Does the Torah Say The World Is An Illusion?

Of Witchcraft, Cucumbers, and Reason

Every year, around my birthday, I think about whether the world is an illusion. A classic rookie mistake in the study of Chassidus and Kabbalah (egged on by the mysterious rejoinders of those who teach rookie Chassidus and Kabbalah) is the immediate and total negation of the universe’s existence—everything is G-dliness, G-dliness is everything, and if nothing seems to have received this news, that’s just the illusion, baby.

Chassidus is not a conspiracy theory, however, and there is no Shadowy One merely manipulating your perceptions, for, if your perceptions aren’t real, why should He bother with them? and if they are, then they could hardly be called “deceived.”

Deeper: Chassidus (the Chabad version, anyway) is all about G-dliness penetrating every level of the soul on its own terms, and the key to the human soul and self, what Aristotle called the rational animal, is through its mind.

Now, the mind can and does accept that some things it perceives are merely illusory. However, there is a point—we know, because we’ve crossed it—beyond which calling everything an illusion leads one to reject the mind wholesale. If we live in a mere dream theater, if we are a brain in a vat or within the Matrix, our reports of the outside world falsified, then our minds become disconnected from our environment and to think the mind embraces the truth and becomes one with it (as described, e.g., in Chapter 5 of Tanya) is untenable. Any truth could be manufactured, any unity mere self-indulgence. My mind would ultimately not be a dwelling place for G-d in metaphysical actuality, but a dwelling-place for imaginings that pass the threshold of truth-perception, so I call them true.

In other words, for Chassidus to work, our minds must be able to actually be vessels for an outside reality, must actually cross the gap and connect. There must be a difference between imagining and knowing, “And Adam knew Eve.”

Like all knowledge, our knowledge of G-d is not self-sufficient but is founded on faith and propagates through a faith-medium. Faith, like knowledge, crosses the gap and connects, but, critically, it does not connect in a piecemeal, finite fashion subject to analysis. In truth, all knowledge is really a combination of faith and knowledge, with neither one reducible to the other.

There is no rational answer to total skepticism (“How do you know the direct apperception of the Divine at Mount Sinai wasn’t a demon’s trick?”). There must first be faith, a non-negotiable, inexplicable connection between self and other not subject to analysis. Rationality begins when the supra-rational has taken root, and then every step of rational reason (“Since G-d spoke at Mount Sinai, we have an obligation not to wear wool and linen”) is caused not merely by its rational antecedent but by that initial and pervading faith. Once faith is in place, the void held at bay, our understanding must proceed on its own terms,* rather than contradicting its own efficacy by calling itself an illusion.

In short, knowledge cannot be allowed to reduce to faith or illusion. If knowledge reduces to faith, e.g. by saying every step of the reasoning process is an a priori direct soul connection rather than the work of systematized logic, then there really is no such thing as knowledge apart from the faith which founds it. Similarly, if knowledge reduces to illusion, then our knowledge comes to reject the faith that is its own necessary precondition, and neither total skepticism nor “living with contradictions” could be called knowledge, for in neither case is the mind a vessel for what’s beyond it. With only faith, one may have G-d, but one does not have G-d on one’s own finite terms, does not have G-d authentically as a rational animal. Without faith, one has nothing but oneself.

But how do we get from faith to knowledge? How do we know that the G-d we have accepted from Mount Sinai does not want us to reject the workings of reason? Perhaps the first tenet of faith is, “trust nothing is real except what I tell you”?

Indeed: G-d has told us that just as He is real, there is at least some reality to the universe. This is why G-d created such a thing as a rational mind. He has made knowledge, and a world of composite, non-infinite things for knowledge to know, and sanctify, in that order.

Where does G-d tell us this?

One old standby is that it’s in the first verse of the Torah. In the beginning G-d created, after all. G-d Himself tells us that he did something, and His Torah never departs from the straightforward meaning. On the other hand, perhaps “creation” (ex nihilo, Nachmanides would urge us to append) merely means “the generation of that which is illusory.”

So, the Rebbe Rashab memorably uses** this instead:

The Mishna (Sanhedrin 7:11) states that a sorcerer is liable for the death penalty under Jewish law, but only for an act of sorcery. If he merely creates the appearance of sorcery, he is exempt. R’Akiva tenders an example: If two known sorcerers are gathering cucumbers, but the first actually gathers them with witchcraft, whereas the second merely creates the illusion of having gathered them with witchcraft, the first is liable and the second is not.

If, asks the Rebbe, the world is merely an illusion, how could the first sorcerer be liable? They, too, have done nothing but manipulate perception!

