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The Council of the Elders

Retold by Howard Schwartz

A Tale of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

for Matya Yonah

After his encounter with Reb Malach Hamoves, the Angel of Death, Reb Zalman knew that the shadow of death still hung over him, and he resolved to fulfill the commandment thou shalt rest. That night Reb Zalman dreamed that forty Sabbaths came to him and said: "Take leave of your friends and family and follow us, and we promise to give you every rest stop of the desert, as it is written, they traveled and they rested." And Reb Zalman had packed his tallis and tefillin and begun to follow them, when he awoke. After that he told his family and his Hasidim that he had decided to go off alone into the forest for forty-two days.

Now it happened that as Reb Zalman took leave of his son and daughter-in-law, who was with child, his son said: "What will we do if your grandchild is born to you during this period? For surely you must be present in the event of a bris." But Reb Zalman told them that it would not be fitting for him to welcome a grandchild with the shadow of death still hanging over him, he assured them that God would bring them together at the right moment.

Then Reb Zalman took his tallis and tefillin and a small notebook in which to write words of the Torah that might come down to him, and set out alone. His family begged him to take some provisions, but he assured them that God would provide. And as he departed, Reb Zalman saw a strange sight near the entrance of his home: There were a great cluster of caterpillars, whose color was radiant green. And Reb Zalman knew that this must be a sign. Therefore he stopped and counted the caterpillars, and there were forty in all. And he knew that this meant he had been given forty days for his retreat.

Just then the forty caterpillars begun to move, scurrying off at remarkable pace, and when he saw this Reb Zalman decided that he would follow them, for he was very curious to know where they were going. He found that he had to walk briskly, but not run, in order to keep up with the caterpillars, who wriggled their way through the thicket and headed for the forest. After an hour Reb Zalman came to a wooden hut far into the woods, which he had never known about, with an esrog tree planted in front of it. It was there that the caterpillars stopped, and Reb Zalman knew that this would be his home.

Indeed, the hut was empty except for a chair, a table, a bed and an oil lamp. Everything was worn but well preserved. And on closer inspection Reb Zalman also found a number of dry herbs. Outside the hut he examined the fruit that grew from that esrog tree, for he was amazed to find it growing there, and he knew that it must have been planted by a Jew.

Reb Zalman tasted the fruit of the esrog, and instead of that which is usually found, being very bitter and pulpy, that esrog was extremely juicy and delicious. And Reb Zalman knew that he was blessed indeed to have come there. Just then, however, the wind began to blow through the trees, and to his complete amazement Reb Zalman found that he could understand the words of the wind, which told him that the Baal Shem Tov had once lived there. And then Reb Zalman understood that the fruit of that esrog had been planted with the blessings of the Baal Shem Tov, and that is why it was so delicious. And it must have also happened that tasting the fruit let him taste of the Baal Shem's blessing, and that is why he had been able to understand the wind.

Just then Reb Zalman heard a terrible howling, which greatly frightened him, for he had not expected to encounter evil in that place. He turned on his heels and ran into the hut as fast as he could, and closed the door and locked it. And from the window he looked outside, to see where the howling had come from. And to his complete amazement he saw that the house was surrounded by demons, forty in all, who were howling in the wind every extraneous thought that had ever interrupted him while praying, every desire that did not seem right to fulfill, and every urge that had from time to time invaded him. And among those demons was Lilith, who caught his eye and began to undress before him, hoping to entice him to come out of the hut. One moment she was dressed in the most desirable finery, and the next moment her raiment was gone, and she stood naked before him. But Reb Zalman turned his eyes away and recited one of the psalms, and when he raised his eyes again she was gone, replaced by another demon. And Reb Zalman recognized that demon - it was one of his own. And as the howling demons arrayed themselves closer to the hut, Reb Zalman recognized each and every one. For those were not someone else's demons, or demons that came from somewhere else to plague him, but demons that he himself had nurtured through his neglect in weeding his own garden. And Reb Zalman suddenly realized that they surrounded him all the time, but that by eating that esrog he was now able to see them. And he knew as well that even as those demons were like weeds, so even weeds had some medicinal value. And he prayed that he might gain the knowledge and understanding of how they had come to haunt him, and how he might deliver himself from their curse.

