The Kokab

It was with this in mind that Shmuel decided to spend some time smuggling as many of the remaining Jews out of Portugal as possible. He had, up until this point, larger avoided the Eastern Mediterranean, and especially Salonika, as he knew that this was the place in which he was most likely to run into his old associates. But it was also the place that most of the Jews in Lisbon wanted to go. And if he was going to devote himself to this work, he had to learn how to smuggle human beings. 

Shmuel already had a network of ships captains and he had accumulated more wealth than he could ever imagine needing. And so he began arranging passage for small groups of just a family or two on ships which he had already contracted to carry spices or textiles or frankincense.  This worked well, as people were easier to hide in smaller numbers, and the conditions were more conducive to their survival. Gradually, however, the forces of the Inquisition closed in and the kings soldiers began aggressively hunting down Jews and putting them on ships for São Tomé.  Hundreds were being lost this way, most of them children. And so Shmuel, using the skills in deception that he had developed during  his flight decided to pose as a slave trader.  He worked with a Jewish barber and used his knowledge of alchemy to lighten his skin and his hair, and then began buying up as many Jewish slaves as he could, often at twice the price others were paying. 

The difficulty, of course, was in finding a captain who was willing to do his bidding. It was one thing convince a merchant captain to transport a family or two to Cairo or Salonika in return for some extra cash, quite another to convince an experienced slaver to divert his cargo from São Tomé to the Eastern Mediterranean.  Why not just steal the human cargo, take to São Tomé, and sell it oneself?

With this in mind, Shmuel tried to find as many Muslim captains as he could and soon found himself deep in the world of piracy, as it was only pirates who were even willing to listen to his proposition. And sure enough, for a sufficient sum, he found three willing to transport his “slaves” to Salonika. 

Or so he thought. Two of the captains proved reliable, if very expensive. But rich as he was, Shmuel was no match for the Holy Office and the King who, it turned out, were hard on his heals. No sooner had the third ship left the harbor in Lisbon than the Captain had Shmuel put into irons and cast into the hold with the slaves. There he quickly fell ill and felt sure he would die in the stew of vomit and diarrhea which was the cargo hold. To make matters worse, as the headed south along the Atlantic coast of Africa towards  São Tomé the ocean became very rough and began tossing everyone about, so that irons which held him cut into his skin —and that of most of the slaves— and the cuts soon became infected. 

This was the situation when the first officer entered the hold with two of his men. He was, it turned out, a member of group trying to restore the  Asāsiyyūnan, a militant order within the Nizari tradition to which Miriam had belonged. He had become separated from his comrades in the chaos of the Reconquista and the Inquisition, and had signed on to this ship both to get back to the Eastern Mediterranean, where he hoped to rejoin his sect, and in order to help out in what he knew to be a good cause. 

The two sailors then took knives and metal cutters and began releasing the slaves while the first officer told everyone to be silent. 

—We will strike at midnight. I will take the captain and these two will take the second and third mates. Then we will give the signal and you must all emerge, as sick and weak as you are, and help us with the rest. We will offer the crew  amnesty, but any who refuse we will simply throw overboard.

Shmuel was too sick to do very much, but he thanked the man and asked the others to comply as best they could. 

 About an hour later the first mate gave the signal, and the freed slaves emerged from the hold.  In truth they looked so horrible that those sailors who did not yield jumped overboard themselves, though a handful resisted, resulting in more cuts and more infections. 

Once the ship was secured the first mate —now captain— tried to move Shmuel to his quarters, but Salvatore refused and had to be tied down to the bed. He quickly fell into a fevered sleep and awoke only after they arrived in Salonika, where the captain had arranged for him to board with a Jewish family, which turned out to be one of his old associates from Ruben’s cabalistic circle in Palermo.

—That was quite a feat, my friend, the captain said one day when he visited to see how Shmuel was doing.  My brothers and I would be honored to have you join us.  

—I am honored. But my place is with my own people, at least for now. 

—As you wish, he said. But keep this.

He handed Shmuel a medallion with an interlocking eight pointed star. 

—My brothers are everywhere, and by this they will know you are a friend, and will come to your aid, and perhaps ask for your assistance. 

—Thank you, said Shmuel. 

Then he fell back asleep. 

