When Rivka invited me to come to tea with her and Lily, I thought it would be like My Dinner with Andre: two exceedingly spiritual, intelligent women from vastly different viewpoints discussing the ultimate questions of life. Lily represented the New Age perspective, Rivka the Torah perspective.
The catalyst for their encounter was a request to Rivka from her cousin Stan. Stan told her that his neighbor Lily's daughter, traveling in India, had tried to commit suicide. Stan believed that if Lily's considerable wisdom about spiritual matters could be translated into the nuts and bolts of living, her whole family would benefit. He hoped that meeting Rivka, a religious Jew, would provide the needed grounding influence on Lily's ethereal spirituality, and that the effect would filter through to her daughter. He warned Rivka not to bring up the subject of the attempted suicide unless Lily did.
Rivka, never one to say "no," had reluctantly agreed to the meeting. "Don't worry," Stan had assured her. "You're spiritual, she's spiritual. The two of you will hit it off great."
Rivka invited me, I suppose, because I had spent 17 years steeped in Eastern spirituality, and 18 years steeped in Torah observance. I was a qualified translator between the lexicons of their two worlds.
We sat around Rivka's oval kitchen table in her Jerusalem apartment. Rivka and Lily sat opposite each other, and I sat between them, savoring the contrast between these two women: Lily's long, flowing, salt-and-pepper hair and Rivka's kerchief-clad head; Lily's gypsy-style embroidered, low-cut blouse and Rivka's plain turtleneck; Lily's exotic European accent and Rivka's homespun New York accent.
The two women, it turned out, were exactly the same age -- 52. "But you look younger than I do, Rivka!" Lily exclaimed with childlike wonder. "Stan told me you have six children. Can it be true?"
Rivka laughed and nodded and poured herb tea for the three of us. Lily sipped hers with relish. Rivka closed her eyes and slowly recited a blessing. Then she drank.
"Tell me a little about yourself," Rivka opened the dialogue. Lily had had an interesting life. Born in Italy to a Jewish father and a Christian mother, she had come to Israel at the age of 22 for no particular reason, led by her intuition. "As soon as I came here," Lily paused and inhaled a deep, slow breath, "I knew that I was home. My soul had come home."
"Stan told me you underwent an Orthodox conversion," Rivka commented.
"It was nothing but a formality," and the graceful long fingers of Lily's right hand made a gesture of brushing away all the world's formalities. "My soul was always Jewish."
"And did you learn about mitzvot observance at that time?" queried Rivka.
"There is only one mitzvah -- unconditional love," Lily intoned, raising both hands and embracing the air in front of her.
"No," Rivka gently corrected her. "There's a mitzvah to love God and a mitzvah to love your fellowman. Then there are 611 other mitzvot -- Shabbat, kashrut, not gossiping, loaning money to someone who needs it… All the mitzvot are important. Each one fixes one part of the astral body."
"The astral body? Do you see auras? I see your aura." Lily leaned slightly forward and gazed intently at Rivka. "Pure white light is radiating from both sides of your head."
Rivka looked embarrassed. Suddenly the phone rang. Lily sat back in her chair, waiting for Rivka to answer it. "I'm not going to pick up, unless it's my daughter," Rivka explained as the phone continued to ring. "Our conversation is important."
The answering machine clicked on. "I'm returning your call. I can cook for the family with the sick mother on Wednesday."
The answering machine clicked on. "Hi, this is Miriam," a cheerful voice announced. "I'm returning your call. I can cook for the family with the sick mother on Wednesday. If somebody else is already doing Wednesday, call me back. Bye."
"So," Rivka continued. "Do you have a guru or a spiritual teacher? Do you belong to any group?"
Lily's right hand waved away all such notions. "I don't believe in gurus or groups. They are confining, limiting. We are all one."
"Well, yes," Rivka agreed. "Ultimately we are all one. But still there are differences. For example, look at the human body. It's one organism, but within it the blood cells differ vastly from the muscle cells and the brain cells. Oneness doesn't mean sameness. I believe in affirming differences."
"Oh, Rivka, Rivka," Lily said, shaking her head. "Oneness. It is all about oneness. There is nothing but God. All else is illusion."
