For Reb Zalman
I first met you in the summer of 91’
You were leading services in a Mt Airy church.
We sat in a circle with a basket of fun and inviting instruments in the center; egg rattles, tambourines, bongo’s!
You said the Psalms were the songs of David- that caught my attention!
You continued by asking us what were our psalms? Do I have psalms too? You invited us to turn to our neighbor and combine our psalms with King David’s. And when we turned, you said, remember that your neighbor is not your neighbor but nothing less than the Face of G!d.
I don’t know why, but when you talked of the Psycho-Halachic Process I would get chills. When you opened the emotional and imaginal dimensions of prayer with such ease, I was yours.
You were a teacher’s teacher, a premier experiential educator. I was able to journey with you through dream-like biblical landscapes, go on pilgrimage to the holy temple, and learn how animal sacrifice could actually be seen as an ancient path of devotion.
For $35 I could join your Mt Airy classes that summer. I didn’t know what I was in for. For instance, after locating Buber as a pioneering ‘Neo-Hasidic Renewalnik’, you told us this haunting story: One night, Buber was deep in study and contemplation. A knock at the door, a young man wanted to talk, Buber wanted to continue his studies. He briskly ordered, “come back later”. The next day that youth was found drowned in the river. Even many years later, I still can’t help but wonder, how can I bring more attention to my relationships?
I learned that you really loved verbs when you dedicated an entire class to describing Kabbalistic ideas in terms of verb tenses. I didn’t understand even one lick. I said as much to another student in that Germantown Jewish center classroom. He said, “of course you didn’t, that’s because Reb Zalman’s a certifiable genius! He not only reads everything but remembers it too!”
Most importantly, you taught paradigm shifting as an active verb. That made all the difference. You shifted the stodgy (and brilliant) description of how physics and science change over time, to an active process, a participatory adventure that included all of us. You not only chronicled the change from temple, priest and sacrifice to synagogue, rabbi, prayer and deed; you also inspired us to ask, where are the winds of change blowing today? This allowed me to Jew with zeal and passion.
I have a beloved and whispered name for you: Heart’s Gate. I’m sure your intimate writings in Gates of the Heart opened many hearts. It certainly did mine. All of your prayer services and retreats taught us that contemplative practices were core. Every part of you taught that our kabbalistic heritage is both old and new and carries great relevance. Even your casual socks and sandals seemed to radiate the importance that living with care and growing in caring were vitally important for both people and planet.
I love that you shared your first step. There, by the NY subway in 1947, you found a book on prayer written by a catholic monk. What inspired you to actually read it? I’m sure it was not on the Rebbe’s reading list! With shock and awe, you realized that more than Chabad knew about prayer. With great excitement, you began a life long search leading to advanced degrees in psychology and comparative religion. With great strength you began learning with great teachers and sharing what you love.
Somehow, supported by the Age of Aquarius, a post-triumphalist new religious order began to take shape. You managed to find common ground with Native Americans blessing the morning sun; you gazed deeply into the Dalai Lama’s eyes and spoke of surviving exile; you went on retreat at catholic monasteries, and even prayed with Muslim’s in Jerusalem. When those students of that Sufi Sheikh challenged you directly, even threateningly, you answered with your usual charm, grace and calm, “I’m a child of Abraham guided by the Holy One of Love and Peace”.
I remember your mischievous smile, when teaching with Roshi Bernie Glassman, you wanted to play a trick on him. You had us all chant the Shema with each word being a full ohm long. When Bernie came in, he was not surprised one bit, in fact, he thought we were actually praying. A new tradition was born.
Bnai Ohr had already become Pnai Ohr when I met you. Your work with Shlomo, your Summerville years, Esalon experiments, and imaginative mystery schools were all behind you. Your non-heirarchical, egalitarian and earth-centered values were already set. After all, you were nearly 70. You were launching your newest project, Spiritual Eldering.
When I heard you share your vision at Borders Books, describing spiritual eldering plus the infrastructure that would give it legs, I just stood back in awe at your audacity, can-do spirit, hopefulness and organizational mastery. I ran to the shelves and found a biography of one of my favorite elder/visionary/organizers: David Brower. In my excitement, I wanted to share it with you. You listened and took the book with such a warm smile. I still wonder with anxiety if you thought that book was actually paid for? I do hope the door alarms did not go off when you left that day.
A favorite moment: I was so glad to honor you at Elat Chayyim. We learned a complicated niggun and all stood in that packed room when you entered. You were a regal Rebbe, wearing fur streimel and satin robe. The joy and reverence of Rebbe and Hasidim carried that moment of awe into eternity.
I do not actually remember the niggun or if your robe was black or white. I do remember the excitement of exploring a post-modern Judaism for the 21st Century. When someone mentioned your new book of Hasidic stories, I stood, with heart beating, I quickly gave my testimony- saying it was an incredible mix of Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem, scholarship and story combined, with the best part being that personal memories were included too! Your instantaneous, “Thank you Maggid” is a blessing that I still carry with me here in my heart.
Later, when we sat together, I remember your tired eyes. You shared stories of your free-lance work with summer camps and synagogues, and gave counsel to let the future rise like bread. You also shared sage advice to not be afraid of technology! After all you said, “digital recorders are coming down in price everyday”.
Most of all, I remember your love of imagination. Your conviction that imagination is everpresent, engaged with every story we hear; with every lift of our arms. This is why the landscape of prayer is also the landscape of imagination.
The power of imagination is such, that you were able to guide us in meeting our grandparents. It was so simple. We closed our eyes, imagined a path in the forest and followed it to a clearing by a cool flowing stream. And there we could visit with our Bubbie or our Zayde, whether we ever actually met them in this world or not. Sitting streamside, we could talk together, share our excitements, our questions and receive too.
For me, this was your greatest gift of all. It’s like a master key hidden in a cake given to a prisoner. Because with this gift, I can still visit with you. All I need to do is close my eyes, imagine a path in the forest and follow it to a clearing by a cool flowing stream. And there we can visit. We can talk together, share our excitements. I can hear about your contact with Reb Shlomo, Rabbi Heschel, Martin Buber, Hillel Zeitlin. I can hear about all the Hasidic masters you are davenning with in Gabriel’s Palace. I can ask questions and receive your guiding wisdom. In all these many ways, your life will continue to be a blessing.
Maggid David Arfa, Tammuz 5774