Chapter 39: Fearful Symmetry
Tiferet’s position down the center between Keter and Yesod indicates to many Kabbalists that it is somewhat of a “converting” Sephirot between form (Yesod) and force (Keter). In other words, all crossing over the middle path via Tiferet results in a reversed polarity.
– Reb Wiki
Evening, May 13, 2017
Ana groaned, grudgingly regained consciousness. James was shaking her, lightly. “Are you awake?” he whispered.
Her mouth was desert-dry. Her muscles were sore. She tried to get up, only to find she was tied to the bed.
“What’s happening? Let me go!”
James gave her an apologetic look and started untying the ropes.
“Long story. Edgar Crane cornered one of the druggies on the ship, told the Drug Lord that Simeon Azore was on the ship, offered to dose him in exchange for help getting Reno back. Drug Lord was interested because he figured Azore would know secret Names. He gave Crane some buttons, Crane stuck them in the soup tonight at dinner. I was meeting with John and the captain and we were late for dinner, and drugs don’t work on Amoxiel. So it was just you, Azore, Hope, Tomas and Lin who got dosed. There was a bit of a fight. Amoxiel’s vicious when he wants to be. Now Crane’s dead. John’s really injured. But the Drug Lord couldn’t take over the ship. He gave up and we tied up the others so they’d be safe while they came down. When we tried to tie you up, you told us that if we tried to touch you you’d jump off the side of the ship and drown yourself. So we let you be. Then an hour or so later you stopped resisting and just fell asleep, so we tied you up.” He untied the last rope and lifted Ana out of bed. “You all right?”
She massaged her face. “Yeah. Actually, pretty good. Saw a…friend.”
James lifted an eyebrow. “You better get above decks. Things are getting interesting.”
Things were getting interesting. The hills of Baja California had given way to lush jungle. “Where are we?” asked Ana.
The whole crew was assembled on the deck now. The Captain rarely spoke, but when he did he meant business. Now he faced them and said “John’s dying. Lin used the Static Name on him and bought him a little time. I give him a day or two. At most. We need to go to Kennedy Space Center.”
Lin, Amoxiel, Tomas all shared a meaningful look.
“There’s a launch a day from now. On any other ship it would be impossible. On Not A Metaphor, we can make it. But only if we cross the Canal.”
An immediate outcry from all assembled. The Captain pounded the table and demanded silence. Then, “We swore an oath!”
Slowly, James nodded.
“It’s a risk,” he said. “But we did. We swore an oath. If we don’t keep it now, none of us are safe.”
“He was like a father for us,” said Lin. “I can use the Canal Keys. That’s basic placebomancy. At least if they work.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Ana said, “but it sounds fascinating.”
Ten years ago, when they had first sailed out of Puerto Penasco on the Comet King’s old ship, when they had first conceived the idea of pursuing Metatron and boarding his boat, Tomas had brought up the question on everyone’s mind. Trying to capture and board a boat containing the earthly reflection of God might be lucrative, but wasn’t it going to make the Deity pretty angry?
Lin had waxed poetic about how God wanted humans to engage with Him, how pursuing him and challenging him was itself probably a part of the divine plan. The Captain had pointed angrily at the name of the ship, and everyone had agreed they probably needed a better insurance policy.
Money they did not lack, and long before they grew old they would have pension enough to do what needed to be done. But they had also decided that if any of them got sick, or injured, or threatened to die in the line of duty, the whole crew would pool their resources to get him on to Celestial Virgin.
Everyone with a TV set had seen Hell, but no one knew if there was a Heaven. They only knew that there was a crack in the sky, and that Neil Armstrong had passed through it singing songs of praise for the Most High.
But no one had ever known if there was a Heaven, and that hadn’t stopped them from hoping.
For example, Richard Nixon. Richard Nixon knew he probably wasn’t going to get into Heaven the traditional way, so he’d pulled rank and got himself a ticket on a space capsule to enter it directly. Unfortunately for him, that space capsule had been Apollo 13, and he’d fallen back to Earth and his enraged constituents. But what if he’d had the right idea?
