Please Don’t Feed the Prophet
God is a sweater that you grew out of. God is an old book on Soviet politics lying in a thrift shop. God is a friend from college that you want to get rid of but can’t. God is a souvenir. I read the magazines. Ninety-five percent of Americans believe in God? Bullshit. The only ones who believe in God are children or old people or those ethnic minorities, you know who I’m talking about, with their “God Loves You” vanity plates and T-shirts, their “All hail King Mosiach” billboards. Their “What would Jesus Do” key chains. Here’s a dilemma for you: You’re trapped in traffic behind a car with a “Honk if God Loves You” bumper sticker. Would you honk?
I don’t know what kind of person you are, but maybe you don’t believe that God loves you any more than Barney the Purple Dinosaur loves you. And I’ll admit that God has a nasty track record. God sat by and watched the burning fires of Auschwitz and didn’t lift a finger. God sits by and watches the burning fires every night on CNN and doesn’t say a word.
But what if God did?
This is how it happens. You’re sitting there, minding your own business, scrambling some eggs, when the phone starts to ring. You wait for the machine to pick up. The beep goes off. Then you hear the VOICE. It starts to call your name. It’s like your mother calling you in for dinner. It’s like a mob calling for your head. It’s like a lover whispering in your ear — except the voice isn’t coming from the answering machine. It’s everywhere, the walls, the stove, the lights, the toaster, they are all calling you. It’s like a dream but awake, as when you’re dreaming and two things are the same thing, like Winona Ryder is rubbing your leg then you look up and it’s your brother, except he’s got hair all over his body and he’s wearing a dog collar. And it’s all true, all at the same time. And you wake up and your leg feels funny.
This is how it starts, the phone call, your name, like a dream. And then come the voices. But it’s not what you think — I mean it’s not in your head. It’s what happens between you and things. You walk by a mailbox and love letters, condolences, get-well-soons, a check made out to a relief organization in Tanzania, a letter to a recently divorced man from an old friend all call out to you. And at the same time you see the dark side: denied medical coverage and student loan bills, countless advertisements for unnecessary items, a letter informing an aging woman that her son’s remains have yet to be found. It all happens at once. Redemption and despair. A phone booth is packed with emotional history, haunted so thick that you walk across the street to avoid it. A plastic bag hangs from a tree and it is both a bag and a face. Every object speaks. A hub cap is a roulette wheel is a saw blade is a coin given to a young boy as he travels across the ocean. You see things, all things. All possibilities at once.
After three days, if you can last that long without losing your mind, you start to see people this way.
It’s like in this old folktale:
Once there was a great and pious rabbi who lived in a small town by a river. He spent his days in prayer and meditation, and each evening, students would come to him with their questions. It was said that the rabbi did not need to be told the questions, for he looked into the minds of his students and instantly knew all their troubles. Once a young student, Lev, came before him with a request. “Rabbi,” he said, “will you teach me how to look into people’s minds?” And so the rabbi began to teach Lev his secrets. Lev learned how to listen to the thoughts of the people in the house of study and in the marketplace.
After many months, the rabbi took Lev out into the streets to see how he could use his new wisdom. First Lev ran up to a stranger and said, “God bless you for the work that you do!” Then Lev saw another man. “Listen,” Lev scolded him, “you must repent!”
Afterwards the rabbi sat Lev down and asked him what he saw. “In the first man’s thoughts,” Lev said, “I saw the holy words of Torah. In the second man’s I saw people engaged in sexual unions.” The rabbi sat quietly for a moment. Then he spoke these words: “Lev, my beloved student, the man you blessed works in the local printshop, and he cheats his customers. The second man is the most righteous man in the town, the matchmaker, and the couples he brings together are the best of matches.”
That’s the folktale. But what you see in people’s minds isn’t like the story. You see the printer and the matchmaker in each soul. You see the righteous and wicked woman in all women. Man in all men. Every act of giving is an act of taking, every moment of sensitivity is a moment of calculation. And then come the words.
The words come like Cyrano below a moonlit window, fed to me like I’m a skinny child in grandma’s kitchen. God my muse, clothed in a liberetto. God the milk, me a bowl of Alpha-Bets cereal, overflowing.
