Some people say I exaggerate. Others say that I’m arrogant. But I’m only telling the truth. I wrote “Heaven’s Door” in answer to all of those phony “spiritual” bestsellers that give people the placebo-like feeling that the book is changing their unhappy lives when it is really leading them further astray. Those books are like bubble gum that tastes good for a few minutes, then bursts and goes flat in your mouth. Let’s face it, all of the phony bestsellers like “The Alchemist,” “Celestial Prophecy,” “The Monk and the Ferrari,” “Conversations with G-d,” and the rest of them, give pop solutions to life and ultimately bring the reader to some form of Christian belief or idol worship. Instead of offering true enlightenment, they enshroud their readers with more darkness. As Rabbi Kook explains in “Orot,” Christianity brought terrible darkness to the world by rejecting the commandments of the Torah, thus cutting mankind off from a real connection to G-d. And all those “literary spiritual journeys” that bring readers to India and the jungles of Peru for encounters with gurus, magicians, and voodoo doctors, are all drenched in intellectual idol worship. Yoga may help you relax, but it won’t get you connected to G-d – only the commandments of the Torah can do that.
So that’s why I wrote “Heaven’s Door,” where I bring a typical John Doe from America to Israel to meet with a genuine holy, 120-year-old wise man in Tzfat, where he encounters the wisdom of the Jews and the truth of the Torah. It’s a wonderful adventure, filled with lots of fun surprises. Of course, it’s not for the masses because it demands real introspection and change, rather than the phony bubble gum euphoria that keeps the world festering in darkness and sin.
But why talk about the book? Here’s Chapter Two in the serialization. Enjoy!
Chapter Two – A Meeting with Maimonides
It turned out that the Jerusalem branch of the car-rental agency was a short walk from my hotel. I got there before the place opened. The clerk was very gracious and apologetic when he found out who I was. They had a brand new car waiting for me, “just off the assembly line,” and they were upgrading me to a larger, more comfortable model without any added cost.
“The car that was supposed to be at the airport yesterday was involved in a five-car accident on the way back from Eilat,” the young man reported. “The driver had to be flown in an army helicopter to the Hadassah Hospital here in Jerusalem. We don’t yet know what caused the accident, but if you are planning to drive for long stretches, be sure to drink a lot. Israel is right on the desert. If you don’t drink something every half hour, you can dehydrate in a hurry, and fall asleep at the wheel, even with air conditioning.”
“Wow!” I thought, remembering the story of Rabbi Akiva’s great faith, and his motto, “Everything that God does is for the best.”
But then, some other voice in my mind said to me, “Nonsense! It’s just a coincidence. The accident was because of the driver, not because of the car. If everything is for the best – why are so many things screwed up in your life?”
Picking up the keys to the car, I noticed that my hands were trembling more than usual. Whether the accident had been because of the driver, or because of some problem with the car, in either case, I was glad that I hadn’t been in it.
“Thanks for the tip,” I told him.
“Sure thing. Enjoy your visit to Israel, and we are sorry about the mix-up yesterday,” he repeated.
Safed was a three-hour drive from Jerusalem. Leaving the capital city, you descend east toward the Judean wilderness and a Biblical panorama of Bedouin tents and rolling, sand-covered mountains. Standing next to a sign reading “Sea Level” was a large camel by the side of the road. Like thousands of other tourists before me, I gave its Bedouin owner a few Israeli shekels to take a snapshot of me on its back. Continuing on to the bottom of the long, serpentine descent, I came to the lowest place on earth, the Dead Sea, which spread out in a shimmering blue haze. The haze, my guide book explained, was caused by the evaporation of the dense minerals in the ancient salt lake, site of the overturning of Sodom and Gemorrah. From there, the highway turned north through the Jordan Valley and a picturesque landscape of desert mountains and date-palm groves. The ancient city of Jericho, famous for Joshua’s trumpets, passed by on the left. “Joshua and the battle of Jericho, Joshua and the battle of Jericho, Joshua and the battle of Jericho, and the walls came tumbling down.”
At a roadside bus stop, an Israeli soldier had his arm out for a hitch. To my surprise, the soldier turned out to be a girl. She was probably a little younger than my daughter. When I lowered the window, a blast of desert heat blew in, followed by a fly that hitched a ride all the way to Tiberias. Holding her rifle at a ninety degree angle by her waist, she asked in Hebrew where I was heading.