At age 35, business magnate Richard Branson was already head of Virgin Records, Virgin Communications, Virgin Games, and Virgin Atlantic Airways. What other people saw as the immutable will of God he saw as a business opportunity. So he teamed up with legendary aerospace engineer Burt Rutan to create a spacecraft capable of transporting a small number of lucky passengers up into the crack. And by lucky, he meant “very very rich”. If you can’t take it with you, you might as well give it to the people promising to ensure you an afterlife of eternal bliss.
Thus was born Celestial Virgin. Jesus had said it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven, but rocketry had thirty years of practice working with astonishingly small tolerances and rose to meet the challenge. Competitors sprung up – HeavenX, Blue Origen – but if you really wanted the best engineers in the world aiming you at that needle eye and guaranteeing you’d get through, you would petition Celestial Virgin, accept no substitutes.
Sure, there were people saying it was literally the most blasphemous thing possible – to sell the rich tickets to Heaven so that only the poor had to answer for their misdeeds. But there were always people saying that kind of stuff. Why, you could say it was wrong to have doctors, because then rich people had an advantage in surviving disease! You could say it was wrong to have bookstores, because then rich people had an advantage in learning about the world! Everyone important, ie rich, was happy to ignore these nattering nabobs of negativism, and when Celestial Virgin offered to buy the Kennedy Space Center from the cash-strapped Untied States government, President Reagan was quick to agree.
When the Captain and his crew had first stolen Not A Metaphor, they swore an oath to each other that once they had the money they needed no member of their crew would near death but the others would do whatever it took to get them to Cape Canaveral and their ticket to a better afterlife.
Now as John neared death, the ship changed its course and headed for the western terminus of the Panama Canal.
One of the most famous phrases in the English language: “A man, a plan, a canal – Panama.”
We compare it to three other famous trinities. Everyone knows the Christian Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. But the Buddhists have a similarly central concept called the Three Jewels – Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The Buddha is the enlightened being. The dharma is the moral law, or the natural law, or duty; there’s no good English translation, so take your pick. Sangha corresponds almost precisely to “church”, not in the sense of a building but in the sense of “Catholic Church”, where it means an entire community of believers.
The kabbalists have their own trinity: the Supernal Triad of the first three sephirot. Kether is the transcendent heavenly aspect of God. Binah is a perfectly receptive vessel sometimes likened to the uterus. And Chokmah is likened to lightning – the bolt that originates in Kether and strikes Binah, impregnating it with divine essence.
These three trinities all correspond nicely to one another. They all have a human aspect: the Son, the Sangha, Binah, looking for answers but seeing the majesty of God’s plan only imperfectly. They all have an ineffable divine component: the Father, the Buddha, Kether, abiding in the secret order of the universe and seeing its full glory. And they all have a force that connects the other two: the Holy Spirit, the Dharma, Chokhmah, the potential for uniting the human and divine.
Ordinary mortals. The divine order. A connection between them.
A man. A plan. A canal.
But what about Panama? Well, imagine the map of the mystical body of God overlaid upon a map of the Western Hemisphere – because we’re kabbalists and this is by no means the weirdest thing that we do. What sort of correspondences do we find?
None at all, because we’ve forgotten the lesson Uriel taught Sohu all those years ago; we see God face to face, so our left is His right and vice versa. So overlay the mystical body of God on the Western Hemisphere and flip it around the vertical axis. Now what?
Keter, sephirah corresponding to the ineffable crown of God, lands at the North Pole, the uninhabitable crown of the world. Malkuth, the sephirah corresponding to the feet of God, lands in Patagonia, whose name means “land of big feet” (don’t ask me, ask early Spanish explorers). The center of Malkuth, corresponding to the world of Assiah, sits on the Argentine city of Ushuaia – in Hebrew the two words would be identical. Just below Malkuth lies the realm of the Devil; just below Patagonia lies Cape Horn.