Then Reb Zalman saw that the forty caterpillars were forming a circle around the house, and the demons rushed to get out of that circle as fast as they could. And Reb Zalman knew that the caterpillars had formed a circle that could not be broken, an Eruv, or boundary, in which he would be protected. Then Reb Zalman regained his confidence and cautiously went outside. And outside that circle, at its edge, he saw the demons clustered together, howling for his attention, but unable to come any closer.

Then Reb Zalman returned to the hut, and since night was falling he sought to light the lamp. Now there was no oil to be found in the house, except for a small amount in the lamp itself. Reb Zalman did not expect it to last for very long, but he felt that he needed light to expel the presence of those demons. In any case, Reb Zalman had nothing with which to light the lamp. He did not know what he could do, for he could not go beyond the protected circle as long as the demons were there. He looked around the hut some more, and opened the stove. To his amazement, he found one glowing ember inside it, impossible as that seemed. And he took a straw and lit it, and with the straw he lit the lamp. And the light cast by that lamp filled the room with warmth as well. And all the time Reb Zalman was there he felt as if the light of the Shekhinah shone upon him. And that lamp did not burn out during all the forty days that followed, neither did the ember stop glowing.

With the house illuminated, the howling of the demons could no longer be heard. Then Reb Zalman realized that the esrog fruit was the only thing he had eaten that day. Just then he noticed a basket in one corner of that room, and when he picked it up he found that it filled with carobs. Reb Zalman was delighted to find them, for carobs had been the food eaten by Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and his son, Rabbi Eliezer, during the thirteen years they had spent in a cave, hiding from the Romans and writing the Zohar. If carobs had sustained Rabbi Shimon for thirteen years, they would surely sustain Reb Zalman for forty days.

Then Reb Zalman counted the carobs, and lo and behold there were forty in all, and he resolved to eat one a day, and nothing more, except for the fruit of that delicious esrog tree. And he knew that in this way he would surely purify his body in that time. Now Reb Zalman found that carob not only as delicious as manna, but also remarkably filling, as if he had eaten a full meal. Then he realized that he was tired, for he had come a long way, and had been confronted with his own howling demons. And he felt like sleeping. So he went over to the bed and lay down on it, as soon as he closed his eyes, he slept.

Now that night Reb Zalman had an astonishing dream in which he found himself in a desert filled with rubble. Reb Zalman wondered where he was, and what it was that he was walking on, that shattered with every step he took. He picked up a piece of it, and found that it looked like a shard of a broken vessel. Then, in the dream, he noticed a stream flowing nearby, but rather than flowing with water, it gave off a wonderful scent, as if some kind of nectar flowed there. And when Reb Zalman saw that flowing stream, with its wonderful odor, he realized that he was very thirsty, and he wanted to drink.

Then Reb Zalman bent over the stream, and cupped his hands and tried to fill them, but the liquid ran out of his hands. Reb Zalman tried again and again, but he could not hold on to even a drop of it. Just then he looked down and saw that there was something written on one of the shards near his hands. He picked it up and found that the works were written in Hebrew, and it said: "Whoever would taste this nectar must first find an unbroken vessel and fill it."

Reb Zalman considered these words, and realized that the shards he had been walking on must all be broken vessels, and that he must somehow restore one of them if he wanted to drink that water. but how on earth could such a shattered vessel be restored? Just then Reb Zalman awoke, with the dream still vivid to him, and its meaning manifested itself to him as if the spirit of Joseph were with him. And he understood that in order to restore himself he must find a way to restore one of the shattered vessels of which the Ari spoke.

Then Reb Zalman remembered hearing that demons were actually imperfect angels. And it occurred to him that in this case the demons were not unlike the broken vessels, for both required tikkun in order to be restored. And all at once Reb Zalman vowed, with great kavanah, to do everything in his power to repair those demons, and turn them back into angels.

So Reb Zalman set about to try to think of a way in which the demons might be metamorphosized into angels. For even imperfect angels would be much better than those howling demons. In the meantime he realized that he was very thirsty, but where was he to find anything to drink? Reb Zalman looked around the hut once more, and this time he saw a jug in one corner, which he had not noticed before. He went over, picked it up, and pulled out the stopper, and a wonderful odor rose up to him, one that he recalled at once - it was the very same odor as the nectar in his dream! Reb Zalman could hardly believe his luck. He hurriedly got a cup and poured out some of the nectar, said the blessing, and then tasted it, offering a L'hayim to the demons clustered outside the charmed circle. And the taste of that nectar was so delectable that Reb Zalman never forgot it for the rest of his life, and when he mentioned it he always called it the schnaps of Eden, and he was certain that it must have been the favorite drink of the angels. And that, indeed, is what it was.

