IT IS EVENING. Santa Ana winds, hot like wrathful exhalations of the Almighty, are blowing dust into Rabbi Eliyahu Worth’s valley home and into his wife Esther’s ailing eyes. Tree branches scrabble at the rabbi’s roof; windows rattle in his study. A constant drone and whistle drowns the hum of his ineffectual air conditioner.
A text is open before him, but he cannot settle to it.
“The study of Torah,” his father often told him, “is even greater in value than the performance of the mitzvoth.”
And so Eliyahu has studied. But at seventy-three, he finds his thoughts are often muddled, and heretical outbursts have been getting him into trouble—with Hebrew Union College for example—something offhand he said about shellfish. Now there’s the situation with Aaron Wasserman, one of Congregation Beth Olam’s more generous, albeit generally absent, congregants; Aaron is starving himself to death.
Rabbi Worth is frequently off balance thanks to clinical depression and high blood pressure, but this business with Aaron is pushing him toward some deeper chasm. Depression—that word is insufficient; he needs another. It’s partly the fault of his medications; they fall out of harmony, and he feels leaden, physically and mentally, but this time he feels something more. Despair? Is that the word?
Earlier in the afternoon, Rabbi Worth drives his late-model Chevy to meet Artie Monroe (an Americanization of Molonovsky), the fifty-one-year-old youngster who is president of his declining congregation. Once a week at La Poissonniere in Sherman Oaks, they share a cold plate of smoked lox or trout, cucumbers in yogurt with onion and dill, French bread with sweet butter, and one double whiskey each. They used to have two or three whiskeys, but neither of them has the tolerance for so much anymore.
As Rabbi Worth pulls into a space in the busy parking lot, he sees Artie get out of his red Jaguar, adjust his waistband at his ample middle, and stride toward the rear entrance of the restaurant. The rabbi dreads stepping out of his air-conditioned car into the blasted, heated wind. He waits, watches Artie, spring in his step, disappearing into the restaurant.
Artie has a wife, three children, and a longtime lover named Roberta. The complexities of the triangle don’t interest Rabbi Worth; he doesn’t judge (a heretic shouldn’t, lest he become fanatic and therefore indistinguishable from a self-righteous Orthodox rebbe). He has met Roberta. He admires her passionate spirit.
His Esther once inspired passion in him. He wonders now: precisely when did he abandon her? And when did she lose her elegance and become a stick in a matron’s wig? Or is it that she abandoned him? And is abandoned the word? They are still together after all, though the union is arid—a fossilized tenderness dusted with habitual annoyance.
He is less and less able to arrive at the right word, and that’s the worst outcome of his muddle, because the word is everything in the Hebrew faith: the word passing before eyes, the voice intoning the word, and the exegetical process, context, prior usages, emphasis, interpretation, truth….
Eliyahu Worth might once have had a very grand congregation. Esther had been intelligent, multilingual and, yes, elegant. They married by arrangement. Fell in love. Founded Beth Olam together, and soon had two daughters. His reputation blossomed.
“You’ve got to try Beth Olam,” people said, as if his congregation were a new breath mint. “Rabbi Worth is brilliant. He makes you think about Torah in a whole new way.”
“As I stand before you,” says young Rabbi Worth, on the inauguration of his unaffiliated congregation, his voice sonorous, “I feel connected to Jews everywhere. We are still here despite periodic, diabolical endeavorings to wipe us from the face of the earth. Perhaps you wonder why, as I do.
“Why, in Torah, are we selected as his people, the people of Adonai? And why, having been selected, are we unable to please the Lord our God? Unable to keep faith with him, refrain from lusting after gods that squat to crap, goddess oracles, gods that hobble and are effete, hairless priests and goddesses that fornicate with animals or that are animals themselves. Gods that are icons built with human hands, even our own hands; a golden calf we forged when God Almighty was manifest in our midst!
“He led us from slavery. Why did he make us wander the desert for forty years? To learn something? What did we learn? Ungratefulness? Manna was not as good as the cantaloupes of Egypt?