This argument clearly has an advantage over the first verse of the Torah, establishing that what, to Torah, counts as an illusion is distinct from the reality of our physical world. We cannot merely call creation an illusion, for cucumbers actually moving is different from cucumbers only appearing to move.

Of course, it is still possible to draw arbitrary distinctions, to the effect of “gathering cucumbers” is part of a more regular, consistent, accepted illusion called (for brevity) “reality,” whereas “appearing to gather cucumbers” is an illusion within the illusion, a break from our usual perception, and this is the source of the different judgments for these sorcerers.

There are problems with this evaluation of the Mishna, however. The Torah need not have framed the matter as actual vs. illusion (lit. “performing an action” vs. “fooling the eyes”). If the law wanted merely to issue a practical ruling it could say: “if you discover the cucumbers to be ungathered after the sorcerer’s apparent gathering, the sorcerer is not liable.” Since the Mishna instead tells us to assess whether it was mere illusion, it seems to adopt a definite metaphysical position that the first sorcerer’s action was not an illusion.

Secondly, the “illusion within an illusion” interpretations reads into the Mishna a probably-untenable epistemology. The simple way to read the law is that the court assesses the difference between illusion and reality. The proposed way of reading it is that the court assesses the difference between what they’re used to and what they aren’t.

To see how this would affect the rest of Torah law, consider that the idea of illusion is brought up specifically in the case of sorcery. Isn’t it true that any Torah transgression that turns out not to have occurred isn’t considered a transgression? If we thought we saw Shimon murder Reuven, but Reuven turns up alive and well, we certainly no longer try Shimon for murder. Why should sorcery be any different?

What makes magic, magic, is the lack of obvious cause and effect under the rules of nature. I understand the causality involved in Shimon squeezing the trigger, which sends a bullet flying down a barrel pointed at Reuven. This rational chain of events exists in many other places, not merely in this one instance, and will, all else being equal, produce the same result every time. It is this consistent working of cause and effect, all over the world, that indicates my mind is actually understanding the various aspects, the gun and the air, etc. For this to be an illusion, some other intervening factor must come into play, and that will be the cause of Reuven remaining alive. Perhaps I was seeing the whole incident in a mirror and Shimon was, in fact, facing the other way, etc.

Compare this to sorcerers gathering cucumbers. I don’t necessarily see or understand the mechanism or chain of causes that bring the cucumbers to be gathered, or, for that matter, bring me to perceive them being gathered. Without that consistency of regular experience, it is hard to even know what I am perceiving. It is not sufficient to produce an intervening cause that allowed the cucumbers to remain ungathered…for I do not know what causes them to be gathered in the first place! The only way to distinguish the gatherer from David Copperfield is by the result, by whether the cucumbers have actually moved.

We might think that even if we find the cucumbers, after the fact, to be gathered, this itself may merely be a step in some broader illusion, an issue that never arises with murder because we understand the causal process at work. We know that if Shimon shoots at Reuven’s chest, he’s on the hook for what happens, regardless of whether Shimon was trying to shoot the bottle behind Reuven, or what have you. How do we even know what the wizard was aiming at, however? Perhaps cucumbers appearing to be gathered, then appearing to be back in their field, is only the first step of the ritual!

Therefore, the Mishna comes to tell us not to go too far, that we can evaluate sorcery on its results. It needs to tell us this about sorcery when it doesn’t need to tell it to us elsewhere; we might think there is no way to evaluate whether sorcery has taken place, while we have no such assumptions about murder.

But if the Mishna says that “gathered cucumbers” and “non-gathered cucumbers” are different only relative to our perception rather than in straightforward fact, then what differentiates sorcery from the rest of Torah law? We ought to find a question on every facet of jurisdiction, a question pertaining to the efficacy of our senses and the truth of our assumptions. For just as there is no essential difference between the sorcery and the illusion (cucumbers themselves being an illusion, just a more common, well-behaved one) so is there no essential difference between Reuven being alive and Reuven appearing to be alive, and no resort to causal processes of murder can close the gap. Guns are an illusion, the air is an illusion, and we might conclude Reuven showing up in the courtroom is just the first step of Shimon’s elaborate murder plot! The “well-behaved” nature of guns describes merely our usual perception of their behavior, rather than anything intrinsic to them we could use to convict, just as “cucumbers don’t move by themselves” is no help with the wizard. Torah law would have to explicitly tell us that the illusion of murder is not tantamount to murder itself and perpetrators of murder-illusion are not guilty.

