My 80th – The Pearly Gates Are Within Sight
On Saturday evening, my wife, Nancy, threw an eightieth birthday party for me. Thank you, Lynne; the food was terrific It was a wonderful event. Sixty family and friends attended. There would have been more, but colds and the flu kept many away. Further, most of my children and their children were scattered around the world. Nancy, thank you from, not the bottom of my heart, but from my brain.
Archimedes, and Greek philosophers in general, thought that feelings and thoughts were both housed in the heart and that as the heart filled with blood, it came out of the top. Thus, what came from the top was surplus blood. It was shallow. However, if you wanted to plumb the depths of thought and emotion, you said, “from the bottom of my heart.”
The problem is that the Greeks never knew or recognized the theory of the circulatory system understood fully by the Egyptians who had done their anatomy. The brain is the real seat of thought and emotion.
On Wednesday evening, we had returned from the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island. We had been visiting my son, Daniel, his wife, Jess, little Leo and his adorable newly-born baby sister and my new granddaughter, Maren. On Thursday, I attended the funeral of my cousin, Gil, who died earlier that week, Birth and death were clearly on my mind. Saturday afternoon, when I clued in that there might be some speeches to honour me, I thought I should prepare a few notes. I decided I would talk about my 80th year as my last rite of passage before the finish line to which we will all arrive and none of us will cross. I thought I might talk about E.M. Forster’s Passage to India, and the verses of Walt Whitman’s poem from which the phrase had been drawn.
I will save those notes for a future blog.
When my eldest son, who had flown up from Princeton, New Jersey, with his wife and three kids, gave a speech telling everyone present what he had learned from his father, I had to interject and tell them the story of how, when I helped this illustrious historian write an essay in high school, he received the lowest mark he ever got in History. When his three children, Sadie, Jo-Jo and Sammy, told everyone what they had learned from their saba – how I taught them to win at cards and chess – I began to have serious doubts about the notes I had prepared. Then Natalie Fingerhut, a former student, offered an encomium on how important an influence I had been on her life. (see attached) Again I interjected. Because she had not sufficiently learned the principle of truth, I would take back the A I had given her on an essay.
Then James Nguyen spoke saying how important I had been to him and other Vietnamese for my work with the Boat People. For he had been a 7-year-old in a Vietnamese refugee camp in Malaysia. His wife, Francine, had also come to Canada as a child from a refugee camp. If not for me, he declared, their 18-month-old daughter, whom they had brought to the party, would not likely be here.
I was overwhelmed. I knew I could not talk about a rite of passage when James had just talked about the treacherous passage he and his family had made by boat to escape Vietnam and the several hundred thousand who never made it. Then Anton, the young son of my niece, Debbie, stood up and sang a song about dreamers. I did not recognize the song. But it was not from La La Land, or so I thought. As I racked my small musical brain, I thought of how many songs were about realizing your visions
Not just dreams about another – “Dream a Little Dream of Me” – or of escapism – “All I have to do is Dream of You” or “Dreamin’ of You” – or the classic of all time, “Over the Rainbow.” There are impossible dreams, unreachable dreams, utopian dreams – John Lennon’s “Imagine” – dreams of frustration, “Sweet Dreams” and sour dreams, nostalgic dreams and dreams of inability to recover a lost love – “Some dreams are made of this” – emotion or friendship – “Bob Dylan’s Dream.”
“With haunted hearts through the heat and cold
We never thought we would ever grow old
We thought we could sit forever in fun
But our chances were really a million to one.”
But this was a song about realizing and enacting one’s vision. And I knew what I would talk about – a dream that is part of our culture, one with which everyone is familiar, but few know. I had been thinking long and hard recently about the Pearly Gates – really, twelve gates each made of a huge pearl. George Bernard Shaw called them “the visions of a drug addict.”
The vision is included in Revelation, especially chapter 21. In Christian lore, they are the gates to heaven; human sinners are judged before they are allowed to pass. If one has sincerely accepted Jesus as one’s saviour, if one has surrendered one’s soul to Christ, then only via the intercession of Jesus could one be saved for a life ever after in heaven.
In Jewish lore, however, and if you read the plain meaning of the text in Revelation, the gates are not openings to heaven, but to the New Jerusalem on earth. Further, the gates offer a paradox. They are always open. They are never closed. But somehow, no one ever passes through the gates. For passage requires both that the nephesh, the soul, the spirit of the person who approaches the gates, to be pure. He or she cannot be sullied by the mendacious, the rapacious and the salacious. One must be true to oneself and thereby truthful with others. One cannot treat others as an object, a thing to be used for self-satisfaction. And one cannot treat the relationship of self-to-other other than with clean hands, a clean heart and a clean mind. One cannot be a sinner, even one who confesses and accepts Jesus as his saviour.
But the shortcomings of the self are not the only problem. The New Jerusalem must be built on this earth. It is a city always bathed in light with the streets paved with gold. Whether one is righteous or unrighteous, all those who die approach the gates. They are now in Sheol, the realm of the dead awaiting the construction of the New Jerusalem.
The Sheol is distinctive. If the New Jerusalem is bathed in eternal light, the land before the gates is wrapped in darkness. Light does not penetrate. Rather, it is like a Black Hole that sucks up all the light around. There is nothing to see even if one could see. And there is nothing to hear, only a deathly silence. Surprisingly, it is a place without memories. That is important, for the judgments of the dead will not be made by others who died. For to judge these souls, one must have memories. The jury will consist of those who knew you in life and can truly remember who you were and what you did. The jury consists of those who knew you and live after you. Therefore, those in the room constituted my jury. They were akin to an Athenian court or a Jewish Sanhedrin. Those who remain on earth must judge my soul when it gets to Sheol.