“In those days, God was manifest. He spoke. Now we cannot see or hear him, and we long to, the more so because of all the other whys. Why did our parents survive the Holocaust when others did not? What does that say about them? Who is to blame for our suffering? Why do we continue?”
The congregation, men and women commingling, waits, some breathlessly, for answers.
“We continue because we don’t know how to stop,” says the young rabbi. “We’re filled with life, l’chaim! Whether we love God or know him, whether we praise him or ignore him, there is this. There is life. Whether life is joyful or filled with suffering, we wish to live! And this wish can bring out the worst in us, or the best. But do we get to choose? Or is it all written long since?”
Esther seems to be increasing in size, billowing with visible pride in her eloquent husband. This he finds disturbing; this aggrandizement might redound and infect the purity of his questioning. Even as a young man, Rabbi Worth doesn’t ask why because he knows why; he asks because emphatically he does not know, because the investigation, the puzzle, the query, as he, a heretic-in-the-making, is coming to understand it, is the purpose of Torah. It doesn’t instruct as so many say and believe that it does. Its stories aren’t parables designed to help mortals construct a moral universe with a code of conduct. The Old Testament stories are poems, encryptions that elucidate the human condition, designed to raise discomfiting questions, not supply palliative answers. This view, this understanding, will be his downfall. He feels it, the hint of the shadow and the chasm, but he has the energy of youth and it carries him.
“We’ll study in the coming years,” says the young rabbi. “We’ll read the scholars, discuss and ponder. Do not expect to find ease in this study,” he warns.
Rabbi Worth is eloquent. Though he is young and small in stature, his voice is (it still is) filled with authority. People are often moved by what he says whether they understand him or not. No one heeds his warning. Like the stiff-necked people of Torah, his congregants, then and now, look for a God to believe in, to love and be loved by. They open their siddurs, slip into the familiar rhythms, spoken and sung, that bring them to the moment when the Torah scrolls are revealed, the sefer Torah brought out and carried ecstatically throughout the hall so that contact with the ineffable can be made, with hands, lips, and fringes.
Beth Olam, the congregation, has dwindled as the rabbi has increasingly expressed the truth of the matter, which is that he does not, in fact, know anything about God. To this day, he tries to engage his Torah study group in this conundrum, but few come having read the text, much less having pondered it, except for Artie Monroe.
The notion that Rabbi Worth (who knows Rashi by heart and the Talmud, the Mishnah and Gemara, Kabala, and myriad midrashic texts) should be expected to explain the unexplainable rather than to guide people in the questioning of it makes no sense to Artie. So it is with him almost exclusively that Rabbi Eliyahu Worth can safely express his muddle and enjoy a double scotch at the same time.
With Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in sight, over their lunch at La Poissonniere, Artie says, “Aaron Wasserman’s son Fred called me.”
“He asked me to meet him at Aaron’s. So I went this morning. Get this—Aaron has decided to give up the ghost. He says he wants you to officiate at his funeral.”
“He’s taken ill,” says Rabbi Worth, his face falling as he spears a bit of trout. “I should call Maureen.”
“No! Apparently he’s not ill, but he’s stopped taking all of his medications and has stopped eating too, for a week already. He’s told his family that he intends to die.”
Aaron Wasserman hasn’t led an exemplary life, but no worse than most. He has kept the Sabbath, but only thanks to his wife, Maureen. Has attended services at Beth Olam, but only on the High Holidays. He has tithed, giving more than many, but now, he’s made a decision and has asked Artie to tell Rabbi Worth.
He isn’t deathly ill, no, but he’ll no longer do anything to shore this body up, and he’s not going to call on God to do anything either, because he understands that he has never actually believed in God until now. It’s precisely his imprisonment in and the programmed obsolescence of this body that have led him to belief. The Lord has planned to strike him down one organ at a time over a long period.
Well, to hell with that!
All he wants from the rabbi is a funeral service, and that not for himself but for his family.
The rabbi’s fork stops short of his mouth as a lacuna forms in his brain. It’s as if he’s never read or pondered a text regarding anything of moment in his entire life.
