Power Corrupts, And Religious Power Corrupts Faithfully – OpEd


From very early in Jewish history and religious literature there has been a strong current of criticism of those who are powerful and how they use their power; and even more radical, of the self-justification of powerful institutions. The clearest example of this opposition to institutional power occurred at the end of the eleventh century BCE at a time when many of the People of Israel said they wanted to be ruled by a hereditary monarchy just like all the other nations around them. 

According to the first Book of Samuel chapter 8: “In his old age Samuel appointed his sons as judges over Israel. The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second son was Abijah. They were judges in Beer Sheba. But his sons did not follow Samuel’s ways. Instead, they made money dishonestly, accepted bribes, and perverted justice.

“So all the elders of Israel gathered together and approached Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “Look, you are old, and your sons don’t follow your ways. So now appoint over us a king to lead us, just like all the other nations have.

“But this request displeased Samuel, for they said, “Give us a king to lead us.” So Samuel prayed to the Lord. The Lord said to Samuel, “Do everything the people request of you. For it is not you that they have rejected, but it is me that they have rejected as their king. Just as they have done from the day that I brought them up from Egypt until this very day, they have rejected me and have served other gods. This is what they are also doing to you. So now do as they say. 

“But seriously warn them and make them aware of the policies of the king who will rule over them.” So Samuel spoke all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “Here are the policies of the king who will rule over you: He will conscript your sons and put them in his chariot forces and in his cavalry; they will run in front of his chariot. He will appoint for himself leaders of thousands and leaders of fifties, as well as those who plow his ground, reap his harvest, and make his weapons of war and his chariot equipment. 

“He will take your daughters to be ointment makers, cooks, and bakers. 14 He will take your best fields and vineyards and give them to his own servants. He will demand a tenth of your seed and of the produce of your vineyards and give it to his administrators and his servants. He will take your male and female servants, as well as your best cattle and your donkeys, and assign them for his own use. He will demand a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will be his servants. In that day you will cry out because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord won’t answer you in that day.”

“But the people refused to heed Samuel’s warning. Instead they said, “No! There will be a king over us! We will be like all the other nations. Our king will judge us and lead us and fight our battles.” “So Samuel listened to everything the people said and then reported it to the Lord. The Lord said to Samuel, “Do as they say and install a king over them.”

Samuel’s objections to a monarchy is not that some, or even most, of the kings will be corrupt and unjust. As can be seen from the list of the king’s demands, these are just the normal demands that a government makes of the people it rules. Samuel the prophet was not alone in his view that powerful institutions and organizations demand what they and many others think of as appropriate support and therefore people would be better off without them.

Three or four generations prior to Samuel’s opposition to the people’s desire for a king, a Jewish military hero named Gideon refused to become a king when the crown was offered to him. “The men of Israel said to Gideon, “Rule over us—you, your son, and your grandson. For you have delivered us from Midian’s power.” Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you. (Judges 8:22-3)

But one of Gideon’s many sons did want to become a king and rule over Israel or at least a part of Israel so he convinced the leaders of his mother’s clan in the city of Shechem to support him: “Now Abimelech son of Jerub-Baal (Gideon) went to Shechem to see his mother’s relatives. He said to them and to his mother’s entire extended family, “Tell all the leaders of Shechem this: ‘Why would you want to have seventy men, all Jerub-Baal’s sons, ruling over you, when you can have just one ruler? Recall that I am your own flesh and blood.’

“His mother’s relatives spoke on his behalf to all the leaders of Shechem and reported his proposal. The leaders were drawn to Abimelech; they said, “He is our close relative.” They paid him seventy silver shekels out of the temple of Baal-Berith and Abimelech then used the silver to hire some lawless, dangerous men as his followers. He went to his father’s home in Ophrah and murdered his half-brothers, the seventy legitimate sons of Jerub-Baal, on one stone. 

“Only Jotham, Jerub-Baal’s youngest son, escaped, because he hid. All the leaders of Shechem and Beth Millo assembled and made Abimelech king. When Jotham heard the news, he went and stood on the top of Mount Gerizim. He spoke loudly to the people below, “Listen to me, leaders of Shechem, so that God may listen to you!