He slept, in fact, almost continuously for two weeks, trying desperately to regain his strength. Shortly after he began to regain his strength, his acquaintance said one night at dinner.

–Listen, Shmuel there is someone I would like for you to meet.  

Shmuel, fearing that he was being dragged off to Ruben, he bolted, and holed himself up in his room, and the next morning made for the docks. Apparently, though, he was still exhausted and collapsed and had to be carried back to the house of his cousin. There he passed in and out of consciousness for four weeks, and slept for another three, until just two weeks before Shavuot. Throughout this period of recovery, the dream he had first had in Cairo came back again and again.. A young woman, clothed as with the stars, would come to him, a reproachful smile on her radiant face.

–Shmuel, Shmuel, why do you flee?

And he would reply:

Citalinicue! Citalinicue! Citalinicue!

Finally, unable to bear the dreams, he called for his friend, who rushed to his side, bringing with him the rabbi he wanted Shmuel to meet –a cabalist known as Ha-Kokab— and, of course, Ruben, who Shmuel knew had been lurking in the background. 

Now his recent achievements notwithstanding, Shmuel still felt deeply guilty about having failed Miriam. And he was sure that the rabbi would rebuke him but he considered it only just that he should be called to account for his failures. 

–You have been given a great gift, young one. It is the Shekinah itself who has visited you, and who calls you back to her side. Only a few of us have had such a vision, and then only after weeks of prayer and fasting. But you she hunts down even as you flee her! Don’t abandon her, but rather heed her call.

–But what does she want with me? 

Much to Ruben’s disappointment (he hoped that given his recent exploits, adding Shmuel to the community would improve his standing, which was a bit precarious) the rebbe showed no interest in recruiting Shmuel as a permanent member of their circle. On the contrary, he said to Ruben.

–Your friend, the Kokab said to Ruben in Shmuel’s hearing, has only begun his journey. It will take him far away from here –and far from Eretz Yisrael. Besides, the cabala you teach is not good for him. Together with his philosophical disposition, it would become an instrument of worldly power. Then, turning to Shmuel, he continued:

–You will die a violent death far away from your homeland, in a hidden place, having lost everything you have ever cherished. Still, the rebbe said, turning to him, you will know love again and great joy.  Now stop hating yourself. We all make mistakes, and the impression we get from the Torah to the contrary, genocide rarely brings out the best in a people. But you have shown yourself brave and capable beyond your years. Spend a little time with us here, rest up, see what we have to teach. When you are feeling better, I have a proposition for you. 

Shmuel spent three months in Salonika, recovering his health and learning a far richer cabala than Ruben had ever taught him. The one day the Kokab called him into his study. 

–It is time for you to leave us, friend. I have an errand for you.

Shmuel thought that perhaps he was being sent to Cairo or Baghdad to fetch back a manuscript. But when the Kokab unfurled a scroll depicting a map, it was not of the Mediterranean or indeed of any of the surrounding lands. 

–You understand that hidden around the world, in ordinary occupations, there are Righteous Ones on whom the fate of the universe depends. Day by day through their ordinary righteousness they raise perfect sparks to heaven. And when the moment requires it they can rise up to be-come great leaders …

–The Lamed Vav

–We say thirty-six, but Adonai alone knows their number. And they are not all Jews, and not all men.  You understand this; Ruben and the others do not. I want to share with these teachers what I know and learn from them what they can teach me. But my calling is here with my manuscripts and my students. I need a messenger –one who understands the messages he carries, who comes bearing wisdom and not merely parchment. I also need someone who can survive by his wits while on the road for many years. I need you. I need for you to find them. 

—And when I do?

—My Dream would be to bring them together, to create a great council for the Tikkun Olam, but that seems unlikely at this point. Just find them, tell them of me, learn what they have to teach and … we will see.  There are also spiritual treasures hidden in secret places around the world waiting to be uncovered at the proper moment. Some must be recovered by those who have already achieved enlightenment. But others are for seekers like you. One, the “paramount wisdom” as your monk calls it, you have already found.  You must collect all the wisdom of the nations … zahir and batin

—And where will I go first, teacher?