“I only speak English,” I told her.
In a passable, high-school English, she repeated her question.
“Safed,” I answered.
“Good,” she said.
“Hop in,” I cordially invited. “The car’s air-conditioning sure beats the desert heat.”
“We have to be careful who the driver is before we get in a car,” she explained. “Terrorists try to kidnap Israeli soldiers.”
She was the first female I had ever met who carried a rifle. If I had an instinctive, wild idea to get fresh with her along the way, the truncated M-16 resting on her lap put an end to the fantasy. Not that I made it a habit to woo teenage girls. Except for increasingly frequent peeks at cyberspace temptresses on my computer at home, when I was supposedly preparing my next day’s math classes in my study, I stayed away from young girls. Too many teachers had ruined their careers by falling to the charms of overdeveloped Lolitas. I had enjoyed a prolonged, erotic affair with the divorced mother of one of my students, stopping off at her home once a week for almost a year, until she moved away from our town, but I made it a practice to keep away from underage beauties. Other occasional affairs with friends’ wives, a lonely librarian, a down-and-out waitress, a little-league mom, and the like, were always adult only. So, while the thought crossed my mind, getting something on with this armed Israeli soldier was out of the question.
By the way, I loved my wife - not in a passionate way anymore, but like old friends who have a common destiny. In between our outbursts of anger, we got along together, and while our conversations may have gotten shorter and less scintillating than they were in the past, we shared common goals and interests. While I flirted with the idea of divorcing her and running away with my younger mistress – I didn’t have the nerve. Plus, I could never be sure that my lover wouldn’t one day run off on me for a younger, richer suitor than me. After all, I was an underpaid math teacher approaching the autumn of his life. My wife, I could be sure, would always stay with me and take care of me as I grew older, even if my tremor developed into Parkinson’s – even if I needed help dressing, bathing, and going to the bathroom, like my father before we placed him in an institution, where he spent his last six months attached to a respiratory machine after his lungs collapsed.
“Where are you from?” the cute Israeli soldier asked me.
“From America,” I answered.
“Where in America?”
“New England,” I replied. “Not far from Boston.”
“I want to go to New York,” she said. “When I get out of the army.”
“I have a daughter your age. A little older. She’s in Los Angeles, trying to be an actress.”
“Ayza kef,” she said, reacting like being in Los Angeles was the greatest thing on earth. “That’s really cool. Has she been in any movies?”
“Not that I know of,” I answered. “It is very competitive there.”
Glancing at the sun-dimpled Israeli, seeing how young and vulnerable she was underneath her uniform and rifle, I shuddered, imagining what my daughter had to do to convince producers to give her a role.
“That’s Jordan over there, isn’t it,” I asked, not wanting to think about my daughter and the dangers of Hollywood life.
“Where’s the West Bank?” I inquired.
“Well, anything west of the Jordan River is the West Bank, but this here is called the Jordan Valley. What they call the West Bank is back there, behind us, over the mountains.”
“The Arabs in the villages along the way here, are they Palestinians?” I asked, trying to brush up on some current history.
“I think these Arabs more belong to Jordan.”
“Are they at peace with Israel?”
“None of the Arabs are at peace with Israel. They claim we stole their land. But the truth is, most of them weren’t even here when Israel became a State. The British were in control here, and the Turks before that. The Palestinians never had their own country in Israel.”
“It’s a complicated problem, I’m sure,” I answered, not ready to accept her side of the story until I had an occasion to speak with a Palestinian.
The girl didn’t answer. Like an overtired soldier, she had drifted off to sleep. Up ahead, out the windshield, it looked like the two-lane highway was running straight for a pond. “It’s a mirage,” I said aloud. Remembering the advice of the clerk in the car-rental agency, I took a few gulps of water from the bottle of mineral water which I had purchased before starting out on the trip.
“How are you doing?” I said to the insect buzzing around my head, remembering the fly that had accompanied Jimmy Stewart across the Atlantic in the famous Charles Lindbergh movie. “Do you think I’m crazy too for traveling across an ocean to find some old man, when I would probably be better off a home, listening to my doctors?”