“The trees were determined to go out and choose a king for themselves. They said to the olive tree, ‘Be our king!’ But the olive tree said to them, ‘I am not going to stop producing my oil, which is used to honor gods and men, just to sway above the other trees! So the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and be our king!’ But the fig tree said to them, ‘I am not going to stop producing my sweet figs, my excellent fruit, just to sway above the other trees!’ “So the trees said to the grapevine, ‘You come and be our king!’ But the grapevine said to them, ‘I am not going to stop producing my wine, which makes gods and men so happy, just to sway above the other trees! 

“So all the trees said to the thorn-bush, ‘You come and be our king!’ The thorn-bush said to the trees, ‘If you really want to choose me as your king, then come along, find safety under my branches! Otherwise may fire blaze from the thorn-bush and consume the cedars of Lebanon!’

“Now, if you have shown loyalty and integrity when you made Abimelech king, if you have done right to Jerub-Baal and his family, if you have properly repaid him— my father fought for you; he risked his life and delivered you from Midian’s power. But you have attacked my father’s family today. You murdered his seventy legitimate sons on one stone and made Abimelech, the son of his female slave, king over the leaders of Shechem, just because he is your close relative. 

“So if you have shown loyalty and integrity to Jerub-Baal and his family today, then may Abimelech bring you happiness and may you bring him happiness! But if not, may fire blaze from Abimelech and consume the leaders of Shechem and Beth Millo! May fire also blaze from the leaders of Shechem and Beth Millo and consume Abimelech! Then Jotham ran away to Beer and lived there to escape from Abimelech, his half-brother.” (Judges 9:1-21).

Jotham’s speech appeals to that current in Biblical thought that believed that kingship itself was an unnecessary and unproductive institution. When a military leader was needed, one would arise; and when no longer needed, he could and should fade away. This view was similar to the view that prevailed for most of American history that the United States did not need, and should not have, a large standing army, as was the case in Europe. 

Even when a monarchy was established by Samuel’s selection of Saul and then David to be the first two kings of Israel, the prophets of Israel and Judea were quick to proclaim God’s challenge to the kings of Israel and Judea when they did evil acts either morally or religiously. The arrest of Prophet Jeremiah provides a good example of the political danger to, and divine duty of, a Jewish prophet in ancient Israel.

“The Lord spoke to Jeremiah at the beginning of the reign of Josiah’s son, King Jehoiakim of Judah. The Lord said, “Go stand in the courtyard of the Lord’s temple. Speak out to all the people who are coming from the towns of Judah to worship in the Lord’s temple. Tell them everything I command you to tell them. Do not leave out a single word! Maybe they will pay attention and each of them will stop living the evil way they do. If they do that, then I will forgo destroying them as I had intended to do because of the wicked things they have been doing. 

Tell them that the Lord says, ‘You must obey me! You must live according to the way I have instructed you in my laws. You must pay attention to the exhortations of my servants the prophets. I have sent them to you over and over again. But you have not paid any attention to them. If you do not obey me, then I will do to this temple what I did to Shiloh. And I will make this city an example to be used in curses by people from all the nations on the earth.'”

“The priests, the prophets, and all the people heard Jeremiah say these things in the Lord’s temple.  Jeremiah had just barely finished saying all the Lord had commanded him to say to all the people when all at once some of the priests, the prophets, and the people grabbed him and shouted, “You deserve to die! How dare you claim the Lord’s authority to prophesy such things! How dare you claim his authority to prophesy that this temple will become like Shiloh and that this city will become an uninhabited ruin!” Then all the people crowded around Jeremiah.

“However, some of the officials of Judah heard about what was happening and they rushed up to the Lord’s temple from the royal palace. They set up a court at the entrance of the New Gate of the Lord’s temple. Then the priests and the prophets made their charges before the officials and all the people. They said, “This man should be condemned to die because he prophesied against this city. You have heard him do so with your own ears.”