Reb Zalman felt himself considerably calmed and warmed by that first sip, and his thirst no longer plagued him. He arose and went to the window and looked out. He still did not consider going outside, for he wanted to remain within that protected circle. (In fact, nothing could have tempted him to step outside it at that point.) Reb Zalman recalled the tales about Reb Adam and the Baal Shem Tov, both of whom protected themselves inside a magical circle, such as those said to have been drawn by Solomon. And he knew full well that he was inside such a charmed circle - which Reb Zalman now saw consisted of forty cocoons - where he need fear nothing. And he fully intended to remain there.

Now the cries of the demons could still be heard, but now they seemed slightly less hysterical, as if they too had been calmed in some way. Reb Zalman considered this, and decided to take another sip of that heavenly schnaps, while keeping his eyes on the demons outside. And by doing this a few times, Reb Zalman was bale to determine that there was an exact correlation between his taking those sips and the calming process that finally caused the demons to quiet down, and for a dim light to appear around their faces for the first time. And when Reb Zalman saw this light, he was thrilled, for he recognized it as the light they had lost when, due to his neglect, they had fallen, as angels, from the celestial heights. And he realized that somehow he had caused the falling to stop, and that now it was a matter of making it possible for them to learn how to ascend once more, something they no longer knew how to do by themselves.

Now that was the eve of the first Sabbath of his solitude, and Reb Zalman was filled with longing to greet the Sabbath Queen. And for a while he forgot about transforming the demons into angels, and turned his thoughts to the higher realm. And that night he sang all the Sabbath songs and said all the prayers out loud, even though he was alone. And yet he did not feel alone, as he had feared, but rather that he was, in fact, sharing that Shabbas. Reb Zalman could not help noting his absence of loneliness, and then he realized that he felt as if he were sharing that Sabbath with those imperfect angels.

And the next morning, indeed, when Reb Zalman looked out the window at the first light, he saw that the demons had sprouted wings - sagging, pathetic wings, it is true, but wings nevertheless. And he knew that the power of the Sabbath had somehow reached them, and was making it possible for them to be returned to the form they had before they had fallen. And then it occurred to him that this process was indeed like that of restoring a jug from all those scattered shards. And he suddenly realized that the jug he had drunk from must be one that his soul had repaired, for he was quite positive it had not been there when he looked around the hut at first. And because he had succeeded in repairing that one vessel, it was now possible for the broken vessels of those fallen angels to be restored as well.

So it was that Reb Zalman devoted himself fully to that task of healing those forty imperfect angels - for, in fact, they no longer could be called demons. At first he intended to pray for the benefit of all of them at the same time. But then it came to him in a flash of inspiration that he should devote one day to each one, since they were the same number. This he did, and each day he turned all his love and devotion for the Torah towards healing one of those fallen angels, reciting psalms for it without end. And lo and behold by the end of the first day the angel's countenance was beaming, its wings perfect, and it was able to take flight towards the heavens. And Reb Zalman knew that for every one of them that were restored to the heights, his soul received an immeasurable blessing, for the Lord delights in the recovery of a fallen angel as much as He does in that of a fallen human being.

In this way the forty days he lived in that hut were spent in concentration and devotion. And at the end of each day Reb Zalman had the great blessing of seeing one of those angels taking flight, bearing Reb Zalman's own prayers heavenward. And when the time came, on the last day, for him to release the last angel, he did, and it soared heavenward. And just then the cocoons of the caterpillars cracked open, and a golden butterfly emerged out of each one. These butterflies assembled at once into a flock and set off flying, and when Reb Zalman saw this, he hurried outside of the charmed circle for the first time since he had come there, and followed that flock of butterflies wherever it went. For those caterpillars had not led him astray and neither, he was certain, would those butterflies.

The butterflies led Reb Zalman a great distance, so that sometimes he had to rest along the way. In fact, he found that he made forty-two rest stops, exactly as had the Children of Israel in their desert wanderings. They traveled all night, and by the morning Reb Zalman reached the mountain at the far side of that huge forest. And the trees that grew there were very old, even ancient, and as the wind blew through them they seemed to speak, and he thought he heard them say: "Welcome, Reb Zalman, on this, your sixtieth birthday, into the Council of the Elders." And when Reb Zalman heard this, he suddenly remembered that it was indeed his birthday that day, and that he had completed fifty-nine years, although he had forgotten about it completely in his concern to transform the demons into angels. So too did he wonder what was the Council of the Elders of which they spoke. And just then, in the shadow of one mountain, Reb Zalman saw a majestic figure, into whose presence he had been led. And now Reb Zalman ran forward to meet his fate; no longer did he hide his face from it.