Looking at the sleeping girl, I couldn’t help but think of my daughter. The truth is I always wanted a boy. I suppose I became a little-league coach out of frustration that I never had a son of my own. I also suppose that Daisy sensed this, and maybe that’s what led to the wall that grew up between us. I certainly don’t mean to justify things, but merely to explain them. I mean you can’t teach a girl to throw a curve ball, or to dribble behind the back, or to scoop a gold ball cleanly out of a sand trap. Well, I suppose that you could, but what for?
Driving along the desert highway, with a gun-toting girl at my side, kind of shot holes through that theory. I mean, if a woman could be a soldier, she could be a baseball player too. Not that the main thing in life was sports. Every man wants a son, that’s all.
When Daisy started getting involved with boys at an early age, my wife encouraged me to give her more attention. A steady stream of new faces showed up on our doorstep to take Daisy out to the movies. She seemed to change boyfriends like underpants. When she became pregnant and needed an abortion, I went crazy. I called her a whore and made her stay in her room for a week. Then I found the little bastard who knocked her up and beat him black-and-blue.
“Don’t be such a monster,” my wife, Miriam, told me. “It happens. The writing was on the wall. If you had paid more attention to her and given her some love, she wouldn’t have had to search for it with every Tom and Dick and Harry.”
That led a giant quarrel between us, and I nearly belted her too. Putting the blame on me was something I wasn’t ready to hear. Not that I was a paragon of morality, but I never got another woman pregnant, and no one knew about my affairs, so I wasn’t hurting anyone, unlike my daughter and the embarrassment she was causing us.
“Craig,” my wife said. “Stop taking all of your frustrations out on the girl.”
“What the hell are you talking about?!” I screamed back. “You’re the one who is frustrated. Who can’t have any more children – you or me?”
That was another point of contention between me and Miriam. After Daisy was born, neither of us wanted to rush and have another child, so we used different contraceptives. On several occasions, she had adverse reactions to the pill. Once, she developed a serious infection from an IUD. And then there was a time when she suspected that I was having an affair, and refused to have marital relations with me for almost a year. I am not a physician, nor a psychologist, and neither is she, but it wasn’t long afterward that Miriam discovered a growth in her uterus, and a surgeon had to scrape out her womb. So that ended my dreams for a son, and our marriage went flat, like a can of Coke that’s been open too long. After that, our lovemaking didn’t get any better. In fact, sometimes when we fighting, I would often strike out at her by saying that sleeping with her was like making love to an inflatable doll.
Even though we tried to keep Daisy out of our battles, it could be that our daughter picked up our vibes. Maybe that’s why she split the house at such an early age. When she flew the nest, leaving us all alone, things didn’t get any better. As time went on, it seemed like we had less and less to talk about. Miriam enrolled in evening courses and learned reflexology, and I kept the embers burning with fiery and usually short-lived affairs.
I suppose the love of my life was my coaching. I had always been a nut over baseball. Somewhere down in our basement are a few old cartons filled with my childhood collection of baseball cards, old gloves, albums filled with newspapers clippings of long-gone Red Sox seasons, and one of Ted William’s last home-run balls that I snagged in the bleachers of Fenway Park. I was damn good third baseman in high school and college, but my dreams of a major-league career were shattered when I couldn’t even make the minors. So, I became a little-league coach instead.
If I had any religion at all, it was baseball. What I botched up at home, I made up for with the love I felt for the kids. Not every boy came from a well-to-do family, and each summer I would shell out close to two-thousand dollars to pay for equipment that poorer kids couldn’t afford. I told their parents that the money came from a special little-league fund, but it was really me who supplied them with the uniforms, gloves, helmets, bats, and baseball cleats that they needed. Not to mention the cost to feed twenty hungry ballplayers at the back-yard barbecue cookouts at my house, and the group outings to catch a doubleheader at Fenway Park, and the trophies I handed out to every kid on the team at the end of the season, whether we won the league championship or not. To my wife’s credit, she knew about my philanthropy and hardly ever protested. She knew that it made me happy, and maybe it was her way of expressing her own feelings about our not being able to have a son.
