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The Son of Rabbi Adam
adapted by Doug Lipman
With one of his last breaths, Rabbi Adam called his son to his deathbed.
"Years ago, my son, I was led in a vision to a cave. I was shown which rock to lift; under it, I found a sheaf of mystical writings. Centuries old.
"For months, I have prayed to know to whom I should bequeath them. In this hour, my prayer has been answered.
"You are a good man, my son, but you do not have the strength of character to inherit this mystical knowledge. Take these papers to the place I will name for you, and give them to the great rabbi there, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer."
When the son of Rabbi Adam reached the village his father had sent him to, he asked a villager where to find Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer.
"Uh, we are a tiny village," said the villager. "We have only one rabbi, and that is not his name."
"Perhaps he is one of your scholars, then," said Rabbi Adam's son.
"A scholar?" said the villager. "You must be in the wrong village." The villager leaned forward confidentially. "I'm telling you, the only person we have of that name is...a simpleton. He's the shammes, who cleans the house of study. You wouldn't want anything to do with someone like that, would you? I thought not."
The son of Rabbi Adam went to the house of study. Under the guise of studying the holy texts, he watched this ignorant shammes.
This Israel ben Eliezer seemed perfectly ordinary. But there was one thing. Whenever he noticed a piece of lint or the broken corner of the page of a book, he would carry it outside - but if he found even the smallest crumb of candle wax, much less the stub of a candle a scholar had discarded, he would put them in a pocket.
One of the duties of this shammes was, at nightfall, to gather benches together. This way, any scholars who did not want to interrupt their studies more than the necessary minimum might sleep there.
The son of Rabbi Adam had the shammes bring together benches for him.
In the middle of the night, Rabbi Adam's son saw this shammes get up, take from his pocket the stub of a candle, light it, add crumbs of wax until it glowed brightly, and go over to the holy books.
"He's looking for a particular book," thought the son of Rabbi Adam. "He must be able to read!"
The shammes sat down with a book and began to read. From the way Israel ben Eliezer's face lit up when he looked on the holy words, it was clear to the son of Rabbi Adam that this shammes was much more than he appeared to be.
The son of Rabbi Adam waited for the shammes to leave for a moment. Then he placed one of the pieces of paper from his father on top of the holy book. When the shammes returned and began to read those mystical words, his face seemed to glow with its own light.
Quietly, the son of Rabbi Adam sat down next to the surprised shammes and spoke. "This is the sort of mystical knowledge you have been seeking, isn't it? My father entrusted me with giving you this page and many more." He hesitated. "I shouldn't ask you this, but may I study them with you?"
Israel smiled. "A companion in my studies? Yes!" Then his face clouded over. "But if the villagers learn of this, they will interfere. I impose a condition on you: you must let no one know who between us is the teacher."
The next day, one villager complained to another. "Can you believe my luck? We finally have a rich man staying in our village - but he won't stay at my inn. Instead, he's having us build him a house of seclusion in the forest. And with all the competent people who could use the work, who does he hire as his servant?" The villager paused before answering his own question. "The simpleton!"
Months later, Israel was pacing excitedly as he spoke to Rabbi Adam's son. "I have it, my friend! I finally understand the significance of these papers from your father. They appear to be strange, mystical stories. But they are much more! They are actually secret instructions for interpreting the deeper meanings of the Torah. They teach us about the fourth level of meaning, the level of the holy secrets.
"Look! This section appears to be just an odd little story about a man and a river. But it is actually a set of instructions for interpreting a particular passage of Torah - to produce an incantation that can summon any entity in the universe.
"And this story interprets another passage of Torah to explain how to build a particular fire. You see, in the days when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, this fire was built once a year by the High Priest - on the Day of Atonement - and could carry up on its flame, to forgiveness, the sins of an entire nation!"
"Israel, that is wonderful," said the son of Rabbi Adam. "When do we start?"
"Start? Oh, no, my friend. This fire was just for the high priest to build. This mystical knowledge brings us closer to G-d, just by knowing it."
"But, Israel, if we don't use these papers to do something, they might as well be back in the cave!"
In time, Israel allowed himself to be persuaded. They prepared themselves. They fasted from Sabbath to Sabbath. They immersed themselves in the ritual bath.
Then, at an auspicious moment, a holy moment in time, they built the fire as it had been built in the days of the Temple. Each piece of wood was of a particular length, made from a particular species of tree, soaked in a particular oil, and laid in place with a particular blessing.
