Waiting for G-d
On a sand road that snaked away from the Drakensburg Mountains, I once saw an African thorn tree. The branches spread open like an umbrella. Its blackened thorns poked angry exclamation marks into the sky! To my childhood eyes, it seemed the tree was waiting. But whether for rain to give life or for death to finally come I wasn’t sure.
I too have waited for life. For beans to sprout between the cotton wool on the ceramic dish that I flooded with too much water in the early years as the white threads browned and the seeds began to wrinkle and rot. For silkworms to eat the leaves we gathered from the garden and fatten their way into cocoons to sprout as moths. I’ve counted the days before mikva; looked to the birth of my babies watching my belly stretch, and waited for my muse to bring me words to put on paper.
And I’ve waited for death. Once, as I stood by the hospital bedside of a man dying of nicotine induced gangrene, he begged me for a cigarette. He had no relatives, no arms and only one thigh. Both of us knew death sat at the door. For two days he cried for a smoke. On afternoon number two, I reached under the bed, found his pack, lit up and held the cigarette to his lips. The relief he felt was palpable. It flowed through him like the red blush that rises on the face of a man who has drunk too much. And I wondered whether this was life or death.
Beneath all those longings and fears, beneath even the anticipation of honeyed blessings, lies – I sense – a deeper waiting. It’s a leitmotif like a silent scratching of nails on a chalkboard. It is a distant dissonant note that will not fade. The yearning is for something much bigger than the particulars of a current crisis. Beneath it all, I’m waiting for the wholeness and clarity of purpose we call Redemption. Unable to identify the object of my desire for what it is, my deeds and desires take on a look that is foreign from their source. Do much. Do more. And there is an unmistakably frantic quality to the wait. Get rich. Get thin. Get famous. Get cool. Just get! What precisely the Redemption looks like I cannot articulate. In dusty confusion, I find myself standing by the side of the road, confused as to whether it’s rain or death I’m looking heavenward for.
The Art of Standing Still
One must know how to wait. There is an art to it. And the mystics and saints know it well.
Take for example Rabbi Yossi the son of Yehuda. In his generation, the Roman government issued a death sentence on the holy Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai for his outspoken denigration of their rule. Together with his son Rabbi Elazar, he fled for his life, finding refuge in a cave in the desert of Lud. In this womblike space, a spring miraculously appeared and beside it a carob tree. On Shabbat it transformed into one of dates. In this way, the two lived for thirteen years. No light other than that of their own beings; no sounds other than the song of their Torah study; and no people other than the presence of Elijah the Prophet who visited them twice daily to teach the mystical secrets of the Torah.
In the distant Galil, bereft of their master, Rabbi Shimon’s students continued to study, uncertain as to his fate. Once, one of the sages explained why G-d’s rebukes and curses to the Jewish people occur twice in the Torah. The first time in the Torah portion of Bechukotai, he said, is an allusion to the exile of our people following the destruction of the first Temple. The second in Parshat Ki Tavo speaks of the exile that began as the rubble of the Second Temple burned on Mount Zion.
One of the sages asked, “Why though is it that the first portion ends with encouragement whilst the second does not? Do we not need encouragement?”
Rabbi Yehuda ben Ilai groaned at the question. “Woe to us that Rashbi is not here. Only he could answer the question. Only he could provide us with relief from this bitter and tortuous exile.”
Rabbi Yossi watched his father in anguish. Moved by the pain before him, he did something seemingly bizarre. He wrote down the question of the sages, called out one of the Divine names and stepped out into the yard. A dove flew overhead and he called out, “Dove! Dove! You were a faithful messenger for Noah when he sent you from the Ark to check the water of the Flood. Now be a faithful messenger for the sages of Israel and bring this note to the Rashbi!”
She fluttered down and took the note, carrying it with her into the sky and to the cave of the Rashbi. There she dropped it in the righteous man’s cloak. When Rabbi Shimon read the words, he began to cry. “What will the last generations do? Who will console them,” he asked, “so they do not despair in exile?”
G-d saw and called Elijah the Prophet. “Go calm his pain, still his tears. I had not intended to reveal the secret of exile and redemption. But now that I see the tears of Rashbi, I have changed my mind. Go reveal the matter to him.”
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Elijah the Prophet
Elijah appeared before Rashbi and began to explain the meaning of the rebukes. But before he could reveal the secret allusion to Redemption contained in the portion of Ki Tavo, a powerful wind lifted him away. Once more the Rashbi broke out in tears. He longed to hear understand the reason for our suffering and the inner dimension of salvation. Racked by tears, he fell asleep at the entrance to the cave.
When G-d saw these latter tears, He again called Elijah and charged him to go down once again, this time to fully reveal the mysteries.
Elija’s explanations poured forth, oil from an alabaster jar: “Within the hard shell of curses, at their core, lies the flesh of blessing – much like the rebuke and even punishment of a parent for a beloved child. And not only do these actions originate in love but they themselves are essentially good. So too with G-d,” explained the prophet. “A more external reading of the wording of His curses conveys harshness and suffering. But deep analysis brings to the surface wondrous blessings of goodness and light.”
For hours the two studied the mysteries of light hidden within darkness and good being born of suffering. Towards nightfall, as Elijah completed his explanation, he rose in the swirl of a G-dly wind. Rashbi sat down to put all he had said to writing. And just as he finished, the dove appeared. He put the note in her mouth. She flapped her wings and soared into the sky awash with the shades of the sun’s descent. Silently she flew the winged path back to the yard in the Galil.
There, under the darkening sky, stood Rabbi Yossi – waiting. He had waited that morning. And he had kept on waiting as the stones he stood on warmed beneath the climbing sun. He had stood while sweat dripped from his forehead at noon; as the sun bent towards the earth; and as the inky blues of night began to bleed up from the horizon. Rabbi Yossi knew how to wait. He had a vision that was clear to him as a shadow on the equator at midday, or the perfect pitch of a tuning fork. As he had sent the dove aloft, he sent with her all his hope and longing, filling her very being with both the question and the vision. He knew precisely what he was waiting for. And he would not move from his spot until that vision came back to him.
This is how the mystics wait.
It’s possible to wait and to call out, “I should have done that a million years ago.” It’s possible to blame on time the fault of my heart, to come back tomorrow and the day after tomorrow as my boots wear out and thorn trees shrivel under the sun. This waiting for death is itself a dying of sorts. But then it’s also possible to know that a moment is a million years too long. It’s possible to accurately envision Tomorrow and bring it into this moment. At those times the waiting is different. It is alive, active, a form of doing. It is part of what is needed to actualize the dream.
We can know exactly how we stand and to where we are going. We need open the holy texts of the Bible and the Rashbi and all the wondrous words of our sages. The ink that gallops over those pages brings into focus the unconscious yearnings of my heart. It settles the dust on the road. I remember then that it’s neither that new car nor praise I need. In those precious moments, it becomes abundantly clear that what I really want is Mashiach.
Back in the yard in the Galil, as the sky turned black, Rabbi Yossi took the note inside and showed it to the sages. Each was astounded. Rabbi Yehuda, although pained that they still did not know where their master was, called out, “In the future, Bar Yochai will be the head of the righteous to absorb the inner dimension of the Shechina and to see the Holy One Blessed be He. He will rejoice with the righteous and say, “Come, let us bow and kneel before G-d, our Maker.”
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This page was originally published on The Jewish Woman.