If our case is an “illusion within an illusion,” then every case of law in the Torah is like sorcery and ought to be treated as such. The unique distinguishing nature of sorcery, i.e. that its causal process is mysterious, would hold true of every aspect of our reality. Since there is no indication in the Torah that this is a concern in all aspects of law, but merely when it comes to sorcery, we must read the Mishna in the straightforward fashion: cucumbers are real; the illusion is not.

The Rebbe Rashab takes a third, stronger tack against the “illusion within an illusion” or “perceived reality vs. perceived illusion” interpretation, in which he applies the Mishna to itself: If the cucumbers are an illusion, then the death penalty we give to the sorcerer will also be an illusion. But in such a case, there is no actual reward and punishment in the Torah system. But then one of the fundamental principles of Judaism is false, and that is impossible. So the Mishna must be read as truly distinguishing between reality and illusion and not merely using those terms to describe different perceptions of an illusion. And therefore the official source, in the Jewish faith, for the reality of the universe as we perceive it is the 11th Mishna in the 7th chapter of Sanhedrin.

We may ask: If the Mishna’s efficacy in demonstrating the reality of cucumbers (and thus the rest of the universe) depends on the reality of the Torah’s capital punishments, why do we not simply say “the universe is real because reward and punishment is real, and many rewards and punishments are carried out in the physical universe”? Why resort to the complicated matter of the sorcerers at all, if it rests on reward and punishment in the first place?

Because, again, the “reality” in question is not the reality of G-d or G-d’s actions, but the reality of the world on its own terms. If we doubt the truth of G-d or G-d’s Torah, no Mishna (and possibly no anything) can argue for the truth of the universe. Remember: All knowledge is based on faith. The question is rather, given that G-d is real on faith and revelation, to what extent is the universe real?

Since this is the question, it does no good to base the reality of the universe, as a whole, on the reality of the Torah’s rewards and punishments in that universe. The cucumbers may be a mere illusion, but the court’s punishment, prescribed in divine revelation, may, for all we know, be far more real, riding as it does on the reality of G-d in a special way. Who says that when G-d creates a cucumber it’s real, but when he orders a holy court to punish, it’s only as real as that cucumber? Perhaps such punishments rise above their apparent similarity to our other worldly experience in some way we cannot, from within that world, perceive. Perhaps the court’s punishment is real not because it shares a reality with cucumbers but because it shares a Torah with G-d. The cucumbers are only real inasmuch as they play a role in reward and punishment, inasmuch as they aren’t worldly but G-dly.

Rather, we must base the reality of the universe not on something G-dly, but rather on something unholy or mundane, on sorcery and cucumbers: Cucumbers moving is a transgression that really happened, whereas cucumbers only appearing to have moved is an illusion and no transgression has occurred. It is only when we question whether our assessment of mundane reality is merely a perceived non-illusion that we turn by necessity to reward and punishment. In short, just because reward and punishment are real does not mean the world is real on its own terms. But if the world is entirely illusory, then reward and punishment could not be real. Thus, the cucumbers cannot be entirely illusory.***

Just as in other areas, knowledge does not reduce to faith; it is not enough to know a principle of the Torah (reward and punishment); cucumbers must be met on their own terms. But faith, a supra-rational basis in G-dliness, underlies all knowledge.


*This is possible because, even though rationality is influenced by faith, the inner life and source of all rationality is faith itself. When we are bribed by worldly pleasure or our own irrational will, it effectively bends our rationality, whereas when we are pre-committed in faith, it allows our rationality to be born and forms the core of the rational process. Thus we see a true difference between the “irrational” and the “supra-rational.”

**In the discourse “Ha’umnam“, 5643

***After this initial salvo, the Rebbe Rashab spends the rest of the discourse explaining that, although the world is not an illusion, the truth of its reality is questionable, and incomparable to the truth of G-d, etc.

Prologue

The following is my long-form submission for Hevria’s latest project. It was edited with help from David Karpel, Jodi Kilov, and Nick Whelan, whom I thank. Do not complain about the ending; it’s only a prologue.

 

The sun shone on Auschwitz, and the wind strained it clean on that clear April morning. A crowd of teens surrounded a tour guide, their faces somber. One boy’s knuckles were white where he clutched the folds of the Israeli flag at his neck.

The grass and sky peacefully watched over the road and the gate and the weeping. Man and woman alike were moved by memories of the horror, dull, scabbed over, but soaking through every pebble. The sun, even in the Beginning, lost its voice for earthly concerns, and the wind carried only the voices of others, but the hot tears trumpet, alive, on their faces.

The tears are one reason why the slim man with the smile-wrinkled face stayed far away from the visitors even as he broke from the shadow of the tree line and strode, confident but quick, beneath the mid-morning glare.

