Illustration by Paul Rogers

He was told of the true significance of Torah, which had spawned the seraphim. It was through Torah that all worlds were sustained, though no one could have beheld the Law if it had not clothed itself in the garments of this world. Those garments were composed of fine-spun Hebrew characters that contained God’s essence, and by shifting the letters anagram-fashion—Bernie pictured swapping sleeves for pantlegs as if to fit impossible beings—you could alter the course of galaxies. When he was fairly bursting from a surfeit of magical wisdom, the rabbi told the boy to be still already.

“Concentrate now on the Hebrew word for ‘I,’ ani (אני),” counseled the old man, explaining that the word should then be reconfigured in the mind to form another word: ayin (אין), “nothingness.” When he’d meditated on this awhile, Bernie began to grow light-headed and uncrossed his eyes to regain his bearings, only to have the rabbi introduce another exercise. He should focus next on the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of God, whose characters, once visualized, he should then rearrange. He was given the numerical equivalents of the four possible spellings of the written letters, which comprised the rainbow threads of the garment of Torah with its 231 buttonholes, called, since the destruction of the Temple, the Gates of Tears.

Even as he followed the rabbi’s instructions, Bernie wondered what such arcane practices had in common with his unspoken desires, whose object he could no longer identify. But he could not deny the tingling that had commenced in his brain, which felt as if the lid of his skull had been raised like a convertible’s roof to expose its contents to the elements. Then, as if borne on the warm breeze from an open window that invaded his simmering brain, the visions started to come. He could hear the voice of the rabbi, syntax no longer scrambled; but though he comprehended fully, the boy was uncertain what language the old man spoke: “As the hand before the eye conceals the mountain, so does our little life hide the mysteries of which this world is full.” He heard the riddles the rabbi put to him: What eagle has its nest in maidenhair, where its young are plundered by creatures not yet created and taken to places that don’t exist? Who is the beautiful virgin with two left breasts? And Bernie thought he knew the answers! He saw connections everywhere: how, for instance, the redbreast on the honeysuckle just outside the window had its own appointed star and each star its designated celestial being, who represented the bird according to its rank before the Holy One, blessed be He. He saw how certain stars trailing peacocks’ tails held sway over certain herbs called “delirious elixirs,” not to mention certain bodily discharges and women’s hairstyles; that the diameter of one’s penis and the circumference of one’s third eye were influenced by the phosphorescent trajectories of comets across the firmament. Bernie saw the Throne of Glory, which, though vacant, resembled a giant La-Z-Boy in need of dusting, and the Divine Chariot with its tractor tread; he saw the Shekhinah, the celestial presence in Her female aspect, wearing a schoolgirl’s uniform. When She lifted her kilt, Bernie felt his flesh ignite, his sinews blazing, retinas turning to embers, eyelashes flashing lightning, follicles sprouting flames. He was surrounded by hybrid beings, with cloven hooves and ivory wings, so that he cried out the words of the patriarch Jacob that he had not known he knew: “They compass me about, yea, they compass me about like bees .” When the creatures had finished collectively urinating on the conflagration that was Bernie Karp, they vanished, leaving him a smoldering heap. Then, as his senses began gradually to return to the mundane world, he saw again the old man in an outsize bathrobe watching reruns of The Dating Game.

Rabbi Eliezer cackled and pointed at Bachelor Number Two, a teetotaler, who had just expressed a wish to drink prune juice from the bachelorette’s shoe.

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