For Halloween fun, I am sharing my ghost story adaptations from this past Friday Night Live. Keep in mind that interspersed in the breaks were prayers for Shabbat and the spectacular music from the Star City Kochavim. Both stories were adapted from “My Grandmother’s Stories: A Collection of Jewish Folktales” by Adele Geras.
As we approach the end of October, we think of mystery, of frights, of things that go bump in the night. No, it is not a Jewish holiday but we do find in Jewish tradition stories which feed our fears at this spooky season. There are Jewish ghost stories, in the Bible and in our folklore, and they all stem from the mysteries of the unknown, born of fear that grows from uncertainty. A symbol of uncertainty appears in our study of the Torah portion for this week. In creation, God creates day and night. And for six days the Earth is filled with all that lives and breathes. And all of it is GOOD. But in light and dark, we have certainty. The midrash on creation opens the door to mystery, just before God rests. The sun is setting, and we are Bein Shemashot, in a period between the lights, neither day nor night, Twilight. This is a time in some midrash and in mystical literature when mysterious things, even miraculous things can occur.
In midrash, Bein Shemashot just before Shabbat saw the rise of a talking donkey, a miraculous worm, and miraculous food. In the uncertainty, writers of Jewish folk tales also made this the time for the creation of werewolves, vampires, and all sorts of mysterious spirits.
Tonight in our service, we will explore the world of Jewish ghost stories, and we shall see what indeed we can learn from them.
My grandmother liked to tell a story…
Let it be known, for the rest of the night, when I say my grandmother, it’s just a story-telling device which makes stories sound old and established. I’m not talking about my actual grandmother’s whose scariest story was about the time when she kept sending a baked potato back to the kitchen because it was just too cold. And the chutzpadik waiter kept bringing it to her room temperature. For my actual grandma, that was a nightmare. But for my storytelling grandma, there are nightmares of another kind.
My grandmother told me this story which was told to her by her bubbe, Ruth. It was about a bride who died on the very day she was to be married. Before going to the chuppah, the groom came to look under her veil, as has been the Jewish custom Jacob and Leah, and he discovered her face, pale, waxen, lifeless. Tears flowed far and wide like rivers rushing the sea. What should have been seven days of celebration became seven days of darkness and mourning.
Gradually time passed, and the would-be groom decided to no longer dwell in the past. After several years of loneliness, he found another bride. Unbeknownst to him, the ghost of his first betrothed was still wandering the Earth, sulking over the love and the joy which were not hers.
The night before the wedding, the new bride awoke with a fright, as she saw the image of a specter standing at the foot of the bed. She immediately called off the marriage, leaving the groom to wander alone in life, just as his first love had to wander alone in death.
The ghost of this poor should continued to walk the earth, the ultimate crasher, visiting wedding after wedding uninvited. My grandmother said her bubba Ruth had been warned by friends just before her wedding, but she somehow knew what she would do if indeed that happened.
And I’ll tell you about that in just a moment.
Sure enough, the night before Ruth was to marry great-great grandfather Itzik, she was visited by this lonesome ghost. The pale apparition sobbed uncontrollably at the foot of her bed.
“Why do you cry like this?” She asked.
“Because,” the ghost replied, “there is to be a wedding, and it is not mine.”
“But, I am marrying Itzik. He is my love. Not yours. You wouldn’t want this to be your wedding… believe me.”
“Yes, but,” the ghost looked up, her face turned brighter, she approached Ruth until there was barely an inch between their faces. “I was cheated. I never stood under a chuppah. I never carried my bouquet. I never heard the chanting of the sheva berachot. I never heard the smashing of the glass. That much I deserved, but this, this is my lot.”
Ruth, shook a little, but she knew what needed to be done. She left the room for a few minutes and came back to make the ghost an offer she couldn’t refuse.
The next day, at the wedding, Ruth’s mother took a seat in the congregation. This seemed strange to the guests, for it was custom for the bride’s mother to stand under the chuppah during the nuptials. The rabbi read the wedding contract. He sang the seven blessings. He poured the cups of wine. And the groom smashed the glass, as everyone shouted Mazal tov.
And there are those who swear, in all the rejoicing, if they looked to the chuppah in just the right light, and if they squinted their eyes just so, they could make out, that the biggest smile came from a faint shadow of woman in a bridal gown, standing right where the bride’s mother should have been.
Ruth and her mother had agreed to let this forlorn soul stand under the chuppah to share in their celebration and enjoy the wedding which she had been denied for too long.
As Ruth and Itzik were raised in chairs for their celebratory dance, the ghost bride appeared one last time, blew a kiss to my grandmother’s bubbe Ruth and vanished into the air, at last to rest in peace, in the bonds of everlasting life.
What I love about the story of the ghost bride is that it has just the right amount of spookiness, and the right amount of heart. Most ghost stories teach us not to walk alone through abandoned houses and not to hang out in cemeteries or amusement parks after hours. Jewish ghost stories teach us values. Here, from the ghost bride we learn about the mitzvah of sharing joy. We recently finished the celebration of Sukkot, a holiday in which we were commanded to share our homes, our food, and our possessions with others. This in keeping with he command from Deuteronomy, “You shall rejoice before the Lord. You, your son and daughter, manservant and maid, the Levite… the stranger, the orphan, the widow in your midst.” everybody. This was what Ruth understood and how she allowed soul to rest eternally at peace. But that’s not all we learn from my grandmother because there is more to life than happiness and peace. There is the ways we create happiness and peace. But I will tell you about that with another ghost story, in just a moment.
