Reb Ezra"Tell me you believe in me."
A young woman went missing. She had been a guard at the religious Zionist seminary I was attending in Jerusalem, where I ended up almost by accident. In the mornings we studied Talmud in pairs, reading line by line aloud, and in the afternoon, Torah. After starting there I confessed to one of the instructors that I had difficulty believing in the literal fact of revelation. She somberly advised me to pray. Nevertheless, I became quickly, and enthusiastically, religious. In my neighborhood people typically greeted one another with “Hello my holy brothers and sisters,” resembling something of an orthodox Rainbow Gathering.
On the morning that the woman's disappearance was announced, we were loaded onto a bus and dropped off at the Jerusalem forest. An instructor from the seminary and a policeman explained that we would search for her body as the police lacked the means to conduct a thorough search. Leave no rock unturned or cave unsearched, they told us. We set off in groups along the forest’s hills and ravines.
Lagging behind the group slightly, my friend Rivka began telling me about a rabbi named Reb Ezra who helps people repair their past lives. She said that he knows everything about her just by looking at her. “He's sort of my mentor,” she explained. “Like he tells me stories about my different life times so I understand what to do in this one.” I asked if I could meet him. “I’m not sure,” she said, “he’s really particular about who he allows to come see him.”
For several mornings we returned to the forest and found nothing.
After ten or so young people had arrived, all quiet, slightly on edge, Reb Ezra lumbered down the stairs dressed all in white, to take his place at the head of the table. A large man, he moved slowly and heavily, as if each step exhausted him, but his gaze darted from person to person penetratingly. Shukeling back and forth, the rabbi closed his eyes. Opening them again, he gave a blessing over the wine and bread, made a few jokes, and then everyone was silent.
"Do you forgive me for any way I've wronged you in this life or any previous lives?" he asked the girl sitting next to him slowly. She hesitated, and then said yes. He asked each person at the table the same question until he turned to me. “Sure,” I said, perhaps somewhat lacking in conviction. If he had in fact wronged me in any way, I had no memory of it.
“Are you absolutely sure you forgive me?” Again I nodded.
The table became a playground. Everything was a clue: where each person had chosen to sit at the table, who we'd come with—but to what, exactly? "There's a reason why we've all been brought together tonight," he squinted, eyeing each of us. "You know there are no coincidences?" He interrogated the others, alluding to conflicts and connections various people at the table had together in previous lives, which accounted for why we'd all been brought together tonight. His thin, younger wife had long since retired after saying little. Their five children screamed and knocked over things restlessly until one of them would gain his attention.
“You know I don't feel so good tonight,” he sighed. “I don't feel that I'm able to be as good as I can be.” A few years ago, he told us, he was at a conference in Poland. And much like tonight, he’d opened his speech there by asking each person present if they forgave him for any way in which he'd wronged them in this life or previous ones. One woman present screamed that she didn't forgive him, and stormed out. The next day, her husband approached Reb Ezra to apologize, and said that there was no reason why she'd responded like that. As they spoke, Reb Ezra told us now with a dramatic flourish, he suddenly understood something. “I began to shout at the man, ‘I know what you're doing to your wife, I know what you're doing to her.’ The man started pleading with me to be quiet—shhh, shhh, my wife is over there—but I wasn’t about to shut up. Because I knew he was ruining his wife’s life.
“For a long time she’d wanted to conceive, but all the while her husband was secretly doing things a certain way so that she’d never get pregnant, ’cause he didn’t want a kid. All those years, she was wracked with guilt over her infertility. Now from across the room, the wife saw me and her husband talking, and started asking what was going on and walking towards us. I said to her, ‘Listen, I know why you were angry with me yesterday, and you had every right to be. But I promise you, I'm making things okay; everything's going to be okay. Just give me a few minutes with your husband.’”
Breathlessly, Reb Ezra told us that he then turned to the husband and asked that he promise to stop deceiving his wife and to impregnate her that night; upon hearing Reb Ezra's words the man turned white and quickly acquiesced. “Now I tell the wife, ‘It’s all okay, you can come back now.’ She didn’t know why, but she started thanking me. Something in her had relaxed.
“…Anyway, I got a phone call from them a couple months ago, telling me they’d had their second child together.” His eyes watered as he stared into the distance. “And they all say ol’ Reb Ezra is crazy! Ha, ha. I’m real crazy alright!” He continued to laugh hysterically for a minute, and then uncorked another bottle of wine.
“When you came to my house last week, there was something about you that made me uncomfortable. You sat in the chair beside me at dinner, you sat there, meeting me for the first time, and you didn’t judge me. You accepted me. If you’re going to come with us tonight, I need to know why."
“I didn’t feel I had any reason to,” I replied. Had I actually not judged him? His stories, it seemed to me, were true to him, and guided by a consistent internal logic. If his explanations of past lives were helpful to people, as they had been for my friend Rivka, did it really matter either way?
