Two years ago I had a surprise phone call from Monsieur Jean Sviadac, a friend and storytelling mentor who was visiting New York from Paris.
We had first met at The Musee De L’Homme at an international conference in 1989. During our first conversation he told me a Hassidic story about Death. It quenched my need at the time for faith. I had just learned that I had cancer and was facing the possibility of my own death. Jean did not know this at the time. About his storytelling he said, “I am not a performer. I only tell a tale if I feel it will benefit.” It did. He tells Hassidic tales and Sufi stories like those of Hodja Nasruddin. “These tales are a sudden shock which wakes up a deeper awareness in the listener,” he said. Each time we met, he seemed to tell me a story that I needed to hear.
In a restaurant on Broadway, Monsieur Sviadac said, “I just thought of a tale that I read over thirty years ago. I have not thought of it until today. I will tell it to you.” Since the story was an oral and vivid telling, and I was deeply moved. I will recount it as I have recalled it and retold it since:
The child of Jewish peasants was not interested in the study of Torah. He was a wild boy, driven by curiosity. His natural wisdom was beyond his age. Sitting in the cheder was impossible for him. The hope of his parents was that one day he would outgrow his boundless energy and bend his mind to study. However, after an afternoon of play with Hassidic children, the boy returned home weeping, “Please, the children have told me about a Tzadik in the next village. I must visit the Tzadik.”
The ordinary man and his wife saw the Hassids as madmen, ecstatics, and the Tzadik as a dangerous impostor. “I refuse to take you to the Tzadik,” stated the father. Filled with longing, the child begged until his parents agreed. Dismayed, the mother warned, “If there is any sign or ill omen on the journey you must return home immediately.”
The boy and his father did not go far from their village when a wheel fell off the carriage. “It is an evil omen,” said the father and returned home. The boy’s sorrow could not be quelled. He begged incessantly, “Please, my life depends on my meeting the Tzadik.” His mother and father responded angrily, “The man is neither Holy nor wise, but undisciplined and unreasoning. Forget this strange request.” However, the child’s desire to see the Tzadik increased every day until his eyes dried from too much crying.
Again, the mother and father, who loved their son, Agreed to take him. And again, the mother warned, “If there is a single omen against this journey bring my son home immediately.” They set out again. This time there was no difficulty. So, they arrived in the village of the Tzadik and went to the Inn.
No sooner did they sit down to eat and drink, then a man entered the Inn and sat down beside them. “What Is your business?” inquired the stranger.
“My son demands to see the Tzadik in this village,” answered the father.
The stranger’s eyes widened. He stood up throwing his hands in the air. “The man is insane. He is a raving lunatic and not a holy person. You cannot take this child to see him. The child will be in danger.”
Thanking the stranger for his good advice, the father returned home. “That was more omen that I need, to know that everything we have heard about the Tzadik is correct. There will be no more talk of such foolishness. Tomorrow you must go to study, to study.”
The little boy sat silent as they rode home. He lay down on his bed on return. But he did not go to cheder the next day nor the next. He refused to eat. He did not speak except once to beg his parents to take him to the Tzadik. Stubbornly the father said, “He will recover. Let him lay in his bed if he wants until he is ready to study the Torah.” However, he did not regain his strength and within weeks the little boy died.
The father and mother knew unceasing anguish and guilt. The father set out to find the Tzadik and ask why their son had died. He arrived at night at the same Inn. The same stranger entered the Inn and sat down beside him, “My friend. You are very sad. And where is your child, the beautiful child that desired to see the Tzadik?”
“My son died a few days ago and I have come to see the Tzadik,” answered the man sorrowfully.
This time the stranger threw back his head and laughed victoriously, “I am Satan,” he said. “Your son was a holy child. And if he had met the Tzadik, the light coming forth from both of their hearts would have joined risen to heaven illuminating this world making no place for my evil.”
When I heard the story I was stunned. At that moment in time I was deeply pained by events in my personal life and teetering in and out of depression. Yet, I experienced a moment of inexplicable peace, and as quickly could not stop thinking about how painful the story was. How it seemed to explain the existence of evil in the world. I wondered if I, like the boy, was doomed. Monsieur Sviadac said nothing.