“Then Jeremiah made his defense before all the officials and all the people. “The Lord sent me to prophesy everything you have heard me say against this temple and against this city. But correct the way you have been living and do what is right. Obey the Lord your God. If you do, the Lord will forgo destroying you as he threatened he would. As for my case, I am in your power. Do to me what you deem fair and proper. But you should take careful note of this: If you put me to death, you will bring on yourselves and this city and those who live in it the guilt of murdering an innocent man. For the Lord has sent me to speak all this where you can hear it. That is the truth!”

“Then the officials and all the people rendered their verdict to the priests and the prophets. They said, “This man should not be condemned to die. For he has spoken to us under the authority of the Lord our God.” Then some of the elders of Judah stepped forward and spoke to all the people gathered there. They said, “Micah from Moresheth prophesied during the time Hezekiah was king of Judah. He told all the people of Judah: ‘The Lord who rules over all says, “Zion will become a plowed field. Jerusalem will become a pile of rubble. the temple mount will become a mere wooded ridge.”‘

“King Hezekiah and all the people of Judah did not put him to death, did they? Did not Hezekiah show reverence for the Lord and seek the Lord’s favor? Did not the Lord forgo destroying them as he threatened he would? But we are on the verge of bringing a great disaster on ourselves.”

“Now there was another man who prophesied as the Lord’s representative against this city and this land just as Jeremiah did. His name was Uriah son of Shemaiah from Kiriath Jearim. When the king and all his bodyguards and officials heard what he was prophesying, the king sought to have him executed. But Uriah found out about it and fled to Egypt out of fear. However, King Jehoiakim sent some men to Egypt, and they brought Uriah back from there. They took him to King Jehoiakim, who executed him and had his body thrown into the burial place of the common people. However, Ahikam used his influence to keep Jeremiah from being handed over and executed by powerful people. (Jeremiah 26)

This Jewish tradition of ‘speaking truth to power’ continued until the first century when John the baptist was executed by king Herod whom John had denounced for an illegal marriage. “Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had repeatedly told Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Although Herod wanted to kill John, he feared the (Jewish) crowd because they accepted John as a prophet. 

“But on Herod’s birthday, the daughter of Herodias danced before them and pleased Herod, so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Instructed by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” Although it grieved the king, because of his oath and the dinner guests, he commanded it to be given. So he sent and had John beheaded in the prison.” (Matthew 14:3-10) 

All this changed radically during the generations after both the city of Jerusalem and its Holy Temple were destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. For the next 1878 years there was no Jewish king, and Jews were governed by non-Jewish kings and rulers. During this period Jews ruled their own communities by virtue of the rabbinic interpretations and expansions of the Biblical legal system, and the leadership of great rabbinic legal scholars and the personal persuasiveness of local saintly rabbis. 

An excellent example of how the prophet’s word of God from heaven was replaced by human words here on earth comes from a mid second century event related in the Talmud: “It is taught: R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but the Sages did not accept any of them. Finally he said to them: “If the Halakhah (religious law) is in accordance with my view, let this carob tree prove it!” Sure enough the carob tree immediately uprooted itself and moved one hundred cubits, some say 400 cubits, from its place. “No proof can be brought from a carob tree,” they retorted.

Again he said to them “If the Halakhah agrees with me, let the channel of water prove it!” Sure enough, the channel of water flowed backward. “No proof can be brought from a channel of water,” they rejoined. Again he urged, “If the Halakhah agrees with me, let the walls of the house of study prove it!” Sure enough, the walls tilted as if to fall. But R. Joshua, rebuked the walls, saying, “When disciples of the wise are engaged in a halakhic dispute, what right do you have to interfere?” Hence in deference to Rabbi  Joshua they did not fall and in deference to Rabbi Eliezer they did not resume their upright position; they  still stand aslant.

