When Reb Zal­man Met the Dalai Lama

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - By Joy Levitt

It was, and will al­ways re­main, one of the most mys­te­ri­ously sig­nif­i­cant ex­pe­ri­ences of my life. In 1990, eight of us trav­eled to Dharam­sala, In­dia, at the in­vi­ta­tion of his Ho­li­ness the Dalai Lama un­der The Dalai Lama wanted some sim­ple in­for­ma­tion he thought we Jews pos­sessed: how to sur­vive Di­as­pora.

I went on this trip filled with anx­i­ety and trep­i­da­tion. I was a young mother with huge re­spon­si­bil­i­ties at home, and to­tally un­sure whether I had any­thing at all to of­fer. But this was not the case for Zal­man Schachter-Shalomi, my fel­low travel why he was there. He and the Dalai Lama were broth­ers, soul­mates; you only had to be there in the li­brary, wit­ness­ing Zal­man’s teach­ing, to see it im­me­di­ately.

Each of us brought a teach­ing that we hoped would be help­ful to the Dalai Lama in his quest to keep his peo­ple to­gether in In­dia and be­yond as they waited to re­turn to Ti­bet, which was and ried as much about what to wear as what to teach. But not Schachter-Shalomi; he knew ex­actly what

to wear when meet­ing roy­alty, and he showed up for our first ses­sion in full Ha­sidic re­galia: streimel, kapota, the works. I wore a pants suit. Schachter-Shalomi chose to teach the es­o­teric tra­di­tion in Ju­daism. Tak­ing his al­lot­ted hour, he sim­ply cap­ti­vated the Dalai Lama with the breadth and depth of his knowl­edge of Kab­balah, which the Dalai Lama seemed to have stud­ied a bit. As I re­mem­ber it, the Dalai Lama was fo­cused on Schachter-Shalomi in an ex­tra­or­di­nary way, lis­ten­ing to ev­ery word as though it held great sig­nif­i­cance.

At one point, as SchachterShalomi was de­scrib­ing an­gels, the Dalai Lama asked if Jewish an­gels had colors. I held my breath. In the en­tirety of my fairly tra­di­tional Jewish ed­u­ca­tion, col­ored an­gels had sim­ply never come up.

“Oh yes,” Schachter-Shalomi replied, “some are blue and some are or­ange.”

I tried not to choke. What on earth (or in the heav­ens) was he talk­ing about? But the Dalai Lama re­mained fas­ci­nated and urged Schachter-Shalomi to con­tinue. When the time was up, the Dalai Lama com­mented on how in­ter­est­ing Schachter-Shalomi’s teach­ing was and how he had not heard it be­fore.

“Nei­ther have we,” I quipped, un­able to con­tain my­self.

The rest of the group chuck­led, but not Schachter-Shalomi. I sud­denly felt ashamed, as though I had got­ten a cheap laugh at his ex­pense. Still, I re­mem­ber feel­ing con­fused. Was this Ju­daism? What was he talk­ing about?

The next morn­ing, be­fore we went back to the li­brary to con­tinue our ses­sion, we dav­ened over­look­ing Kan­gra Val­ley. It was a mag­nif­i­cent sight, and there was some­thing very ground­ing in im­mers­ing our­selves in He­brew li­turgy be­fore go­ing into the oth­er­ness of Bud­dhism. I asked Schachter-Shalomi to show me how to lay tefillin — I had ac­tu­ally never wanted to try be­fore. Without a mo­ment’s hes­i­ta­tion, he re­moved his own tefillin and showed me how to wrap it. He did it with such kind­ness and gen­tle­ness and with no judg­ment. It was a pure act of gen­eros­ity.

Years later, when we were build­ing the JCC in Man­hat­tan, I called on Schachter-Shalomi to help us de­sign the med­i­ta­tion room, which took on added sig­nif­i­cance fol­low­ing the Dharam­sala trip. Again, with com­plete open­ness he de­signed the room, sug­gest­ing it be oval (to the cha­grin of the ar­chi­tects!) so that peo­ple could feel its em­brace.

Af­ter our meet­ing, I asked him to for­give me for my care­less re­mark in In­dia. Ei­ther he pre­tended not to re­mem­ber or he lit­er­ally had no mem­ory of the mo­ment, so ra­di­ant from the ex­pe­ri­ence that a silly comment couldn’t mar it for him. In any event, he sim­ply put his hand in mine and squeezed it, and that was that.

Thirteen years later, thou­sands of peo­ple have felt the em­brace of our med­i­ta­tion room de­signed by Schachter-Shalomi, and his spirit hov­ers when­ever I sit there in si­lence, try­ing to quiet my mind. Rest in peace, Reb Zal­man. Your an­gels of many colors are by your side.


Spir­i­tual Soul­mates: The Dalai Lama meets with Reb Zal­man Schachter-Shalomi in Dharam­sala, In­dia.


Fel­low Spir­its: Reb Zal­man with Ram Dass.

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