Then, over months, as the story sank deeper into me, I began to tell it to friends in order to relive the experience of it, in order to understand my inner conflict. I needed to acknowledge the harsh truth of the content of the story and also to bring forth the feeling I had of another level of meaning concealed beneath the obvious content. I began to tell it with a sort of strange joy as if it emanated a secret light.
Malidoma Some’ wrote, “when an initiated member of the community registers communication through pain, it is a signal that the soul is in need of some communion with its spiritual counterpart. In other words the soul is moving old furniture out and bringing in new furniture...we do not always allow ourselves to work through pain. More often than not we think pain is a signal that we must stop, rather than find its source. Our souls do not like stagnation...to shut down the pain is to override the call of the soul. When this happens it is a repressive measure taken against oneself, which has somber consequences.” (p.38 RITUAL)
With this in mind, I recalled what I have said again and again to my students: “the story is not ultimately about the characters in the story, but the experience of the listener who has become everything in the story.” I woke up one morning with the words, “know thyself.” Perhaps, I thought, I am blinded by the stark fact that Satan wins. So I looked at the tale, seeing all characters within myself, and realized that it was neither the Tzadik nor the parents who were asleep, but myself, the listener.
Sun Tsu in THE ART OF WAR said it is necessary for a great leader to know his enemy. However, one cannot know one’s enemy outside until one knows oneself first. So, this little demanding Hassidic tale opened the doorway within me to a greater self knowing, and a deeper level of faith.
In Jewish tradition it is the text of a tale, a sentence, or a single word that is studied, analyzed, compared with other stories, in order to draw forth from beneath its surface content a deeper significance and meaning. Such inspired commentaries are well known through the writings of the Midrash.
However, I am a storyteller. For me, the story is far more than the content. Meaning is illumined in the dynamic process of reciprocal telling and listening. It is experience and event, more than text or performance. The powerful truth of oral tradition emerges silently in the inner enactment of the story shared between listener and teller. The tale begins with the birth of an unusual child to a conventional Jewish man and his wife in a village in Poland ... a social world defined by traditions. The child’s wild nature, inner light, and his inherent longing is a threat. The little boy’s innate knowing, beyond his years, however, can not be dampened by prescribed disciplines. He is too inquisitive. Too fresh. He refuses to bend his head to study. He faces the sky.
The little boy is the heart of us listening... who thirst for water in a dry place. No matter how far removed we are from a spiritual longing in our own hearts, we all respond to the plight of the child in the tale. The place in our heart that struggles to beat fearlessly and openly must know what will happen: Will he succeed where we have barely been able to? From this beginning we are concerned.
We call into being whatever dark village streets we imagine, while we summon the wild world of the child’s mind. For the child is companion to bird and beast and the forbidden friendship of the Hassidic children...who might topple the solidity of tradition and the safety of structure. We know all three within ourselves: the intuitive child, the fearful parent, and the holy madman.
The boy’s insights and natural awareness are recognized and valued by the Chassidic children. He is a delight, even a revelation to his playmates. While to his parents he is a source of concern. Their only hope is that the boy will conform. They expect that he will soon sit and study with other boys.
Then, one day, the boy is told by his playmates that he must seek a Tzadik in another village. A Tzadik, a holy man, a righteous man, a man whose experience is the bliss of wisdom. “He is drawn to God” the children might explain, “like water to water.” The boy goes home and begs his parents, “Please, take me to the Tzadik. I must see the Tzadik.” The boy’s request is a nightmare to his parents. To us the listener it is a challenge, a gold nugget dangled before our eyes. Our desire is aroused along with fear. Will he go? What will he find? We are curious to go. Will the words of the storyteller let us go now that we have heard about him? Is the Tzadik in each of us awakened, waiting in the depths of our hearts, where he or she has always been concealed? Beneath the ordinary veneer of hearing a story we are become the drama, and the cast is within us all ready, dressed and summoned onto the stage.