Rabbi Eliezer again said to the Sages, “If the Halakhah agrees with me, let it be proved from heaven.” Sure enough, a divine voice cried out, “Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, with whom the Halakhah always agrees?” Rabbi Joshua stood up and protested: “The Torah is not in heaven!” (Deuteronomy 30:12). We pay no attention to a divine voice because long ago at Mount Sinai You (God) wrote in your Torah at Mount Sinai, `After the majority must one incline’. (Exodus 23:2)”

Rabbi Nathan met [the prophet] Elijah and asked him, “What did the Holy One do at that moment?” Elijah: “He laughed [with joy], saying, ‘My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me.'” (Baba Metzia 59b)

Thus God himself was happy that his children had now achieved enough maturity to govern themselves without the need for prophetic guidance. The divine voice is still available for personal guidance but not for setting community policy. In future centuries, the influence of saintly rabbis reached a higher point with the rise of Spanish Kabbalah in the 13th century; and then spread and was popularized with the rise of Hassidism in the mid 18th century.  This stimulated a reaction to the stories of spiritually powerful rabbis who could influence socio-political events, and there appeared a warning tale about an otherwise unknown Kabbalist named Joseph della Reyna. 

He was a rare tragic folk-hero who emerged out of the final turbulent years of Spanish Jewry prior to the expulsion of all Jews who refused conversion, and the first two generations of exiles after the expulsion. Joseph della Reyna became a highly popular figure in Jewish traditions east and west. In traditional Jewish literature tragedy befalls those who die at the hands of their tormentors. But Joseph della Reyna was caught in the snare of his messianic expectations, mystical visions, and passionate desires for an ideal world of justice and peace. Traditional narratives of his battle with angels and demons are the only testimony to his life.

The first to note the story in writing was the kabbalist Abraham ben Eliezer ha-Levi (c. 1460-1528) who alluded to and briefly recounted it in a book written in Jerusalem in 1519. The date clearly indicates that the tale was born in the crucible of religious persecutions and messianic expectations that punctuated Jewish life in Spain at the end of the fifteenth century. By the middle of the sixteenth century, the story of Rabbi Joseph della Reyna was known among the kabbalists in Safed, such as Rabbi Moses ben Jacob Cordovero (1522-1570) and Rabbi Hayyim ben Joseph Vital (1542-1620) who both alluded to Rabbi d Joseph della Reyna in their writings. In these circles the tale was shifted from the west (Spain and Morocco) to the eastern Mediterranean and to Tzfat. In the seventeenth century a fuller rendition of the story was written down by Solomon Navarro (1606-after 1673) and was incorporated by the Egyptian chronicler Joseph ben Isaac Sambari (1640-1703) into his Chronicle of Joseph (completed in 1672). 

Rabbi Joseph Della Reina lived near Tzfat and desperately wanted to bring about the Redemption of the Jewish People. He took 5 of his most loyal students whom were very knowledgeable in Kabbalah and would do anything he requested and told them: I am resolved to use the secrets of the Torah to remove all impurities from this world and bring the Redemption and Messiah, who will release us from our oppressors. After 3 days of spiritual preparation they went to Miron, to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s grave and studied the Book of Zohar the whole night.  

When Rabbi Della Reina dozed off, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai came to him in a dream and asked, “Why are you getting yourself in such a difficult task which you will not be able to carry out?”. Rabbi Della Reina answered that God knows his intentions are pure and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai blessed him to succeed. The following morning, they went to an open field, fasted all day and focused only on Kabalistic prayers. They did this consecutively for 3 days and 3 nights, while fasting. They did not eat or drink anything. By the power of their holy formula of prayer, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai ordered Prophet Eliyahu to appear. Right away he appeared and asked them what is so urgent that they used a special formula in their prayers to call him?. Rabbi Joseph Della Reina said, “I’m zealous for the honor of the Blessed and Holy One. Show me how to subdue Satan and strengthen the Holy side of existence?”

Eliyahu answered him, “What you are planning to do is very difficult and you will not succeed. The webs of sins and transgressions are very strong and you will not be able to subdue Satan. You must increase holiness and continue fasting and dunking in the lake otherwise you will fail and Satan will damage and harm you. Know that your intentions are welcome if you succeed. But my advice to you is stop right now; because you cannot overpower the web of evil”.