As a boy, he sat with his fellow scholars and he understood the study; rocking, reading, and reciting were what had kept (was still keeping) the Jews alive, intoning the words repeatedly.
“First the words go, then the people,” said Eliyahu’s father. “What of the Almighty then?”
Even after the book had been memorized, internalized, the word insisted that the eye caress each letter, insert punctuation where none was visible, that the mouth form words and speak them so that the questioning could begin: the interpretation, the debate that brings forth skilled interlocutors (rabbis and lawyers, judges and doctors), and that allows men to live in question, but fruitfully occupied for the whole of their lives, engrossed in the great mysteries. The yeshiva boy—drawn to the poetry and mystery, the purposeful obfuscation in the stories (told first one way, and then another)—sat rocking, his mind alight, payess swinging. Not one of his four older brothers had sidelocks as beautiful as his. That was the first indication of his specialness. Certainly his mother thought so; the perfect wife of legend, working dusk to dawn, made it possible for her husband to devote his life to Torah and for each of their five sons to adopt his Orthodox beliefs.
But Eliyahu Worth took a definite detour in middle age, a separate, more inclusive road as heretical notions took hold. Not heresy as in apostasy but, this evening, for example, as he gropes for understanding in the face of Aaron’s plan, he puts on his suit jacket. A congregant has come to see him.
She is Rachel Weinberg (née Rosenberg), child of Holocaust survivors, and one of Beth Olam’s youngest members, having a daughter of marriageable age.
Esther, dabbing at her rheumy eyes, shows Rachel into the rabbi’s study.
He stands behind his desk, unduly warm in his jacket.
“Rabbi Worth,” says Rachel as she tidies her skirt, her windblown wig. She resembles her mother, Gilda Rosenberg, who, at ninety-two, wearing her Miracle-Ear, still attends Rabbi Worth’s Torah class on Saturdays.
“Forgive me,” she says, “disturbing you this evening. It’s just I’m a nervous wreck about my Moira’s engagement.”
“Rachel, for you and your family, always I have time. Sit down and tell me.”
The worn leather chair squeaks abominably as Rabbi Worth settles in behind his desk. He can be formidable but makes an effort not to be. He is kind that way. Though deep down, or maybe not so deep, he would’ve appreciated being left alone just now.
Having heard Rachel’s preamble, he assumes that she’s about to ask him to preside over Moira’s wedding. He hopes that she hasn’t already asked him, and that he hasn’t lost track of the request. Forgetfulness is creeping up on him, as it has on many of his elderly congregants.
If he were to be frank, he’d say that he’d rather not preside over this marriage, just as he would prefer not to officiate at any more funerals (the specter of Aaron rises at this thought). However, he understands that he must perform these functions, and his livelihood depends upon his readiness. Why should people support a rabbi who won’t do his duty in their time of need? What difference does it make that he has given them the best years of his life, worked to open their minds even as the incomprehensibility of living and dying has grown more incomprehensible in his own?
There are sticky rings on his desk pad, sometimes intersecting, where his glasses of scotch have stood. Esther no longer keeps up with the housework. Their daughters, who help tidy up now and then, haven’t stopped by in a while. Rabbi Worth shuffles papers to cover the rings.
Rachel Weinberg shifts uneasily. Has he forgotten that she’s seated before him?
She speaks, “Rabbi, you know my Moira is marrying a Catholic boy?”
The rabbi jolts slightly at the sound of her voice, but says evenly, “Did you mention it, Rachel? If so, excuse me, I missed that detail.”
“No, I thought maybe the rebbetzin had mentioned…. In any case, Moira is marrying Robert Cole and his family is Catholic, very devout. And Rabbi, Moira’s decided to convert.” Rachel’s brow rises. “When she told her father and me, we plotzed, I can tell you.”
“I understand,” says the rabbi, stroking his soft, white beard. He enjoys stroking it. It is calming, and he thinks, now, how it must have everything in common with passing the Catholic rosary beads between the fingers: tick, tick, sin falls away, stroke, stroke, and uneasiness.