The parents refuse. They can not allow their child to engage in something as dangerous as traveling to the Tzadik. They can not fan the flames of such unbridled passion. We are disappointed in them. At least, in a story we want to visit a holy person. However, to our relief this very denial encourages the boy. He does not disappoint us. His curiosity is transformed into longing. The first denial changes him from child to pilgrim. It changes us. The child we imagined into being is no longer just an innocent. He is ignited - an ember burst into flame. And within us our own tamed longing is aroused and nourished. If the story ended now, we would be left adrift. We would have to return to the dark room of our habitual ways of being. The light would be dimmed.
The hope of speaking the language of birds and gaining wisdom and freedom is reflected on the mirror of our inquisitiveness. Nonetheless, within us is a glimmer of fear. Perhaps the parents are right. This is far too dangerous. And why is it dangerous. At this moment we are the entire story. The fate of the boy, his parents, the Tzadik, the Hassidic children, is our fate. A threshold has been crossed in the hearing of the tale. It is as if we were dreaming of walking in a house and discovered another room. A room in our own house that we did not know about before, fully furnished.
Wait! We are not alone asleep, we are not asleep or dreaming, but awake, listening or reading and someone is telling the story.
In SAGES AND DREAMERS (p.274), Elie Wiesel reminds us, “Aval shnayim sheyoshvim. If two persons do engage in study, the Divine Presence, the Shechinah will appear in their midst.” And we, listening, drawn out of self consciousness into the unfolding story, are not alone. Is She the one within us who listens beneath our logical mind? Is She waiting? Is it the Shechinah who burns within us? Who waits in the other village? The boy’s longing is profound. Why else would the parents finally agree to take him. It can not be just to keep him quiet. The mother warns, “If there is the slightest sign of danger, you must return immediately.” Are we ready to journey no matter what happens? Or, are we too relieved that the mother’s warning. Our thinking minds are always giving us opinions, warnings, judgments. Who do we believe? Which path do we follow? Shall I stay home and be safe in my nest or shall I go where my heart leads me? Do I dare? What is the risk? The storyteller leads us, holds our hands, but within, the quest occurs for each of us alone. Our fears and longings are exposed - if we can sense them. For some listeners, it is satisfactory to be a witness. To others, more easily wrenched out of moderation, the story is unnerving and the inner quest must be made. For me, the child’s voice must be heard, his wish must be fulfilled.
On the journey, not far from the village, a wheel loosens on the carriage. Swiftly, the father returns. A evil omen: A wheel becomes loose on the carriage. The vehicle that is carrying the father and son to the encounter with either madness or holiness is perhaps not strong enough. We know that the teller knows the tale. Knows that Satan is at work already. Or is it Satan’s work?
When the demands of the heart are strong, are for the light, aren’t we always tested and made stronger. At the invisible level of our listening, our longing perhaps is not yet burning. We must break open even further before we can meet the Tzadik or even recognize him or her.
The child is desperate. He wants nothing but to go to the Tzadik. That part of us is now drawn up from a deep place of desire and we experience intense longing. In this special circumstance of listening, we are caught off guard. Unaware that we are the ground of the enactment of the story - that it is more about us than about the characters who only exist in our imagination, we naturally release our feelings, uncover associations, connect meanings. My/our seeking is uncontrived. It follows the need of the heart.
It is confusing. He is only a child. Where does such longing come from? Isn’t this out of the boundary of his/our experience? No. I had forgotten how viscerally the wants of my childhood consumed me. Maybe the child is enchanted, sliding into the forbidden realm of madness? I know this madness and obsession. It has brought me the greatest of gifts and the worst suffering. His hunger is the hunger of the starving, the possessed, the one locked out of the house who can not get warm. I want him to find the Tzadik. I want good to conquer over evil. Yet, we know the possible consequences. I found myself longing for him to meet the holy man, to satisfy my thirst for union with the divine. And can I tolerate the naked face, the piercing cry of the starving one ... who I have trained in order to be acceptable in the world?
Again, the parents gave in. They agreed. We know now that they love the child and do not know what to do to subdue his misery. The father takes him again. The mother warns again. I breathe quickly as I listen.
