"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison


Clover

     Except that she no longer went to the beach to sit on her bench and dream, nothing had changed.  No matter, Sharon’s work at the Center For Mystical Judaism now kept her from dreaming at all.  Immediately after completing his index of variations on the Holy Name, Rabbi Joachim had plunged into research on a new “secret project.”  He was, in fact, so preoccupied with it that Sharon—whose job it was to clear up the odds and ends of the old and prepare the way for the new—hardly found herself at home.

     Even after a year of working so closely with him she could still marvel at the inexhaustible draughts of energy Rabbi Joachim seemed to draw from some hidden mystical source.  No sooner would he complete one enormous task than he was already embarked on another; leaving Sharon struggling not to fall behind.  What made it harder was that he never really explained anything.  Only once had he stopped in the middle of describing the intricate network of Sephiroth on the mystical Tree of Life to recount his own experience as an adept of his uncle in Jerusalem, a Kabbalah master noted for eating no meat, drinking no wine, and living in hermetic celibacy.

     “It was this holy man, my master, whom I watched as he singlehandedly foiled the Arabs during the Six-Day War.”  Holding his hands out in front of him in a gesture of benediction, his voice now rising slightly, the Rabbi recreated the event for her.

     “Like this, he stood on a Jerusalem hilltop overlooking the city.  The sky was suddenly filled with clouds.  Even the birds grew still.  All we could hear was the distant rattle of gunfire in the valley below us.  Turning his gaze toward heaven, my master suddenly cried out in a voice like thunder: ‘SHEMA YISROEL ADONAI ELOHAUNU ADONAI ECHAD!’ A streak of lightning pierced the sky.  The gunfire seemed to draw closer.  Suddenly I heard shouting, men’s voices swelling louder and louder, coming closer and closer to the city.  I looked at my master’s face.  His eyes were closed and his cheeks were bathed in tears.  Afraid of what might happen if I addressed him, I crept away softly and made my way back to the three-room schoolhouse where I had lived and studied and prayed under his guidance since the beginning of the war.  My body was limp.  Sweating and chilled at once, drained of the psychic power he had drawn from me in order to reinforce the spell I stumbled blindly into my hammock and fell into a deep, trance-like sleep.  That night I awoke to the mingled sounds of mourning and rejoicing.  After centuries, Jerusalem was ours again!  The war was over . . .” the Rabbi paused.  Then, almost in a whisper, he resumed, “But my master was dead.  He had given his life in exchange for the life of Israel . . .” Rolling the sensuous last r across his tongue the Rabbi fell silent.

     Overcome by love and vicarious religious ecstasy, Sharon choked down a sob.

     As always after delivering one of his “exempla”, Rabbi Joachim recovered himself by brushing his hand over his silky black goatee and blinking the tears from his eyes.  Within seconds, his voice and appearance returned from the exalted realms to the everyday reality of the Center’s cramped little office with seemingly no effort.

     The spiritual high and its precipitous drop left Sharon confused.  His uncle’s momentous self-sacrifice contradicted everything Rabbi Joachim had told her about the Jewish prohibition against martyrdom.  Hoping that he would eventually reveal the story’s deeper meaning to her as she matured in the practice, she refrained from pointing this out.  Like the color charts depicting the complexities of the cosmic spheres, this mysterious parable would have to be shelved until she was ready to grasp it.  Right now, her task as a devoted disciple was to stay open to Rabbi Joachim’s teaching by following his instructions for clearing her mind and concentrating on the Holy Name.  As a woman irrationally in love with a married man, who also happened to be her employer, she was less certain of their relationship.  Motivated by loneliness, she’d attended his first lecture.  Before that night, she’d had no interest in religion.  Her grandmother had meticulously observed the ceremonies of the faith—lighting candles every Friday evening at sunset, dropping pennies into the blue-and-white charity box on the refrigerator, taking her to the synagogue on the High Holidays.  But her grandmother’s orthodoxy had died with her, and the remainder of Sharon’s adolescence had been loosely governed by Pinnie’s earthy agnosticism.  Perhaps the fact that there were no men in the family, both grandfathers and her father having died young, had something to do with it—Judaism being such a male-centered religion.  Perhaps if her father hadn’t left a house full of women adrift, she’d have been less prone to spiritual searching.  Contented with the more ordinary life of a Jewish woman—membership in a suburban sisterhood, a prosperous religious book salesman for a husband.  A little boy who did not curse and hit his grandmother when she told him to go to bed.  Or at least the money for psychological counseling to help her understand why Paulie did these things.  But this was not her fate. 