He grasped in his right hand a tiny stone trinket, an ankh that had not been easy to acquire. As long as it laid across the roots of all five of his fingers he was surrounded by a strange haze, barely perceptible to onlookers (had there been any in that deserted corner of the camp) except as a flicker in the corner of the eye.

The ankh was one of several necessary components for the day’s plans, and the one acquired with the most travel and the least violence. The man held it more tightly, and reflected that if, in fact, he was suddenly attacked by authorities worldly or otherwise at that moment and failed to break his attackers like kindling, the contents of his jeans pockets, particularly the vials of blood, might lead them to think he is a serial killer or the like.

He was, in fact, something much more than a serial killer. Something worse.

Though to most eyes the man would have appeared alone, the protective aura of the ankh was crowded with his servants, both willing and coerced. When they collectively arrived at the correct place (he could feel it through the soles of his sneakers despite everything) he glanced around and whispered in the Lost Tongue, “Go, Siarra.” There was suddenly more room around him.

I don’t mean “room” in the same sense as simple men, as if there were suddenly more space to divide among several occupants. I mean “room” in the sense of a logical gap opening in what moments before had been a flawless argument.

There was more room because the creature Siarra detached herself from their presence with eagerness and immediately began to shriek as the sun’s light, no longer attenuated by the ankh, began to corrode her spirit. The man barred her return to its protective embrace by force of will and compelled her high into the air, the effort causing him to break out in a sweat.

Through her pain, she remembered her mission, and began to speak her own words in the air aflame with oppressive sunlight. She called to herself all that falls, and runs, and quenches, and even the tourists on the other side of the death camp felt their mouths go dry. An unnatural rag of cloud began to wriggle into being, just large enough at its height to cast shadow over a single man. And just in time, for the man had noticed a tiny fracture beginning to work its way through his trinket, its immense power unable to withstand the morning except for a short time, just as he expected. Siarra’s cloud would prolong the inevitable, but his time was running out.

Henryk Dąbrowski held his fears privately through his years as a bar bouncer and martial arts instructor, until, at the age of fifty, he apologized to his wife and asked if he could work for the Museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Kaja has just looked him in the eye, saw he was scared, and said, “Of course.”

Henryk thanked G-d for her every morning, sometimes twice. With time, she had come to understand the story. He had read too much and thought too deeply about his own family, and the terrible past, and he’d decided (and the priest had agreed) that some debt to repay might exist.

And so, he brought his expertise and muscle to the Museum’s security force, and Kaja found office work with the same Warsaw firm, and he stood each day and bowed his head before the brightly-dressed young people who had never felt the boot of guilt upon them and were irreverently alive.

It was not a wealthy life, but Henryk felt it was the right one and was soon promoted to chief of security. The museum asked him if he would like to also be a tour guide, and this he had gracefully declined. It was too obscene to bear, that he of all people should speak of the place’s past as if he were not caught up in the web of it. No, he looked forward to simply keeping watch over the death camp in his grandfather’s town for many more years.

Nothing is more important, he thought that April morning as he walked into the security post, than ensuring nothing evil ever comes of this place again.

The ankh ceased its slow disintegration once under the cover of cloud, and the man set his remaining thralls to their tasks as he began pulling components out of the pockets of his faded jeans and scruffy jacket. He crouched down in the small patch of Siarra’s shadow, checking again that no curious passerby or meddling authority had seen him. When he detected no threat, his eyes narrowed. Something should have tried to stop him by now, and he knew from long experience that good fortune is a fickle friend.

But he did not have time for suspicion. Siarra’s power already began to fade as the sun drove her from the world. The man uncorked the ten vials and upended them one-by-one on the hallowed ground, careful never to let the liquids inside any touch his skin, which would melt away at the slightest contact. They ran red on the green grass before slowly sinking into the soil. Beneath the ground, he felt the slightest of tremors, just as Siarra finally died up above after clinging to life for nearly two millennia. A worthy sacrifice, he thought, but a second crack had now opened in the ankh, and he had mere moments to work if he did not wish to join her.

He held the ankh as steady as possible and didn’t dare wipe off the sweat beading on his forehead. He realized he was not breathing. All of his plans had come to this, and yet, when it came to crafting his own destiny, he had to temporarily rely on those he had dominated. They don’t wish to do this, he reminded himself. They are servants of the enemy, and though they are now enthralled, they might try, at the critical moment, to escape coercion.

He could sense them, forced beneath the ground, sniffing and feeling with their tongues for the slightest gaps, the spidery fractures in reality, chiseled by the lifeblood he offered on holy ground in the sunlight. There!