“Rabbi, what I have to tell you, I’ve been going with Moira to the Sunday mass and, I have to tell you. I like it. I like almost everything about the Catholic mass,” says Rachel. “Services are in Saint Sebastian on the West Side. It’s beautiful—stained glass and wide mahogany pews. From a loft a choir sings and a pipe organ plays.” Rachel’s eyes drift upward. “Something happens. The incense smoke and the choir, the organ, and suddenly I feel that God is very near.”
Rachel’s eyes go from dreamy to puzzled as they come down to meet his again.
“I don’t connect so much to their Jesus, though. He’s on that cross, bleeding the whole time. The idea is—he suffers for me which frankly, I don’t get it. And their Mary, the virgin mother is so fairytale-like. But—and I mean no offense to you, Rabbi—but in our services I don’t feel so close to God and the thing is, I do feel in Saint Sebastian’s. I’d like to keep going if you say it’s okay, Rabbi Worth.”
The irony that she’s confessing to her rabbi about her Catholic tendencies is lost on Rachel, but not on Rabbi Worth. His appreciation of this is symptomatic of his heresy.
As one who lives in nearly perpetual unease, he can’t imagine advising anyone to turn away from anything (of course there are humanitarian limits, but), any activity, prescribed medication, or faith that might bring comfort or ease into his or her life. He wouldn’t try to talk a Jew out of joining Jews for Jesus, or prevent a Jew from accepting the Islamic faith or Buddhism. He has questioned Aaron Wasserman once so far, but hasn’t tried to talk him out of his mad plan, so now, he says to Rachel Rosenberg Weinberg:
“Rachel. If it brings you ease, if it elevates you—go to mass. If God is there, he’ll recognize you for the Jew that you are.”
“You really think so?” Rachel lights up.
“Adonai can’t tell a Jew from a Catholic? Speak to him; listen to him anywhere that makes sense to you. If it brings you comfort, do it with my blessing.”
As for Aaron Wasserman, he feels good this evening. Far better than he had imagined he would a week ago when he swept the bottles of medication from his bedside table into the trash can and then stopped eating. Enough with the Lipitor and the purple pill and the heart pill, whatever it’s called, and all the rest of them. A man who can’t pee, can’t stomach his food, or even rouse his member without taking a drug isn’t any longer a man.
Aaron has never been the center of anything. He is the third son, overshadowed by brilliant older brothers who were (one has passed away and one is in retirement), respectively, a successful neurosurgeon and an attorney, and by his younger sister who married wealth and then pumped out babies in rapid succession.
He did well in real estate, but Maureen’s money has been the backbone of their extended family. There are two children, Andrea and Fred, but he’s never been especially close to them; Maureen has always shone at the center of events, and Aaron has simply gone along.
But now, he’s sitting up in his bed, wearing the red silk pajamas that his daughter Andrea gave him for his seventy-fifth birthday. His wife Maureen is hovering uncertainly at his bedside. His wider family is circulating in the living and dining rooms, and Aaron feels surprisingly good. He looks good too—aristocratic as his surplus weight has fallen. The emptiness he feels in his body, in his gut, is abated by the fullness of his purpose.
He dims the light on his bedside table and asks Maureen to close the blinds. “They can come in, one at a time,” Aaron says, settling back into his pillows.
This is how each day has gone—a series of audiences.
Maureen, who has never been more confused in her life, scurries to do her husband’s bidding. Aaron stopped bathing and shaving when all of this started, and so Maureen gave him a sponge bath and then tried to shave him. She nicked him on the chin and burst into tears when blood dribbled onto her pristine sheets.
She hired a nurse, but Aaron wouldn’t let the woman into the bedroom at first. He worried that she might not honor his verbal Do Not Resuscitate order. So he had Maureen bring in his attorney. He dictated and signed a new will and other papers to do with the manner of his death, everything in writing, and then had his attorney explain certain things to the nurse and made her sign something too. Aaron is determined to take his planned, even if struggling, last breath without interference.
Although at present, Aaron is not struggling but is feeling quite well.
“It’s pretty egotistical,” says Artie.