     Unlike her sister Arleen, Sharon hadn’t “left home”, taking off for Manhattan claiming she was an artist and needed space to work in. In a cold water loft on the Lower East Side before gentrification, with nothing but a mattress on the floor to sleep on, Arleen declared her independence.  Even if she’d been lucky enough to paint or write, or daring enough to model nude for her sister and her friends, Sharon would have somehow managed to remain closer to home.  It was ironic.  Here she was, having married in her twenties and divorced in her early thirties, living with her mother as the good daughter, the “normal” one whose marriage had simply come off badly—a fact of life that even middle-class Brooklyn modern orthodox Jews no longer frowned upon.  Yet hadn’t Sharon truly strayed as far away from home in spirit as Arleen had in the flesh?  Hadn’t her grandmother left her mark, imprinting her with a craving to appease an underlying hunger to penetrate the mysteries of what white-haired Bubbe Clara had called “the next world?”

 

     Rabbi Joachim did not choose to disclose the particulars of his secret new project until every envelope containing the lists for his work on the Holy Name had been sealed and sent off to Israel.  Carting them in a mailbag in a wheeled wire basket to the post office, Sharon had delivered the lot as instructed.  There, scholars at the original Center for Mystical Judaism—the one founded by the disciples of Rabbi Joachim’s late uncle—would collate the material and print it as a soft-covered book in a limited Hebrew edition to be followed six months later by another, in English.  It was a clumsy procedure and, because of the distance and the language difficulties they’d encountered, fraught with misunderstandings that had delayed publication.  Still, notwithstanding all the hardships, their total dependence on donations from wealthy disciples, and the assistance of a theosophical book publisher, Rabbi Joachim’s increasing American success had resulted in the publication of three newly translated English editions of three 15th-century Aramaic Kabbalah manuscripts within one year.  Modestly, the Rabbi had claimed no credit for himself, ascribing the success of the enterprise to the intervention of his late uncle’s spirit.   Except for one whimsical reference to “smuggling photocopies out of the Vatican library like an espionage agent,” which Sharon had taken as one of the Rabbi’s rare attempts at a joke, he remained dead serious about his uncle’s ongoing participation in the Center’s affairs.  Curious, since he’d never mentioned it, Sharon had asked if his master was a traditional rabbi before becoming a Kabbalist.

     “Not was, Sharon—IS!” he exclaimed.  “You must understand that although you cannot see him embodied in flesh, he is as close to you now, in this very room, as I am.  When we speak of a spirit like his, there is no death,” he continued peevishly, glaring at her.  Then, softening a bit, putting his hand to his temple as if chastising himself for his impatience: “But forgive me, Sharon.  How could you understand this?  You are so young yet; someday the clouds of illusion will disappear for you, too . . . and you will see.”  That had been the first time Rabbi Joachim had called her “Sharon”, and the first time she had a dream about him that turned out to be a premonition.

 

     The new project, the Rabbi explained, could not be described there in the office.  To really understand what it was all about, they would have to drive to New Jersey and experience it firsthand.  Afterward, there were scheduled appointments, first with the Center’s theosophical Delancey Street publisher, and next, if time allowed, with an herbalist in the neighborhood.

     Sharon was intrigued, and happy to be quitting the office.  The telephone hadn’t stopped ringing and filling the morning with bad news: one of their most generous donors, in the process of searching for a building in which to relocate the Center, had scouted properties in a dangerous neighborhood and been mugged and robbed of three-hundred dollars and was recuperating from a fractured knee at Lenox Hill Hospital, and a shipment of explanatory brochures addressed to a Reform Temple in Orlando, Florida had come back from the post office marked Insufficient Postage.