He drew a shuddering breath as his servants assumed the four points of the compass around the gap in reality deep beneath his feet. Cramps shot up his shoulders to grasp at the base of his skull as his slaves began to writhe against his control, trying desperately to resist what they now clearly saw his plan to be. The ankh had started to crumble to dust from its edges, residue drifting across his clenched palm, and the sun, ever-freer from its interference grew ever-warmer above his head.

He did not panic.

He clenched his teeth and willed himself to utter the names of power, which burst from him with such force he felt his teeth might shatter. Each name was said at a higher pitch than the last, and he felt his servants’ resistance crumble beneath them in turn, though the effort hardly felt worth it. Sweat poured down his face, and froth began to gather at the corners of his mouth and dribble into his beard.

Far beneath the earth, unable to escape their fate, four spirits found bones consecrated and blackened by flames, bones that were meant to lie quiet and dry until the end of all stories. They found a door pried open before them that had always been closed before. They slipped between the cracks of nature and found purchase where it should not have been possible, and fully passed through a gate that should have remained closed.

Four servants helped four spirits pass into the world of the living beneath the light of the sun. Thus was the first impossible act completed.

The man felt a shock run through his legs as nature herself resisted what should not have been. It was mildly like being electrocuted, and then the hallucinations began. The man found himself floating on a sea of integers and spiraling along the convex surface of the forbidden fruit, ripe with violence and African mammals. He shifted on his feet, nearly fell, but did not yet release the ankh, suddenly unsure whether it was safe, whether the ritual truly was complete.

High above his head, the unnatural cloud was teased apart by the breeze and the cruel, relentless light.

In the palm of his hand, the ankh continued to disintegrate.

But deep beneath his feet, things shifted.

Even before his mind fully regained its footing in reality, in his new reality, he began to smile.

Only a coincidence could stop him now.

Henryk would never have seen anything amiss if he hadn’t forgotten the sugar in his coffee. It was unbearable, the cheapest sort, with all the consistency and flavor of hot mud. He sat at his desk, took one sip, and resisted the urge to spit the bitter liquid back into his mug.

He headed back to the small office kitchen and the CCTV screens caught his peripheral vision. He glanced at it, and saw the man, in an area far from the parts of the museum open to visitors.

He could not know, of course, as he pointed at the screen, that which areas of Auschwitz were forbidden to visitors were not arbitrary, but a matter of interest to several outside parties, parties willing to bribe, threaten, and cajole until, shortly after the war, it was determined to their satisfaction that it was not feasible for anyone to meddle there with things best left alone.

He could not know, as he double-checked the man’s location with another guard, that those parties were negligent and lazy, performing their duty more by rote than devotion.

He could not know, as he pulled on his jacket, that they only considered what was feasible, and therefore what was possible, and not what was impossible.

He could not know, as he ordered three men to follow him and strode out from the security stations, that their negligence would cost him dearly.

He should be thankful, where he is now, that he couldn’t possibly know he’d be the first of many.

The man had undone death in broad daylight; he had tapped into forbidden secrets of creation; beneath his feet, the seeds of a terrible future began to lurch. Yet he still feared coincidence, and this made him wise.

Mankind, generally, underestimates the power of happenstance. It is not their fault. They are made for thinking, systematizing, recognizing and creating patterns. Their job is not to test the boundaries of what might be, to appreciate the power of the uncaused, unrelated parallel occurrences springing together from some source and falling out just so.

But if a man travels across time and space to find a trinket that lets darkness pass undiminished before the light, or harvests the blood of holy men, he cannot afford to be as ignorant as other men. He cannot expect only the hallucinations, the mental and physical exhaustion, the painful tremors running like shockwaves up his rooted legs. Those would only be simple, small rebellions of nature against his manipulations, and nature is, by nature, predictable.

No, such a man must expect surprises, strange synchronicity, things thrown into this world to delay him or overturn his scheming. This was the closest the enemy would probably be willing to go to forming his own impossibilities.

He would not be taken by surprise. He found his fear and subdued it. Coincidence is powerful, but he was no longer a man with an unspoken hope, and just as the books predicted, the numbing in his legs was already fading, to be replaced with a warm, taut energy – the feeling of wild power, begging to be unleashed.

Henryk told the others to wait as he squinted through binoculars at the strange fellow in the middle of one of the old parade grounds. The man was balding, with scraps of red hair at his temples and behind his ears and an unruly, bushy beard of the same color. His skin was pale, and Henryk thought he looked rather like an Orthodox priest, except for the clothes of a poor tourist, perhaps from Russia or the Ukraine, with an old denim jacket, stained twill trousers, a red T-shirt stretched over his slight paunch, and once-white sneakers now thoroughly browned.

