aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Chapter 26: For Not One Sparrow Can Suffer And The Whole Universe Not Suffer Also

St. Francis saw above him, filling the whole heavens, some vast immemorial unthinkable power, ancient like the Ancient of Days, whose calm men had conceived under the forms of winged bulls or monstrous cherubim, and all that winged wonder was in pain like a wounded bird.
St. Francis of Assisi, by G.K. Chesterton

June 26, 1991
Gulf of Mexico

“TELL ME ABOUT THE WORD WATER”.

Sohu sat on her cloud, snacking on manna with ketchup on top. He had been doing this increasingly often over the past few weeks, asking her to tell him about a word, never satisfied with the amount of meaning she was able to wring from it. It didn’t matter how many connections she drew, how many languages she was able to weave together, he would always just say something like “YES, BUT WHAT DO YOU MAKE OF PROTO-NABATEAN, IN WHICH THE SAME WORD REFERS TO AN OBSCURE KIND OF COOKING-IMPLEMENT?” and she would have to admit that, for some reason, that had never crossed her mind.

She sighed theatrically, but gave no further protest. “In Proto-Semitic,” she said, “it is akwa. In Proto-Eurasiatic, also akwa. In Proto-Amerind, akwa again. So we’re getting a very strong aleph-kaf-vav vibe. Aleph connects Chesed to Gevurah, and kaf connects Chesed to Binah, and vav connects Binah to Keter, so we’re getting two paths out of Chesed, one all the way up to Kether, and the other down to Gevurah.”

“GO ON.”

“So we’re invoking Chesed, the kindness of God. Compare Psalm 65: “You visit the Earth and water it, you greatly enrich it with the river of God, which is full of water.” But we’re also invoking Gevurah, the severity of God. Water is the kindess of God, but also His severity; think Noah’s flood, where it was His severity that punished the wicked, but His kindness that saved Noah and promised never again to flood the Earth. We’ve got Binah, the understanding of God. Spiritual growth. Compare John 4:14: “Whosoever drinketh of the water that I give him shall never thirst; the water that I shall give him shall be a well of water springing up into eternal life.” And finally, we’ve got Kether. The crown of God. Human beings are 66% water. The human brain is something like 90%. Human beings are made in God’s own image. Therefore, Kether.

“BUT WHAT ABOUT…”

“The English word water, which breaks the pattern? It keeps the vav, but it finishes with tav and resh. That’s a very special combination. Tav goes up from Malkuth, at the very bottom of the tree, and then resh goes straight up again, until you’re all the way at Tiferet in two moves. And from Tiferet you can go anywhere. A tav-resh is the shortest path, it’s efficiency, it’s no-nonsense, it’s utilitarian, it’s for when you need a lot of power really really quickly.”

“AND WHY DOES – ”

“English deviates from the other languages because for the Tibetans and American Indians and Egyptians, water represents life and mystery and so on. But Britain is an island, and the British are the greatest seafarers in history. The Tibetans think of water and they think of good crops and spiritual rebirth. The English take one look at it and think ‘Yes, an understanding of God is all nice and well, but you can sail over this stuff to get anywhere.'”

“BUT WHAT ABOUT THE HEBREW, IN WHICH WATER IS ‘MAYIM’?”

“It means…because…I don’t know. Who knows? How deep do we need to go? Isn’t it enough that I brought in three reconstructed ancestral languages from three different continents, plus explained deviations from the trend? Just once, could you say ‘Good job, Sohu, that’s enough, Sohu’?”

“UM. GOOD JOB, SOHU.”

“Uriel, this is really boring.”

“YOU ARE VERY ENGLISH. YOU WANT TO GET PLACES AS EFFICIENTLY AS POSSIBLE. BUT SOMETIMES…”

“When do I get to learn how to do cool stuff, like blow up mountains?”

“UM. PLEASE DO NOT BLOW UP MOUNTAINS. MOUNTAINS ARE USEFUL. THEY HELP CONTROL CLIMACTIC PATTERNS.”

“Blow up Thamiel, then.”

“YOU CANNOT KILL THAMIEL. HE IS A FACET OF GOD.”

“When do I get to learn anything? Uriel! This. Is. So. Boring. Learning about the structure of words all day. I want to be able to help Father, to help save the world.”

“THE USE OF KABBALAH TO AFFECT THE PHYSICAL WORLD IS DONE PRIMARILY UPON THE PLANES OF YETZIRAH AND BRIAH. THESE PLANES ARE NOT CONSTRUCTED OF MATTER BUT OF VARIOUS FORMS OF SUBTLE STRUCTURE. UNTIL YOU UNDERSTAND THE CORRESPONDENCES AND THE STRUCTURE, YOU CANNOT HOPE TO INFLUENCE THEM CONSISTENTLY.”

