I Saw G-d on Facebook

We do not, in Judaism, agree with the philosophers that greatness is greatness no matter who or what possesses it. Korach erred to think he could bear Moshe’s greatness as easily as Moshe and Aharon’s holiness as easily as any Kohen. In this, he was a heretic, ultimately denying creation ex nihilo, that Moses could be a radically different creation than Korach. So I do not mean to say that a Facebook comment can be genuinely great per se like (l’havdil) a work of Torah.

But if it is no longer a “Facebook comment per se,” if Korach ceases to be Korach by becoming Moshe’s man, then true greatness is possible, the greatness of the inifite. All finite things hold an emptiness at the center called bittul, a negative space that may contain the infinite. Through bittul, the non-great may become great. When we talk about a great FB comment, we’re talking about one that’s becoming nothing inside and out.

 

Here’s what it looks like: I met a severe Yeshiva student on one of my wanderings. He was of European slimness, shorter and younger than average in the study hall, and brilliant. He pursued Judaism with the dangerous fanaticism of a broken-hearted youth.

The ‘danger,’ such as it is, lies in the multi-layered nature of the pit, the hole inside that Judaism will fill, because Judaism must, because if it doesn’t, what am I? Many souls contain a Machpelah, a cave within a cave, a cave above a cave. Only Judaism fills the most bottomless hole, the cavity closer to us than our very being. We can plug smaller, more superficial spiritual needs with worldly pleasures, therapy, art, friends and family, secular knowledge, political activism, or a gratifying job. Sometimes the upper chamber may even be filled by time, the spiritual agonies of adolescence calloused over by the 20s.

The trick of the hole-filling Baal Teshuva, the returnee to Judaism looking to satisfy a need, is to realize that beneath the sinkholes opening along our contingent path through circumstance lies a broader existential tale tied to our very being. We possess emptiness born not of the path chosen for us but of we who walk it, that deep inner vacuum to which Judaism speaks, the infinite desolation that only G-d can make whole. Torah and Mitzvos will contextualize the other problems, the ones of nature and nurture, and may repair them at the level of what they are. They will transform us from biological beings dealing with problems into G-dly souls wrestling with them. But all direct changes to the form of our questions do not require Judaism. Self-discipline and a regimented life come from the army; self-help books and gurus can transform your attitude; medication and diet help depression and anxiety; friends and family give us love.

One of Chassidus’s penetrating insights is that to live a G-dly life is different from conquering the form of your troubles. To heal the animal soul—the path of Mussar/Ethical teachings—may be a prerequisite to the work of the G-dly soul, but it is not that work. The Baal Shem Tov revealed that a commandment performed for a reward demotes the commandment to below the reward. So, too, if the point of the commandment is self-improvement, it elevates the animal traits above the mitzvah. A Korach cannot become a Moses from the outside, by slowly improving his Korach-itude, because Moses is not merely a more ethical Korach. Korach becomes Moshe by first becoming nothing, by finding the infinite emptiness within and introducing it into his life. He does this no matter which contingent foibles and character flaws lie in his way.

It should not surprise us that many a young Baal Teshuva, thinking it’s Chassidus they seek, join a yeshiva and start studying the Tanya. They soon discover the Tanya addresses only a single problem, the union of the souls with the divine. They then remain in a frustrating stalemate until something else shows up to solve their problem. Occasionally it is Mussar that saves the day. More often, it’s one of the other hole fillers, and, their itch scratched and their issue resolved, they stop seeking G-d. My acquaintance, the young zealot, seems to have done just that. He now often posts pictures of himself, bare-headed and often bare-chested, luxuriating in an exotic locale, to Facebook.

 

There was another student in that same yeshiva where I met the first. Where the first was young, this second was older than the yeshiva average. Where the former was fanatical, the latter was disinterested. The first was hungry, seeking satisfaction from every page of the Talmud, every letter of each Chassidic discourse. The latter seemed to hate everyone and everything about our little school, often missing classes, arriving at strange hours with odd friends to study the talks of the Previous Rebbe of Lubavitch in Russian-accented Hebrew. The only things the two students had in common were their distinctive approaches to yeshiva life apart from the established order, tormented spirits, and a penchant for cigarettes.

