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harryhoudini1899

For the last few years there has been a phenomenon popping up all over cities and towns in the United States. It’s called, “Escape the Room.” The premise of this game, which can be enjoyed by a family or group of friends or colleagues, is that you are locked in a room and have one hour to get out. Through a complex maze of puzzles, combination locks, hidden messages and hints the group, if successful, will come up with all the solutions for all the obstacles that eventually lead them to the other side of the door.

The fun of the phenomenon is certainly deciphering the combinations for the locks and resolving all the riddles, but even more, it is the teamwork and common goal, that create group unity and cohesion, which is the real reward of Escape the Room. It’s a delight to prove how clever we are by solving puzzles. This is great cause for an inflated ego, however it is only through a withdrawal of the narcissism that one walked in with that will allow for the group experience. The sign at the entrance to the room should read, “Leave Cellphones and Egos at the Door.”

Of course leaving our cellphones can be very difficult. One only needs to examine a class of sixth graders for five minutes to realize that we are all very dependent on and distracted by our addiction to electronic devices. In participating in one of these rooms, we may realize that if we had been distracted by our phones it would have been nearly impossible to be an effective member of the team. And without our egos, that which manifests as arrogance and makes us feel different and separate from people, it is much easier to accept other’s ideas, not just our own. Certainly both of these need to be checked in at the door.

Spending an hour without our hand-computers and working as a group that may temporarily quell our hubris is certainly worth the price of admission, but there must be something more to this experience than just solving puzzles. Is the possibility of escape a basic function of humanity? Is fight or flight merely an animal survival instinct? Perhaps it is a human survival instinct to strive for freedom, to break off the shackles of oppression, no matter what form it takes, whether from forces external or self imposed.

The Bible contains perhaps the greatest story of escape, the Exodus from Egypt. Indeed, it is a central motif in Jewish observance and lore and an entire holiday, Passover, is dedicated to the retelling of the Exodus narrative. The liturgy too gives us a daily reminder of our dramatic escape and migration in the recitation of the Song of the Sea, the spontaneous song that Moses and the Israelites sang upon witnessing the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. The splitting is portrayed as the miracle par excellence, second only to the creation of the universe. If there was a time when God’s powers were their most potent, it was at these two events.

Why is this narrative, our narrow escape through the split Sea of Reeds, such a powerful component to the Jewish religion? Why is it mentioned twice, everyday, every Shabbat, and every holy day? Perhaps it is the possibility of there being a Higher Power that has such powerful redemptive properties that makes this story critical. Perhaps it is the possibility that if God could pull off such an incredible act for the Israelites, God could do it for any group of people who suffer from oppression. And certainly if God could rescue an entire people it is within the realm of possibilities that God could provide personal redemption as well.

Probably the most famous historical figure that exemplifies the powers of redemption in the early 20th century is the escape artist, Harry Houdini. Houdini was born as Erik Weisz in Budapest, Austria-Hungary to a German and Yiddish speaking Jewish family who migrated to America before the turn of the twentieth century. His father was a reform rabbi of the classical era of Reform Judaism and his first American pulpit was in Wisconsin. When the young Houdini’s father was let go from his position, he moved the family to New York City.

Houdini was a magician in his teens, performing on the Vaudeville stage, and as he evolved his act he eventually became the greatest escapist of his time and a truly unique and powerful personality. Defying the locks of any handcuffs, Harry Houdini could get out of strait jackets while hanging upside down and release himself from milk cans filled with water. He survived being buried alive and defied the Chinese Water Torture Cell. He broke out of jail cells and nailed crates dropped in the ocean. He is revered by generation after generation of amateur and professional magicians, illusionists, and anyone who loves the feeling of suspense and release.

Ironically, while Houdini was a magician’s magician he was a staunch opponent of psychics, mentalists, mediums, and anyone who claimed to have telekinetic powers. While Houdini may have been perceived as having super human powers, as there was nothing he couldn’t escape from, Houdini never claimed to have them and was a strict skeptic of the supernatural. Being the president of a society of magicians that offered a cash award to anyone who could prove psychic ability, Houdini made it his mission to debunk all claims. No one took the prize in his short lifetime and similar prizes today have yet to be claimed.

Why was Harry Houdini so invested in proving psychics to be practitioners of hoaxes and as charlatans? We may never know, but this tradition of skepticism was picked up by later generations of magicians, including the offer of a cash prize. This skepticism that seems to go hand in hand with performing tricks and feats of magic may be a form of truth. The magician, or some of them at least, will not insult our intelligence. They will tell us, “I’m going to trick you,” before they do whatever mind blowing stunt they do. Perhaps, the magician believes, in not wanting to claim supernatural powers, that they are more authentic and honest in creating illusions. To be fooled by something supernatural is expected, but for someone to be able to pull off any illusion, by the sheer power of their own talents and gifts, that is real magic and that is real human potential.