We’ve got a correspondence, so we go down the line.
Chokhmah represents divine knowledge shooting downward, the spirit of prophecy; it falls upon Juneau, Alaska. The Name of God corresponding to Chokhmah is Jah; the name of the city is therefore a kabbalistic reference to divine knowledge as “Jah knows”.
Binah representing the receptive mind as it gains understanding. It falls upon Boston – home of Harvard and MIT.
Hesed, representing loving kindness, falls upon San Francisco Bay, recalling our previous discussions about St. Francis, the hippie movement, and California as positive affect. Chesed is often considered the right hand of God; we already know how this symbol relates to San Francisco through Psalm 89:13.
Gevurah, representing law and justice, falls upon Washington DC. It is the left hand of God, wielding His punishing sword.
Netzach represents endurance and eternity, kind of like the slow but steady and long-lived tortoises after whom the Galapagos is named.
Hod represents splendor, endless forms bursting into life – and it falls right in the middle of the Amazon.
Yesod is interconnectedness and communication, also associated with silver and the moon. It falls upon the Rio de la Plata region of Argentina, named for its many interconnecting rivers and its copious silver reserves under the Earth.
But I bring this up because in the very center of the Tree lies Tiferet, the Heart of God, the Sephirah of Miracles. It stands at the center of the Tree of Life and joins the two halves of the mystic body, connecting to everything. Not just connecting everything, but reflecting everything, a mirror that transforms and displays everything it sees. And it falls smack dab upon the Panama Canal. The center of the whole system, the key to the mystery.
A man. A plan. A canal. Panama.
Panama City had seen better days. Neither close enough to Mexico for the Drug Lord to capture and control nor far enough to escape his ravages entirely, it had become a shoddy tributary state. The closing of the canal had been the final blow, and most of its citizens and wealth fled southward to the Most Serene Empire of the Darien Gap. Now its skyscrapers looked like rotting trees in a drought, sounding a warning to all who passed by.
The Not A Metaphor ignored it and slipped under the Bridge of the Americas until it was face to face with the Miraflores Locks.
The cracks in the sky had damaged the proper functioning of the lock machinery. The Panamanians had kept the locks going for a few years, but the canal had gained an eerie reputation and traffic had dwindled to a trickle. When the Panamanians finally abandoned the locks as part of the general retreat to the South American side of the waterway the locks were left to rot. Now they stood like inert walls, blocking the ship’s path.
Lin had a plan. “We knew this day would come,” he said. “Me, James, and the Captain have been preparing to cross the Canal for ages, although we always hoped we wouldn’t have to.” He drew out a scroll wheel. “The Motive Name”.
Ana was skeptical. “Used on the locks? There are probably hundreds of different moving pieces. If you just fire the Name at random, there’s practically no chance you’ll hit something useful.”
Lin nodded “Practically no chance. There’s a big difference between practically no chance and actually no chance, and that’s where placebomancy comes in. The key is the key.” He showed Ana the scroll wheel. Attached to one side was a big glass key. “Miraflores, in the name of Rahab, angel of the depths, open for me!”
Then he pointed to the locks and tore off the scroll containing the Motive Name.
The locks creaked open.
“How’d you do that?” asked Simeon.
“Once the Captain and I put our heads together, it was obvious,” Lin said grinning. “How do you open a lock? With a key. How do you open a metaphorical lock that’s called “lock” even though it’s really a geographical feature involved in sailing? With a metaphorical key that’s called “key” even though it’s really a geographical features involved in sailing. This is sand from the Florida Keys, melted into glass and shaped by the locksmiths of San Francisco.”
“That is both really clever and the stupidest thing I ever heard,” said Ana.
The Not A Metaphor sailed forward. With another scroll from his key, Lin closed the locks and opened the other side. They were now in Miraflores Lake.