I know that baseball was a great outlet for me when I was a kid, and I wanted it to be that way for every boy on our team. A kid can be miserable at home, and a failure at school, but still be a star on the diamond. That’s the miracle and magic of baseball. But you need the basic equipment to start with, and I wanted everyone to have the same chance.
Don’t ask me to explain it, but if I came across as a terror to my daughter at home, I wasn’t that way with the kids on my team at all. No matter how much they screwed up and got into trouble at school, once they were out on the field, they were in a completely non-judgmental world, where the only things that mattered were how much you hustled, how hard you slid into home, and keeping your eyes on the ball.
“We are here to have fun,” I told them. “And to learn how to be human beings. It’s not important to me whether you guys win or lose, but how you play the game.”
Sure it was a clich? expressionn, but it was true. Over the years that I have been coaching, I’ve seen dozens of kids make complete turnarounds - from being borderline juvenile delinquents with all kinds of chips on their shoulders, to becoming real ballplayers in life – changes that I didn’t see happen very often in school.
Some of the boys were under my tutorage for two or three years, and it wasn’t uncommon for a real father-and-son relationship to develop that was even stronger than the connection the boys had with their fathers at home. To my satisfaction, there were boys who stayed in touch long after their little-league years, calling me on the phone for advice when they were in trouble, or when they were in the doghouse because of their girlfriends, or with problems at home. Some of my former little-leaguers even invited me to their weddings, and at least one baby was christened Craig after daddy’s favorite baseball coach.
Before long, there was a “STOP AHEAD FOR INSPECTION” sign on the road, and we came to an army checkpoint. When I began to slow down, my rider woke up with a start and said she had to get out. This was where she was stationed.
Not far along the highway, I stopped to pick up another hitchhiker, this time a black-hatted Hasidic Jew, dressed in long black garb, standing out in the hot sun in what looked like the middle of nowhere. He didn’t speak any English at all. Using sign language, I asked him where he was going.
“Ha Rambam,” he said. Then, in a very basic English, “Maimonides.”
“Maimonides?” I asked in surprise. “That’s the name of the high school where I teach.”
Not understanding anything I said, he opened the scholarly tome he was carrying, and started to study, as if not to waste any more time on our conversation.
Soon, like another mirage arising out of the desert, the sparkling blue waters of the Sea of Galilee spread out before us. We came to an intersection, and the Hasid pointed to the left, without asking me where I was going.
“Safed?” I said. “I’m going to Safed.”
The Hasid nodded his head, as if to say, “Yes, yes, this was the way to Safed.” Stopping by a picturesque viewpoint to take a picture, I glanced in my trusty tour guidebook and learned that these were the illustrious waters that Jesus walked upon, and that its northern bank was the site of his sermons. I recalled that the Pope, or the President, or maybe both, had been here on a visit. Dating back to Talmudic times, the city of Tiberias was situated on the western bank of the sea, which, by American standards, was a small to medium-size lake, being that you could see from one side to the other. The eastern bank rose steeply up to the ascents of the Golan Heights, which Israel has re-conquered from the neighboring Syria in the Six Day War.
The Hasid directed me through the traffic-jammed town of Tiberias, and motioned me to stop when we reached a modern, Calder-like sculpture that towered over a graveyard.
“Maimonides,” he said.
Without saying good-bye, he got out of the car and walked quickly up a path into the small cemetery, where, it occurred to me, Maimonides was buried. It seemed liked more than a coincidence that I had been brought precisely here, to the tomb of the rabbi-physician-educator that my high school was named after, so I decided to get out and pay my respects as well. A kiosk shop by the gate of the old cemetery sold soft drinks, religious trinkets, and framed portraits of a distinguished, turbaned rabbi with a neat black beard, whom I guessed to be the Spanish-born scholar.
I found the Hasid swaying back and forth in front of a large, impressive tomb where Maimonides was buried. A small plaque in English described his achievements in codifying the laws of the Torah, as a great rabbi, as a medieval Jewish philosopher, as a physician, and as a writer who penned numerous volumes, including the “Mishna Torah,” the “Guide to the Perplexed,” and the “Thirteen Principles of Faith.” Being a mathematician, I made a quick calculation that he had been dead for eight-hundred years. Without bothering the Hasid, I found some other visitor to take a picture of me in front of the tomb to show my colleagues back home.