The dust rose so high to the sky that heaven and earth seemed to have reverted to a dull yellow primordial chaos. The engines of dirt-caked, drab army transports rumbled, the horns of master sergeants’ white vans honked. I stood, trying to be seen and heard, at the Fatma Gate in Metula, seeking a ride up to my base at Ana, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
As of early summer 1983, the IDF had been bogged down in Lebanon for a year. Rational procedures and clear rules had been drafted for transporting soldiers to and from and through the Cedar Republic, but like so many army regulations, few knew them, and no one obeyed.
The way to get from Metula to Ana was to stand as close to the gate as the military police would allow and hold out an arm. An occasional driver would notice the lonely soldier through the smokescreen thrown up by the Holy Land’s parched soil, take pity, and stop long enough to ask where I needed to go. More often then not, they were going somewhere else. I needed to be back at base by 3 p.m.; driving straight up from Metula, the trip took at least three hours. It was already nearly an hour before noon, and I was getting desperate.
A large supply truck rumbled up and stopped. “Where to?” the driver asked, scooting over to lean out of the cabin’s passenger window. “Ana,” I said. “Like I know where that is,” he replied. “Like it’s Ramat Gan.”
It turned out that his destination was our division headquarters, further south. I could probably find a way from there to my base, where I served as a sergeant under the Nahal Brigade’s chief intelligence officer. Anyway, at this point, I had no choice. I climbed into the cabin.
In infantry training, one is taught to take note of any unusual or out-of-place phenomenon. An overturned rock or trampled piece of desert brush can warn you that an enemy is close by; the distant sound of sloshing water or the clink of tin cans can reveal an improvised firing position. My sharply-honed senses thus immediately took in that the driver, who introduced himself as Yossi, was wearing nothing but a pair of bright red briefs.
It’s the red briefs that brought him to mind this week. My older son brought home rock star Barry Saharoff’s new album, Adumei Ha-Sefatot. The album sets, to rock music heavily infused with Oriental cadences, 12 poems by Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, the 11th-century Iberian master of Hebrew poetry. The name of the title track translates as “The Red of Lips.” The poet uses this phrase, in an allusion to the Song of Songs, to refer to emissaries who have brought him a message from a close friend who has rejected him. Or from a God who has hidden his face. In Ibn Gabirol, the earthly always corresponds with the divine.
That morning at the Fatma gate I was a few weeks before my 28th birthday and I had already entered into a complicated relationship with God. It was a relationship that caused me a lot of anxiety, but at least it was a relationship, which was more than I could say for what I had with the woman who interested me at the time.
Yossi was lanky, with olive-dark skin and kinky hair long enough to indicate that he was a reservist and not a regular, like me. He drummed on the steering wheel and chanted a popular Mizrahi song as his bare feet described debka steps on the accelerator and brake pedals.
“You’re not in uniform,” I noted.
He stopped his song long enough to look me up and down. “It’s hot,” he said.
“They won’t let you into Lebanon if you’re not in uniform,” I told him, although I wasn’t really sure if this was correct.
He thought this over and pulled on his shirt, which had been draped over the seat behind him. But he didn’t button it.
“Shoes, too,” I said. “You shouldn’t drive without shoes.”
He inserted his feet into a pair of sandals on the floor, revved up the engine, and proceeded to the gate. A tired military policeman appeared out of the dust below us like the spirit of Samuel from the Witch of Endor’s vapors. He checked the truck’s papers and waved us through.
Be-katav stav be-yadav metarav u-vervivav
U-ve-‘et berakav ha-me’irim ve-khaf ‘avav
Michtav ‘alei gan mi-tekhelet ve-argaman
Lo nitkenu ka-hem le-hoshev be-mahshavav…
That’s track seven on the Saharoff album. Notice all those “v” sounds – they are raindrops pounding on the ground. They get lost in translation, of course:
When the autumn writes in its rain-ink
With its lightning-bolt pen and its hand of clouds
A missive in purple and blue on garden leaves
Naught could be truer to one who thinks His thoughts…
Remember that in Ibn Gabirol’s universe the rain doesn’t come on its own; it’s a divine manifestation. The rain is God’s means of writing himself on the tablet of the earth.