The Russian (let’s call him) was, without doubt, the most abrasive person I met in perhaps my entire yeshiva career. He had no air of glory about him whatsoever, no sense that, by participating in Judaism, he was doing something noble or extraordinary. He spoke with all the tact of a Moscoloid street rat and had physically assaulted a non-zero number of his fellow students. He had studied philology in university back in the Motherland and spat out the names of philosophers like curses. He liked the Kuzari and alcohol. I think he is an orphan, but he found no loving family amongst us; if he has a void in that sense, it’s hard to imagine we were filling it with our constant exasperation at his moods. He was no Moses (lacking the piety) and no Korach (lacking the delusions of grandeur and the pictured path to fulfillment). He was more a Dasan or Aviram, kicking over blocks for fun, and you wanted to ask him, “Why are you here?” However, in retrospect, it is clear he possessed the knack of every successful fulfillment-seeking Baal Teshuva. He could be here because he was here. Dogged, senseless, persistence without reason or clear reward is the trick of the Baal Teshuva, and you can’t teach it. It appears in other areas of life aglimmer with the sheen of the infinite. The advice for writers, I have learned, is to write. The ingredient of cake, when G-d makes it, is cake. That which is created from nothing has no explanation. Moses can be Moses only because he is, and this mystery the Russian embodies.

 

Today, checking my Facebook feed, I see two truly great words, words that ring with the full hollowness of a Chassidic story. You must recognize those involved, read the words in an irritated Russian accent written to an old non-friend, a youth from yeshiva. The Russian was never there when the youth slaved over the holy books, was not around when he sculpted a shining new face for himself in the night, was not awake when he closed the book, picked up his jacket, and quit. But beneath the latest in a string of frivolous photos of a new life, the Russian has commented,

with the mournful triumph of the eternally satisfied,

with the confident disregard of those who cannot break free from the bundle of life even if they wished,

with the greatness of those who are empty and thus are Moses,

with the longing of an inner cave so long-buried the explorers have stopped looking for it,

with the laconic, mystified bemusement of those who have suffered worse yet never managed to leave:

“תחזור כבר”;

“Come back already.”

Where We Wait

“G-d is a place you will wait for the rest of your life.” – Neutral Milk Hotel, “Two-Headed  Boy Pt. 2”

~

If I hadn’t been half dead from heat stroke, I never would have stepped into the first hovel on the left looking for shade. Instead of a dusty convenience store with spindly-necked bottles of coke or a family common room with a homemade rug, I found a vast cavern dug into the ground, the dirty linoleum floor inside the entrance merely the landing of a staircase spiraling along the pit’s edge into the gloom of the deep.

Honestly, I didn’t notice the stairs, not at first anyway, because the Machine was everywhere, inert, the husk of a long-dead monster, gleaming in the light of the entrance. My eyes almost couldn’t bear its complexity. Tangled wires, some like trees trunks, some like hairs, connected innumerable components, most of them from scrap. In my first bewildered glance I spied thimbles and carburetors, girders and girdles, thousands of rivets and handfuls of nuts, twelve bicycles, and a cigarette lighter. Some of its parts seemed to grow like plants from the floor far below, while others were bound to the ceiling by thick cables, the likes of which I had only seen in the great harbors of the world, holding ships to the shore. It inspired in my addled brain an awe that edged on laughter; it was beyond ridiculous, not sane, a brick to the head.

Down below, I heard singing.

It was a man’s voice, worn with age, deep as the deep. With the regularity of a heartbeat it sang, “Twisting, twisting, twisting.”

I told myself as I descended the earthen steps that I only wanted to see if he had water for my parched lips. I knew I was lying. My curiosity urged me to delve.

I found the Machinist (I never did get a name out of him, before the end, though I do believe he had one) gloved and goggled, braiding threads of copper thin as gossamer. He had unruly white hair to the small of his back, knotted and pungent, and he moved with the certainty of an expert craftsman. The tiny pieces of metal couldn’t withstand the tension and they tore. He bent closer, took a new thread from his filthy apron, and tried again. “Twisting, twisting, twisting.”

“Sorry, do you have water?” I said, hands held up in peace. He tore the goggles off his face and squinted at me.

“Have you finally come?” he croaked, his English accented. “Is it finally time for me to die?”

At a loss, I gaped.

“But first, water, yes!” He grabbed my wrist and tugged me toward the Machine. I could see now, at the bottom, that there extended into the Machine itself several tunnels and caves, allowing the Machinist to tinker and to have a home, as I found out when we rounded a corner made of a lamppost and a boat engine to reveal a niche with a bed, a desk, a table, a grill. The area was lit by two small lanterns, and in one corner of the little cave stood an old camping tent, a curtain across its entrance. In the kitchen sat a five-gallon water cooler. He filled a bottle and brought it to me, and I drank thirstily. “Thank you,” I said. Refreshed, my mind cleared and a stream of questions surfaced. He stood to the side, at attention like a schoolboy beside his desk, waiting for something.

“I’m T.J. Beckett. I’m a reporter from New York. I came to Dehli looking for…” Something like this. “Looking for a story.”

“There’s no story here,” he said. “Not until my master returns.”

“What is this place? What is this…thing?” I swept my arm in a wide arc.

