PaRDeS, The Mystical Garden
PaRDeS, The Mystical Garden
"The purpose of mankind
is to increase and maximize
his potential for transcendence."
I'm captivated by a few subjects where their intensity rises and falls to meet the vagaries of my life. Puppies, anything poignant from a perfect bowl of crab soup to that iridescent Naples yellow color of a harvest moon, researching early American immigrants to Pennsylvania and Delaware, photography, writing, and the esoteric PaRDeS.
The story goes: "Four entered the Orchard (Pardes): Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Akher and Rabbi Aqiva. One peeked and died; one peeked and was smitten; one peeked and cut down the shoots; one ascended safely and descended safely."
It's a deceivingly simple story that begs the exploration of the meaning of transcendence. Next stop, Mishnah references that fuzzed over my brain only to be refreshed by hints in the Zohar of secret knowledge that could light a dark room. The scholarly pursuits ran out of steam after filing hundreds of reference and discovering I was no closer to understanding either Pardes or transcendence.
Sidney Jourard, my Humanistic Psychology professor at the University of Florida in the early 1970's claimed that "Disclosure begets disclosure." It may be one of the most useful things I learned in college.
I see the power of the phrase exemplified in the lives of the four rabbis of the Pardes story. They told simple stories that revealed their complex depth. And in turn the revelation of their complex depth revealed the fact that all of us have stories to tell that reveal our complex depth.
The stories we tell each other are the steppingstones of our journey home to the Garden.
Photographing Angels – Part I
The old man stood under the shelter of his stadium-sized rainbow umbrella and counted and recounted the children under his charge. "Five...six..... Elliott? Baruch HaShem! There you are, Elliott! Seven!" Two groups of other children were sheltered under the umbrellas of mothers as impatient as the children for the daycare bus to arrive. His fur-trimmed hat was unseasonable and out of place in the suburbs of Philadelphia on a early Autumn morning misted with a gentle rain. The Hassidic Jew bowed as a third mother arrived with twin girls dressed in pink with their almond eyes and olive skin set off by their silky ebony hair. There was nothing as fresh and innocent as toddlers in his eyes. His own children had once been that innocent, unselfconscious and unconcerned with a world spiraling out of control.
"Samuel, what would we do without you," Mrs. Fioravanti asked. "Keeping them occupied until the bus arrives is like herding cats! They love to see you arrive every morning from your walk and they especially love your stories!"
Samuel shrugged. "The feeling is mutual."
"Well, I think it's a crying shame," Mrs. Robbins interjected. "Our children aren't even safe at a school bus stop. What is the world coming to that we have to come out in force just to keep them safe.... And I wanna know, safe from whom? Pedophiles? Terrorists? We don't even know anymore. Maybe that crazy doomsday cult, CROMAAT, is right. It's all going to collapse. The world. Everything." She smiled weakly in apology for her outburst that startled the children into silence.
Samuel nodded. He had once stood in a gentle mist with his own children waiting to be taken away. He had only a few minutes to tell them everything a father, an observant Jew, is supposed to pass onto his children. He had been negligent in their infancy and spent more time simply loving them rather than preparing them for their role as Chosen ones. And in those last moments before they were wrenched from his arms, he knew that simply loving them was not enough.
He pushed the thoughts from his mind as Elliott pulled on his black topcoat and peeked out from under the rainbow umbrella that left reflections of blue and orange and purple across his face.
"Samuel, where does rain come from?"
"From the Master of the Universe," Samuel replied. He took the apple from Elliott's tiny hand. "For your teacher?" Samuel asked.
Elliott nodded. "Miss Reynolds."
"Is she a good teacher?"
Elliott nodded again. Vigorously. His cheeks were flushed with the surprised and potent love that a first teacher inspires.
"She will be pleased," Samuel said as he passed the apple back to Elliott. "My first teacher, Rebbe Goldman, was particularly fond of apples but what he loved best was sitting in his orchard and telling stories."
Several small heads turned to Samuel at the mention of the word, "story." Samuel leaned forward and scanned the street for the bus that was now ten minutes late. "In fact, my favorite story of his was about an orchard called PaRDeS and four very wise teachers."