Rabbi Joseph Della Reina said, “Please Master, do not discourage me. I took an oath that I’ll not return home till I raise the Holy Divine Spirit from the dust”. When Eliyahu heard this, he said, “You and your disciples need to go out in the field for 21 days, and eat, only enough to survive. Acustom yourselves to minimal portions of food and every evening, and steadily reduce the portion. After 21 days, fast for 3 days and nights. On the third day, after the afternoon prayers, summon the Angel Sandlaphon, (who directs worthy prayers directly to God) with his entourage to appear. When they come, throw yourselves on the ground and welcome the Angel Sandlaphon. Request him to strengthen you. Immediately he will inquire why you called upon him and what you are doing? Beg Sandlaphon to strengthen you and to help you to have the power of speech. Sandlaphon will tell you what you should do. He prevents Satan from entering holy places, and he knows the spots where one can gather his strength”.

As soon as Eliyahu left, Rabbi Joseph Della Reina gathered his students and did all that Eliyahu instructed. Day and night, they followed Eliyahu’s instructions without fail. They disconnected from physical needs of this world and were only occupied with the spiritual exercises. On the third day, after 21 days, Rabbi Joseph Della Reina and his students covered themselves in Tefillin and Talit, including their heads, and prayed with total devotion. They concentrated on the holy formula of God’s holy Name.

They raised their voice to Heaven and with all human strength they possessed, they said, “Answer us, O mystical God, Answer us”and no sooner did they finish than Sandlaphon came, together with his army, on fiery chariots and fiery horses while flaming fires filled the whole countryside field. The Rabbi Joseph Della Reina and his students shook and trembled and fell to the ground, while their hearts melted with fear. They were left without a breath within them. They smelled the spices they were holding in their hands, and the breath of life returned to them but were trembling and very weak and could not speak.

Sandlaphon said, “What do you want, worms? Who gave you the audacity to shake the upper and lower worlds? Have self-respect and return home, lest we burn you with our breath”.

Rabbi Joseph Della Reina bowed down to the ground and removed his shoes. His students still on the ground were unable to rise. Rabbi Joseph Della Reina said, ” I do this for the sake of Elokim, the Kings of all Kings”. “Please, I entreat you, holy one with holy forces, to agree to help me wage war and wipe out the evildoers. Instruct me what I must do to remove the rule of wickedness from earth”.

Sandlaphon replied, “Your words and actions are proper, and God be with you! All of us Angels, wait in anticipation to avenge God’s Great Honor. But know this, everything you have done till now is nothing. Because who can overcome the great powers of Satan and his forces?. If you would know the high powers his forces reached, you would not attempt to do this. For who can prevail against him except the Holy Blessed One until the time comes to fulfill His word. 

I have come due to the Great Holy Name you have pronounced. But what can I do for you? I am unable to learn the great strength of Satan and what his rise and fall depends on. None know this except Metatron, Prince of the Presence, with his entourage. If you were frightened of me, how will you be able to exist in their presence/? In truth if you can accomplish this great task of wiping out Satan, your reward will be great and no one can stand next to your holiness”.

Rabbi Joseph Della Reina answered, “I am young and unworthy for who am I that can stand in front of the Angels. But I am willing to sacrifice myself for the Holy and Blessed One. Therefore, instruct me how to increase holiness and add sanctity and purity and what Holy Name to use to conjure the Holy Angels?”.

Sandlaphon spoke again, “Hear my words and God be with you. Continue for 40 days the immersions, fasts, and purification of thoughts. Do not stray from holy thoughts for a split second. Decrease the portion of food till your body will need very little to survive. After 40 days, pronounce the 72 letter Holy Name with great concentration. Then you will be able to call upon Metatron, Prince of the Presence. With this Sandlaphon and his forces went heavenwards.

They left the field and went to a mountain near Miron and sat in a cave and did as they were instructed by Angel Sandlaphon for 40 days. They missed nothing from the instructions and completely disconnected themselves from the world. When the 40 days were completed, they went out to the wilderness where they bathed for 40 days. They marked a circle on the ground and entered inside it linking hands together and formed a circle. They proclaimed the 72 letter name of God and called upon Metatron, Prince of the Presence. When they pronounced the Great Name, the earth shook and there was lightning and thunder. The heavens opened and Metatron came down. Rabbi Joseph Della Reina and his students kept their hands linked together, and all fell onto the ground, and did not let go of one another.