“I made all the rivers in the world run in reverse my first day here.”

“BY ACCIDENT. THAT IS WHAT I AM SAYING. IF YOU DO NOT KNOW EXACTLY WHAT YOU ARE DOING, THERE WILL BE MORE ACCIDENTS. AND YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO FIX THEM.”

“I’ll be careful.”

“I WILL TELL YOU A STORY.”

“Is this going to be one of your stories that’s a weird metaphor for something?”

“ONCE UPON A TIME, RABBI BEN AZZAI, RABBI BEN ZOMA, THE OTHER ONE, AND RABBI AKIVA VISITED AN ORCHARD. BEN AZZAI SAW IT AND DIED. BEN ZOMA SAW IT AND WENT CRAZY. THE OTHER ONE BURNED DOWN ALL THE TREES. AKIVA CAME IN PEACE AND DEPARTED IN PEACE. THE END.”

“So yes, then.”

“IT MEANS THAT – ”

“Wait. Who is the other one?”

“THE OTHER ONE?”

“You said Rabbi ben Azzai, Rabbi ben Zoma, and the other one.”

“OH. YES. THE OTHER ONE. HIS NAME WAS ELISHA BEN ABUYAH, BUT WE DO NOT SPEAK OF HIM. IN THE TALMUD HE IS ALWAYS CALLED ‘ACHER’, WHICH MEANS ‘THE OTHER ONE’.”

“Why is his name never spoken?”

“THAT IS A LONG STORY.”

“I want to hear it!”

“THE HUMAN BOOK ON EDUCATION SAYS THAT I SHOULD ALWAYS MAKE AN EFFORT TO ANSWER CHILDREN’S QUESTIONS, EVEN WHEN THEY ARE VERY ANNOYING.”

“Yes.”

“ELISHA BEN ABUYAH WAS A GREAT RABBI OF ANCIENT ISRAEL. A BRILLIANT KABBALIST. A MIGHTY MIRACLE WORKER. A TRUE SAINT. ONE DAY HE WAS WALKING ALONG A PATH WHEN HE SAW A LITTLE BOY CLIMB A TREE. THE BOY FOUND A BIRD’S NEST. HE TOOK THE EGGS TO EAT, AND HE ALSO KILLED THE MOTHER BIRD. BUT THIS IS IN DEFIANCE OF DEUTERONOMY 22:6, WHICH SAYS ‘HE WHO SHALL HURT THE LITTLE WREN, WILL NEVER BE BELOVED BY MEN.’

“That’s not how Deuteronomy goes…it says…uh…’If you come across a bird’s nest in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. You shall let the mother go, but the young you may take for yourself, that it may go well with you, and that you may live long.'”

“IT WAS NOT AN EXACT TRANSLATION. ANYWAY, THE LITTLE BOY KILLED THE MOTHER BIRD, THEN CLIMBED BACK DOWN THE TREE AND WANDERED OFF.”

“Not an exact translation? What version are you…”

“A FEW MONTHS LATER, HE WAS WALKING ALONG THE SAME PATH WHEN HE SAW ANOTHER LITTLE BOY CLIMB A TREE LOOKING FOR EGGS TO EAT. THIS BOY FOUND A NEST, TOOK THE EGGS, BUT LEFT THE MOTHER BIRD IN PEACE, IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE LAW. ON HIS WAY BACK DOWN THE TREE, HE STUMBLED, FELL, BROKE HIS NECK, AND DIED. SO ELISHA BEN ABUYAH SWORE ETERNAL VENGEANCE AGAINST GOD.”

What?

“THE ONE BOY DID A WICKED DEED AND WAS NOT PUNISHED. THE OTHER BOY DID A VIRTUOUS DEED AND WAS PUNISHED WITH DEATH. ELISHA BEN ABUYAH SAW THIS AND DECLARED THAT WHATEVER POWER IN THE UNIVERSE METED OUT JUDGMENT, HE WAS IN REBELLION AGAINST IT.”

“Because of one bird? Isn’t that a little extreme?”

“WHAT IS THE CORRECT LEVEL OF INJUSTICE AT WHICH TO DECLARE YOURSELF IN REBELLION AGAINST THE POWER METING OUT JUDGMENT IN THE UNIVERSE?”

“I mean, you would need to have…oh. Oh.

“YES. ELISHA WAS VERY ANGRY. ONE BY ONE, HE BROKE ALL OF THE LAWS. HE WAS A GREAT RABBI, SO HE KNEW EVERY LAW AND WHICH ONES MOST OFFENDED GOD WHEN BROKEN, AND HE DEVOTED HIMSELF TO THE TASK WITH FEARSOME DEDICATION. HE LIT FIRES ON THE SABBATH. HE ATE PORK. HE EVEN BOILED A GOAT IN ITS MOTHER’S MILK. WHICH BY THE WAY IS WHY THERE IS NO LONGER A CITY OF POMPEII. BUT THESE WERE NOT ENOUGH FOR HIM. HE SWORE TO BREAK THE MOST IMPORTANT LAW OF ALL.”