     Thus it was that Sharon found herself—like in her dream—sitting alongside Rabbi Joachim driving through the midday muck of the Holland Tunnel.  An elderly patron had rethought her will and at the last minute transferred ownership of her car to the Center: a big red Volvo sedan with cream-colored leather seats and matching carpet throughout.  Rabbi Joachim was unfazed by the flashy luxuriousness of the car.  After uttering a short prayer of thanks to the generous intervention of his uncle, he’d sprung behind the wheel and driven off, screeching to a stop at red lights, narrowly avoiding rear-ending the cars in front of him.  Nothing fazed him out on the road, either—not the grizzled truck drivers looking down and cursing at him from their cabs, nor the startled pedestrians who jumped back onto the curbs swinging impotent fists in his wake.  Safely wrapped in the spiritual embrace of his miracle-working uncle, Rabbi Joachim remained oblivious to their curses.   

      The traffic broke as they sped out of the tunnel onto the ramp and climbed toward the Palisades.  The heavy, rainless humidity plaguing the city had turned into a thick haze blanketing the Manhattan skyline, making it almost invisible from the New Jersey side of the Hudson.  The Palisades Parkway was eerily empty.  For ten minutes they drove north, passed only by one other car—a State Trooper, as it turned out, who seemed oddly unaware of the speeding red Volvo.  Suppressing the urge to warn the Rabbi that the Trooper might be planning to pull him over and ticket him for speeding, Sharon focused instead on the direction they were taking.  About half a mile from the Nyack exit, Rabbi Joachim pulled the car onto the grass shoulder, where a sign informed him it was illegal to park.  Motioning for her to follow him, he opened the door of the car, and after removing his jacket and throwing it on the front seat, got out and strode briskly toward the Palisade cliffs.  Following behind, Sharon assessed the Rabbi’s body as he plodded along like a bear looking neither left nor right.  For a man who ate so little, he seemed rather broad; in some places, even heavy.  Yet, seeing him out in the open in his old-fashioned white-on-white shirt with the pen-filled pockets and gold cufflinks only made her desire him more.

     The grass closer to the river was wet and high.  Sharon gazed at the emptiness around her and wondered where her mentor could be heading to with such determination.  She was too busy looking around to notice that the terrain had dipped, allowing Rabbi Joachim to suddenly disappear from view.  Hampered by her thick-heeled shoes, and at the same time curious, she pushed forward.    

     “Here . . . here it is!” she heard him call just as she caught sight of the top of his head.

     Rabbi Joachim had taken off his hat and was kneeling near a very large boulder, one end of which protruded steeply over the river, the other flattened benignly against a plateau.  

     Sharon was struck by an unfamiliar surge of panic.  What was she doing here?  Was it that her life with Barney had been so irritably sane?  Was this the reason she was insanely perched behind Rabbi Joachim on the New Jersey Palisades on a steamy Wednesday afternoon in July?  Had he sensed enough of her own hidden madness to bring her here in the first place?  What cosmic lesson was he trying to teach her this time?

     “Here, here is the plant I’ve been looking for.  I knew I remembered the spot.  Come, Sharon, quickly, we’re running out of time.”

     “Where, Rabbi?  I don’t think I can make it down there with these shoes,” she protested. 

      Since it was not Rabbi Joachim’s habit to indulge her questions, Sharon wasn’t surprised when he ignored her now.  Even in the best of circumstance, it wasn’t unusual for him to maintain long stretches of silence before acknowledging her presence at all.  When, and if, he was ready to talk, the rabbi would summon his words carefully, as if from a distance, marshaling them into his own strange semblance of order before presenting her with an explanation.  He would begin slowly, like a medium speaking out of trance.  His body stiff and his voice guttural, his words gradually gained momentum until they tumbled over each other, the marvelous rs rolling off his tongue like a verbal caress.  Today it was different.

     “Hurry, we haven’t got all day here, and I need your help,” he sounded annoyed.

     Only a few more steps . . . a slight decline . . . a ridge, then, at the edge of the immense boulder, perilously close to the river —was the rabbi picking flowers!   

     Better not look down.  Turning her gaze away from the murky water, Sharon knelt beside him.  There must be a reason for this, she assured herself.  He’s never done anything like it before, so there has to be a very good reason for us to be in this place.