But where does the power of the magician come from if not from a source of sorcery? The practitioner may say, “it’s sleight of hand,” or “misdirection.” Of course a true master of magic never reveals the secret for that would shatter the illusion. Not having the magician’s secret revealed keeps the effect of the trick intact for you. However, upon learning the secret of the trick you may realize that had you been aware of it prior to seeing the act, you would ask yourself, “how could I have ever been fooled?” Knowing the secret makes it completely obvious. That which was hidden is now revealed and like the patriarch Jacob you may find yourself saying, “God was in this place, and I, I did not know.” The solution was so obvious, it was there all along but I was not paying attention to it. I was misdirected. I was distracted.

The last few years of Houdini’s life was dedicated to his skepticism of psychics. He would go in disguise to seances to catch the medium in his monkey business. Having spent so much time dedicated to this pursuit we may come to believe that there was a really good reason for Houdini’s obsession with exposing the fraudulent. Perhaps he wanted to prove that there was a great democracy in our humanity. No one has supernatural powers. We are all equal in that respect.

How would Houdini view the great miracles of the Bible, especially God’s power of redemption and the splitting of the sea? Certainly he would have been a skeptic and would have viewed the stories from the Torah as nothing but folktales and superstitions. If he could he may have even replicated each miracle to prove that there was no supernatural force at work. After all, he did make an elephant disappear. Maybe he would tell us that the power of redemption, God’s greatest miracle, is really in the hands of humanity. We all have that power and while we are distracted by life there are those in our societies who have, like Houdini, already broken free of the chains that were binding them and see the Creator’s sleight of hand..

Harry Houdini, an immigrant, autodidact, and self made man is the perfect icon of the American Dream. He represents all tired and poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free. As a patriotic man of his country he would tell people that he was really born in Appleton, Wisconsin, shedding his immigrant skin. In midlife he tried to enlist in the Army but was turned away because he was too old. He took to entertaining the troops instead. Houdini was a proud American and he certainly took advantage of the freedoms that America offered to become accomplished in many areas and to become known the world over. Houdini is certainly emblematic of immigrant endeavors, Jewish as well as the numerous other people that came through Ellis Island, but more importantly, he is the archetype for the human soul that perpetually pines for escaping that which is oppressive, that which ties it down.

Isn’t this what we all are looking for, to be free of all the shackles that bind, to be free of negativity and judgement, of ourselves and others? Wouldn’t we feel more complete if we rid ourselves of prejudices  and destructive thinking? How much happier could we be if we lost the compulsion to always be obtaining more and more materiality? What if we can actually become content with what we have and who we are? What if we knew the secret to living a happy and vital life?

If you had the opportunity to ask God one question, what would you ask? Would you ask, “what is the meaning of life?” Or, “when will there be peace in the world?” Or, “why do bad things happen to good people?” Or, “why is my life so hard?” If you are truly seeking answers to the questions that life poses you may have already read different perspectives on the answer to these queries. Even within the realm of Judaism, there are many approaches, sometimes contradictory to each other. Regardless of how a spiritual tradition specifically settles these subjects, one may find that many traditions, at the very least, provide for a way to be a good person in the world.

Much of the writings and texts from the various traditions within Kabbalah are very difficult to understand. They are mythological, allegorical, metaphorical and poetic. Some texts are so technical with jargon that, for the average reader, they are unintelligible. It is the rare kabbalistic text that can be understood on a surface level without too much help from a teacher. These texts tend to be more about human ethics and behavior than the contemplation of the higher worlds and the complexities of the Creator. But, even the works of ethical kabbalah contain some esoterica.

In ShaAReiY K’DUShaH – the Gates of Holiness, Rabbi Chaim Vital offers us a work that is both an ethical and moral lesson, and a very concise kabbalistic teaching. He explores the world of our emotions as well as our souls, encouraging us to refine our character and endeavor to attain the RUaCh HaKoDeSh, the Sacred Soul. To achieve this level of spirituality is the ultimate goal and, according to the author, is quite possible because it does not rely on a supernatural being or force to accomplish. To paraphrase Harry Houdini, “your mind is the key that sets you free.”

This small work, in four parts, emphasizes the importance of examining and improving our emotional and intellectual worlds. It is based on the premise that the human is a multi-faceted creature, endowed with a soul that is too, multi-faceted. By working on understanding our complex nature and working on it, level by level, we have the ability to evolve and to begin to uncover the divinity and holiness that is hidden and concealed behind the veil of the illusion of our reality. When we have that joyful and reverential sense of the mysteries of our lives we are close to achieving the goal.

To perceive holiness is not an escape from reality, it is a revelation of the truth. To see the sacred in the mundane is not a supernatural ability. It is an innate human ability. What we strive to escape in this system is not reality, but rather the negativity that clouds our minds and the boundaries and defenses that prevent us from having true interactions with people. Houdini’s motto, as well as King Solomon’s, was, “this too shall pass.” We hope to understand that most things in life are temporary and will pass and change. We hope to identify with that which is permanent and perpetual. And we hope to escape that which distracts us so that we are able to be present in every moment. To live a life in pursuit of RUaCh HaKoDeSh is to be an escape artist.

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