The book cover of "The December Project: An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life’s Greatest Mystery."  Copyright © 2014 by Sara Davidson.  Published by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

(Photo: Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers)
The following chapter is an excerpt from "The December Project: An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life’s Greatest Mystery."  Copyright © 2014 by Sara Davidson.  Published by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Chapter 1: I Want to Loosen Your Mind

Midway through my sixties, I woke up in the middle of a June night and saw a comet streaking across a black sky. Bolting up in bed, I watched the fiery orb shoot from left to right, tracing the last third of a rainbow-like arc. It was not a dream—my eyes were open and everything else in my bedroom appeared as it normally does. Except for the comet. Was it a hallucination, a projection, a fragment of a dream leaking into my waking mind? I couldn’t tell, but as I watched it burn down and disappear, I knew: that comet is your life, babe, and it’s coming to the end of its trajectory. Are you spending your days the way you want to? A response rumbled up from deep within: NO.

In that season—the autumn of life—I was spending the majority of my hours in front of the computer. Most nights, I would have to forcibly push myself up from the desk chair to go to sleep. In the morning, the first thing I did was walk, still wearing my nightgown, to the computer and check e-mail. I had too many balls in the air, too many items on a list that never grew shorter, too much busyness and too little being accomplished. I wanted to play music, have a more robust social life, mentor young people, spend more time in nature, and connect with a man who could be a full partner. I was, instead, having a long-distance relationship with someone who measured out our time together with coffee spoons.

I fell back asleep, consoled by the thought that the next morning was my regular Friday visit with Reb Zalman. We’d been meeting for a year, since he’d asked me to discuss the stage of life he calls December, “when you can feel your cells getting tired, and your hard drive is running slow. I’ve been in your years, but you haven’t been in mine, and I want to help people not freak out about dying.”

That was intriguing—I certainly needed help in the almost impossible task of accepting in your bones that you’re going to die. I understood that getting “up close with mortality,” as Reb Zalman puts it, enables you to have a more heightened and grateful life, but at the time he invited me to have these talks, I was not looking death square in the eye. I was more concerned with how best to live whatever years were still ahead . . . to the very last drop.

I would have seized any excuse, though, to spend time with Reb Zalman. He’s constantly deluged with requests for his blessings and counsel—for a family issue, spiritual crisis, or solace with a fatal illness. His insights generally come from an unexpected angle, and more important, he says, “the time I spend with people tastes good; it gives them endorphins. There’s a carry-away of love, and if that’s not there it won’t work.”

What I find unique about Reb Zalman is that he bridges two worlds—the ancient Orthodox and the current cutting edge. Born in Poland and ordained a Hasidic rabbi in

Brooklyn, he has long been a trailblazer for individuals from many faiths. He’s been a catalyst for the tectonic shift that began in the 1960s, moving away from what Zalman calls triumphalism—the belief that one religion is the best and only way—toward universalism, the recognition that, in Gandhi’s words, “It is of no consequence by what name we call God in our homes.”

Although he’s tethered to the deepest roots of Judaism, Reb Zalman has not followed convention. He’s been married four times and has eleven children, including one for whom he was a sperm donor to a lesbian rabbi. His life mission has been “to take the blinders off Judaism.” Starting as a teen, he read psychology and philosophy books that were forbidden in his yeshiva, later communed with leaders of other faiths, and took mind-expanding drugs. He founded Jewish Renewal to help keep the tradition impassioned and alive, and he’s ordained almost two hundred rabbis and cantors, who lead communities around the world. Every year when Newsweek compiles its list of the fifty most influential rabbis in America, Reb Zalman is on it.

Tall and striking in his younger years, Zalman is no less magnetic in his eighties. Each time I visit him, what I notice first are his eyes. Large and dark brown behind red tortoise shell glasses, they meet you directly, saying, “You! You are the one I want to speak with now.” When he smiles, there are glints in his eyes that signal his amusement and eagerness to be surprised. He’s game to try new things, quick to adopt emerging technology, and reluctant to dismiss even the most outlandish idea. At seventy-nine, he tried hang gliding and started studying Arabic so his mind “wouldn’t get stale,” which spurred others to say, “He’s the model of how I want to be when I’m older.”

