Special to The Jewish Week:
Passing The Torch of Immortality
Those who have read this far in my family narrative will recall that in the year 1158 a rumor spread, reaching far beyond the boundaries of Portugal, that the royal physician Baruch de Espinosa, whose potions could transform spent old men into raging stallions capable of achieving ten or¬gasms a day, possessed a supernatural power that banished illness and had by careful cultivation produced a medicinal plant that frightened away death.
Eternal life, no less a mystery than love itself, has never ceased to fascinate and confuse humanity. Many doubt its very existence. I therefore intend to reveal to you the great secret, although in fact I am formally forbidden to do so.
No Spinoza has ever revealed it to anyone—not to a wife, not to his friends, not to his king or his lord—other than his eldest son. Because Moses, the greatest prophet of the Jews, warned Baruch that the secret had to be safeguarded by his children and his children’s children for a thousand years, and as long as his descendants fulfilled their obliga¬tions, they would wander with righteous mien among the peoples of the earth and the Lord would watch over them. But should any one of them fail to carry out the Lord’s will, their generations would be obliterated from the earth.
I have no children and no one to whom I can entrust the great secret. I am the last of the Spinozas. Soon I will die. I have nothing to lose, for with my passing our family will disappear from the earth anyway, and I have no intention of taking anything with me to the grave.
My great-uncle taught me most of what I know about the lives of my ancestors. But not even he was initiated in the great secret. It was revealed to me when I read the phi¬losopher Benjamin Spinoza’s book The Elixir of Immortal¬ity, which I inherited from my grandfather. The book has been in our family’s possession for more than three hundred years and no outsider has ever been permitted to read it. I myself began the study of it all too late in life.
Benjamin Spinoza describes the secret plant that holds death at bay. I cite here the philosopher’s words, as carefully chosen as the jewels in the setting of a ring, precisely as they were written:
The secret plant—Baruch de Espinosa called it “Rai¬mundo” in honor of his deceased friend—is produced by taking citronella, chamomile, St. John’s wort, snow¬drops, and similar species and grafting these as close as possible to one another along the root of a Zamia acuminata. The site of the grafts is to be carefully watered once every third day with a potion compounded of the liver of a guinea pig, the urine of a lemur, the mixture of Mith¬ridates (consisting of wild thyme, coriander, anis, fen¬nel, and rue), along with theriac (a compound of poppy seed and drimia maritima, known as sea onion).
The new plants never live longer than eight months and cannot be transplanted or propagated.
The plant is dried in the sun for a month, following which a tincture is prepared by soaking the dried leaves for thirty days in a medium containing alcohol. The tincture should be agitated twice each day at intervals of exactly twelve hours. At the conclusion of the month the tincture is filtered through a thick cloth and left to settle for eighteen hours.
Seven drops of this preparation will hold Death at bay and give eternal life.
One day when he realized that he was no longer fully in possession of all his faculties and knew that he had lit¬tle time left before he would meet his maker, Baruch in¬structed his eldest son, Simon, in the secrets of cultivating the Raimundo plant and preparing the secret tincture. First, however, Simon had to take a solemn vow never to reveal the secret to anyone other than his eldest son and in no circumstances to prepare the potion himself or ingest a single drop.
“I created the Raimundo plant because it was my wish that my king should live and reign forever over the country,” Baruch explained to him. “Afonso Henriques was a powerful man, one whose stern gaze terrified everyone it transfixed. He hated disobedience more than anything in the world. If he discovered one of his subjects was violating his rules and breaking his commandments, he sent that person straight off to the torture chamber and his zealous executioners. No one lasted longer than three days with those wicked men and their special gifts in devising prolonged and agonizing executions. Everyone lived in abject terror of the king and he knew it. But he was like a father to me and he was vigi¬lant with his protection. That caused resentment among the nobles of the court. They were so consumed with envy that they spread slanders about me—they claimed I was some sort of lord of black magic, good for nothing but poison¬ing people. I have always been weak and inoffensive, both in heart and spirit, and since I was the only Jew at court, my position was anything but secure. The nobles of the court presented themselves as honorable, but many were as treacherous as vipers. They amused themselves by sneering at me and speaking ill of me behind my back. After Afonso Henriques died, I thought my days at the court were num¬bered. You must understand that my principal concern in creating the Raimundo plant was for myself and for my fam¬ily; I wanted the elderly king to live forever. But on the day that I was preparing to administer seven drops of it to him, I suddenly had second thoughts. It was as if something had exploded within me. The king had started to show signs of senility and he was behaving atrociously. That day he be¬came annoyed at a servant who had spilled a couple of drops of wine on the table. Cursing under his breath, he picked up a dagger, struck the man, and gouged out his right eye. I will never forget the servant’s scream of pain, his distorted face, and the blood running down it. I tried to help the poor man, but the king wouldn’t allow it. He smiled, derisive and scornful. It was impossible to save the man’s eye. Then and there, I suddenly realized how repellent I found the thought of an increasingly confused Afonso Henriques who would be eternally punishing imagined enemies, torturing his loyal followers, and having them beheaded. At that moment, I also realized that there is no greater curse on earth than eternal life. Believe me: The setting of the sun lends weight, beauty, and grandeur to our days. Life is short and that is our creator’s single greatest gift to us. His other gift is death, for which we should be humbly grateful.”
Simon listened with a grave expression on his face and wondered if he had really grasped the meaning of that last remark in his father’s long exposition. He couldn’t see how one could possibly feel grateful for having inevitably to leave a world that seemed so splendid. But his respect for his fa¬ther prevented him from following that thought any further. All he could say was, “Father, you can live as long as you wish; all you have to do is take the Raimundo remedy.”
“Simon, when one perceives that memory and mind are fading, it is time to make a conscious choice and surrender to death. Remember, once one reaches a certain advanced age it is only the fear of death, not the desire for life, that keeps one imprisoned within one’s body.”
“I hear your words, Father,” Simon answered. “But don’t be offended if I fail to understand everything. Why are you telling me all this and entrusting the secret of the elixir to me and my descendants if it should never be used? Wouldn’t it have been better to keep the recipe secret by destroying it?”
“When I was young,” Baruch replied, “I once met an old man—I believe to this day that he was our great prophet Moses—who thundered a prophecy at me. If I obeyed the commandments engraved on his stone tablets, discovered the great secret, and safeguarded it, my children and my children’s children would go forth, heads high, for a thou¬sand years. That meant we are destined to be the guardians of the secret of immortality. But if any one of us fails to comply with his commandment, our line will end there.”
Baruch paused for a moment and then said emphatically, “You must always be on your guard. Many are obsessed with the dream of eternal life and are ready to do anything to secure the great secret. They will not hesitate to murder you to obtain it.”
Simon listened attentively. He asked no more questions. He promised again never to taste of the potion, to safeguard the secret, and eventually to confide it to his eldest son.
The knowledge of the Raimundo plant and of the elixir of immortality was scrupulously preserved by four genera¬tions of the eldest sons of the Espinosas.