A week has passed since he and the rabbi last met for lunch. Friday services are over, and Artie is driving the rabbi home from shul. Artie will go on to Roberta’s for dinner—Cornish game hens stuffed with kasha and onion. “Telling his family, ‘I’m going to die.’ I mean, why not take a hotel room and go quietly alone?”
“I called him yesterday,” says Rabbi Worth. “Again, I asked him, ‘Aaron, what are you doing?’ He didn’t sound like himself, obviously didn’t want to speak. It was very upsetting.” The rabbi pauses, he doesn’t want to speak either, not about Aaron. “I appreciate you driving me tonight,” he says to Artie by way of diversion. “I’m not feeling well, though. Maybe we should cancel Torah study and services for tomorrow.”
“I’ll call Elaine,” says Artie, “and have her call everyone.”
It’s not unusual for the rabbi to cancel these days, but his statement of cancellation is a ploy, a deflection. He had felt something when he spoke to Aaron, and he’d like to shake it off.
“I’ve chosen my death,” Aaron had said.
“You’ve considered Andrea’s baby, a boy that you might come to know and love?”
“I don’t need to know him to love him, just as I’ve never had to know God.”
“You’re doing this for love of God?”
Aaron let out a sigh of exasperation. “Let’s say, I’m emulating him.”
“This is not an act of God then?”
“You’re flouting his authority?” The rabbi didn’t ask this angrily or quizzically, but in a tone of genuine puzzlement, tinged with (he had sufficient self-awareness in the moment to feel and to be disturbed by it) admiration.
“No. I’m not against him, just for myself. This is my death.”
Is it my job to convince him otherwise, wondered Rabbi Worth? Is it?
No, in the end he had thought not, but now on reflection, he is very disturbed, despairing as are Maureen and the children. Andrea Wasserman has tried, they all have, to talk her father out of this, but Aaron presents a serene exterior, austere and implacable.
So now, Andrea has told her father that she has always loved him, that she’ll name her baby after him. She sits in the living room, one hand on her belly, realizing that she’s made no difference. Her father is committing suicide while his family sups at his table, and for no reason that he will explain.
Maureen comes into the living room. Her hair is uncharacteristically disarranged, and her features won’t compose themselves. The nurse rises expectantly from a comfortable armchair, stuffing the last triangle of a roast beef sandwich into her mouth, but Maureen waves her down.
“Is he weakening, Mom?” asks Fred.
“Yes, but he’s very alert. You go in, Fred. Will you? I need a moment.” Maureen flings herself onto the couch next to Andrea and dissolves into quiet tears.
Meanwhile, Artie and Roberta are seated at Roberta’s dining table. They have said the blessings, enjoyed dinner, and have read the Torah portion aloud to one another as they often do.
Roberta can be vociferous in her disdain for the petty, vengeful, harrying presence that is the Almighty of Torah. Artie understands that it’s a posture she assumes, devil’s advocate, not deeply held belief, when she says, “The Lord says, ‘I choose you! Now love me, or pay the price!’ His fits of pique result in plagues. His view of women is infuriating. He’s a sadomasochist apparently, and the notion that he loves his people is belied by their complete inability to love him back. Free will? He hardens hearts. He stiffens necks. Then, he punishes!”
Not that Artie is asking Roberta to believe in anything. He’s not a religious man. He’s a Jew, drawn belatedly to Torah and to Rabbi Worth. It’s called the Hebrew faith, but the practice of it, Artie has told Roberta, “has nothing to do with faith. It has to do with doing, the performance of the mitzvoth, not with believing or even understanding.”
“Sure,” says Roberta, “but where’s the comfort that should come of knowing that there’s a God who loves me, watches over me, cares about me?”
Her insistence that the individual matters in the large scheme of things seems to Artie hopelessly naïve and ill informed. In the time of Torah, people as individuals had no such notions, no direct, personal relationship with their Lord. That was the master stroke of the Christians—a personal savior for every sinner.
