I was one of the writers for the Amazon Shorts Program in 2007. When I decided to write about my participation in this program now for this Post, I decided to refurbish m my memory about how they worked. I looked up Amazon shorts and got links such as: Men’s Shorts and Women’s Shorts, Men’s Flat Front Shorts, Denim shorts, Pull-On Shorts, Stretchy Shorts, Casual Shorts, Comfy Shorts and more… all from Amazon. But good heavens! I was searching for a reference to that fabulous program where once upon a time published writers could send original very short pieces to Amazon. Amazon would then sell them at 49 cents on individual Author Pages to whoever wanted to buy. For Amazon I supposed, it was an innovative scheme meant to address the decline in the sale of entire books. And for the writer? Goodness, if an author got a royalty of two percent on the sale that would amount to a penny. But giving Amazon the rights to publish your micro-work on their macro site was a way of building up a readership and platform.
I will never forget the excitement of being accepted as one of their shorts authors. I was sent a contract which I signed. I got a welcome kit with spreadsheets to fill out for every piece I wrote. My first piece was a personal essay about a bizarre incident that happened to my daughter and me with a kabbalist in a cave. It was called “A Sage in the Cave.” The spreadsheet asked for title and full author name as I would like to appear on the details page. I was asked to provide a 50-100 word first person account placing the piece in context. “Explain why you wrote it; something to appeal to the reader. This must hook the reader. Don’t say, I wrote this because writing is what I do. This is my first “product” description: When my daughter and I first crept into the burial cave in the ancient town of Safed famous for the mystics and sages who studied the Zohar there, we did not know our lives would be transformed by the kabbalist who was squatting there. In “The Sage in the Cave” I try to make sense of the events that brought me to this encounter with a mystic who told me about the roots of my soul.”
The copyrights for this original piece for Amazon are mine now. Because the Amazon shorts program is dead in the wake of Kindle. All that remains of the shorts are gendered denims and pull-ups. “The Sage in the Cave” is a true event that happened to me and my daughter during the period of time I was doing research on Kabbalah for my doctorate. You may read it now even if you didn’t pay 49 cents.
The Sage in the Cave
Four days before Rosh ha Shana, the telephone rang. It was my youngest child, Miriam “You are coming to Safed to visit me!”
Safed, an ancient town in the Galilee built on a mountain slope, is famous for the mystics and sages who studied the Zohar in the little stone structures hemming the narrow alleys. Behind arched windows and beneath the rounded ceilings they wrote and taught their interpretations of the Zohar. These sages are buried in the ancient graveyard at the bottom of Safed and in tombs in the surrounding hillsides and valleys.
In one of the cave on the wooded hillsides it is believed that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, (a great Talmudic sage who lived in the second century C.E) hid out from the Romans who were rounding up Jews in wake of their revolt. Supposedly for thirteen years, living on wild carobs and spring water, Rabbi Shimon and his son studied kabbalah. It is an article of faith among ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel that Shimon Bar Yochai actually wrote the Zohar in this cave while hiding out. No one knew about this book until one thousand years later in Spain when a Jewish mystic named Rabbi Moses de Leon claimed that the Zohar suddenly fell out of heaven into his hands.
It is not surprising that after the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, many made their way to Safed. A community of mystics began to flourish there. However, one of the mystics who was drawn there was not a Spanish exile at all. He was a Jew who had been living in Egypt. He had exiled himself to an island in the Nile to pray and contemplate for years. One day, a voice commanded him, “Isaac Luria. Get out of Egypt! Go up to Safed!” Rabbi Isaac Luria is also called “the Ari,” the Lion, so powerful were his teachings and personality.
Though the Lion only taught a fellowship of disciples in Safed for two years before he died of the plague in 1578, his interpretations of the Zohar have gained so much authority over the years that there are centers all over the world teaching his kabbalah—the destruction of the Seven Kings of Edom; tikkun and restoration. Even Madonna learns about tikkun and the Seven Kings too. She is one of the Lion’s disciples.
The Lion is buried in the ancient graveyard of Safed, and tens of thousands of people visit his shrine each year. In September 2004, Madonna had planned a pilgrimage to Safed to rest her head on the wall which separates women from the Ari’s shrine. Not long after that, Miriam asked me to come to Safed too where she was studying Judaism, mystical style at a seminary. “Mom, this time I won’t take no for an answer. I’ve been here three weeks already. You haven’t seen where I live. You haven’t met my new friends.”
I had put off the journey several times. “It’s a five hour trip! I don’t want to take a bus crowded with ultra-orthodox Jews and their modesty police. I won’t be able to wear a short-sleeved blouse. And I read that they make the women sit in the back of the bus. And once, when the bus filled up, they made one woman get off the bus!”
