The Seventh Telling: The Kabbalah of Moeshe Katan

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9780312289225: The Seventh Telling: The Kabbalah of Moeshe Katan

The Seventh Telling is a journey into the Kabbalah, a spiritual discipline hidden within the folds of Jewish history. Stephanie and Sidney have been studying with Moshe Katan, a kabbalist who shared his learning only when he perceived that a kabbalistic intervention might be necessary to save the life of Rivkah, his wife. What has happened to Moshe and Rivkah we do not know, only that their house is now being used for an extraordinary storytelling, a spiritual discipline to share with those willing to risk examining the very core of their beliefs.

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About the Author:

Mitchell Chefitz, founder and director of The Havurah of South Florida, teaches at Havurah institutes and rabbinic conferences, and has edited a nationally syndicated weekly Torah Column. He lives in Pinecrest, Florida.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Seventh Telling, The
CHAPTER 1 They began the seventh cycle of stories at the conclusion of the Sabbath. With experience the cycle had evolved into four sessions, a marathon: Saturday night, Sunday morning, afternoon, and evening, each spanning four sets of stories. Several of the students had made arrangements to stay in the house, either in guest rooms or sleeping bags. Others were commuters or had booked hotel space nearby. Ten students, plus Stephanie and Sidney, gathered in the living room for havdalah, the ritual that separated the Sabbath from the ordinary days of the week. Six women, four men. Each had submitted an application, necessary because the material was so numinous, not fit for the imbalanced. The application requested a reference from clergy, therapist, or physician, and the references were checked. Sidney wasn't prepared for another Emily. Stephanie had read through the applications. She knew the makeup of the class and attempted to match the person to the clothes. The man who had lost his wife several months before was likely the one in shorts and sandals, a thin white beard, balding. The three repeats, friends, were the middle-aged women in long folksy cotton skirts. Two young men in jeans, a couple. Two young women in jeans, a couple. That was going to be a challenge for Sidney, because the imagery of the Kabbalah was decidedly heterosexual. One man in dress pants, button-down shirt, sleeves rolled up. The executive. He worked on Saturday, something to note. And a woman, also an executive, in the pantsuit, perhaps a Donna Karan. Stephanie looked for and found the jacket draped across a dining-room chair. She also worked on Saturday. They had singled each other out already, though they sat apart. Two engagements had come out of these storytellings. Perhaps this would be another. So much for judging a class by its clothes. The three long skirts came to Stephanie for hugs and kisses. They had wept their way through their first course but still had an appetite for more. Stephanie had no choice but to begin by asking the gathering for the names she would soon forget. Sidney would remember. Sidney was good with names, Stephanie better with experiences. She asked for names and what each hoped to gain from the storytelling. There were no surprises in the responses. "A connectionwith God; a sense of purpose; a sense of self and my place in the world." No one said, "To surrender unconditionally to an agency beyond my self; to relinquish my beliefs; to risk a transformation of my very being." Stephanie uttered the standard disclaimer. "There are no guarantees," she said. "We have stories to tell, for you to retell. Each time we do this, the experience is different, different for each of us. You may find what you expect here. You may not. It might be best to have no expectations, to surrender to the stories, and to allow what will happen to happen. That's up to you." That done, she lowered the lights, lit the braided candle, and began chanting the havdalah blessings. She took care to explain each of the symbols--the wine, the spices, the candle itself--for the students who were not Jewish and for those who were. She knew from her own experience that being Jewish did not guarantee familiarity with the symbols of Judaism. "We let Shabbat go gracefully," she said. "As we brought her into the house with wine, we let her go with wine. As she entered a house fragrant with spices, we let her go with fragrant spices. And as we greeted her with the light of candles, we let her go with the light of candles, but you see the candles have become braided into one. That's the grace of Shabbat. What was divided in the beginning has become one by the end." Sidney chanted the blessing separating the Sabbath from the ordinary days of the week. Together they sang Eliahu Ha-navee, an incantation intended to bring Elijah the prophet back into space and time. Stephanie raised the lights, but not to their full intensity. She sat in one of the deep chairs, looked from student to student, and then surprised herself. She began with Sidney's words. Four in the Morning Four in the morning, too dark for the morning prayers, Moshe Katan descended to his study. At the top of the steps he acknowledged his exposure. With each step down, his anxiety grew. He descended into trepidation. He needed some light, even though he could navigate the room with his toes through the shag rug. He turned the light up only enough to