Few things are more thrilling than taking a stroll and discovering a new and beautiful garden. And nothing is more chilling than wandering alone in this unfamiliar place, as the sky grows dark, and suddenly the flowers begin to speak. But it’s not just the flowers. The bushes, shrubs, and trees. My grandmother spoke of this magical garden in which, as a little girl, she one day got lost. She didn’t know what to do, even less what to say, for she had never met a talking flower. At first they took no notice of her. The flowers and trees argued, tossing barbs past her as they insulted one another, furiously thing to settle an important score. All the plants proclaimed themselves to be the best and most beautiful in the garden.
The poppy cried out, “Look at me, my petals are more delicate than anyone else’s and seriously, no one can match my rich scarlet coloring.”
Oh, but the oleander gave a rebuttal, “But your petals, they are easily torn, just a puff of wind, and you are in tatters.”
The orchid was amused, snorting from his dragon-shaped head. “Leave it to the poisonous oleander to be spewing such venom. You are both pathetic.
The gladiolus tried to put them all to shame. “Look at how many flowers I have, and so nicely arranged along my stem.
“Whatever!” Said the carnation. “You speak of quanity, when it is quality that mattes.”
“Yeah,” said a neighboring carnation. “We come in all sorts of colors, we smell real good, and our petals may look frilly, but they are built to last. No wonder we are always chosen to be boutonieres.”
The seeds of hate blossomed into a riot. The roses brought their buds, and the orchids came with pistils. It was a chaotic scene, such that if one took a picture, it would be impossible to provide an adequate photo synthesis.
The giant trees looked on and found the whole thing a bit shady. “Flowers,” grumbled the pine tree. “Feh. They grow. They’re cut down. They’re put in bouquets. Ver vaist. I’d get rid of all the flowers if I could.”
Luckily his bark was worse than his bite.
“Yeah,” said the willow. “We can live hundreds of years. We give shelter to the animals. We give fruits, and if we do get cut down, our wood can build lasting structures where people can live and work.”
“Let’s have a contest!” cried the oak. “We’ll see which of the plants in the garden is the best of all.”
“But who will judge?” asked all the other plants.
“Why that little girl over there,” he replied, pointing a branch toward my grandmother who was suddenly no longer an observer. She was thrust into the middle of the fight. She agreed… but on one condition…. I’ll tell you what that condition was in a moment.
My “grandmother” agreed to be the judge of the trees, if they in turn would then show her the way home. The judging began.
My grandmother went from tree to tree, inspecting the branches, climbing them, testing the sturdiness of their trunks, the strength of their branches. She felt the leaves and pressed them against her face to feel the coolness of the surface, and the textures of their veins. She walked among the flowers, sniffing each one as they preened themselves, presenting their petals in the best light as possible. She measured them. She compared their colors. She searched their roots, fully examining each and every plant to make sure she gave all of them their due.
And at last she made her decision.
All the plants of the garden were uncharacteristically quiet as they awaited the announcement.
“The Rose…” she said, and was immediately interrupted as the rose started to brag. “I knew it. I knew it. Take that suckaz.”
“Wait,” my grandmother said. “You don’t understand.”
Confused, the rose said to her, “who are you, Steve Harvey?”
“No.” She said. “What I was about to say is, the rose is the most beautiful flower. But your thorns make you unpleasant. They prick the fingers of those who touch you. So I have to give the highest award to a tree. And I choose…… the olive tree.”
None of the trees understood. It was a terrible choice. One of them called out, “It was rigged all along.”
The olive tree was old, and twisted. Its leaves were dull. There was just now way it could compare to the blossoming apricot tree, or the elegant cypress, or the dignified cedar.
I choose the olive tree because its fruit stands apart, its taste is sharp and can be turned into a valuable oil. Secondly, the olive tree does not flaunt its beauty, as it humbly displays its rough bark. Third, it give its fruit willingly. And lastly, was is not an olive tree branch that was chosen in the time of Noah to show that the flood was over. So the olive tree is all at once, beauty, modesty, kindness, and peace. Therefore, it’s the only sensible choice I could make.
The plants agreed, and peace came upon the gaden, as the tree branches pointed my grandmother toward home.
The Torah portion this week warns us about the fragility of peace, taking us from the first Shabbat soon after to the first violent spilling of bloodshed between Cain and Abel. Peace was the world’s default, but it is in the hands of humans to restore it. It is amazing that even Jewish Ghost stories like the ghost bride and the talking garden point us in this direction. It stands to reason since in Judaism, all tradition grows from Torah, and we say in Proverbs that all of Torah’s paths lead to peace. In a lesser known volume of Jewish teaching, Tractate Derech Eretz, a work devoted entirely to living ethically with our neighbors, it teaches, “Great is peace, that every commandment in Torah is written for the sake of peace.” That means in every bit of learning and in every action, we have the potential to create and spread peace. Each of us can strive to be like the olive tree, the greatest plant in the garden. it is through sharing joy with others, behaving with humility, going out of our way to be kind to others, fighting the temptation to lash out in anger, and to always be willing to extend our own olive branch of peace.