Like a magnet drawing wisps of iron to itself, the three other umbrellas gravitated closer to the rainbow umbrella that was now beginning to gently twirl.
"A very very long time ago, four wise teachers, Ben Azzai, Ben Joma, Akher, and Rabbi Akiva, decided they must know everything there was to know about everything. They decided to go on a long and dangerous journey. They were frightened of course, but knew it would be worth it to bring back every answer to every question. And off they went on their adventure to see what lies on the other side of the rainbow. One peeked and was smitten, one peeked and died, one peeked and cut down the shoots, and one ascended safely and returned.....
Geneva woke every weekday morning to the laughter of children; children not of her own making but other women's toddlers waiting impatiently in front of her condo apartment complex for the daycare bus to spirit them away to finger-painting, naps, and a visit to the local apple orchard or the zoo. She pulled back the curtain of her bedroom window to see a collection of brightly-colored umbrellas gathered together like a flush of sudden psychedelic toadstools rising from the softened ground to meet the morning rain.
As the chartreuse school bus arrived, umbrellas were snapped shut and she smiled at the sight of her dear friend, Samuel, standing by himself, waving and watching the bus disappear around the corner. She thought of him as a dear friend, yet knew almost nothing about his life, his past. He lived three doors down from her, spent nearly every morning with her in the Condo Cool Water Cafe, but aside from that they never imposed the remainder of their lives upon each other.
"I need to know what matters," Geneva said as she sat down across the table from Samuel. She smiled and shrugged her shoulders, feigning indifference to the old man's answers she hoped would ease the tension gathering around her heart.
"Does what you are reading really matter?" she asked.
Samuel stopped his gentle rocking and passed the book to Geneva. "Everything matters."
Geneva felt a chill go up her spine as her fingers closed on the book. Now she would know what had captivated this man for weeks, what kept him silent and occupied each morning long after he had finished his kosher breakfast prepared by a café owner ready to go to any lengths to suit the tastes and needs of his clientele. She savored the moment of expectancy before she would finally share his secret.
The book was small and thin with a frayed cover that spoke of many openings and closing. Probably one of his mysterious Kaballah books that he once talked about as they watched a summer storm through the café windows. Geneva was a better listener than most other people were. She would never forget the odor of fresh rain washing over dahlia, hollyhock and aster blossoms as he told of his father's magnificent library of books that he took for granted as a child until it was too late and they were destroyed by a vigilante group who burned them near a flaming cross in the front yard of their home.
He had spoken often of a slim volume of his father's, "A Book of Lights" he had called it and claimed that it held the secret of everyone's life. Now it appeared that she might be holding the very same book in her hands.
She took a deep breath and opened the cover of the book hoping it wasn't written in Hebrew and found the title, "Citrus Tree Cultivation for the Small Farm." She leafed through the out-of-date book with its yellowing pages and black and white photos that had oxidized to a metallic sheen depicting a small boy in a straw hat holding a large grapefruit and standing next to a man in bib overalls.
"The Author loves his subject, his creation," Samuel said softly. "HaShem shines through even a book about raising citrus trees. How could it be otherwise?"
Geneva sighed as elusive answers not only escaped her again but in the nicotine-stained hands of this quiet man with frayed cuffs on his sleeves and a threadbare long black topcoat, the elusive answers she sought seemed to mock her efforts. "Oh well," she said without an ounce of bitterness or embarrassment, "Perhaps tomorrow it will come."
"Indeed," Samuel said. I've been saying much the same thing all my life, just as my father before me." He winked conspiratorially and bowed toward Geneva. "How very nice that we can wait together."
Before she had time to reply, Samuel once again held the citrus cultivation book like a schoolboy during a recitation and began rocking back and forth with his eyes half closed and his lips forming soft guttural sounds that blended harmoniously with the morning sounds of the large coffee urn slowly beginning its yield of aromatic coffee and the gentle rattling of thick pottery dishes as the Cool Water Café opened for business.