As soon as Metatron with his camp came down to earth, they began to speak in great fury. “Who and where is the one who dared to use the Royal Scepter? Speak up, answer, you foul odor drop of sperm. What is this great alarm that you brought us down?” Rabbi Joseph Della Reina was unable to answer and the Angel Metatron touched him. He faintly whispered, “What can this worthless slave say in the presence of such pure and holy angels? Rabbi Reina opened his mouth and said, “God Almighty knows that I did not do this insincerely but only for God”.

The Angels answered him, “Only the Holy and Blessed One Himself can do this when the time comes!”. Your will is appreciated but the time has not yet arrived. Yet, in view of your will and wisdom and knowledge of hidden secrets that God granted you, we are compelled to instruct you which way to go. Listen carefully and pay close attention. In order to eliminate Satan’s barriers down, this is what you must do: When you leave here, go to mount Seir. Whatever you do on the bottom of Mount Seir, we will perform on the top. When you go to Mount Seir, continue to be holy as you are now. You have almost attained the position of Angels. You have forgotten the ways of the physical world. Along the way, you will encounter a large horde of black dogs; know that Satan is sending them to you to confuse you. Have no fear and pronounce the Name of the Holy One that contains 52 letters. 

Concentrate on the Holy Name and the dogs will flee away from you. From there, climb on top of the mountain, you will find a great mass of snow up to the skies. Concentrate on the hidden secrets of the verse “Have you entered the treasuries of snow”, and the mountain will be moved from its place. After that, concentrate on the verse, “It snows in Zalmon” and the mountain will vanish. Continue with these concentrations until you reach the barrier of the ocean, whose waves reach the skies. Pronounce the verse, “Ascribe to God, O you sons of the Mighty”, and the ocean will dry up and you will be able to cross it on dry land. Go forward and you will see a wall that reaches from the earth to the sky. Take a knife in your hand and inscribed on it ‘Sword of God’ and with the knife, cut into the iron and make an opening and enter thru it. Make sure not to close the opening till all of you pass safely through the opening. After passing through the opening, it will close. After that, go forward till you reach Mount Seir”.

At that time, we will fling Satan from his seat and he will be entrusted into your hands. Then let the Holy Name be prepared, written, and engraved on a plate of lead. After this, you will be able to go wherever you desire on Mount Seir. You will find the wicked spirits Samael and Lilith in forms of black dogs, a male and female. Do not be afraid. On the male, set the engraved plate with the Holy Name and set the other plate on the female. Put a rope around the male and female with the plates attached, and they will follow you with their camp.

“Then God’s desire will be achieved by you and you will bring Samael and Lilith to judgment on Mount Seir. Then there will be the great sound of the Shofar and the Messiah will appear to purify the earth from all impurities. The Holy One and Blessed One will slaughter the spirit of the impurity and all the righteous will be present. Then there will be the Great Redemption.”

“Be very careful and do all that we instructed you, and if you successfully do this, how great is your portion. Don’t lose concentration on holiness for a split second; and be very care when you rope the dogs, Samael and Lilith, and don’t listen to them. They will cry and plead from you to give them food or drink but don’t listen to them; and don’t give them anything. Don’t believe them and pay no attention to them. May God protect and guide you”. With that, the angels flew heavenwards.

When the angels ascended, Rabbi Josef rose. His students, whom were still on the ground, were unable to rise till the angels left. They were overjoyed and excited and quickly prepared everything the angels told them and walked towards Mount Seir. On the way, they saw a horde of vicious black dogs coming towards them, they did as they were instructed and the dogs scattered and disappeared.

After this, they encountered a great mountain of snow and did what they were instructed to do and the mountain shifted. Then they said the other holy formula combination and the mountain completely vanished. They walked on for 2 more days, and on the third day they saw a great ocean that its waves reached the skies. As soon as they said the holy formula combination, the ocean dried and they walked through it, on dry land. When they reached the wall that reached from the earth till heaven, Rabbi Josef took the knife with the Holy Name engraved on it and sliced the iron wall for an opening. The width of the iron wall was 8 cm thick. When the last of the students passed thru, Rabbi Joseph Della Reina let go of the opening but the last student was slow and his leg got caught. Rabbi Joseph took out the knife and sliced the iron wall open around the student’s leg and he passed through. They climbed Mount Seir to its summit.