     As if reading her thoughts, Rabbi Joachim turned to her and said, “Don’t be afraid.  The ground is safe here; I’ve been here before.”  Still, he did not extend his hand to steady her.  “This is our next project,” he said, pointing to a clump of purple clover neatly stuffed into his hat.

     “But . . .”

     “To look at it you’d think it was nothing, just a simple herb growing in the crevices of these rocks.”  Typically glancing past her as he spoke, the rabbi continued, “But, like all the wonderful secrets God has put before us here on Earth, it is so obvious as to be hidden from gross eyes.”

     “It looks like clover,” said Sharon, relieved by his familiar didacticism.  

     “Yes, nothing but a bunch of clover, a weed—but containing a great mystery.”  He sat down on the grass.  Tired of kneeling, Sharon modestly tucked her dress under her knees and sat down across from him.  A yellow butterfly fluttered past the Rabbi’s head. 

     “Sharon, this little plant is going to make a fortune for the Center.  What would you say if I told you that it will cure mental illness, and even drug addiction?” he asked, his face glowing with excitement.

     Knowing full well that the Rabbi didn’t really want an answer but was waiting for a sign of her unconditional faith in his judgment, Sharon nodded.  What did she care about the alfalfa, or clover, or whatever it was her dearest love was now holding out for her to admire?  What she wanted was for him to playfully graze her cheek with the fuzzy tips of those purple flowers before tossing them aside, pushing her tenderly onto the soft wet grass and bringing his body down on hers, his hard, brightly colored pens pressing against her breasts.

     “ . . . when the idea first came to me.  Strange, isn’t it?”

     I love you, my darling.  Deafened by the voice inside her head, Sharon had missed the first part of the rabbi’s sentence.

     “I was driving uptown on the West Side Highway when I first saw them . . . no, not once, but twice, this time driving downtown.  They were standing in the island dividing the highway, two little Chinese ladies in blue aprons, bent over, actually, gathering what looked like ordinary weeds and putting them into a pair of wide straw baskets.  At first, I mistook them for sanitation people, you know, the ones who pick up highway litter with a pointed stick.  But, no, they were two little Chinese women, just as I’d thought . . . gathering weeds along the West Side Highway.”

     Why don’t you kiss me now?  Why are you babbling about Chinese women and pointed sticks?

     “Sharon, are you listening?”

     “Rabbi Joachim, I—I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

     The Rabbi frowned.  “There’s nothing to understand, Mrs. Berg.  It’s as simple as today’s being Wednesday,” he shrugged.  Then, turning his back on the gross world she inhabited, he mused gently to himself: “I was reminded by the sight of them of something I had read in a work by the sixteenth-century Kabbalist Chayim Vital, a fragment that deals with curative herbs.  And it suddenly struck me that the one herb he describes for curing addiction and other mental derangements is really nothing more than a form of clover!

     “On my way to Monsey one afternoon I stopped near here to think about it further.  The image of those two Chinese women haunted me.  I had to put together the pieces of this puzzle.  Then, as always when I have been most deeply engaged in solving a problem, my master helped me.  It was he who spoke to me, guiding me to this place.

‘My son, why do you worry so about money for the Center when you are standing this very minute on a gold mine . . . more importantly . . . on the very answer to one of man’s worst afflictions?’  As soon as the master had finished speaking to me I started to search the grass—foolishly at first—looking for gold.  After an hour of pointless searching, the answer came to me—clearly, so clearly!”  Rabbi Joachim pulled a stalk of clover out of the ground and handed it to her.  

     “Here it is, Sharon, our new project—CLOVER!”


Perle Besserman has written for publications as varied as Mademoiselle, Manoa (Honolulu), The Boston Globe, and The Village Voice. Based in Hawai’i and spending part of the year in Melbourne, Australia, she travels frequently throughout the U.S., Europe, Australia, Asia, and the Middle East, and has appeared on national and international radio and television and in two documentary films in connection with her work. Website: www.perlebesserman.net

Cover photo by Tanner Mardis on Unsplash

The Foundations of Existentialism and the Metaphysics of Morals

The Foundations of Existentialism and the Metaphysics of Morals

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