Rabbi Worth, on hearing Roberta’s views through Artie, is sometimes taken with them—her desire for faith, and yet her inability to understand a God who creates beings who will, in any case, suffer and die; a God who is absolutely unknowable, inscrutable, and more importantly, as an entity, unverifiable; no more pillar and cloud. Untenable unknowns! What one chooses to believe has to suffice. For her too there is a muddle and a preference for the sheer weighty discomfort of it; this Rabbi Worth understands, but now there is Aaron Wasserman, and the Santa Anas blow relentlessly, and the sky is swept clean, bright blue with foreboding.
“All I want you to do,” Aaron has said, “is to officiate at my funeral. It isn’t for me, but for Maureen and the children, for the family. I’ve increased the bequest to Beth Olam in my will.”
Aaron has fasted for days and days. On this second Friday, he finds that he has a new clarity of mind. It’s as if in shedding the body, he is striving to become all mind, to see beyond this world. The problem is that he doesn’t seem to be dying, though now he’s visibly emaciated, and his skin and hair are dry and inelastic.
Early Thursday, he decreed that he would no longer take liquids, but even with that, the occasional drowsiness that visited him early on hasn’t returned. He’s had the nurse remove his silk pajamas because, he says, they abrade his skin; that bodily awareness is upsetting—the opposite of what he has intended to experience.
He is naked now. He rarely sits up, but is wide awake. His immediate family, and now his extended family, have passed into and out of his bedroom a number of times. Distant relatives have called, are still calling from all over the world. He has Maureen ration the calls and visits, drawing them out in hopes that the great moment will come.
It does not come, and another night falls.
Saturday, the winds kick up more forcefully. It will be hellishly hot in the valley all the way into the evening as so often happens around Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Aaron hasn’t slept.
He thinks about his situation. He has stopped speaking. His mouth is dry and his lips are chapped. The nurse has put petroleum jelly on them because he refused the water she offered him, saying in his mind, “Do that again and I’ll throw you out of here myself.” He grows cranky, then irritable, and then bars everyone from his room because now he’s beginning to think that the Lord is playing him a trick, controlling the show after all.
At that thought, and all at once, it’s as if the ceiling above Aaron’s head vanishes. As if the roof has blown off, and the great, terribly hot wind muscles in like a person, like a body of desert wind. Aaron’s bedclothes blow back and he scootches up against the headboard, clutching the flat sheet desperately, because he is suddenly overwhelmed with shame of his body. As if he stands exposed in Eden having tasted of that fruit; as if he stands naked in the line of selection inside that gate where words form an arch over railway tracks—Arbeit macht frei.
Out of the wind comes a face and a voice, and it shows and tells Aaron something so revelatory that the clarity of his mind becomes white heat that consumes his withered flesh, and his breath, and his bone—an oven consuming him from the inside out. It does not hurt, but devours and transforms; he must speak to the rabbi and Artie, must tell them what he knows, and so he screams for his wife, “Maureen!” Praying, yes praying, that she will hear him over this terrible raging wind!
Maureen rushes in. She looks like hell. Her eyes are red and she’s wearing the same clothes as yesterday, but Aaron looks far worse. He’s crouching in his bed, his back plastered to the headboard. He’s clutching a sheet to himself and he’s wild-eyed, frothing at the corners of his mouth.
Rabbi Worth arrives at the Wassermans’. Artie has driven him. It’s just as well that they canceled study and services for today.
There are a number of cars in the driveway and at the near curbs, so Artie parks around the corner and half a block away. They walk into the wind that doesn’t gust, but is constant—a sustained heated exhalation.
The front door of the Wasserman house stands open.
There’s no one in the living or dining room.
They pass down the hall toward muffled weeping, the master bedroom. That door is open too, and the room is filled with people, young and old, Aaron’s family.
Aaron is dead. The nurse has tidied and composed him beautifully.
Maureen stands nearest his bed, weeping, and too, Andrea and Fred.
“Oh, Rabbi, Artie, thank you for coming,” says Maureen, wiping her nose. “I’m sorry. Aaron wanted so much to speak to you before he went. He told me to tell you….”
Maureen glances around the room. She has something too private to say even among these intimates. She motions to them, leads them down the hall and into the dining room.