This time the wheel on the carriage does not loosen. They travel safely to the village. When they arrive at the Inn (another threshold) they stop and rest, to inquire after the Tzadik. The door is opened, but the inner door, the door made of light that will bring us face to face with the Tzadik is not yet approached. That door exists only within each of our hearts.
A stranger enters. He sits down and they ask him, “Where do we find the Tzadik?” In every story the stranger gives instructions. This stranger warns them away, “The Tzadik is a madman.” He satisfies all the parents’ fears. He is the spoken manifestation of their own hesitation, their own lack of trust. The father grabs his son and leaves. I can feel myself screaming inside, “I do not want to return. I want to go forward.” But a great omen has occurred. The word of a witness informs them that the Tzadik is truly evil. The child returns home.
What is a story if it does not provide us the opportunity to experience directly the various consequences of actions... the chance to explore the full ramifications of events. It is not to be comfortable that makes me listen. It is something inside myself that calls out and draws me further into this tale. I want the truth. All the characters within me are out of the hidden corners of my imagination.
My heart beats faster. I am afraid for that part of myself. I am afraid that even in the listening, I will return to my own limits. Once again I recognize the stranger in myself who judges and is afraid of leaping beyond the restrictions of my own thinking. I want the storyteller to take me on my own to the Tzadik. “Leave them but take me,” I beg. But the father takes me home. The child, it seems, is too young to go alone. The storyteller does not relieve me. I am told that the boy’s health vanished. He could neither eat nor stand. he slept fitfully, falling into a fever, he lost his desire for life. Within a few days the boy died.
Now, I am left with the parents in this world. I am left with their utter despair and confusion. I hope the story does not end here. And it does not end here. The storyteller goes on. The father returns to the Inn. He goes to the threshold himself. The fearful adult consciously goes to discover the truth. Once again the same stranger. The stranger reveals himself, “I am Satan and I kept your son from the Tzadik.”
Satan. What part of me arises in this image? Storyteller Diana Wolkstein explained that in a text of the tale retold by Meyer Levin, the Evil One is depicted “as a well dressed merchant.” We know this man well. Even within ourselves, we know the acceptable and successful man of commerce and financial savvy. How many times have I worked for money without a panoramic concern for the welfare of others or the environment? Worked for financial security, or for fame. Has the stranger revealed himself as the Evil One? Or, in this tale which I am elucidating as if there was another unspoken invisible level of telling - evoked through the secret language of image - is Satan a disguise? For truly, he is the teacher of uncompromising compassion. He shows me what I fear most. He reveals who the child is to me. He opens me up by breaking my heart.
I mourn the death of the child. But the listening heart has imagined something further. For you see, although the boy and the Tzadik in the story did not meet, they met within me. For a moment, when the storyteller told us of the possibility of their union, the Tzadik flickered into view where he or she has been waiting and the child moved toward him. This had to happen without my thinking about it. Because it is beyond my comprehension. It is in the realm of mystic experience. I am not incapable of it. But I can not conceive it, only know it. The light is so great I can not see them. Together, the Shechinah, myself and the storyteller. And then the tale ends.
I am both humbled and empowered. Satan in the content is victorious. Yes. It is clearly stated. However, having studied with a Vajrayana teacher of the Crazy Wisdom Lineage of Kagyu Tibetan Buddhism, I have felt how outrageous and unconventional a teacher can be in order to awaken the student. If I can rise for a moment above the apparent sorrow of the tale, I ask, “what is the medicine in this death? in this story?” For in the inner alchemical workings of this heard tale, only the physical child has died. What lives? When my heart was broken open, I knew their union within me. The place of longing was no longer concealed. Although the words of the story ended, the experience has occurred. I have gained strength. Perhaps, I can now recognize evil.
When Rabbi Hananiah was burned at the stake with the Torah, he called out to his students, “the scrolls are burning but the letters are not.” Elie Wiesel wrote, “Physical tangible things come and go - not spiritual ones. They stay - suspended between heaven and earth - outside time and inaccessible to human ambitions. There is something in us mortals that is immortal.” (p.282)