But God? I mean, come on, God? A message for you from God? Because God is a made up idea, a metaphor, an interpretation. God is a way the ancients devised to answer questions that they were too stupid to figure out. They did not have the Science Times every Tuesday. God is what would happen if Santa Claus made it with the Tooth Fairy. God is a clever advertisement for the overly self-righteous. God is a lame excuse for a day off from work. God is what men invented when they got old and couldn’t get it up. God is pre-viagra. Whatever God is, it certainly isn’t real. And we only base life on that which is real. You know what real is? Life itself. Not just the science and substance, but the experience of it all.
And we crave experience. We want sensual delights and orgasm and bliss. I want this new shampoo! I want to fuck my shampoo! I want to be fucked by my shampoo! Bliss! Bliss! York Peppermint Patties! Take me away! And at the moment of pure ecstasy you hit this white light of bliss of eternal fuzziness enveloping you in its brilliance, sucking you in, so there is no you. Our station has concluded today’s programming. But then you wake up and the pleasure fades — and we are always coming off it, coming down from the high, hung-over, ill, poisoned by desire.
Then we get depressed. And not a damn thing will break it. No pleasure seems to work anymore. It is the tale of every celebrity — adored by thousands, trusted by no one. They buy lavish homes, lock themselves inside and begin to take out their rage on their bodies. And we love it! We want more celebrities to self-destruct! Overdose! Kill your wife! Get fat! Divorce! Assault somebody, please! Who is next? Where is the videotape footage at which luxury bleeds into shame? Because that’s what we want, to see our pathetic self-destruction as beautiful, our private tragedy as great entertainment.
We are stuck in a spin cycle of desire and destruction. So now hear this: “The trial period is over!” Humans must step down from their throne! Eternal God, Come on down, you are the next contestant on The Price Is Too Damn High!
The prophet speaks: A time will come when we no longer place our trust in humans or their machines and screens. We will trust only in our God, irresponsible, imperfect, mad at times, but still possessing compassion and mercy for a thousand generations. Welcome to the paradox. We were made in God’s image and now God is in ours. So hold yourselves responsible!
And so I say: Repent! Repent! Repent all you sinners and I mean me, damn it! And you, too, especially you! Not because you’ve been bad, but because you think that being bad will somehow make you feel more alive, not for what you did, but for what you will do — because you will take the most wondrous things for granted and then fail to take responsibility for your actions. You want to blame God? Blame him! But blame yourself too! And fall to your knees! Repent! Repent!
I’m sorry, I should have never said this. I should have ignored the voices, pleaded insanity, moved to Iowa and started a gun collection. But God opened my eyes. God asked me to speak. And I trust that. Now it’s your turn. You be the prophet. Go ahead.
There was a child born whose mother did not give her milk. Nor did she give her love, nor think of her as a miracle as she lay in the cradle. A bitter woman, she was, a tormented woman, her mind had been warped by the selfishness of those around her and she saw her child only as a burden, a chain, an affliction. Yet, in spite of the mother’s neglect, the child grew. For in her dreams each night an angel would come and feed her. First the angel fed her letters, all the letters of all the languages of the earth. And these letters nourished the child. And as she grew, the angel began to feed her words. And this was good. She grew more and soon the words grew into poems, and the poems begat songs, and the songs begat stories upon stories. Soon the child was grown up, and she walked the earth filled with the letters, words, poems, songs, and stories from the angel. And in small groups, people would gather to hear her. Some men wanted to hunt her down and kill her for her stories frightened them. Some women wanted to slit her throat from jealousy. Her stories spoke of the deep shame of life, the silent pain, the loneliness. And when she spoke, those who heard her felt a nourishment they had never felt, a mending of all that has been shattered. She roamed from place to place and spoke in her quiet way, a cross between whisper and lullabies. Where is she now? This child fed from the letters of angels? Where is she that we can lift her up, and carry her through the streets in celebration?
She has disappeared. Wandered off deep inside of your soul, calling out to you right now to join her. She’s getting ready to tell you a story.
Daniel S. Brenner is a reconstructionist rabbi and playwright living in Montclair, New Jersey. His work, Taking Names, won the Best New Play award at the All Out Arts Festival 2000 in New York City. He is currently at work on a play about the thirteenth-century mystic Abraham Abulafia.