And there, in the shadow of the mountain, the voice of a great prophet addressed him - for it was none other than Moses the Redeemer himself. And Reb Zalman understood at once that this was how Moses had addressed all of those assembled at Sinai at the same time, for his words echoed from the mountain and filled the forest. And Moses said to him: "Welcome, Zalman, on this, the first day of your sixtieth year. Know that the pain and experience of the past has turned to wisdom; and the great love that you hold shall be turned into blessings that you can give, for now you have joined the Council of the Elders." Then Moses said, with the loving inflections of a father: "Zalman, Zalman, you are not even half of my age, but know that I was sixty years old at the time that I met Zipporah my wife. Know too that from this day on you will have added you name the word Zaida, and thus you have become Zaida Zalman." And when he heard this, Reb Zalman knew that he must have become a grandfather, and a great joy filled his heart.

Then Moses said: "Take hold of my hand." This Reb Zalman did, and with his other hand Moses pointed up to the sky, where Reb Zalman saw the Ten Commandments inscribed in black fire on white. And Moses pointed to the commandment Thou shalt honor thy father and mother, and he said: "Look closely at this commandment." And when Reb Zalman did this, he saw written beneath it the words "Honor thy grandfather and grandmother as well." And Moses said: "Those words were written there all along, but you had not reached the age where you could see them. Now they stand revealed to you."

Then Moses said: "Know, Zalman, that the world stands in great need of blessings. Therefore you have been appointed to the Council of the Elders to see that these blessings are given, and not only to the young, but to the old as well. And fear not that you have become too old to bear the Tabernacle on your shoulders - the time has come for you to serve as a source of blessings and knowledge, and not to carry burdens." And Reb Zalman was filled with the greatest peace on hearing these words, and he replied, with all his heart, "Amen."

Then Reb Zalman saw that Moses was about to take his leave. And he was overcome with longing to speak with Moses about questions of the Law that had long haunted him. And Moses, who read these thoughts in his face, replied: "you may ask me one question, and I will willingly reply, unless it concerns the time of the coming of the Messiah, which I am not permitted to reveal."

Then Reb Zalman asked the question that was closest to his heart. For he did believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, as stated in the twelfth principle of Maimonides. And he said: "I have long wondered on many questions, but this one above all: When the Messiah comes it is known that the Temple will be rebuilt for the third and final time. But how will this take place without destroying the mosque that has been built on the holiest place?" And Moses smiled a great smile, which Reb Zalman never forgot for as long as a single second for the rest of his life.

And Moses said: "Even now the Temple is being restored far under the earth by the prayers and longings of Israel. Your own prayers, Reb Zalman, during the past forty days, have gone very far in restoring the Holy of Holies itself, the place of the Ark of the Covenant. And when the Temple has been completely restored this way, then the time of the Messiah will have arrived, and the Temple will rise up out of the earth, in all its glory, for the whole world to see. And as it rises up there will be a wing of the Temple for each nation of the world, and that is why it is written My house shall be called the House of Prayer for all nations."

Then Moses took his leave and turned and walked into the shadow of the mountain and disappeared from Reb Zalman's eyes. And all at once he heard the fluttering of the butterflies, and saw that they were departing. Then he did not hesitate, but followed them, and they led him directly back to his home in Zholkiev. And no sooner did Reb Zalman arrive home, than his son came out of the door and embraced him and there were tears of joy in his eyes. For he had been blessed with a son, and Reb Zalman had returned on that, his forty-second day, which was also the eighth day since the birth, and the day of the bris.

So it was that Reb Zalman had the honor of serving as the mohel of the Covenant of his own grandson. And when he did, he knew that he had not only received a great blessing from Moses, Our Redeemer, but that he had also been permitted to transmit that great blessing to this, his first grandchild. And he saw then how correct Moses had been about the blessings of old age, which he had never before known.

As published in The Dream Assembly, collected and retold by Howard Schwartz.
Copyright © 1988 by Zalman M. Schachter and Howard Schwartz (email: sheschw@umslvma.umsl.edu). Used by permission.

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