“This, boy, is the Machine.” He said. “My master told me how to build it, at least in principle, before he left. That was almost seventy years ago. I really wish he’d come back, so I can die.”

Seventy years? “Who are you? How did you get here? Who is your master?”

“I am a servant, and he is the master,” he said simply. “As for how we got here – why, I think I’ve forgot. It’s been so long. Of course, it was never important for me to remember. That’s the master’s job. And he’ll be back soon, you’ll see.”

“And then you’ll die?”

“Yes. I do love my life here, doing important work, but I wish he would come back and turn on the Machine. It’s been ready for decades, yes, though I have attempted some daring expansions since then.”

I was going to ask why he didn’t turn the Machine on himself, but it felt rude somehow, so instead I said, “And what will happen when it’s turned on?”

He looked at me as if I were the one building a gigantic subterranean monstrosity on the outskirts of New Dehli, that is, as if I were insane. “I have no idea.”

“So then how do you build it?”

“Oh, master taught me the rules of it. Taught me for years. That was when I was only a boy. It’s the only thing I really remember now.”

“Then he left you here.”

“Yes, well, he couldn’t live here anymore, you see. He’s a great man, more beautiful than me, more graceful, full of fire. He can sing and dance and love and write and drink and paint and cry. He can charm all manner of wild beasts; he has beaten men dueling with sword and pistol; he reads poetry to the stars and the stars themselves acquiesce.” As he spoke about that man, the Machinist’s wrinkled face seemed smoothed of its wrinkles, and his voice seemed alive. Then he slumped and staggered and fell into a chair. “But this quest proved too much for him, the country proved too broad.”

“What were you looking for?”

“We searched for the edge of things, for the place where nothing becomes something, for the exact moment of midnight and the precise point of the corner, where the parts join and all is one. But we did not find it, and my master’s affinity for the hunt began to sour, and his curiosity wilted, and the love of life that drove him to greatness festered, and one night when he couldn’t take it anymore he bid me farewell and took his leave.”

I felt myself pulled inexorably down this hole, as I had been pulled to the floor of the cavern. This time, the ground seemed to waver beneath my feet. Despite myself, I thought it a sad story. “You’ve been building a machine you don’t understand, just waiting for him to come back, for most of your life? Why? Why don’t you leave this place?” I thought of my contacts in the city, of how they might be able to help this old man.

“I could leave. I could. Any time. But it wouldn’t work. Defeats the whole goal. The master will come back, you see.”

I sighed and leaned back, and gasped as I realized the “roof” of his camp was made of motorcycles, two dozen at least, standing on their rear wheels in a circle. “This thing you’ve built is quite incredible,” I breathed.

He shot up ramrod straight. “It-It is?”

“You don’t see? Look what you did with all this junk.”

He slumped. “Yes, yes it’s junk. It’s not poetry. It’s not a dance. It’s not the moonrise over the dunes or the kiss of sunrise on dewed flowers.” I was taken aback by his sudden poetic turn. In the best tradition of my people, I pressed on.

“It’s great. Really. You poured your life into this. Your soul.” I pulled my phone from my pocket. “If you’ll let me take pictures, I can show it to the world. And the world will treasure it.”

“The world will treasure junk? That’s not how I remember the world.”

“Things are different now. People appreciate anything, as long as it has some soul.” The old man smiled for the first time, and looked to the little tent in the corner. “Come on, I’ll take some pictures, and then I’ll take you to lunch,” I said, trying to sound kind.

“One moment!” He stood up and dashed into the tent, pulling its flap closed behind him. I sat in my seat, not knowing what he might do or what he expected of me. I heard the sound of splashing water. A few minutes later, he stepped out of the tent as someone else. His hair was shorn and clean, his bearing regal, his soiled apron replaced with a fresh pressed suit. His eyes burned with intelligence and their edges crinkled with laughter as I stared.

“The servant is gone,” he said wistfully, in a voice smooth as olive oil. “Let us go to lunch.”

I stared.

“Ah, but first we must honor his memory,” said the Master, whose name turned out to be Salvestro King, a sailor and adventurer who came to Dehli between the wars and was never heard of again. “He kept me alive all these years. I must do the same for him.” And with steps unnaturally graceful and unaffected by age he approached the wall next to his bed where sat a common light switch, a small sky-blue wire trailing from it. He flipped the switch.

As we climbed into the daylight, the Machine thrummed with energy, various components coaxed alive by (I found out over curry) solar panels and a couple of gas-powered generators. As I again felt linoleum beneath my feet and looked out on the nondescript alley on the outskirts of Dehli, I heard from behind me an unbelievable music, an impossible harmony, a clanking, squeaking orchestra that sang the song of midnight, of the point where walls meet, the sound of a pervasive oneness.

 

Image from Flickr.

Originally posted on Hevria.