Stanislaw, his number two, asked, “Is he armed?” Henryk noted that the man’s left hand was balled into a white-knuckle fist, but there were no signs of weapons.

“I don’t think so,” he muttered, considering. “He looks…ill.” The man was very pale, and sweaty, and seemed to be swaying slightly, as if in shock. “Perhaps the sun was too much for him and he wandered away from his group in a daze.” There was little shade in the outdoor section of the museum and such things, though rare, had happened before.

“Wander off?” Stan said. “How do you wander off through two layers of fences with locked gates?”

“A fair point,” said Henryk peaceably. “Let’s approach with caution, then. Take out your batons. But,” he cautioned, as a smile creased Stan’s meaty face, “don’t use them until I give the order.”

The man watched as they crossed the well-groomed field, batons in hand, and took a moment to glance heavenward. “Is this it?” he thought, with blossoming glee.

He saw them begin to hesitate, frowns crossing their faces. They were close enough to feel what he had wrought, perhaps not physically, as that required great sensitivity, but at least in spirit, as a certain trepidation, a withdrawal of the soul, a sense of foul irritation scratching at the inside of their eyes. They were weak and predictable, and they would want to ask him questions. And a whisper only he could hear came from beneath the ground and told him what he must do.

Henryk felt strange, and then he felt bad. His clothes clung to him uncomfortably, his forehead felt crowded, his back itched. The closer he got to the strange man, the worse he felt. He had trouble even remembering what he was there to do…

Yes! They were here to help the man who had wandered, probably sick in the morning sun. This recollection of his mission made him feel slightly better and his head began to clear. His pace quickened and he raised his head to find the man staring at him.

The bearded wanderer remained just as pale, but he seemed somehow less pitiable than before and his eyes glowed with an alien passion. Cold fear sparked in Henryk’s gut as he felt a strange pain deep inside him. Doubled over, stomach cramping, he knew only relief at breaking eye contact with the stranger.

Stan, who had followed at his side, caught the man’s eyes next and promptly bent over and emptied his breakfast upon the grass, and, still heaving, grunted, “What is happening to us?”

Henryk shook his head, trying to clear it. His eyes were throbbing and he could no longer see the man for the glare of the sun, relentless, infuriating, draining the perspiration out of him in hot waves. He had never felt anything like it, a pain not of the body but a burning of the spirit, goading him into a blind rage, encouraging him to stand up and swing his baton at the man’s face, crush his nose, see the blood fl—

“Stop!” he cried.

For a moment, it all did. The sun seemed to cower, returning them to the natural warmth of the morning, and the pain and nausea were dulled as if by medicine, and the man seemed momentarily puzzled.

Henryk could not have known that it was simply the man’s will conducting their torture, warping nature already made malleable by his dark rite.

He must be forgiven for his ignorance of his own power, as a recognized authority of the camp museum, to return the sun and the air and the earth to their normal, law-abiding states.

We must forgive him this; he did not even know that the forces under the man’s control were themselves unwilling, and sought freedom from him, and could even possibly rebel.

Henryk Dąbrowski was only a man, and cannot be blamed for what happened next. He retracted his command. He did not need a verbal declaration to do so. He simply felt sympathy for the man and confusion for what he probably assumed was some sort of psychosis or a sudden outbreak of disease among his men. And when Henryk’s “stop” faded into silence and the will behind it faltered, the man’s face suddenly crumpled in disgust and outrage.

“How dare you?” he demanded in flawless Polish. “How dare you attempt to bind me with a human tongue?” Henryk cringed, instinctively expecting the pain to return, but it did not. Instead, he simply found himself unable to move, even to speak. He felt as if he was bound by the tightest ropes, that his muscles simply would not pull at each other, like his body’s gears were disengaged from their motor. To his horror, he soon found he could no longer even remember how to move, as the man bent down and picked something up from the ground and placed it in his hand, from which a puff of dust escaped. The man muttered something to himself about the trinket having done its job and stalked out of Henryk’s field of vision.

He could see the corner of Stan’s shoulder to his right, utterly still, caught up in the same predicament, as Henryk struggled to remember how to lift his feet, how to speak, even how to compress his diaphragm and scream. For the first time that morning he realized that something deeply evil was afoot, and he thought of his wife.

“When I say stop, you listen,” he heard from somewhere to his left. The man spoke calmly now, as if he was finally in complete control for the first time since he stepped into the light. Moments later, Henryk heard a strange sigh, followed by the man’s feet on the grass, somewhere behind him and to his left.

“That is because I speak the old tongue,” the man said reasonably. “It is the language of power, and you cannot lie with it.” Another strange, protracted sigh.

