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The Ascent of Chana Rivka Kornfeld
The fifth story from 
The Se
cret That Is Not A Secret: Ten Heretical Tales 

Jay Michaelson

Published by Ayin Press December 5, 2023 and reprinted with permission on

February 26, 2024

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Cover Design by David Benarroch

"Gevurah - The Ascent of Chana Rivka Kornfeld"

I am here and not here.

I feel the cold tile of the floor, the same tile we all have in this part of Jerusalem. My husband Eliezer is looking over

me. I can also hear his thoughts. He is seeing the brown shingles of a house in Plainview, Long Island, where he had lived as a child, thirty years ago. He is remembering how he had reacted when the other kids didn’t play according to the rules; he is seeing himself smash the buildings they had built against his wishes.

What a strange thing has taken place. I have a television on top of me.

Eliezer is looking down at me, a thin coat of sweat under his arms, around his shoulders, and on the crown of his head, beneath his thinning hair and under the knitted kippah fastened to it. He had been watching, as always, the news. He believes that the conflicts engulfing the Jewish people are the birth pangs of the Messiah, the advent of a time of war and confusion before the Temple will be rebuilt and the enemies of Israel cast out. Soon, he told me once, maybe

this summer.

Our lives have changed. Mine is about to end. Eliezer was wrong: the true redemption wouldn’t have to do with 

horsemen and apocalypse. It would be so secret that few would even know it had occurred. It would be so subtle that

only the attentive could perceive it. For most, the malls would remain open; everything would be as it was. For those few

who perceived, all would be new. This was the promise of the forgotten Messiah of the past, and his faithful believers.

“The leftists,” Eliezer had shouted, “the antisemites, the perverts.” Eliezer was in a rage, as he had been many times

before. I came into the room and I saw that he had gotten up off the sofa and was standing in front of the flat screen

of the television, picking it up as if to smash it like Moshe with the tablets, except this lasted only a moment, because

he didn’t see me in his rage and I couldn’t move away in time and the sharp edge of the television hit me instead and

knocked me to the floor and I tasted blood and the screen did drop and shattered and the shards scattered and with

them the light. I am here and not here.

Perhaps there is a One who is responsible for all that happens. Eliezer’s anger, the politicians, the television news. The

moment was a confluence of events, a chance encounter of a thousand causes. Some would call it an “accident.” I heard

Eliezer use the word in his mind. It was an accident. As if to deny that there is a judge and justice. Blessed be the true judge, I say for myself. And was it an accident, that I stayed with him through these years of childlessness and endless,

spiraling anger? All his fitful rustling in bed, his complaints about his pointless job at the call center, his shouting at me

or the neighbors or the news. I stayed because there was no better option. Even now I can feel the anger rising within

him, as if this was something that had happened to him instead of to me, or that it was the leftists’ fault, the antisemites, the perverts.

I see Eliezer as a little child, five years old, teased and beaten up by the older boys. I see him as a teenager at the moment

he learned his friend—really just an acquaintance—had been killed by a terrorist. All these moments congeal in him:

the pure, hot fire of rage. I join the list of his victims: doors, appliances, dishes, computer keyboards, glasses. This coursing energy: this really is something that happens to him. It takes him over, like a dybbuk [1] or an ibbur [2]. Eliezer is remembering  a toy truck. There was something wrong with it—it wouldn’t roll straight, or Eliezer had tripped on it—and he took the truck into his hands and smashed it on the floor, over and over again, until finally, a small plastic piece broke

off. Small, but crucial, because now the truck wouldn’t roll at all. It was junk. So Eliezer threw it against a wall, making

a mark on the wall (for which he was spanked later) and then took it into his hands and broke it into small pieces. He was alive then, as now. He was made in God’s image, capable of creation and destruction. If anger is idolatry, as the sages

of blessed memory say, then who is the god it makes in its place?

When Eliezer and I first met, we were only just out of college, each in Israel on separate yeshiva programs. He had

such a brilliant intensity, not like the boys I had dated in high school and college—wimpy, effeminate Modern Orthodox 

boys with their thin-rimmed glasses and pale complexions. Eliezer was direct, serious, certain. He would quote Rav Kook, or Jabotinsky. He had so much vitality. And I knew that if I waited much longer, the quality of men would decrease. I wondered if his intensity would ever translate into cruelty. But the heart can deceive the mind when it wants enough.

Soon after we met, Eliezer and I went for a hike in the desert, down near Eilat, the red mountains, the open valleys dotted

with acacia trees. We saw school groups hiking, singing. It was lovely, a taste of the world to come. Eliezer, his submachine gun banging against the side of his thigh, seemed jubilant. He said, if I remember correctly, “The most beautiful love isn’t romantic love. ‘Romantic’—it’s an invention of the Romans. It’s the love of our land, our people, and Hashem. This love is what unites us as Jews, it is ahava [3] in its truest form.”