This time I made no excuses to Miriam. She was right. Without a doubt, going to the kabbalistic town of Safed at this time, was the right thing to do. I was already working on my doctorate dissertation on Franz Kafka and his relationship to kabbalah and the modern spiritualist revival. My mentor for my Master’s was again my guide. I was studying more kabbalah. Though the kabbalah in Jewish mystical circles is compared to a forbidden orchard. You are not supposed enter it until you are over forty years old. I was fifteen years past that. I was enrolled in two courses in the kabbalah. And I had been doing one spiritual practice or another for the past fifteen years.
I believe we all have spirits and souls, and bad emotions and thoughts cloud the soul so you can’t experience its crystal and clear and godly nature which is what health is all about. In Hasidic thought, which comes from the kabbalah, negative emotions are so bad they are called the evil inclination. Living where I do, a lot of times it has been hard not to get sad, not to be frightened and not to worry. And all these emotions cause physical ailments, because the soul affects the body.
Sadness is an impediment to the soul’s progress. Fear is a vice because it shows a lack of faith in God. King David knew this well though most of his life he was running from his enemies and through his psalms trying to uproot his dread and fright. Worry is just as bad. It makes hair go gray and makes holes in stomachs, and stops the flow of energy which causes all sorts of sickness. So I spend time each day doing Yoga and meditating, sometimes on my breath, and then at the end of exhalation, holding my breath poised in the space between me and the cosmos which surrounds. Sometimes I meditate on an object, like the image on a Tarot card, a sword for example coming out of a cloud in fire.
Now these were the days that, you’re supposed to start preparing yourself for Rosh ha Shana, the Jewish New Year. You’re supposed to ask forgiveness for the bad things you have done and to remake yourself anew. Though I had often prayed on the High Holy Days in orthodox synagogues both in America and here, “I have betrayed; I have lied; I have stolen; I have committed incest and other forbidden sexual relations,” the liturgy did not exactly fit me.
I hadn’t done those things. My evil was negative thoughts and emotions which had really weakened my physical body over the years. So for a few weeks before Miriam told me I was coming to Safed I held my hands out and asked for the strength to be strong. I asked for the strength of a clear and devoted mind. I asked for power over myself. And as I did, I visualized a figure in white, holding a sword of fire.
Soon I was getting off the bus in Safed, and Miriam and I were at the famous kabbalist’s shrine, the Ari, the Lion’s shrine, lighting candles and saying,
Bless this New please, please!!
Then hand in hand, we made our way down the windy steep path. The atmosphere was crisp and clear without the tension and political undertones that cut through the air where I live. Here, there were no traces of the Intifada. Only the message of Jewish mysticism could be felt. The world is a veil behind which God hides himself. If we seek, we will find God in everything, in every insect, in every molecule of every stone. The excitement of mystical possibility fills the air of Safed.
I was squeezing Miriam’s fingers when I noticed a burial cave with ancient oaks growing out from the top of it and a sign that said, “Here are the graves of Hannah and her seven sons,” all of whom had been wiped out by the Romans because they would not bow down to Roman idols.
Outside the cave was a strange man. “Go inside,” he directed us. “My friend is there. Tell him I am waiting.”
“No! Don’t go in!” Miriam grabbed me by the elbow.
I brushed her away. I stooped to get in the cave. Miriam followed. At first we didn’t see “the friend” inside. But when our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we saw a bearded man about forty years old wearing a yarmulke. I noticed that he had very bright eyes.
“Do you have a match so we can see the tombstones?” Miriam asked him.
A match book appeared in his hand and he lit a small candle.
“How do they know Hannah and her seven sons are buried here?” Miriam wanted to know.
Holding the small fire he said, “Kabbalists can feel the presence of souls by putting their hands on the stones. There is more energy near the tombs of the righteous where crowds don’t congregate. So it is easier here to feel the presence of souls.”
Except for the man outside and us three in the cave there was no one else around. Most people just walked from Safed down to the Lion’s grave then walked back up. But we had continued down the slope.
The reflection of the candle was making quivering shadows on the man’s face. He said, “Lighting a little flame near the tomb is good for the soul of the deceased righteous person and for our souls too. We unite with them and their souls tell us secrets that are usually hidden. “
By this time, Miriam had edged closer to him. Hands gripping her knees, she was listening to him. Holding a small candle in his palm, he had begun mumbling as if he was talking from a trance. I could not hear what he said. I drifted and did not know he was telling her about her life and who she was. I did not know that she was shocked and could not move. I didn’t know what was going on until I heard him say, “Tell your mother she has strong prayers. I was in the next town when I got a message that I had to come here.”
Then suddenly it struck me. I had been visualizing a figure holding fire. Here he was in a cave telling me about my life, my relationship with my husband. Even to tell me, my husband was currently abroad which he was and that I was overly dependent upon him. I had energy of my own. Why didn’t I believe in my powerful inner self?
After he finished speaking, he rose to a stoop and spread his white prayer shawl over his head. He exited the cave and Miriam and I crawled to the opening to watch as he ran down the mountain with his friend, the fringes of his prayer shawl flying in the wind.