“So you think that’s it?” asked Simeon Azore, who had recovered enough to come on deck and watch the ship’s progress. “A single clever pun, and we can reverse twenty years of bad luck getting through the Canal? I doubt it will be that easy. Remember, even when the locks were working fine, ships weren’t making it through. The passage hasn’t worked right since the sky cracked.”
They entered the Pedro Miguel locks without difficulty.
“It’s the kabbalah that’s the problem,” Simeon continued. “We’re going from the west coast to the east coast directly, straight through Tiferet. From the Pillar of Mercy to the Pillar of Justice. We’re doing an inverse transformation of the divine nature. I don’t think what’s left of the machinery of the universe is going to help us with that. I think it’s going to screw us up.”
Another turn of Lin’s placebomantic key, and they were out of the Pedro Miguel locks and on to the Culebra Cut, an arrow-straight trough where the canal went straight through a mountain range.
“I second Azore in his grave concern,” said Amoxiel.
“The energies of Heav’n are growing dim
Too subtle for you men to comprehend
A great reversal looms.”
“I’m actually starting to feel a little woozy myself,” said James. “I think it’s the heat, but I can’t be sure. Maybe we should stop the boat for a little while, have a look around.”
“I don’t feel that great either,” said Lin, “but if there’s a problem with the canal, it’s probably worst here, near the center. I’d rather gun it for the Atlantic than sit and wait for it to get us, especially with John as bad as he is. And when we get back to the ship, we can have a nice cold drink of water.”
“Get back to the ship?” asked James.
Suddenly, Lin vanished.
“WE’RE STOPPING THE SHIP!” said James. “I’m getting the Captain! The rest of you! Get your weapons ready! Kabbalists, prepare your Names!” He ran below deck.
Tomas drew a pistol. Ana spoke the Bulletproof Name. She ribbed Azore. “You going to give me grief about doing this without a proper UNSONG license?”
“You’re not from UNSONG,” said Azore. “You’re too nice.”
“That’s not what I meant,” said Ana, and then she saw the far-off look in his eyes. Something was getting him. “AMOXIEL!” she shouted. “TOMAS! Something’s wrong with Azore!”
Amoxiel was hovering a few feet in the air. Then he crashed, apparently half-asleep. Tomas was already on the deck, and seemed to be having some kind of seizure.
Ana spoke the Sanctifying Name to bless the area. The air became cooler and fresher, but no one rose. She spoke the Revelatory Name to expose hidden dangers, but none showed themselves. She spoke the Wakening Name, tried to revive Amoxiel, but though the jolt of energy shot through her, it didn’t rouse him at all.
She ran downstairs to the cabins. James was on the floor right in front of the ship’s bridge. The Captain wasn’t in the navigation room. The most important rule on the ship was to never enter the Captain’s cabin without his consent, which he never gave. But technically opening the door wasn’t breaking the rule. She flung it open, scanned the room for him. Nobody there. A bed, a deck, a bathroom. She couldn’t see all of it from where she stood, but nowhere big enough for someone the Captain’s size to hide, even if he had wanted to. The man was missing. She checked the bridge. No one there either.
Who was steering the ship?
She ran upstairs. No one was steering the ship. It was just continuing in a line. Thank God the Culebra Cut was so perfectly straight. But soon they would come to the Gamboa Reach, and crash right into the side of the canal.
Okay. Don’t panic. Think. Three things she had to do. Figure out what the danger was. See if she could revive the people on the ground, or find the people who were gone. Steer the ship.
Only one of those things did she have the slightest idea how to do, so she ran back into the bridge.
She had kind of hoped it would be easy, with a big steering wheel and maybe a “How To Steer A Ship” manual sitting next to it, but it was just a lot of controls and a device that was probably some sort of steering wheel but much more complicated than the automotive variety. There were a whole host of sensors, all of which were broken except the radar, which was continuing to PING every couple of seconds.