At the time I found this inspiring. I was there but not there. And when we discovered that I could not bear children, I felt Eliezer’s anger, for the first time, directed at me, even as he said outwardly that this was God’s will, and that we would accept this decree. He even said to me, once, that since we were no longer fulfilling the mitzvah of pru urvu [4], that his only obligation was my pleasure.

But it seemed to me that without children, we had lost our sense of purpose. What was the point of this fruitless union? What was my purpose on Earth? Each of us coped in different ways. I turned to spirituality. I went to see several tzaddikim, ostensibly for a segulah [5] to help me become pregnant, but really, since I knew that was impossible, to taste the sparks of holiness that resided in these places. As a woman, many paths were closed to me, but these were open. And I discovered, by the graves of the rabbis, and in the courts of living miracle-workers, an entire world apart, filled with the scents of burning hyssop and incense, suffused with a kedusha that Eliezer’s world scarcely knew. The women I met in these places taught me of the old ways, of herbs and amulets and secret things, of magical remedies and spells, incantations to attract angels and repel demons. It was astonishing to me, what could be permitted.

Eliezer filled the void with politics. He grew more and more resentful, enraged, and extreme. He met men who talked of war; he posted and commented and threatened people on the internet.

I replay what has just happened. There is Eliezer picking the television up from the table where it rested, swinging it around, not seeing me (or seeing me?), hitting me, knocking me down with such force, and then dropping it, shattering

it. The sheer strength of him.

I hear Eliezer think: this is what happens when you love God too much. We should know better, but we are compelled, and we attract the nations’ fury. Hashem yearns for us, and brings us to ruin.

I made excuses for him, right up until the end. “The frustration is more intense than you realize,” I had said to my  mother only a few days ago. She lived in America. She was comfortable. “The world doesn’t understand the threats we face.”

“Tell her about the rockets!” Eliezer shouted from the other room.

“You know yesterday they found rockets,” I said. “Just sitting there, in plain view. Who do we think these rockets are for? But does CNN report this? No. Nothing.” My mother told me she was scared for us, that we should come back to Silver Spring, in America, that there were jobs there for Eliezer and we could see each other all the time.

“Is she trying to convince us to move back to America?” Eliezer shouted.

I feel myself leaving. I still hear Eliezer raging, justifying himself and what had happened, rehearsing what he would

tell the police, then finally, dialing for help. But this is not the last thing I perceive.

I am at the mikva, about to immerse. But there is a creature in the mikva—a sort of manta ray, the sort of creeping,

undulating thing that inhabits the floor of the ocean. I feel defiled, as if the creature’s impurity has poisoned the mikva and infected me as well. I see the skull of a mouse that, when I was a little girl, I’d once found in the basement. I see the

electric ner tamid [6] flicker over the ark of my childhood shul.

But these, too, are not the last things I perceive. Because now I smell incense from the atzei shittim, the acacia trees, rising in the crowded hall I once visited to receive blessings from a holy rebbetzin. It is a sweet smell, unlike any other. As the Torah hints, there is a secret ingredient in this incense, from the bark of the trees themselves, that can cause prophecy, and that the human brain itself produces at the moment of death. I feel it coursing through me. I know its provenance. And I see the manta ray in the mikva transform into a great snake, the nachash from Gan Eden, who opens Chava’s eyes

to the truth of the tree of knowledge. This snake is a woman, it is Chava’s sister Lilit, it is the doorway to death, and I enter her and she enters me. And as this yichud takes place, I am no longer on the tile floor, I am a spark surrounded by thousands of others, reuniting with our source, a great, beautiful light that welcomes us. For a moment I wonder if I am worthy, if I must do tshuva [7] to merit this dissolution, and I feel myself slip backward for a moment. But I am wrapped and held by the snake, which now is a woman, a womb and a death and a mother, saying only to me: Yes. And I see countless other worlds, and palaces, and the halls of polished stone, and I know there is nothing I need to say or do to be worthy, and with that I am enveloped in this or ganuz, this radiant and undying light, and I am dissolved into it, and I am no longer in that place but here in this one, and the acacia is within me and I am open and dissolved and here. 

 

1. dybbuk – spirit possession

2. ibbur – spirit incubation

3. ahava – love

4. pru urvu – be fruitful and multiply

5. segulah – amulet

6. ner tamid – eternal light

7. tshuva – repentance

Jay Michaelson

Jay Michaelson is the author of ten books, most recently The Secret That is Not a Secret. Jay’s previous book, The Heresy of Jacob Frank: From Jewish Messianism to Esoteric Myth, won the 2022 National Jewish Book Award for scholarship. As a journalist, Jay regularly appears on CNN and in Rolling Stone, The Daily Beast, The Forward, and other publications, and won the 2023 New York Society for Professional Journalists Award for Opinion Writing. Jay is also a meditation teacher in Buddhist and Jewish traditions. Dr. Michaelson is a fellow at American Jewish University and a field scholar at the Emory Center for Psychedelics and Spirituality. He holds a PhD in Jewish Thought from Hebrew University, a JD from Yale Law School, and nondenominational rabbinic ordination. He lives outside New York City.

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