The man was close behind him, to his right, near Stan, when he next spoke. “Therefore, if you say ‘stop’ in the old tongue, that is exactly what happens. It is how Joshua delayed the sun; perhaps you have heard that story?” There came another sigh, and Stan’s shoulder pulled away from view, as if Stan were free and walked away. But why, then, did he not call for help?

The man came back into view before Henryk’s eyes and bent down to the ground once more to pick something up. He cupped it in his hand and smiled up at Henryk. “I was taught this word is called ‘The Snake’s Vise.’ I found this dramatic, though it does seem to be quickening your pulse at present, so perhaps it’s appropriate.” Henryk was so stuck he could not even swivel his eyes anymore.

“You wonder who I am, don’t you?” He walked close enough that Henryk could smell his cologne on the small amount of air he was still able to breathe. “It doesn’t matter. All that matters now is that I go on.” He smiled a strange smile. “And you do not.”

Henryk watched as the man took his cupped hand a pressed it gently below his line of vision, against his chest. With a tremendous squeezing pressure, and then a sudden break, he heard himself exhale with a rattling sigh, was carried out on his own breath, floating upward, toward a light far brighter than any he had ever known.

The man leaned back from Henryk’s body and released it from The Snake’s Vise. Henryk’s eyes looked around at the sunlit field, at the three other security guards, at the bearded man, and saw the new order of things, who was the slave and who was the master. Henryk’s head nodded at the man, and behind Henryk’s eyes burned a terrible intelligence.

“Welcome, again, to the world of the living,” said the man in their shared language, old as earth. “Much has changed. Come, I will tell you about it.” He began to walk from the field, and four pairs of feet fell in behind him. Beneath the ground, something rumbled.

“Coincidence,” he scoffed to himself. “Perhaps luck is on my side at last.”

But even though the man was learned and powerful, he underestimated how far coincidence would go. For when he forced open the gates and brought the souls through to serve him, he did not notice an extraneous presence, a spirit who had strained against those gates forever, waiting for some fool to come along and open them.

That man, wise as he was, could not have predicted me, and that would, in the end, be his undoing.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

If God Had A Vegas Show

It’s hard to say what G-d would choose for His Vegas show. He has been known to favor the old and chintzy, faded feathers and flashing lights; pure and demented. He might paste on mutton chops and run a chapel made of plastic and marry elopers in Holy! MatriMOny! Some would even argue (and certainly they’d be right) that G-d works off the strip, where the lights fade away and the short buildings squat in shame against the mute emptiness of His dusty earth.

But I, for one, think G-d might throw in with the magicians.

Not just because I’ve been obsessed with magic videos of late and could watch Mac King’s rope trick ten times a day or repeatedly kick myself at the brashness of Juan Tamariz’s Three Clubs (he’s cheating, of course, but not in the way you expect). Not just because magic is a multi-dimensional art which puts every tool of physical and psychological deception and often thousands of hours of backbreaking practice into the most childish of endeavors, making an audience feel stupid, monk-like devotion and dozens of parts producing one simple effect that everyone already knows — the world is not explicable. Not just because, like religion, the answers to all the questions would both ruin and elevate the mystery, with both sides pulling at our hearts, the equal tension placing us in the stance of maturity.

No, G-d would have a magic show because His tricks aren’t tricks.

I don’t mean He does miracles. That is rather unimpressive, for G-d. G-d can’t cheat like Juan Tamariz because Juan Tamariz has all sorts of rules he can’t get around like mortality and logic and diminishing returns, death, taxes, gravity. G-d isn’t bound by any rules and so cannot cheat.

But I don’t mean He doesn’t do miracles. G-d follows the rules because he chooses to make them; he is locked up only because He chooses to be locked up; even Houdini could reasonably argue that the chains are solid and the shackles are real because the chains and shackles do not depend at every moment upon Houdini to cause them to exist. G-d putting on shackles would fool no one.

No, G-d’s stage show would be confined to a very small number of classic performances that are not performances, doing tricks that are not tricks. He would do them because He can do anything, but we would only understand them because He does not do anything but rather exactly what we expect. Better yet, the audience would only experience the trick to the extent they are certain they are not witnessing a trick; the more certain they are nothing is happening, the more they would know they were being entertained.

Are you watching closely?

Yankel stabs Hershel in a back alley (we can recreate in on stage with some dead-end backdrop work and low lighting) with a butterfly knife. Yankel is not compelled and chooses freely. Hershel is not compelled to be there; he chose freely as well. But Yankel cannot stab Hershel unless Hershel truly deserves it, and the moment was known to have happened since the beginning of time.

Did you catch it?

No?