Hesitantly, as a test only, ready to turn it right back as soon as she felt anything, she turned the steering wheel.
Either she was turning it wrong, or it was broken.
Okay. Steering the ship was out, for now. Figure out what the danger was. She was shaking. The rest of them were all gone. She was the only one left. Why wasn’t she dead or unconscious?
PING went the radar. Why was it, of everything on the ship, still working?
Wait, no. There were two things that were still working. The radar. And her. Why was she still working? Why had everyone else collapsed? Why had Lin vanished? Think, Ana, think! Think like a kabbalist! This was Tiferet, the Sephirah of Miracles, where the upper and lower worlds met, where left and right came together, the center of the whole design. Think like a kabbalist!
Then: “Oh no. That’s even stupider than the thing with the locks.”
Ana stood on the poop deck. She only vaguely remembered the term. It meant “an elevated area on the back of a ship.” The Not A Metaphor had a poop deck. This was important.
The moment she had dragged her companions from where they had fallen onto the poop deck, they started looking better. They stopped seizing. They breathed more easily. They weren’t awake, but they didn’t look like they were going to die either. She panted with exertion as she dragged the last one – Tomas – up the single step. James and the Captain were belowdecks; there was no helping them.
This was so stupid. But in a way it also made sense. This was Tiferet. It reversed the polarity of forces that entered it. God was One and His Name was One; at a high enough level of abstraction we were all one with our names. Reverse a name, and you get…well, various things. Reverse Lin’s name, and you get nil. Reverse most people’s names, and you get nonsense. Reverse Ana’s name, and nothing happened at all.
Problem was, almost everything on the ship was kabbalistic nonsense now. The crew, the captain, the steering system…especially the steering system. Broken and useless. As soon as the ship reached the end of the Culebra Cut it would smash into the side of the canal and they would be done for.
She ran back to the bridge, pulled the steering mechanism as hard as she could. No good. She pressed all the buttons she could think of. None of them were working.
She ran back up to the deck, grabbing James’ binoculars as she went. Looked out in front of her. There, coming ever closer, was the Gamboa Turn.
She considered her options. She could jump off the ship and swim to safety. Then everyone else would die and she would be stuck in Central America and maybe get eaten by piranhas. She could run back to the bridge and bang on more buttons. She could…
Ana Thurmond did something very uncharacteristic. She fell to her knees and started praying.
“God,” she said. “I’m a theodician, I should know better than anyone else that you don’t actually answer prayers. And I spent most of my life making silly jokes about the Torah and giving You grief for letting evil continue to exist. And now I’m with people who want to capture your boat and harass you. So, uh there’s that. But. Um…”
The problem with knowing theodicy is that it makes it really hard to pray. You can’t say “I’m in trouble, so please help me,” because you know that many people are in trouble and die anyway. You can’t say “I was a good person, so help me,” because you know that many people were very good and died anyway. You can’t say “I know you have some plan for me that I haven’t fulfilled yet,” because you know that many people died without fulfilling anything. Some scholars say that prayer changes nothing but that it is very important that you do it anyway, but when your ship is hurtling towards a rocky bank such subtleties lose their compellingness.
“GOD, THIS IS A REALLY STUPID WAY TO DIE,” said Ana.
The ship continued its inexorable progress.
If Mohammed won’t go to the mountain, the mountain must come to Mohammed. If the world wasn’t going to make sense, Ana might as well use insane moon logic and see where it got her. She went into the galley. Grabbed a piece of meat. Stood there, on the poop deck.
“Okay, Dog,” she said. “I haven’t always believed in you. I mean, I’ve always believed in dogs, but…no, this is stupid. Listen, if I let you have this piece of meat, will you save me and my friends?”
She watched in disbelief as a big black dog bounded up and sat in front of her.
She was in Tiferet, the Heart Sephirah, the Sephirah of Miracles.
