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My State of Graceland

What Rabbi Elvis taught me about myself and God

Liel Leibovitz
August 18, 2017
Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

I was 15 when the Israel Scouts decided to send me to America for the summer. I spoke English well, which was an advantage, but you didn’t really need more than a brief chat to realize that I was what kindly older people at the time described as a very troubled young man. My father had been arrested two years earlier for robbing some banks, and I looked at his sudden absence as a theological crisis: What kind of world was it, I asked, in which the rock upon which our family was built could one day just crumble? It was a lot to take in, so most of the time I avoided the question with sex, drugs, and scouting.

The movement’s higher-ups must’ve intuited all that angst, because while they chose me as one of a handful fortunate enough to spend three months stateside, they didn’t ship me off to Camp Ramah or Tel Yehudah or any of the other warm and welcoming places where emotionally balanced people went to form lifelong friendships. Instead, I was sent to Memphis, to hop from church to summer schools to television studio and talk about the wonders of Israel. I stayed just long enough to deliver an eloquent speech, but not long enough so that anyone could actually get to know me and my demons.

It didn’t take too long for me to realize that Memphis would only exacerbate my spiritual insecurities. It is, if you’ve never been, a profoundly religious place, the sort of town that knows, to paraphrase Martin Buber, that you can’t really talk about God but you can surely talk to him. It’s no coincidence that the city spawned so many musical greats—Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King—and gave birth to rock ’n’ roll. It requires of all, even gloomy and confused Israeli teenagers, a candid searching of the soul.

I was determined to avoid too much introspection. Insights only led to pain and were best chased off with bourbon, barbecue, and the blues. In my khaki cut-offs, I darted all over town, collecting experiences like merit badges. And then I went to Graceland.

It was Elvis’s yahrzeit, exactly 25 years ago this week. There would be, I was told, a candlelight vigil, so I made myself a torch by cutting the top off of a 7Up bottle and buying a candle at a nearby convenience store. It had rained a few days earlier, and by the time I made it out of the parking lot I was splattered with mud. I was in a foul mood, and was prepared, in my mind, to savage the whole thing and mock the morons who mourned for a singer who died bloated and drooling in his bathroom. The gates made me change my mind: They were shaped like two sheets of music. I thought about Leonard Cohen’s line about the Lord of Song and felt that if there was a heaven, I wanted its gates, pearly or otherwise, to look just like that, a childlike testament to all the songs that kept me whistling through the darkness.

Three middle-aged tourists pressed up against me, rocked back and forth by the crowd and humming “Heartbreak Hotel” like a dirge. It was impossible not to think of the irony of it all, thousands of fans knocking at the door of a home of a man who wasn’t there and will never be again. And wasn’t it, I thought as the candle dripped hotly on my fingers, my story, too? Aren’t all of us who’ve survived childhood traumas just trying to go home again, even though we know home will never again be what it used to when all was in its place and music played in the Jungle Room all night?

The simplicity of this plaintive thought repulsed me. I started humming along with the tourists, cracking a joke here and there. But the moment had pierced me beyond healing, and I found myself reflecting back on it often as I grew older and more capable of introspection beyond the mad howls of self-pity. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that what I felt that evening in Memphis wasn’t an emotional tremor but a religious revelation. In Graceland, decades before I started studying the Zohar, I caught a glimpse of the idea of tsimtsum, or contraction.

According to Isaac Luria, one of the greatest kabbalistic thinkers, the story of all creation is, to wildly simplify things, the story of the Light and the Vessels. God, as is his nature, created vessels to contain his divine light, but as the vessels absorbed more and more of God’s greatness, they, too, wanted to become godlike. Which was a problem, because God, being everywhere and in everything, left no space for anything and anyone else to grow and create. And so, God did something radical: He, Luria tells us, “contracted itself into its center, contracted itself into one infinite dot.” It was a move so radical it made the vessels shatter, an event which kabbalists call shvirat ha’kelim and physicists call the Big Bang. And the spiritual quest of each and every one of us in this world is to perform tikkun, repairing the ancient vessels and putting them back together by becoming more righteous and kind and godlike ourselves.

It’s an infinitely complicated concept, which is why Kabbalah was traditionally studied only by the mature and the learned. But at its core is a truth that’s simple and necessary to understand: Life on Earth could begin only once God vacated the space and freed us of direct awareness of His infinity. Only once that happened were we free to become ourselves. Only once Elvis has left the building could his fans come to seek not a real-life middle-aged man but the Platonic ideal of rock ’n’ roll. Only once my father was gone could I become a real man. First comes the shattering, then the repair that is our lives’ work.

It took the King to teach me that. I spent the rest of that long-ago summer listening to Elvis, feeling my heart open with every bar. And now, whenever I feel grim, I return to Memphis in mind for a quick visit, assuring myself that contraction is always the first step right before rebirth. We should all do the same: I’ve reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.