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Tents in the Wilderness

by Susan Yael Mesinai

The amazing simplicity - yet depth - of these [Hasidic] tales opens hearts and draws the listener into a world that defies intellect. These are stories that have given life to the Jewish quest, that spark of understanding with a mysterious, miraculous, perhaps even zany wisdom. They are tales that belong to the universe, spoken with a Jewish tongue....

Everybody knows that such stories are for children. As the Zanser Rebbe once said, "If you believe them, you're a fool. If you don't believe them, you're wicked." Our stories stretch between these extremes of innocence and evil, welcoming and encompassing all listeners, whether or not they believe.

Each story is a ritual, a healing event weaving together wisdom and action, the finite and infinite, the world of beyond and worlds in between. The story, like a dream, is a vessel that codifies and transmits precious information, the innermost secrets of the heart. The story is the story of the world - the place of hiddenness where God seeks refuge even as He longs for us to know, to listen to Him, to obey His innermost will.

The prerequisite for the story is that it be lived. Rav Nachman says that a deed done with your whole being never stops happening. It goes on, even after we, the doers of the deed, have finished. A story, too, has that eternal momentum. It can be tapped, unveiled, shown to be alive. And if a story is about zaddikim, the righteous men of the past, who better can relate such a tale or bring it to life than another zaddik? For when the zaddik speaks, he has the power to transform the story into a living event.

The story is real in the moment of telling. It is not an intellectual event, but one that strives for joy, the "holy shiver" effect that reaches the soul. "Does the soul dream facts?" Rav Nachman asks us. The story represents another way of knowing. It addresses itself, not to our hunger for information, but to the need to confirm what we already know.

Thus, we can read a story again, or hear the same tale from a new zaddik in each generation, the style slightly transformed by the times. Always there is teshuvah, a return - some new insight or stirring inspired by listening. For each time we hear, some restlessness in our heart is abated. Our quest is answered.

"Stories have the unbelievable power of taking us back to the beginning," Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach tells us, "though the story itself has no end." For the soul has its own reality. It knows that "Messiah is yet to come."

The knowledge concealed in our tales is both the deepest and the most obvious. We make no pretense. As Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzatto wrote in his foreword to The Path of the Just centuries ago:

The writer says: I have written this work not to teach men what they do not know, but to remind them of what they already knew and is very evident to them. For you will find in most of my words only things which most people know and concerning which they entertain no doubts. But to the extent that they are well known and their truths revealed to all, so is forgetfulness in relation to them extremely prevalent.... The majority of men ... devote most of their thought and speculation to the subtleties of wisdom and the profundities of analysis. Few, however, devote thought and study to the perfection of Divine service - to love, fear, communion and all the aspects of saintliness. It is not that they consider this knowledge unessential: if questioned each one will maintain that it is of paramount importance and that one who is not clearly versed in it cannot be deemed truly wise. Their failure to devote more attention to it stems rather from its being so manifest and so obvious to them that they see no need for spending much time upon it.
"Everybody knows," the Rebbe says, as his audience falls asleep, convinced they've heard this story a million times before and know its cause, effect, and the punch line. "Everybody knows, yadua," in fact means "hardly anybody knows." The truth is more "HaMevin, yavin," or, "He who understands will understand." For those still awake, the phrase "Everybody knows" (the equivalent of "Once Upon a Time") is a signal to "Open your hearts, sweetest friends, and listen to the deepest depths." What follows comes from the wellsprings of the unknown, the original root of Oneness.

In Judaism we speak of two torahs, or teachings - the torah shebichtav, or written portions, and the torah shebaal peh, the oral transmission from the most ancient times. The written portion has order: it comes from the world of laws that regulate and work for the perfection of our being. Torah shebaal peh is the hidden torah, which has been passed by word of mouth to the chosen, from master to student, prophet to disciple, Elijah to Elisha, one great teacher to the next.

To qualify to receive these oral teachings, one must be truly a "master of the mouth." Even though the written teaching is the basis of law, scholarship, and intellect, the oral law is given highest respect by the most knowledgeable. For, as the Viznitzer Rebbe once said when asked why he received a storyteller before a great scholar: "What is the beginning of the Torah? God is telling us stories." Or, as Shlomo Carlebach now says, "God created the world because He needed to tell stories." He needed to have listeners who would hear Him.

Thus, while the oral tales and teachings have less of the structure and permanence of the written Torah, they preserve their own integrity by carefully guarded transmission. The master proves his skill in the way in which he brings a story to life, using the power of the moment, the presence of those who listen, to further the life of the tale. A true maseh, or tale, is like a tent in the wilderness, cloth held down by strong but simple pegs. It is a sukkah, a booth for pilgrims, built according to prescribed rules but decorated to suit the imagination - always with one side open to receive visitors from the realm of the miraculous. We forgo the security of house, four walls, fireplace, for a simplicity and openness that bares the heart. Thus, we feel the welcoming wind of prophecy, the blessings of Elijah the Prophet.

The task of transmitting these stories from their oral form into the written word is a difficult and subtle one. It demands a vessel, a design in which the story again comes to life, as if the speaker were with us in the room. Our vessel is the storyteller himself....

These tales remain stories of one who is in love with the limitations and wonders of our human experience, the little yidele in a world of galut, or exile, who yearns for his Temple, his God.... Like everyone's dreams, these stories are filled with angst - constant questions of survival, food, being able to pay the rent, of trying to live in a hostile environment. Often stories of chase, they are highlighted by comic relief, a clown show that thrives on the unexpected, the miraculous, the depths that come from being a Jew. These tales often defy and transform our sense of God, world, even our religion.

The hutzpah of the storyteller is matched only by that of his characters. Every story has its own rules, pointing to hidden patterns, other forces that explain our reason for being. From one story to the next, these patterns change, constantly eluding and defying definition, driving home the message that the ground of our being, our only true knowledge of the One, comes through the fixing of our mistakes - whether in thought or in deed.

For as Rav Shlomo Carlebach is wont to say: "You may try many things in life but you will find that the hardest thing of all is to be a Jew - and to really know that there is Only One God."

Excerpted from the Preface to Shlomo Carlebach and Susan Yael Mesinai, Shlomo's Stories: Selected Tales. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Jason Aronson, Inc., Northvale, NJ. To order: The Jason Aronson Home Page

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