.  The Organization up there was all in the service of the rebbe. I was definitely in the right place, and so I wandered around. Read the literature. Waited. I'd come early, of course, hoping for more time. My questions were just that urgent.

After waiting my fair share, I went up to the Reception because I couldn't find the room.

"You're on the wrong floor," the neo-frummish woman told me. "He's in Room 6.1, which is not on 7."

I had gone to the wrong floor. Written the wrong number. Was in the wrong place. Was going to be late for my coveted and hard-won meeting.

I wasn't worthy, after all.

The elevator didn't stop on the 6th floor.  That was a floor that required special access, and I seemed to have lost my privileges. The elevator no longer worked for me, although it would have earlier apparently.

I took the stairs.

The stairway door was miraculously slightly ajar. I was on the 6th floor at last.

And there, as I walked the hallway looking for 6.1—I saw every door somewhat ajar. And in every room sat a holy man or holy woman. Every different color. Bearded and unbearded. Gray haired and dark hair. Turbaned and veiled and uncovered. All. Waiting. Every door was open, every saint or shaikh or rebbe, every lama, every monk. Every insurgent rebel. Every learned practitioner. Every intuitive. Every tzaddik. Waiting there. All I had to do was walk through any door. Or all of them.

All, save 6.1. That one wasn't there at all.

I woke up this morning to a time change.  I'm still not quite awake, really.  Did time move forward or did it move backward? Or maybe it stopped entirely, and I don't have to teach my class. And what would I teach them, anyway?

There's this door, and there's that door I suppose.  And, okay, yes—they're all more or less open. And what's strangest of all—is that my students most definitely walk through mine.