“What’s the most important law of all?”

“THE UNITY OF GOD. ELISHA ASCENDED TO HEAVEN, AS ONE DOES, AND HE POINTED AT THE ARCHANGEL METATRON, THE REGENT OF THE DIVINE IN THE FINITE WORLD. AND HE DECLARED ‘THAT GUY THERE, HE IS ALSO A GOD. THERE ARE TWO GODS. T-W-O G-O-D-S. DEAL WITH IT.’ THE RABBIS DECREED THAT HIS NAME MUST NEVER BE SPOKEN. AND ALL WHO HEARD OF IT SAID ‘SURELY THE GREAT RABBI ELISHA BEN ABUYAH WOULD NEVER DO SUCH A THING. IT MUST BE SOME OTHER ONE.’ AND SO FROM THAT DAY ON, HE WAS CALLED ‘THE OTHER ONE’.”

“Did he ever repent?”

“GOD REFUSED TO FORGIVE HIM.”

“What? God always forgives these sorts of things!”

“YES.”

“Then -”

“EXCEPT ELISHA BEN ABUYAH.”

“Just him?”

“IT IS SAID THAT EACH YEAR ON THE DAY OF ATONEMENT, A GREAT VOICE WOULD RING FORTH FROM THE HOLY PLACES, SAYING ‘REPENT, O CHILDREN OF ISRAEL, FOR THE LORD YOUR GOD IS MERCIFUL AND SHALL FORGIVE YOU. EXCEPT YOU, ELISHA BEN ABUYAH.”

“It really said that?”

“IT WAS A VERY SPECIFIC VOICE.”

“So what happened to him?”

“NOTHING.”

“He just hung around being sinful, then died and went to Hell?”

“NO.”

“No?”

“THE BABYLONIAN TALMUD SAYS THAT HE WAS TOO GREAT A RABBI TO GO TO HELL, BUT TOO EVIL TO GO TO HEAVEN.”

“So where did he go?”

“I DON’T KNOW. I NEVER ASKED.”

“You never asked?”

“I AM VERY BUSY. I CANNOT KEEP TRACK OF EVERY TALMUDIC RABBI. CAN I GET BACK TO MY STORY NOW?”

“How do you just lose an entire rabbi?”

“SINCE YOU ARE SUCH AN EXPERT ON METAPHORS, HOW DO YOU INTERPRET THE STORY?”

“I…forgot the story. What was it again?”

“ONCE UPON A TIME, RABBI BEN AZZAI, RABBI BEN ZOMA, THE OTHER ONE, AND RABBI AKIVA VISITED AN ORCHARD. BEN AZZAI SAW IT AND DIED. BEN ZOMA SAW IT AND WENT CRAZY. THE OTHER ONE BURNED DOWN ALL THE TREES. AKIVA CAME IN PEACE AND DEPARTED IN PEACE. THE END.”

“That was an awful story.”

“I NEVER SAID IT WASN’T.”

“The story of Elisha ben Abuyah was like a million times more interesting!”

“THIS STORY IS A PARABLE ABOUT THE DANGERS OF MYSTICAL ACHIEVEMENT. THE ORCHARD REPRESENTS THE HIGHER PLANES YOU WILL CONTACT IN YOUR STUDIES. IF YOU ARE UNPREPARED, KABBALAH CAN KILL YOU. IF YOU ARE ONLY PARTIALLY PREPARED, KABBALAH CAN DRIVE YOU MAD. IF YOU YOUR INTENTIONS ARE NOT PURE, KABBALAH CAN TURN YOU INTO A FORCE FOR GREAT EVIL WHO DESTROYS EVERYTHING AROUND YOU. ONLY IF YOU ARE WISE AND VIRTUOUS LIKE AKIVA CAN YOU ESCAPE UNSCATHED.”

“So you’re saying you’re not going to teach me anything interesting until I am wise and virtuous like Akiva.”

“MAYBE NOT THAT WISE AND VIRTUOUS. BUT I WOULD LIKE YOU TO STOP TALKING ABOUT BLOWING UP MOUNTAINS.”

“Maybe the mountains are evil. Or evil is hiding in them. Or something.”

“PLEASE DO NOT BLOW UP MOUNTAINS. IT NEVER HELPS.”

“Grumble.”

“DID YOU EVER FINISH LEARNING ALL THE WORLD’S LANGUAGES?”

“I told you, that’s impossible!”

“I THINK YOU SHOULD TRY.”

“You’re trying to get rid of me, aren’t you!”

“…”

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