Rivka looked at a loss. How could she disagree? How could she agree? "It-it-it's true," she stammered. "There is nothing but God. It says in the Torah, 'Eyn ode milvado -- there is nothing besides God.' But we are living in this world of physicality. We have to act according to the distinctions of this physical plane. The consciousness of 'There is nothing but God,' cannot be the sole governing principle of our interactions with people. It would lead to embracing evil like we embrace good."
Rivka was obviously not satisfied with her own answer. She shot me a look of, "Help!"
At that moment the phone rang again. The answering machine picked up. "This is Baruch," a slow, deliberate voice announced. "I want to know if I can come get my laundry this afternoon."
"Hello, Baruch. Your laundry's not ready yet. I've done four loads, but there are two more loads to do."
"I'm sorry. I have to take this call," Rivka apologized. She picked up the phone and said, "Hello, Baruch. Your laundry's not ready yet. I've done four loads, but there are two more loads to do. You can pick it up tomorrow morning."
I know Baruch. He's a patient at a local mental hospital. As soon as Rivka hung up, I asked her, amazed, "Why are you doing his laundry? Doesn't the hospital have laundry service?"
"Yes," she replied simply. "But he says that whenever they do his laundry, he only gets half of it back. So I'm doing it."
I glanced at Lily to see if she were as impressed as I was by Rivka's hands-on kindness, but she was politely waiting to say something. "Yes, go on," Rivka encouraged her.
Lily smiled her gracious, benign smile. "There is nothing but God. All distinctions are illusion -- Jew and Arab, man and God. It is only God Himself wearing the various masks, playing the manifold roles. Rivka, my dear sister, you yourself are God."
Rivka looked uncomfortable -- and stymied. Her eyes pleaded with me to respond. I dived in: "The drop of water is not different from the ocean," I affirmed. "At the same time, the drop of water is not the ocean. Similarly, we are not distinct from God, but we certainly can't say that we are God. God is infinite. We are, as it were, pieces of God, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."
Lily smiled an indulgent smile, like a college professor trying to explain molecular physics to a child. "You both limit yourselves with your categories and distinctions. There is only the infinite oneness, and the only proper response to life is unconditional love. It doesn't matter if you cook on Shabbat. It only matters that you love everything and everyone in the universe."
There was a long, awkward silence. I sat there wondering about the missing link between Lily's exalted beliefs and her daughter's suicidal desperation.
Finally Rivka looked at me, and beseeched, "I'm not very articulate, Sara, but you are."
I tried to respond. "We humans are in this world to do tikkun -- to fix ourselves and the world. Our work is to actualize our spiritual consciousness in the physical world. Rather than transcendence, Judaism seeks to bring God down into the world of physicality."
"You're already there, my sister," Lily rejoined. "There is nothing to struggle for, nothing to attain. Enlightenment is within you. Know the truth and be free."
Rivka and I looked at each other, at a loss for words. Then Rivka abruptly changed the subject. "Tell me about your family, Lily."
Lily answered vaguely about a son in the army and a daughter traveling in Asia. Rivka, in turn, told Lily about her own brood.
Some ten minutes into this conversation, the phone rang again. Rivka's answering machine picked up. "Hi, this is Cheryl Katz," a business-like voice announced. "I also volunteer for Melabev. I usually drive the Alzheimer's patients from Bakka to their club on Thursdays, and I understand that you do it on Tuesdays. But this week, I have a problem, so I'd like to switch with you. Please call me back at 561-2736. Thanks."
Unfazed by the interruption, Rivka asked Lily, "What do you do? I mean professionally."
Lily smiled again. "My third husband left me with a comfortable sum, so I don't need to work. I spend my time painting and gardening." She looked down at her watch. "Oh! I must be going!"
Lily, graceful as a wood sprite, bid us goodbye and glided out of the house. Rivka walked a few steps with her, as the halacha requires one to show honor to a guest. When she came back, she looked glum.
"Well, I've let Stan down," she lamented. "I certainly didn't help Lily… or her daughter. Nothing I said made the least impression on her."
I wanted to console my friend, but she was right: Of the two of them, Lily was the more eloquent.
But the most eloquent of all was Rivka's answering machine.