—As you already know, many of our people have fled to Amsterdam, and others to Krakow.  I need for you to journey to these places, and prepare for me a report on their conditions, while conveying manuscripts with my teachings to their leaders there, and bringing back to me whatever you can documenting their teachings. And I need for you to continue your work of building networks of safe houses and smugglers and …

Three days later, after a feast, Schmuel boarded a ship for Cairo, and the next step in his journey.


Published by:

Anthony Mansueto

Humanity is the desire to be God (Sartre, Jean Paul. Being and Nothingness, 1943/1993: 556). Being finite, we are aware of the infinite and seek it without limit. Being contingent, dependent on other beings for our existence, we seek the power of Being as such and seek it absolutely. Human history is fundamentally the history of this seeking, and of the distinct ways of being human to which it has given rise. Precisely because we are finite and contingent, our seeking takes place under definite material (physical, ecological, demographic, built-environmental) conditions which shape the ways which emerge, as well as the social structures through which we pursue them. As something set apart we call this power of Being the sacred but it is, in fact, the warp and woof of the world in which we live, driving secular projects as much as those which understand themselves as religious. My work is centered around an effort to engage the sacred analytically, interpretively, normatively, creatively, and practically. My scholarship is centered around an effort to restore theoria to its original sense as an encounter with the sacred which is empirical, analytic, interpretive and normative, and specifically to understand the diverse ways (including secular ways) in which humanity seeks (to be) God in the context of the material realities out which they emerged and the structures through which they operate while engaging these ways normatively, contributing to the transhistorical deliberation around what it means to be human. As an artist I work first and foremost with narrative, telling stories which, blending elements from magic realism, science fiction, and fantasy, highlight humanity’s engagement with the sacred. But I also create paintings, photo collages, and illuminations and am experimenting with alterealities, games which actually change the world, and which engage all these elements in an interactive context. And I work in the medium of food, creating alchemical cuisine which at once encodes meaning and transforms those who consume it —especially in community. My scholarly and creative work aims at charting a new way of being human, at making the sacred present to people in their day to day lives, and at helping people situate their lives and their decisions, individual and collective, in he context of the ultimate aims of human life. My practical engagements with the sacred cross the boundaries between teaching and mentoring, leading and organizing. As a teacher, it is my aim to cultivate free, creative human beings and engaged citizens with a mature spirituality who have the ability to make rationally autonomous decisions regarding questions of meaning and value, to understand their particular calling and how to realize it, to build and exercise power in service to the common good, to learn the difficult spiritual lessons that come from both success and failure in our lives, and thus to pursue and progress along the way they have chosen. In addition to teaching in formal academic and community based settings, I mentor individuals using a process which integrates deep listening with both traditional spiritual disciplines and secular insights drawn from organizing and business strategy. I cultivate both scholars and practitioners, and challenge my students to cross the boundaries between these two domains. As an academic leader I have worked to promote liberal education for students from working class and ethnic minority communities, to make the institutions I serve into centers for deliberation around questions of meaning, value, and public policy, and to restore (nonconfessional, pluralistic, but still normative) engagement with the sacred to its rightful place in the academy. I see this academic leadership as an extension of my broader work as an institutional organizer helping organizations and institutions find their way, and working to build, conserve, and transform them in service to the Common Good. My work as an organizer has also included significant contributions to interfaith dialogue, deliberation, and organizing, from building financial and institutional support for interfaith organizing through catalyzing public deliberation around questions of meaning and value across diverse spiritual and civilizational traditions. I bring to this engagement a substantial record of publications, including nine books and numerous articles in both scholarly journals and journals of public opinion setting forth my vision and strategy, decades of experience teaching the liberal arts to students from working class and ethnic minority communities, a history active civic engagement, primarily in interfaith dialogue, deliberation, and organizing, and a range of institutional leadership roles in the academy including department chair, program director, dean, and campus leader with responsibility for all community college functions for a large rural area. As I continue my formal institutional engagements as an academic administrator over the next several years, I am also looking to build support for my creative work and a consulting practice mentoring individual leaders and organizations across the academic, religious, and civil society sectors. Supporting my work through Patreon is a way to contribute to making this possible while getting a glimpse of my creative process, free or discounted artifacts from my alterealities, and the opportunity to benefit from my mentoring and consulting practice at much reduced rates.

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