I’m so tired of being a teacher. Of philosophy, bible, kabbalah. I’m too intellectual, impractical, elitist. A weak vessel for activism. So, I volunteer to accompany a federal prison chaplain on her rounds. To do something meaningful. Just for a day.
We visit a medium security men’s prison. We sign in, go through metal detectors and chain-link gates. Over a loudspeaker, a guard announces our arrival. “Meeting with Jewish chaplain in the chapel!”
Five Jewish inmates join us for the meeting. All are well-versed in Judaism and eager to learn more. Our chaplain has prepared a seasonal lesson about the meaning of Tisha B’Av. Together we read a contemporary English prayer. Our broken world mixes beauty with terror, says the prayer. But it’s the only world we have; let’s resolve to repair it.
“What do you think this prayer is saying?” our chaplain asks. The inmates answer. “Life juxtaposes the good with the bad.” “Don’t lose faith when things are tough.” “Work on tikkun olam wherever you can.”
When our discussion wanes, she asks a new question. “What have each of you been working on?”
“I’ve been reading the Book of Job and I have a question about the Hebrew. Does chapter two really use the word ‘bless’ as a euphemism for ‘curse’?”
“I’ve been going to three different spiritual groups. Correctional services finally allows you to declare a hybrid identity! So, I’m exploring all parts of my family’s heritage.”
“I’m still translating Torah into numbers. But I have questions about Kabbalah. Because I’ve found some amazing numeric correspondences. Jacob’s ladder is related to the Temple which is related to the Torah! How could a human being have put all that in? Five thousand years ago?”
“Scholars say the Torah is a little more than 2500 years old,” I reply. “But it was written before Arabic numerals were invented. Hebrew writers used letters to represent numbers. So every word is also a number. Skilled writers could express two levels of meaning at once.”
“How could it have been hidden for so long?”
“It’s not hidden at all!” I say. “You just need advanced skills like yours to decode it. The connections you’ve found between Jacob’s ladder, the Temple and the Torah are well-known. Jacob dreamed the ladder on the spot where the Temple was built. After the Temple was destroyed, Jews replaced Temple service with Torah study. Anyone with the right skill set could look back at Torah and see Jewish history foreshadowed there.”
“And the number 26 is a thread that runs through everything!”
“Not surprising, is it?” I ask, “Since 26 is the value of the word for God!”
He hands me a page with three columns: English words, Hebrew transliterations, and numeric values. Oklahoma City, Timothy McVeigh, Terror, Execution — all numerically equivalent to famous Torah phrases. “Look what else is in there!” he exclaims.
But I don’t affirm this. “I don’t know anything about the gematria of words from other languages. I haven’t studied this aspect of Kabbalah. I only use the Hebrew words from Torah.”
“I believe there are many dimensions,” he says. “And that humans can communicate across time and space. We just don’t develop our abilities. There is so much we can see about past and future. I don’t believe in the supernatural. But there are natural things we know little about.”
“Do you dream?” I ask.
“Do your dreams about the future have a special quality? So you know to take them literally? Or do you just find out afterwards if they have predicted events?”
“I try not to talk about dreams too much,” he says. “They only show possibilities. Someone can alter their actions, and the future changes. When that happens, people don’t believe their dreams are real.”
“Some people will never believe these dimensions are real, no matter how many times they experience them!” I say. “But I believe much of what you believe. So I’m happy to study Kabbalah with you. But I don’t get enough days off to come here regularly.”
“Will you correspond with me?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say.
The chaplain gives him our synagogue’s address, as correctional services does not permit him to know mine.
The chaplain and I walk over to the medical building to visit another inmate. We debrief the meeting. “I like to keep them talking about tikkun olam,” she says. “They are all working on themselves. They can make a difference wherever they are.”
Well, if they can, so can I. Today, I’m a strong vessel for activism. My knowledge can help someone craft a meaningful life. I’m a teacher, and it’s okay.