"So innocent until proven guilty, is what you’re saying," he said, sighing. "Last week, your friend Rivka called me. She asked if she could bring a guest to my table. She said she’d been thinking about bringing you for a long time but was a little unsure about it. I asked your name. She told me. When I heard the name I agreed. You came in by yourself and chose the chair right next to mine. You think that’s a coincidence? You know there’s not even a word in Hebrew for coincidence?"
“Girls, I feel like Laila trusts me for no reason," he says. "Something about you makes me want to be a bad person, to make you hate me, so that I wouldn’t be vulnerable." I glance back at the two girls in the backseat. They stare impassively ahead, hardly seeming to take any note. "I want to ask you something,” he turns to me. "If I were to do something really bad to you right now, would you judge me?" I tell him no, possessed by a strange curiosity.
He asks if I wanted him to prove it. It’s unnecessary, I say, looking out the window. A line of palm trees waves at us in the dark. The sky low overhead, the bloated moon sags toward us.
We arrive at the seminary where the two other girls live and he drops them off. Driving away from the seminary gates he asks me if I feel comfortable sitting there alone next to him. “If you want, you can get out and sit in the back seat.” That won’t be necessary, I respond. Sure I felt comfortable. We drive along in silence for a few minutes. It’s pitch black out and we’re speeding up a hill.
"How do I explain this," he begins, staring at the road ahead. "Ever since I was young, it’s like I have a video constantly running in my head—whenever I’m with someone it’s going, I can see all sorts of stuff. Disparate moments and images from their past, from this life and previous lives. I can’t turn it off. You and I were friends in a previous life. We were extremely close, and shared everything. You gave me advice and I always listened to you, except for once when I made a terrible mistake that affected many other people.” The car continues up the road, with a steep drop into nowhere on either side. We turn a corner sharply.
"I’m here sitting next to you, and there’s this video tape running in my head of all our previous experiences together, but you can't remember them. I know how close we were, and it’s driving me crazy that we can’t just immediately have that same connection. My God I can’t tell you the anguish I’m experiencing," he says, shaking his head. His eyes water with emotion.
Every person you meet in this life, he explains, you meet because you met in a past life and there’s a tikkun, a healing or rectification, which needs to take place.
"I don’t want to come back," he intones slowly and deliberately. "So let’s say I’m on the phone with an operator, I tell them: Ask me anything you want, I can see. I try to help them, and I ask if they’ll forgive me.
"I’m willing to do anything to even out, make this life my last. You...I don't know how to even out with you. So if you ever need help of any sort, come to me. Can you agree to come to me?"
My assurance seemed to relax him slightly. Outside the moon looks like a cow's eye, milky and staring blindly at me.
"I need you to feel comfortable with me, like how it was when we were friends. For us to feel close…I wish there was some way I could explain what it’s like to always have to be dealing with this information all the time, to have all this stuff—images, experiences we shared that only I remember—standing in between me and other people."
Still speeding, his eyes lock on the road as we near a roundabout. His loneliness is palpable; I can feel his sadness. Deep circles beneath his eyes suggest he hasn’t slept in days.
"I can’t help it, but I feel angry towards you," he says. "Because of things that happened during our previous relationship, because of my inability to make you—or anyone—see what I see."
We swerve around the brightly lit traffic circle, the car tilting on its hinges. "Don’t worry, it’s as if there’s a wall between us." He gestures at the air in between our seats. "Don’t worry, I’m not about to do something crazy." With a slight smile he shakes his head, his eyes sparkling and fixed on the road ahead. I don’t feel scared. He’s too determined not to be reincarnated again. And driven by a cold sense of novelty or some conviction hidden even to myself, I’m now his passenger.
"What’s your father’s name?" he asks. It’s Ezra, also. "Oh my God, I feel dizzy. Don’t you see how all these things are connected?" His head swings back against the seat as we accelerate suddenly.
"I need you to trust me that I can see. Maybe I can get at this thing with a story. Are you sensitive to stories? Actually, I’ll get to the story later. Let’s play a game instead. It’s called the truth game. I ask you questions, and you answer them. But you can’t say you don’t feel comfortable answering. You can choose whether or not to play the game, but if you agree, you have to answer." I agree.
"Do you hate me?" I don’t hate him.
We are driving around the same three blocks again and again. No one is following us. He asks me a few questions about my childhood. Then he says: "Did there come a point when you were a child that you wanted to…experiment with buying different types of underwear…but your mother wouldn’t let you?" I nod.
"How old were you when you first felt really good in your body?" he asks. I can't remember. "Remember I said you can't refuse to answer because you're uncomfortable?"
"I honestly don't remember."
"Would you say that this is true," he asks, "that you like when men are…rough…with you and say evil things to you?…And don’t worry, don’t feel embarrassed, God only shows me what I need to see."