When they found the crater within which were ruins, they heard dogs barking. They entered one of the ruins and saw 2 gigantic black dogs, a male and female. When they approached the dogs, the dogs jumped on them to swallow them. But Rabbi Joseph Della Reina had the engraved plates in his hand and with his right hand, after placing the plates, put the rope around the dogs’ neck, with the plates attached to it.

As soon as the rope was tied around them, they removed their shapes of the dogs and put on their own shape which was humankind except their wings, which were full of eyes, like flames. They begged for food or drink but Rabbi Joseph Della Reina did as was instructed and paid no attention to their pleads.

With tremendous happiness, they walked towards Mount Seir, with Samael and Lilith behind them, tied in a rope, crying. Rabbi Joseph was overjoyed and said, “Who would have thought that I would have succeeded in capturing Satan”.

Satan replied, “Indeed, we are in your hands and you can do whatever you desire. Give us something to eat or drink because otherwise we will never make it to Mount Seir”. But Rabbi Joseph refused to give them anything, as he was instructed.

As they approached Mount Seir, Rabbi Joseph took out the spices to smell it. And Satan told him, “If you won’t give us food or drink, at least give us to sniff the spices”. And Rabbi Joseph handed them a bit of the spice, and at that moment, Satan blew a spark of fire from his mouth and burned the incense, including the spice in Rabbi Joseph’s pocket.

The vapor entered Satan’s nostrils and snapped off the rope from his neck and flung the engraved plates from him and began striking Rabbi Joseph Della Reina and his students: two of the students immediately died, while another two students lost their minds.

Rabbi Joseph Della Reina remained alone with 1 student, both weary, exhausted and astounded. He didn’t know that by giving the incense to Satan it was like idol-worship and all his holy strength disappeared. He didn’t listen and keep the angel’s warning not to give anything to Satan.

That moment, the mountain began to smoke amid gloom and darkness and a divine voice came out and said, “Oy to you, Joseph, Oy to your soul that you did not do as you were commanded. You engaged in idolatry and offered incense to Satan and now he will pursue you out of this world and out of the next world!”.

Rabbi Joseph Della Reina and his remaining students buried the 2 dead students. A demon had possessed the other two students and they perished in great suffering that the demon inflicted on them.

After this, Rabbi Joseph Della Reina went to the city of Sidon, where he settled. His ways turned evil. He saw that he did not succeed and since he heard from the Divine Voice that he lost this world and the world-to-come, he made a covenant with the evil Lilith and handed himself to her and she became his wife. He polluted everything in every way possible and used the Holy Name to do evil. Every night he conjured spirits and devils to fetch him whatever his heart desired.

He continued his evil ways with more and more women until he had the wife of a king. He had her brought to him every night and in the morning, he would order the demons to return her. One day the queen told her husband, “Every night I dream that I’m in a certain place and a man sleeps with me. but I find myself in the morning in my bed”.

When the King heard this, he summoned his magicians and placed them on guard at the queen’s home. That night, the demons came to take the queen and the guards noticed them at once. They forced the demons to tell them why they came at night to take the queen and the demons answered that they were ordered by Joseph from the city of Sidon. When the king heard this, he sent a certain minister to the city of Sidon with gifts to the Lord of Sidon, asking that Joseph be sent to him alive immediately. When Joseph realized that his deeds were known to the king, even before the minister arrived in Sidon, he threw himself into the ocean and died.

As for me, the fifth student, I remained alone and on a sickbed all my life. There is no remedy for my ailment nor do I have any reprieve from the demons. I have written this tale as a warning that no one should attempt to bring the Redemption before its time.

The warning is clear. There are  many examples of things that in retrospect should have been anticipated yet weren’t. Even the most sincere, highly pious, wise and well intentioned individual who is capable of overcoming giant obstacles; cannot anticipate how to act faultlessly all the time. Even the ideal unexpectedly fails when it is actually attained. 

Rabbi Joseph Della Reina was warned over and over: yet he persisted because the goal of universal justice and peace was so desirable. His failure did not leave him wiser; it left him a disillusioned and degenerate sinner. 

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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