The mistake most readers make is to interpret this vision as located in space. And interpret one must. For there are almost as many interpretations as there are souls residing in Sheol. Certainly, the metaphor is a spatial one. The walls which the gates cut through is made of jasper – red, orange, green and red – polished silicone gems, but neither rare nor valuable stones. The gates themselves are the valuable jewels – rare and fine. They are always nacreous and iridescent in the darkness of the Sheol. They are mammoth pearls, platelets of laminated aragonite reflecting each year of one’s life, but not one’s virtues or achievements.
That is the surprise. For pearls are an immune response to a foreign element that contaminates the purity of the mollusc. The mollusc forms a pearl sac to wall off the infestation. Pearls are analogous to the huge painting that hangs in my former library painted by my daughter, Shonagh. It is a painting of a phagocyte capturing an antigen to enwrap it in a cloudy and milky white haze.
Therefore, we are not to be judged primarily by our achievements, as the encomiums I received seemed to believe. The pearls reflect and hold fast the foreign bodies that prevent us from passing through the pearly gates. Instead we are hurled back into the darkness of the Sheol. We become after death the rephaim, not the giants of the past, but the shades, the shadows that haunt your presence and your future, that impact your lives because the foreign, alien and impure elements have been captured in the pearls to allow the rephaim to shadow the next generation and even the next until the rephaim gradually fade away forever.
For nothing unclean, nothing dirty, nothing untruthful, nothing vicious must pass through the pearly gates. Since we are indeed all sinners, we are obligated to use and transfer and imprint on the next generation our virtues. And that can only be done when our sins are expunged by those pearly gates and we are sent back as shadows to haunt those coming next. My legacy will not be the memories of me left behind, but of me expunged of sin by the pearly gates and, if I truly am to have an impact, of those expunged sins. That means that it is more important to recognize my sins rather than my accomplishments. The imprint by myself on the lives of others, by myself cleansed of sin and raised on a pedestal is not as important as recognizing the sins I committed that are captured and reflected in the pearly gates.
It is not me that is worthy of praise, but they who have absorbed the purified virtues and applied those virtues to constructing a better future. As I pass in the deep darkness before the pearly gates, they must reflect on the light reflected in those pearls of the captured and enwrapped vices that belong to the darkness, and allow the purified virtues to guide their lives.
That is not me. It will be the shadow of myself expunged of sin. But we must not forget the sins.
An Encomium by Natalie Fingerhut
As some of you know, I had the privilege of being raised by two Canadian giants, the late Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut and Professor Howard Adelman.
Last night, I had the honor of speaking at Howard’s 80th birthday.
Every Tuesday for two years, when I was 22, I spent the morning at Holy Blossom Temple working with the late Rabbi Plaut on a book about the moral foundations of refugee law. At precisely 11:00, Rabbi Plaut would call to me from his office on the second floor to the then library where I did my reading: “Miss Fingerhut, you had better leave now or you will be late for the professor.” Never one to argue with Rabbi Plaut, I dutifully packed up my books, waved goodbye, walked to the Eglinton West subway, north to the last stop, and got on the York University bus which dropped me off in front of York Lanes and up to the 3rd floor to the Centre for Refugee Studies and begin my afternoon work as Professor Howard Adelman’s research assistant.
Those Tuesdays were quite the education. But it was an education that I did not fully appreciate at the time. It is only now, as I approach 50, that I can fully grasp what it meant to have these two Canadian heroes in my life, to have access to their unique minds when my own mind was still forming, and most important, to watch them do. And watch Howard I did. In meetings where a tough decision had to be made, he would listen to opinions and then actually make a decision himself thereby illustrating to me the benefits of benevolent dictatorship. I watched him take on all intellectual comers and noted the confidence he had when holding court because he knew that he had done his homework and that taught me that if I wanted to be taken seriously by people like Howard Adelman, I had to be very prepared. And I watched him take on people like a leader of the Heritage Front who he disarmed without raising his voice. I learned through Howard that research, confidence, and a big personality equaled getting big things done. That I was in awe of Howard is an understatement.
To this day, I’m not quite sure what inspired a pretty nutty decision on my part to take a graduate philosophy class with Howard during my MA. I was a struggling history student at U of T and figured I had nothing to lose. So, in I walked into a class filled with philosophy graduate students in a course entitled: The Philosophy of Refugees. I knew nothing about philosophy. Nothing. But I knew that I wanted Howard to think I was a smart kid, and so rather than shutting down the bars on Queen St like I had so many times in past, I shut down Robarts Library.
I wound up getting an A in Howard’s class. I was so shocked that I showed the York University bus driver the mark to make sure I wasn’t seeing things.
But the most significant lesson that I learned from Howard was simply this: You can’t just talk. You have to act. It likely drives my husband and kids crazy that I have taken this to be my motto in life, but given the teacher, how could I not. When someone is suffering, when a good cause needs a hand, I channel Howard, and I act.
Howard: it has been one of the greatest and unique privileges of my life to have known you as I did, as a lost kid who has tried as an adult to give what you gave to me to others. There is little that I have done that does not have your imprint on it.