He stroked his beard, leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes in thought. I’d known Ben Eleazar for many years, but never could predict how long such pauses would go on. I’d once waited two hours and twenty two minutes.
“Ok,” he said, “I’ll tell you.” It had only been four minutes. “But,” he added quickly, “this is deep material, and only your devotion will let you understand!” He leaned in close to my face, and I could see a bit of a sesame seed stuck between his bottom front teeth.
“First,” he said, “we must begin with the torus.” I thought for a second he said Torah, and got worried. “A torus,” he went on, “has no beginning and no end. It has a closed surface and is the three-dimensional product of the rotation of two circles.” Oy. I was already lost and closed my eyes to try to visualize. “Look!” he shouted, causing me to jump. I opened my eyes and there he was, grinning, holding a bagel. With sesame seeds, no less.
I’d asked him about the shape of the universe, and all of a sudden he’s talking bagel. I opened my mouth to speak, “Don’t talk!” he commanded, “Listen! This is a deeply mystical teaching and you need to be quiet.”
“Now,” he continued, “a toroidal universe, which is sometimes described as “cushion-shaped” is related to the Möbius strip, which as you know has only one surface and no ‘sides’.” He leaned back again and closed his eyes. “Tell me about zero,” he suddenly sat straight up and stared directly into my eyes. “Well, zero was a concept that originated within the Hindu system of numerals and along with its other symbols replaced Roman numerals in the West,” I answered smartly. “Good!” he smiled, “are you beginning to see? Do you see the meaning of zero in this bagel?”
I wasn’t sure where he was going, and this was typical of our conversations. “The meaning?” I asked meekly. “Look,” he suddenly seemed composed and relaxed, “it was zero and the idea of nothing-void and emptiness that transformed western civilization, but it was always a symbol of mystical dimensionless space, internal space!” He laughed, holding the bagel between his fingers and turning it from side to side. He bought it up to his right eye, looked at me through the hole and winked.
“And!” he barked (he was always yelling) if you twist the bagel, what do you get?” I was beginning to get confused again. “Well?” he, shouted. All I could think of was cream cheese. He leaned in close again and whispered next to my ear, “The symbol for infinity.”
At this he smiled sweetly, and began to nod, as if urging me to talk. “Ok,” I said, “so zero and infinity are connected, emptiness joins oneness. Both are limitless, both beyond the range of conceptual mind. One is nothing and the other is everything, and yet they are one and the same!”
“Yes!” he bellowed, then calmly cooed, “Delightful. Now you get it. Pass the cream cheese.” He began to slice the bagel carefully, separating the two halves. “Top or bottom?” he asked. After all these years I knew well enough to say “bottom.” “No,” he said, handing me my half, “today my dear friend, you get the top.”