When each piece was in its place, they said one final blessing. Then they lit it.
It was just a fire. It had no special power at all.
Israel berated his companion. "You see, I told you we shouldn't build it."
"No, Israel, I told you! If we hadn't built it, you'd have spent the rest of your life thinking you knew how! Obviously, you made some mistake. Check your calculations, and we'll try it until you know that you know!"
Weeks later, Israel approached his friend. "Every one of my calculations is correct. But I have thought of this: these instructions tell us what to do. But nowhere do they tell us what our intention must be as we do it."
"Well, who would know that, Israel?"
Israel shrugged. "The Angel of Torah?"
"Let's summon him, Israel!"
Israel was shocked. "We can't summon an angel!"
"You told me yourself we had an incantation to summon any entity in the universe!"
"It's possible," said Israel. "But it would be very dangerous. With the smallest error, we could summon a different entity. We might end up with the Angel of Fire and burn the entire village!"
The son of Rabbi Adam leaned forward. "Israel, are you afraid?"
After a while, Israel spoke. "My friend, have you ever been in love?"
"No," said the son of Rabbi Adam. "And if I had been, I'd be married!"
"I don't mean in that way. I was in love with twenty children." Israel looked at the sheaf of mystical writings. "This knowledge is something no one can ever take from me."
"Israel! You are afraid!"
They prepared themselves again, and Israel began the incantation that would summon the Angel of Torah, to ask it a single question: with what intention must they build the fire?
"I feel a presence approaching, my friend." Suddenly, Israel's tone changed. "Oh, no! It's the wrong presence."
The son of Rabbi Adam said, "Don't tell me it's the Angel of Fire!"
"It's worse. It's the Angel of Death."
"Israel, are we in over our heads?"
Israel faced his friend. "He's going to be angry. He's going to spend the entire night waiting for our souls. He can't just take our souls, because our allotted time is not elapsed. But if we were to fall asleep, even for an instant - sleep is so close to death, he will be able to ease our souls over that narrow boundary. We must stay awake.
"Here: I'm writing out a prayer for you. Read it over and over again. Keep your soul cleaving to that prayer. Do not take your attention from it for one second all night. Then you won't fall alseep - and you won't fall prey to the Angel of Death. You can do that, can't you?"
Without conviction, Rabbi Adam's son said, "Yes."
Israel wrote himself a prayer. He began to read it over and over. Feeling the presence of the Angel of Death in the room, he clung to that prayer like he had never attached himself to anything in his life.
After hours of reading the prayer, its letters began to blur, but still he read it over and over. The letters lost their outlines. Just at that moment, his soul lost its outlines and traveled from his still-living body.
His soul soared free all night, far from the grasp of the Angel of Death.
Just as the first rays of dawn entered the room, his soul returned to his body. "We did it, my friend! We..."
Israel touched the slumped-over body of his friend. It was cold. He began to weep.
At the appropriate time, the villagers held a great funeral for the son of Rabbi Adam. As they left, they said to Israel, "What will you do now, without him to teach you?"
As soon as they were gone, Israel did what he had always done in a time of sorrow or regret. He ran out into his beloved forest.
For the first time, the colors were pale, the air was tasteless, the sounds were muffled.
After a day and a night wandering like a stranger in the place that had been his only true home, he returned, alone, to the house of seclusion.
Alone, he prepared himself.
Alone, he built the fire as it had been built in the days of the Temple - each piece of wood of a particular length, made from a particular species of tree, soaked in a particular oil, laid in place with a particular blessing.
As he performed each act, his intention was on only one thing: "Please, G-d, take away the barrier that separates me from your world!"
When he lit the fire, he felt the strength of that flame. As the smoke rose toward heaven, he felt the wall around him dissolve.
He rushed into the forest. He ran his arm through the living leaves. He thrust his hands into the cool mud of the river bank. He rolled in the meadow.
That night, he slept on the grass, not wanting a blanket, not even a shirt, between him and G-d's sky.
In the morning, he returned to the village just long enough to get a cloth sack and to fill it with loaves of bread.
He was so eager to return to that sense of connection with the forest, that he scarcely noticed that he had discovered a great, holy spark: the way to build the fire as it was built in the days of the Temple - the fire that had the power on its flame to lift up to heaven and to forgiveness the sins of an entire nation.
This is an excerpt from Doug Lipman's epic Hasidic tale, The Soul of Hope.
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This page was last updated on Monday, March 10, 2003
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