When we began meeting every Friday morning, it seemed accidental that we’d come together for this project. I was between books, treading water, at the very time he was seeking someone who could help him articulate what he was experiencing in December. If I wrote about our talks, he felt, his learning would be “uploaded” and “saved.”

Before long, though, it did not seem random. After my close escape from the bombings in Kabul, my mother died of Alzheimer’s. Both her parents had had dementia, and I worried I was heading for the same port. My youngest child got married, and an illness bearing the poetically apt name “labyrinthitis” brought my body to a stop, forcing me to reset my course and reach a dramatically different understanding of death.

Reb Zalman had to face a steady stream of health problems. He felt comfortable about his life ending but grew anxious and depressed when he couldn’t walk well or catch his breath. He took every measure he could—seeing batteries of doctors and unorthodox healers—to keep his body going.

What made our talks zesty and unpredictable were the differences between us. I was raised Jewish, but the 613 commandments and all-powerful Hebrew God do not resonate with me as much as do the philosophies of Buddhism and Hinduism. For Reb Zalman, despite his rebelliousness and breaking of ground, Judaism is his oxygen and lifeblood. He welcomes the Sabbath by writing a note of love and gratitude to his wife, Eve Ilsen, which he slips under her dinner plate before she lights the candles and he blesses the wine. For the next twenty-four hours he does not travel, talk on the phone, or use the Internet, creating a sacred interlude separated from the rest of the week. I admire the practice of Shabbat but have never been moved to create it for myself.

Our meetings, though, became a ritual. At ten in the morning, I would drive to his home in Boulder, Colorado, at the base of the Flatirons—gray, triangular-shaped mountains jutting out over fields that, depending on the season, are covered with snow or ablaze with wildflowers. I’d ring the bell to let him know I’d arrived, then open the front door, which was rarely locked. Removing my shoes, I’d walk down to the basement, which is Reb Zalman’s domain: a warren of dark rooms for praying, working, and meeting people. The rooms feel jumbled and chaotic, containing everything from an electric organ and a treadmill to portraits of rabbis going back generations, Hebrew prayer flags, shelves of books, tapes, DVDs and CDs, and an astonishing amount of techno clutter: computers, giant screens, numerous phones, a video camera, tripod, lights, a dozen voice recorders, and wires running in every direction.

On one of our first visits, he called, “I’ll be right with you, Saraleh,” when he heard me coming down the stairs. It was July 2009, the temperature was about to hit ninety, and Reb Zalman shuffled out from his computer room wearing slip-on sandals, knee-length shorts held up by suspenders, a short-sleeved black shirt unbuttoned at the neck, and a black knit yarmulke over his ample white hair. He opened his arms to hug me, then sat down in a reclining chair and I sat across from him, balancing my computer on my lap.

I asked how he was feeling.

“Thank God, my body’s in pretty good shape right now,” he said in his rich baritone, rapping his knuckles on the wooden arm of the chair. “I never dreamed I’d live this long. I’ve still got some mileage left, but the end is getting closer. I can hear the footsteps.”

“Are you reconciled with that?” I asked, reminding him that in his book From Age-ing to Sage-ing, which he wrote in his sixties, he talked about his fear of being reduced to “a rocking-chair existence . . . and the eventual dark and inevitable end to my life.”

“The rocking chair doesn’t frighten me now,” he said. “When I wrote that, I was busy running around. These days, I often sit in the evening and am happy to do nothing. Just sit.”

“What about the dark end?” I asked.

“I don’t think it’s all dark. Something continues. It’s as if the body and soul are tied together with little strings. The closer you get to leaving, the more the strings loosen and the more you connect with greater awareness, the expanded mind.”

I said I’ve had intimations but no certainty of that happening.