locate the CA125 chart and unpin it from the corkboard, then sat, not in the swivel chair behind his desk, but in a coffee-table chair, his back to the painting. He didn't want to be distracted. Perhaps that's why he would have preferred the lights not on at all. The chart appeared ordinary. He knew it, didn't have to look at it. It could have been mistaken for something as benign as the progress of November beans, but CA125 was a cancer marker, not a commodities contract. Moshe closed his eyes and followed the flow of data with a light that emanated from within. It was there. Subtle, but there. Movement. Only a trader would see it. Rivkah's oncologist was not a trader. Dr. Dowling had held the chart up to the light as if it were an X ray. "I don't see anything," she had reassured him. "What do you see that alarms you? We've had isolated readings this high before." Her patience barely masked her annoyance. Moshe retrieved the chart from her, smoothed it on her desk, and traced his forefinger along the path of the most recent entries. "The movement has settled into a new pattern. It wasn't doing this before." He traced the line he could see, and she could not. "I'm sorry, Rabbi, I still don't see anything." "I chart things all the time. That's my business. I see things that look like they're not there, but are there. What I am seeing here frightens me." The doctor looked again, shook her head. "I wouldn't take any action because of this," she said. "There's not enough change to justify it." "If the marker continues to go up, what would you do?" "If the marker goes up, we'll worry about it then. We'll do some additional tests. But I don't see anything in this that's cause for alarm, Rabbi. If you will excuse me, please, I have patients to see." She left him alone at her desk, an overprotective husband who saw things that were not there. Maybe Dr. Dowling was right. Maybe there was nothing to worry about. What could he do anyway? Even if there was something he could do, what would Rivkah allow him to do? Those were the two questions he asked himself at first. Those were the two questions he pondered as he fell asleep that evening. If they had been the only two, if he had not heard the deeper questions in his sleep, there would be no story to tell. The deeper questions awoke him and drove him to his study. He had asked first what he might do. Was there indeed anything in his power to do? Surely he would never have been troubled to rise from his bed if there weren't within him a notion of something to do, a vague sense of something distant in the Kabbalah. Then, what would Rivkah allow him to do? He knew how she felt. Rivkah wanted no involvement with the charts, and she had a disdain for the Kabbalah. She had made both abundantly clear. The charts were a reminder she hadbeen ill. And as for the Kabbalah, throughout their marriage any attempt to share with her his passion for Jewish spiritual discipline had been met with an apathy just short of contempt. He had learned to keep his discipline to himself, and then not even to himself. To do away with it, no longer necessary, an impediment to him and to his marriage. The third question was the deceptive one. Was there any reason to do anything? Might he respond with no response, by doing nothing at all? The doctor saw no cause for alarm. Who was he to disagree? If he did nothing, who would challenge him, even if it turned out something was there? Who would expect anything from him? The very notion he might be able to intervene in any effective way was in itself presumptuous. So rational, such thoughts would have lulled a lesser man into deeper sleep. But for Moshe, the suggestion of denial was an alarm and gave rise to a fourth question. If he should do nothing, then who was he? What was there to him if he perceived even a hint of a need and failed to respond to it? That he considered no response even for a moment touched an emptiness within him. His life had become comfortable. Actions that would have sprung from urgency years before were impeded by complacence, satisfaction. Sitting in his study in the early morning darkness, he held the chart in his left hand and opened his right, staring at it as if something were missing. He summoned his breath back into control, settled in his chair, and allowed his eyes to survey the room, from the bookcase to the left, across the wall of charts, to his desk, the computer, the globe, the wastebasket. The crumpled letter. The letter was an invitation for him to teach a course about the Kabbalah at the Metropolitan Institute of Expanding Light. He had not offered such a course in years. The synagogues and Jewish organizations had long since stopped asking. Out of habit he had discarded the letter. Yet he had awakened early in the morning to retrieve it. Moshe positioned himself more comfortably in his chair. He had an exercise to do. Between any two points in the universe, between any two points in any of the worlds, flows a straight line. He would surrender conscious thought so he might be moved by the most subtle of influences, that his perspective might change. The two points, the cancer marker and the invitation to teach, were still separate. He needed to shift his perception until the line disappeared, until one could be seen within the other. At that point he would know the connection for a certainty. Monitoring his breathing, he inscribed the Hebrew letters of the DivineName on his body. He traced the YOD, HEY, VAV, HEY along the path of breath as it entered