“Dog?” said Ana, in disbelief. It was big. It reminded her of those black dogs that ye olde English had viewed as signs of death, the ones that would appear on windswept moors. It looked at her. Its eyes seemed too deep, too intelligent.
Ana handed it the piece of meat, and it ate greedily.
“Good dog?” she asked?
The dog turned its head. Ana wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean.
Very tentatively, Ana reached out and patted its head. At that precise moment, the Not A Metaphor crossed straight through the Heart of God, the dead center of the American continent. For a second, Ana saw all the connections, all the sephirot in – how had Blake put it – “in starry numbers fitly ordered”. She saw the flow of energies, as above so below, as on the right so on the left, God becoming Man becoming God, all a perfect palindrome. She saw that the world was a palindrome, that the human body was a palindrome, that history was a palindrome, that the entire Bible was palindromes. Dumb mud. Madam in Eden, I’m Adam. Cain, a maniac. Semite times. Egad, no bondage! Deed. Tenet. Are we not drawn onwards, we Jews, drawn onward to new era? Egad, a base life defiles a bad age. So let’s use Jesus’ telos. Dogma – I am god! Deliverer re-reviled. “Abba, abba”. Deified. Did I do, O God, did I as I said I’d do; good, I did.
…and then the dog grabbed the meat and ran away behind the galley. By the time Ana followed, it had disappeared.
Wow, thought Ana to herself, that is definitely the weirdest thing that happened to me since…well, since I was possessed by an astral cactus person this afternoon, I guess.
Then she looked up. The ship was still on course. The rocks of the Gamboa Turn were straight ahead. Minutes now, if that.
She ran back belowdecks. The dog wasn’t there. Frantically, she opened the door to the bridge, hoping beyond hope she would find it, could convince it to do something…
“Hello,” said a nice female voice.
There was no one else there.
“Who are you?” asked Ana, suspiciously.
“I am All Your Heart,” said the voice. “Autopilot mode has been off for…nineteen years. Would you like to reactivate autopilot mode?”
“There’s an autopilot mode?!” asked Ana.
“The Comet King wrote the Animating Name on my hull. I am a ship and a golem. Autopilot mode is available for reactivation.”
“Yes!” said Ana. “Yes yes yes yes yes! Why didn’t I know about you before?”
“The Comet King crossed the Panama Canal, reversing the Animating Name. Now the Name is back in its proper configuration, and I am back online.”
They were in Tiferet, the Sephirah of Miracles.
“The Comet King never crossed the Canal a second time? How did he pilot without you?”
“I do not have that information,” said the autopilot. “Would you like to reactivate autopilot?”
“Yes!” said Ana. “Activate autopilot! Now! Save the ship!”
Very slowly, she felt Not A Metaphor turn.
Of its own accord, the ship navigated the Gamboa Turn, then crossed the treacherous waters around Barro Colorado Island into the expanse of Gatun Lake. All through the night it kept going, and the first hint of light broke over the eastern horizon right as the Gatun Locks came into view.
From the spot where Lin had vanished, Ana took the Florida Key and held it high, cast the Motive Name. The locks opened.
As the first ray of sunlight touched the unconscious men on the poop deck, James, John, Tomas, Erin, Simeon and Amoxiel rose anew, having been reversed and then returned to normal. The Captain appeared from his cabin, dark glasses on as always, quiet as always, not even asking questions.
“What happened?” asked James. “Where are we?” Then, “Where’s Lin?”
“Tiferet happened,” said Ana. “A kabbalistic reversed polarity. You all became nonsense. Lin became nil, and is gone. Only I was able to survive. We’re at the Gatun Locks, a skip and a jump away from open water. I prayed and God answered. James, the ship has an autopilot! It was Tiferet! The Sephirah of Miracles!”
“I’ve never seen you so excited before,” James said.
“Do you realize what this means?” asked Ana.
“A talking ship! The Comet King had a talking ship! America is an epic!”
Not A Metaphor entered the Atlantic Ocean and sailed into the rising sun.