I was a toddler when I recited my prayers by heart. Grandpa Jacob was a prayer leader then, taking the place of great grandpa Abraham, after whom our synagogue was named. It was grandpa’s duty to recite prayers and benedictions for me, as well as for other people who could not utter pleas for them-selves. When I was too young to read, I listened to his chants and watched the printed letters running backwards past his finger, like trees rushing behind the bus I took so many times to study far away from home in Jerusalem.
Grandpa Jacob taught me that in the time of the First Temple, our ancestors’ prayers were entirely spontaneous. Worshipers used their own words to utter thanks and supplications any time they wished. Therefore, he said, I could use my own words to wish for any thing I wanted. I do not recall the desires I had as a toddler but I do remember mimicking the movement of grandpa’s lips, his whispers and chants, as well as, his general demeanor. Our film records demonstrated already then the bond between grandpa and me.
It did not take much time for me to read. I was an infant when toddlers chanted the alphabet at my crib. Hardly three years thereafter, I recited them in turn, showered with sweets falling from above like manna from heaven. It was the day of my betrothal to learning; a ritual held over since the time my ancestors lived in Babylon.
I learnt that our history began with our patriarch Abraham. Abraham, the patriarch, left Ur at the time of King Ur Nammu. He wandered to Haran, Canaan, Egypt, finally settling in Hebron, where he purchased the Cave of Macpelah, a burial place for him, his wife Sarah and the rest of his family (2000 BCE). Our legendary King David was anointed in Hebron but when Israel succumbed, Edom, Greece, Rome, Arabs, Franks and Turks settled it, each leaving its mark, especially Herod the Great and Salah-A-Din. Hebron, Abraham’s shrine, is nowadays a battlefield.
In the time of Abraham, Nimrod, the son of Canaan, proclaimed him-self God, defying heavens from the height of a tower built downtown Babel. Wickedness spread on earth then, imposing upon the righteous wandering to far away lands.
Abraham, grandpa told me, stayed near, wandering in the outskirts of Babel, beheading every idol in sight, except for one waving an axe high. Shortly thereafter Nimrod cast Abraham in jail. A few years later, the tower of Babel reached heaven and Nimrod ordered Abraham thrown from its pinnacle. When the executors neared the summit, their language confounded and the tower crumbled.
Thereafter, kings followed Abraham’s teachings. People shattered idols. And my ancestors left Ifrikia to settle Canaan, the land where Abraham was crowned king.
Great-grandpa was a Ben Moshe but he was named Abraham too. I was born shortly after his death. But grandpa Jacob who knew him well told me his tale. ‘Abraham’ grandpa said ‘did not acquire Hebron with strong arm. He bought it from Ephron the Hittite for a price.’
Abraham distinguished himself from neighbors by his love for Heaven, his distinction between right and wrong and his commitment to do right on earth, like Shem the priest and Noah the righteous who saved us from extinction. Abraham, in grandpa’s tales, was a just man. He was shy of war, hospitable to strangers and put in Michael’s words, Abraham was a leader of a cultivated tribe, one of many Hebrew tribes that migrated from Mesopotamia to the western Mediterranean, to earn a living as merchants or in the services of local kings. Our ancestor was versed with contract making, Michael said, even his relationship with God was contractual in nature. He exchanged fertility for loyalty, for it was his dream to spread his seeds across nations. Thus, beyond the Land of Israel, we live everywhere, bound by an everlasting pact, trading righteous behavior for God’s grace.
I was still young when Michael told me God was in my mind. It was a time when God appeared like superman in my dream. I wanted to be like him. But when I woke up, I suspected Michael did not speak of the same God grandpa knew, a God who made my ancestors wise and good, just and loving and without whom life could not exist. In all things, Michael told me, even in the tiniest of plants, there lies life. I liked grandpa’s God but I loved Michael’s too.
At a very young age I knew I was born in the image of our extraordinary God and that my purpose on earth is to complete Its creation. Yet, I wondered. Because grandpa attributed life to an Almighty Creator, the cause of everything, even things beyond understanding.
As I approached Bar Mitzvah, I asked my mother if God existed for real. Mother was not surprised. She looked at me and smiled. She loved me unconditionally, even in light of my scepticism.
No one knows! Mother said. In the beginning people said God was the sun, or the moon, or nature itself. Abraham, our forefather, separated the Divine from realm of nature, thinking ‘It’ was a force outside of nature, a power outside of him. Ever since, the tales of revelation enticed moral existence. Ever since our ancestors attributed to divinities meanings to suit them. Abraham shattered his father’s old material gods to create One Universal God. Later Prophets gave up the God of sacrifices for the God of justice. As old gods died, new ones were born in the image of succeeding generations, like the transformation of a male and female into a newborn child!
So you see, mother said, when the wonder of rebirth became common knowledge, our minds opened to believe in what we know, displacing beliefs in the unknown. Our vision of God changed. Nowadays, the wise hardly see divinity in external powers. They seek salvation within, relying increasingly on themselves.
I grew freer as I approached Bar Mitzvah, discovering in the process that grandpa’s God did not have to be mine and that our bond was one of survival and perennial love, for I loved him as I loved my mother and I loved both as I loved myself. And although the once divine lost its shine, along with its privileged priests of then and now, I pronounced my Bar Mitzvah vows as if grandpa’s God was also mine for there lied my adulthood and corresponding responsibility.
Thereafter I shunned no reason, scorned no learning and did not cling to a single creed. My creation no longer had a beginning or end, it lied in existence itself, in truth and in everything.