They sit at the cluttered table, remains of the bar and buffet from the endless feeding of the relatives. Without asking, Maureen pours scotch over ice for the rabbi, for Artie, and one for herself. They each take a swallow.
“This has been awful,” she says. “Horrible. But Aaron seemed not to realize how brutal it was. He seemed serene and even strangely well, as if he would just melt away—but today, something happened. I don’t know what. There was something in his eyes when he screamed out to me.”
“What was it, Maureen?”
Maureen glances at Artie, then looks into Rabbi Worth’s eyes. “It was knowing,” she says, “knowing something clearly and somehow terribly and he said to tell you….”
“Yes, to tell me?”
Maureen looks frightened as she says, “He said to tell you that now he knows that he is God.” She looks terrified as she feels compelled to explain, “He. Him. Aaron is God.”
The rabbi feels a shock throughout his body, sharpness, the slash and stab of recognition and of sudden delirious lucidity. He looks back into Maureen’s eyes. She sees pain in them, shared grief she imagines, as he speaks carefully, “Aaron said, ‘Tell the rabbi that I know now that I am God?’”
“Yes. That’s what he said.” Maureen’s tears spill down her cheeks. “I’m afraid he went insane at the end. He looked mad, wild really. Do you think he went insane?”
Rabbi Worth takes Maureen’s hand.
I know now that I am God; surely Aaron had said it fully mindful of the fantastic irony.
“No, Maureen. No,” he says, patting her hand. She feels reassured as his eyes well up, not knowing that it’s from the in-thrusting revelation, the laceration, the shadow in it, and the consequent, contrasting clarity, like the pitiless blue of the sky.
Sometime later, the rabbi and Artie walk to the car, the horrid wind at their backs. It whips the rabbi’s trouser legs into bat wings that trip him up. Artie takes his arm.
There will be the funeral and they’ll sit shiva, covering the mirrors and lighting the ner daluk. The washing of hands, sitting close to the floor, shoes left by the door. The moment of understanding has been transforming, the shock of recognition, the laceration a mortal wound now because, if the rabbi’s first interpretation is correct, and if, coming as it did from the mouth of a dying man, it is true, then Aaron had looked into the face of God and had seen himself, and it had been a terrible, deadly truth to encounter, just as Torah always warned it would be. The shadow is God every bit as much as the light and, if I am God, then that which has been done to me I have done to myself, not just in this moment but in all moments, forever.
As they draw near the car, Artie says, “Of course, the absolute meaning depends on exactly how Aaron said it. On what word or words he put his emphasis.”
“Yes. Of course, that is true,” says the rabbi. He’d like to be able to take this out that Artie is offering.
Artie says, “‘I know now that I am God,’ meaning that he knew that he was God just in and for that instant, perhaps in the sense of meeting him, or returning to him, being again a part of him.”
“Possibly,” says the rabbi.
“Or ‘I know now that I am God,’ meaning that he was God not only in the instant but had always been God and so, by extrapolation, meaning perhaps that all men are God and the agents of control in their own lives.”
Certainly this was the most ironic interpretation in Aaron’s case and the one that had made the rabbi’s eyes well up, the one that had resonated, then lacerated, and so, the one that must be accepted as the intended revelation, but that has now come to seem unbearable, deadly, even at second hand.
“Of course,” Artie pops the car door locks, and goes on, “it might have been, ‘I know now that I am God,’ meaning, as I think Maureen feared it did, that Aaron knew that he was and always had been God Almighty himself, Hashem, Adonai, the Lord God who created and holds dominion over all men and over everything, the one and only God.”
“Yes, it might have been that,” says the rabbi as he gingerly opens the door of the car; the handle feels like a red-hot poker. Concentrated heat flows out from the interior. He would like to climb in, get out of this blasted wind that muscles him around, but the car seat feels molten when he touches it and his hand jerks back.
“I guess we’ll never know,” says Artie.
Rabbi Worth strokes his white beard with superheated fingers. He will have to cut it off now. The soft beard will have to go, and all of his indulgences.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.