Try again: Yankel stabs Hershel. This is inevitable; it has happened already, before either was born. It’s only because it is inevitable that they can choose it freely; Yankel cannot stab Hershel unless he has already done something to justly deserve it; Hershel cannot be stabbed by Yankel today unless he already was and always will be because it must happen.

Clearer?

Look, it only must happen because they choose it freely. If they could not choose freely, they would not exist; it’s their ability to choose that makes them interesting; that’s why G-d brings them on stage. It is only because they can freely choose that this inevitability arises, and it is only because it’s inevitable that they are able to choose it.

A magician never repeats the same trick twice, and if there is a G-d in Vegas (having happened in Vegas, would De stay there?) he never insults his audience with a second stabbing. Instead, he regales them with a classic, no assistants necessary.

For my next trick…

A box. Don’t saw it in half; didn’t you see Raiders? The box sits in the holy of holies, and, like most things that sit, indeed, most things that are, it takes up space. It has a measure; bring your tape, lay it down on the floor (don’t mind the rope around your waist; keep your eyes from wandering and you certainly won’t come out lightly toasted) next to the box. It has a measure, yes? Now look along the length of the tape and see the room has a measure. But pay attention to the space beyond the ark on either side and see that it is the entire length of the room. Somehow (this has been known to cause slight migraines), depending on where you’re looking, the ark takes up space and does not take up space, simultaneously.

Some wag says, “That’s mighty impressive, G-d, but Penn & Teller down at the Rio (who don’t believe in You, by the way) perform miracles every night. They shoot bullets into each others’ mouths; the quiet one cuts a plant by cutting its shadow and instills a rubber ball with a playful intelligence. What’s another miracle in Vegas?”

You missed it, you see. It’s not a miracle. If it were a miracle, it could happen. If it weren’t a miracle, it could happen. So this doesn’t happen.

What doesn’t? Well, a miracle doesn’t happen, because the only object that can possibly take up no space in the Holy of Holies is indeed the holy Ark. No other box would do it. They simply are not the right conditions for this event. They would take the ark out to war, and you never hear about any strange measuring problems there. No, it’s what happens when you take this specific item made to a particular measure in a certain way — in short, you take the actual, real, ark of the covenant — and place it in a room built to specifications, right in the center (which you must measure to find) that all of a sudden something strange happens. It can’t be a miracle; you just measured this to make sure it was the correct length for it to be considered “the ark in the holy of holies.” And only because it is made to that precise design it no longer seems to exist at all.

The other way? It can’t be natural, of course. It doesn’t take up space! Of course a miracle is taking place. But if a miracle is taking place, that in fact proves that the ark of the correct measure has been placed in the correct position; this is the most certain way of knowing it was made to specifications! You can imagine the building inspector being invited up to the stage with his clipboard, wiping his glasses, circling the holy of holies, making sure everything is up to specification. He measures to either side of the ark, sees that it takes up no space, and declares, “Ah, it must take up exactly the correct amount of space!”

And so, you have witnessed, here in the theater, tonight, neither a miracle nor the absence of one, a non-trick trick, something strange proving something normal and vice versa, and you are not quite sure if your tastes are refined enough to even be certain you have witnessed anything at all. It is almost as if that same niggling sense you’ve had since childhood that nothing must be the way it is, that there is no reason for anything to be this way, has been justified all along, but you find all it proves is that everything is precisely as it must be.

When they get that at the Rio, let me know.

One more?

For this time of year?

The king favors Esther, and Haman is hung from his own gallows.

The victory does not involve G-d. The Jews had the right people in place at the right time to fend off disaster. The victory only involves G-d; Haman’s rise to power is a direct effect of the Jews valuing the princes of men over the divine, and his destruction represents their choice of G-d over the world.

It is precisely because G-d is not involved, because His name is not printed in the megillah, that He saved the Jewish people at all; Esther chose to fast for three days in an act of faith before appearing before the king at her least radiant, and it was this real and natural danger that proved the key to our salvation. But it is precisely because G-d is involved that the salvations happened at all; Esther finds favor in the King’s eyes because it is so written; it has been written since before the earliest emanation, that Haman will fail and the Jews will succeed, and that is what allows for nature to take its course.

The miraculous salvation occurs because it is not miraculous.

The chosen people are chosen because there never really was a choice in the first place.

The curtains fall.

Tomorrow, you will not succeed in accurately describing the show you saw; or is it the show you didn’t see? You’ll only be able to say that it was G-d, on his own terms, and He wasn’t wearing a Prince Albert frock and a bow tie.

Go; it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen, and strangely like everything you’ve ever seen, and your applause both is and is not appreciated.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.