As I careened through southern Lebanon with Yossi, the summer’s desiccation certainly seemed like a sign of God’s absence. The truck listed right and left like a lost ship in a turbulent sea. Yossi took the narrow, pockmarked road as if it were the way to hell without the pavement. He did not slow down for curves. At one point, he went off the road to take a shortcut through a field, this in a country where anything that wasn’t covered with asphalt was suspect as a mine field. Only by cursing loudly – and I was one of the least profane soldiers ever to serve the State of Israel – was I able to get him back on the road.
Two minutes later the road took a sharp turn to the right, Yossi lost control, and the truck swerved, flipped over, bounced off an embankment, landed on its right side, and slid into an irrigation ditch.
I found myself sitting at the steering wheel, parallel to the ground. The roof over the passenger seat had been flattened until it nearly touched the seat where I’d been sitting.
“Oh shit.” Yossi’s voice came from some place beyond. “You all right?”
I climbed out of what was now the cabin’s top hatch. The truck was totaled.
A few minutes later a jeep came by. It took us to a nearby medical base. Other then some scratches and bruises, we were both fine. Yossi was arrested, and I was released to continue to find my way to my unit. I hadn’t been standing at the base’s gate for more than ten minutes when a military pickup truck came by, heading directly for Ana.
I needed to talk. I thought that the fact that I had nearly died ought to be of interest to my fellow intelligence sergeants and my commanding officer. Upon arriving, I ran to throw my duffel bag on my bed and then to report to the intelligence office. Some of the guys were there, drinking coffee. I told them about the accident. They told me that I had the night shift manning the radio receivers. Outside, I ran into the chief intelligence officer. I told him that he’d nearly had a squashed sergeant on his hands. He said he was glad I was okay and went on his way.
The base was the village’s unfinished new school building. The classrooms served as our offices and living quarters. A tent erected between the building’s two wings served as a synagogue. I generally preferred to pray in my room – the tent was stuffy. Also, I had little patience for some of the other religious soldiers, who believed that if they prayed long, loudly, and meticulously, God would keep them from harm. My feet led me to the synagogue tent not because I needed not to pray, but because it was the only quiet place where I could think through the accident. I needed to ponder what it meant, if it meant anything at all, and what God had to do with it, if He existed, and if He cared.
To my surprise, the synagogue wasn’t empty. A bearded man in his mid-thirties was sitting on a bench, absorbed in a book. He had the slight frame, dark skin, and wiry hair of a Yemenite. He smiled and introduced himself as Amnon. He was a reservist, sent to Ana for a month to serve as brigade rabbi.
We started to chat. He said that he’d grown up non-religious, but that a few years previously he had discovered Chabad Hasidism. I told him that, in all honesty, Chabad’s mystical Messianism was not to my liking. I gave an account of my accident. He listened attentively, asking questions, inquired whether anything hurt. He suggested that perhaps it had been God’s will that I endure the accident, and survive. But he couldn’t say why God would have willed it.
And I thought, as we chatted, that Amnon and I would never agree on the nature of God, or the purpose of the commandments, or the literal truth of the Torah. I had no idea of God’s purpose, and the heart that led me to believe continued to wrestle with the mind that told me that I should not. Yet I felt, as I seldom had before, the divine presence between us.
If this were fiction, I’d write that an unseasonable downpour began at that very moment. But the skies remained clear. Through the window of the intelligence office I could see stars. In Ibn Gabirol’s poem, the v’s fade, allowing softer sounds to take foreground:
Lakhen, be-‘et hamda adama penei shahak
Rakma ‘alei baddei ‘arugot ke-khokhavav.
And as the soil longs to receive the sky
So it embroiders sky’s furrowed fabric with stars.
The rain waters the earth below, and the earth embroiders the skies. God writes the earth below and the earth paints the skies. We write words and paint pictures, and in creating, we emulate, and establish God. God is not in the accident, nor in its outcome, so much as in the sound of voices talking about it afterward.