his nostrils, inside the lids of his closed eyes, across his forehead, around the curve of his ears. Layer after layer of concentration bound him deeper and deeper to the body of God. He descended gracefully, the world above disappearing. Suspended, frictionless, beyond sense, he asked himself the only question he had ever asked at that depth, "From here, where?" When he rose to the surface and opened his eyes, he could distinguish the outline of the eucalyptus trees against the predawn sky. The time had come for morning prayers. He ascended from his study to the living room, enveloped himself in his tallit, the ritual prayer shawl, bound the tefillin, the leather cubes containing words of Torah written in the ancient form, to his arm and head, and walked out onto the deck. He wore the uniform for prayer, but prayer did not rise easily from his heart. The flow of words slowed and ceased as images broke through. He visualized the doctor in her office. She had remembered him as the "Rabbi." The Metropolitan Institute had asked the Rabbi to teach, but the Rabbi had been absent for years. Moshe had exorcised the Rabbi from his system, or so he had thought. The unbidden images were telling him otherwise. Something of the Rabbi needed to return. With a calm acceptance he resumed his prayer and sought comfort under the wings of the Divine Presence.  
When the students realized Stephanie's introduction was complete, they began to ask questions. Sidney held up his hand to stop them. "The stories speak for themselves. Rather than ask us questions, ask each other. The stories will be as complete as they need to be. If there are spaces, they are left for you to fill." Elements of Stephanie's story had taken her by surprise. Moshe's four questions she had never heard before. She realized they had sprung from Moshe's own framework, the Four Worlds. First a question about what he might do, what action he might take, a question in the World of Action. Then a question about feelings. Moshe had been angry with Rivkah all those years, angry he had to sacrifice his discipline to preserve his marriage. Was that correct, Stephanie asked herself, or was she projecting her own anger with Sidney onto him? A question in the World of Formation. And then a question from the world of reason, the World of Creation. Why not just let events take their course? If Rivkah died, she died, and the marriage with it. It wasn't a terrible marriage, but was it so good he should go to any great risk tosave it? Again, was that Rivkah and Moshe or herself and Sidney? The question registered. Stephanie didn't pause to ascertain an answer. And a last question, from the World of Emanation, concerning the very essence of being. If he did nothing, then what was he? And as for her, Stephanie thought, if she did nothing, then what was she? She wasn't doing nothing. She was telling the stories, and even the first one had nearly overwhelmed her. She needed time to consider before she could continue. Sidney provided it by changing the venue, doing just what she didn't want him to do. He drew the students outside onto the deck under the vault of the heavens. She had wanted the first session cozy, confined in the textures of the pillows. She remained curled deep in her chair, still aware of Sidney saying, "This is where much of the work took place." He gestured to indicate the living room the students were leaving as well as the California redwood planks ahead of them. A bench ran about the perimeter, enclosing four primitive chairs and a glass coffee table. Eucalyptus trees grew out of the hill below and towered above the deck. Several of the students reached out to caress the trees, the parchment bark holy in their hands. Stephanie succumbed to Sidney's lead and sat in the chair the students had left open for her. She saw him close his eyes, as if searching for a new place for his own beginning. He leaned forward and said, "To Moshe Katan, angels often appeared in the form of winged lions. I suspect these lions had their origin early in his childhood. This was long before his name became Moshe Katan. Then he was known as Michael Kayten." Lions Young Michael always accompanied his father to shul on the Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. They walked, not because they were religious, but because they lived nearby. Michael carried his father's purple velour tallis bag, the rampant lions, embroidered in gold, presented proudly to the world. Michael and his father sat in the front pew, to the right of the bimah, close enough to lean forward and play with the turned dark maple of the railing. When he leaned back against the soft rose cushion, Michael wrapped himself in his father's tallis and toyed with the fringes. When he became bored, he neededno permission to leave the service to sit with his friends outside on the steps, but he always returned to his father's side for the auction. "How much am I bid for this aliyah?" In Yiddish the men called out, "Ten dollars, twenty dollars." Aliyahs were honors, the privileges of attending to the Torah. Because writing was forbidden on the Holy Days, records of pledges were kept by folding tabs on cards prepared in advance. Every year, for twenty-five dollars, an amount befitting a dentist, his father bought hagba, the honor of raising the Torah scroll when the reading was done. After the Torah was dressed, Michael's father would beckon him to the bimah, sit him in a tall chair, and set...

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