“Look,” he said. “There’s a deep human fear of not being, not existing anymore. Either I survive bodily death in some way, or the whole machine is gonna turn off and that’s the end—nothing. But if there’s nothing, there’ll be nobody around to be upset about it.”

“That’s what’s frightening,” I said. “Extinction. Much as I dislike parts of myself, the idea of being annihilated, no awareness of anything, ever . . .”

Reb Zalman raised his eyebrows and nodded. “I know how that feels in the gut. But I don’t think it ends in oblivion. I’m curious—really curious to awaken to the larger picture.” The glint came to his eyes. “Remember what Woody Allen said? ‘I don’t mind dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’ ”

Right.

“I do want to be there. I want to watch the last breath going out and whisper the Shema. I want to merge back with the infinite; I want to dissolve like a drop in the greater ocean.”

I stopped typing for a moment. “That sounds kind of boring, just floating around in the ocean.”

He started to laugh. “In the ocean I have a lot more than I have in my drop.” He leaned forward. “Do you know what your past life was?”

Ah, yes. Better to get this out on the table. “I don’t believe, literally, in past lives,” I told him. “I can understand reincarnation as a metaphor or myth, but when someone tells me they remember being a queen or an army general, I start tuning out. No one seems to remember being a leper or a child molester.”

Reb Zalman said there’s a great deal of anecdotal evidence—people being hypnotized and remembering details from a past existence—that we’ve lived before.

“And there are a great many who dispute that evidence,” I said.

“Nu? That’s what makes for horse racing.”

I asked if he’s always felt at ease with dying.

“No. It came gradually. Liberal Judaism hasn’t dealt much with the afterlife, and since the Holocaust, hardly anyone speaks about it. The sense is that you live this life, and when you’re dead, you’re dead.”

I remembered, as he said this, asking the warm and very modern Reform rabbi who confirmed me at age fifteen what happens when people die. He said, “There are several possibilities. Some people believe you live on in the good works you’ve done. Some believe in an ethical force that moves through all of us . . .” As he ticked off the other possibilities, I knew he believed none of them. My father, when I asked the same question, said, “We live on in the memories of others,” an answer I found equally unsatisfactory.

Polls have consistently shown that Jews are far less likely to believe in an afterlife than people of other faiths. But Reb Zalman said there are Kabbalist texts with long passages about reincarnation and what’s beyond this world, though they’ve never been translated into English. “The rationalists have held sway for the last hundred years, and they’ve wanted Judaism to be perceived as the religion of reason,” he said. “So they buried the mystical. But the classical Jewish belief is that there are two worlds—this one and the world to come. At birth the soul enters the body, and at death the soul survives.”

He urged me to go to the library and look in section 133 of the Dewey decimal system—the section on the occult and supernatural. “I read everything I could find there,” he said. “In almost every culture, people have had visions of the afterlife, and they’re remarkably similar. Also, the people who’ve had near-death experiences write that they felt so much light and love they were reluctant to come back. They felt so free.”

I shook my head. “Near-death experiences don’t prove that that’s what actually happens when we die. I’m not saying it can’t be true, but I prefer to hold it as a mystery.”

Reb Zalman laughed. “That’s fine. You leave a possible door open so there could be a surprise.”

I told him about a book I’d read, My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain scientist who suffered a massive near-fatal stroke that wiped out her ability to understand    words. She remembers being in a state of bliss and oneness, however, not wanting to return to the speaking world.

Reb Zalman clapped his hands in excitement.

“But that could just be the brain,” I said, “producing a chemical reaction that induces a sense of oneness and bliss.”

Reb Zalman threw out his arms. “Isn’t it wonderful that we should have such an illusion in those dire circumstances? We should thank Mother Nature for giving us that kind of illusion.”

I couldn’t resist laughing. He’d pulled the rug out from my mind’s perpetual questioning.

“I don’t want to convince you of anything,” Reb Zalman said. “What I want is to loosen your mind.”