Listen, O ye lovers of Israel. Take Heed! If you truly want to be righteous gentiles, you will read this book, "Heaven's Door," again and again , and study its lessons! Craig Peters is everyman, and the truths he learns from Saba Yosef are eternal. It isn't enough to declare one's love for Israel, a person seeking the true "Golden Path" must live his life in a moral fashion, as set down by the great Sages of Israel. Therefore my friends, cherish this little book. Take it with you wherever you go as a reminder. Send it to friends and spread its special blessings. For only $10 - that's right, my friends - only $10 dollars, the price of a movie and popcorn, you can send someone this little book of miracles and bring true godliness into his life.
And now, the next-to-last chapter:
Chapter Fifteen – A Night to Remember
“I’m going to send an email to your daughter,” Saba Yosef said, standing up from his desk.
“An email to my daughter?” I inquired.
Seeing the unworldly expression of the old man, I understood his meaning.
“You mean a spiritual email. I get it.”
“Afterwards, they are picking me up to take me to a class, where some students are learning Kabbalah. You get some sleep. I will see you in the morning.”
He walked across the room to the other side of the study, flicked on a light switch, and opened a door.
“This is a guest room. You can sleep here. There’s a bathroom and a shower, if you like.”
Then he walked toward the small dark synagogue and pushed open one of the glass doors. “Liela tov,” he said in Hebrew, wishing me goodnight.
After a few seconds, the light in the study went out, save for a small night light by his desk. In the dimness of the synagogue, I could see him standing by the opened ark, facing a Torah scroll. At the top of the ark, a small light shone on a plaque depicting the Tablets of the Law which Moses had received on Mount Sinai.
The guest room was neat with plain furnishings, a curtain on the window, and a few pictures of forest landscapes on the walls. After a visit to the bathroom, I sat down on the bed, but I felt too agitated inside to sleep, so I returned to the darkened study. The synagogue was empty. Quietly, I walked over to the glass doors and peered inside. Saba Yosef wasn’t there. The ark was closed. Outside, I heard a car-door shut and a car drive off. I was alone in the cottage. Not knowing if I was doing anything wrong or not, I stepped into the small sanctuary and sat down in the pew directly in front of the elaborately carved wooden ark. Perhaps it was the late hour, or the dizzy tiredness of the journey and the whirlpool of events, or maybe it was caused by a light shining into a window, but when I gazed up at the plaque of the Ten Commandments, some of the Hebrew letters seemed to shine on and off, like the neon sign on the roof of an all-night pub. If I had ever learned what the Ten Commandments were, I had forgotten them long ago, and I didn’t want to guess which ones were flashing now to remind me of my wrongdoings. All I knew was that I felt soiled inside through and through. I wanted to submerge all of my life in the mikvah I had immersed in upon my arrival in Safed, what seemed like months before, and cleanse myself in its purifying waters. It was a crazy idea, but I didn’t feel like sleeping, the books in the study were all in Hebrew, so I had nothing to read, and, in the middle of everything, I wanted to make sure that the rental car was still where I had left it. Figuring it wouldn’t be hard to find my way down the mountain road to the Old City of Safed, I left the cottage to embark on an adventure that would have seemed to me totally irrational and bizarre just a few days before.
The rain had ended and there was a feeling of spring cleanliness in the air. I followed the forest road back to the highway, where the mystical city of Safed spread out across the hillside. Even though it was in the middle of the night, several cars passed, momentarily framing me in their headlights before speeding by. Reviewing the lessons that I had heard from the old man, I made my way along a sidewalk leading down the slope to the village square at the entrance to the sleeping hamlet. A sign in English pointed the way to the ancient cemetery where the mikvah was located. Sure enough, the rental car was right where I had left it, not far from my hotel. I put the tape recorder inside, figuring I would drive back to Saba Yosef’s cottage. With the familiarity and confidence of a mountain gazelle, as if I had traveled over the hillside dozens of times before, I made my way through the alleyways leading down the slope, bounding over shattered stairs and uncertain terrain, until I left behind the silent artist’s quarter and the old houses in the midst of restoration.
Suddenly, around a corner and down a few more stairs, I came to a dead end, and there, down the steep mountain slope, lit up by floodlights, was the ancient graveyard. At the bottom of a long flight of steps was the cave which housed the supernatural immersion pool. Remembering how cold the water had been during the day, my body involuntarily shivered, thinking how freezing it must be at night. But I was determined to take a plunge, sensing that’s its mystical waters were the gateway to my redemption.
As if compelled inexplicably forward, I hurried on toward this strange, middle of the night rendezvous, or maybe battle, with the demons of my past. Suddenly, my foot slipped recklessly on one of the rain-drenched stairs, and I toppled headlong forward, completely out of control, down the cold and wet stairway, banging my head again and again and again against indifferent slabs of rock and marble. My first surprised shout echoed over the mountains. It was as if I could see myself tumbling over and over, but there was absolutely nothing I could do. Vainly I tried to shelter my head with my hands, but my arms wouldn’t stay in one place for more than seconds. My cell phone fell out of my pocket and tumbled alongside me down the slippery descent. Five, ten, fifteen stairs, I couldn’t count how many. My skull caved in like a soda can. I heard myself groan with anguish. Then I felt my spine crack at the back of my neck, a terrible, terrible pain, and then a terrifying numbness. By the time I hit the bottom, I didn’t feel a thing.
Immediately, I knew I was dying. The strange thing was that my analytical, mathematical brain was still intact, observing the whole scene from above my twisted body, as it lay stretched in all directions on the pavement. A trickle of rainwater carried my blood down the descent toward the cemetery. I hovered nearby, watching it all, like a cameraman filming a story.
A Hasid emerging from the mikvah discovered my lifeless form. “Oy vay, oy vay,” he repeated, starting to pray. Bending down, he wrapped his towel around my head to stop the bleeding. Fortunately, he had a cell phone. In Israel, everyone does, I noted, rather matter of frankly, as if all this was happening to somebody else. As the minutes ticked by, waiting for an ambulance to arrive, another Hasid on the way to the mikvah appeared, followed by another and yet another until soon there was almost an official prayer minyan of ten. I supposed their supplications and Psalms are what kept my soul lingering over my body - and the mouth-to-mouth resuscitation of bearded youth dressed in a soldier’s uniform. At intervals, he pounded on my chest to keep my heart beating. Finally, I was rolled onto a stretcher, an oxygen mask was placed over my mouth, and medics, along with my religious saviors, carried me up the long ascent of stairs to the waiting ambulance.
On the screeching, unsteady ride to the hospital, the siren probably woke up the whole city, unless the war-wearied Israelis were accustomed to things like that. I know that I wasn’t, and the high-pitched wail was unbearable, as if it were coming from the center of my brain. It could be that anywhere else on earth, the ballgame would have been over, but Israel is well practiced in emergencies, and a full staff of nurses and surgeons was waiting for me by the time the ambulance arrived at the hospital. As a longtime coach of the little leagues, I appreciated their professionalism and training as they inserted all sorts of tubes into me in all kinds of places.
The after-life foray that followed was not at all lighthearted, nor fun, but I will try to relate it in a gentle manner, leaving out many of the terrifying details, knowing that my readers would never believe me, or think that I am either crazy or making it up, if I were to describe it exactly as it was.
The results of a CT were discouraging. I didn’t understand what the doctors were saying, but I could tell from their eyes. On the operating table, while they were draining my shattered skull and battered brain of blood with a suction tube that made a rattling, deathlike noise, the monitors went flat. The fragile, beep - beep - beep of my life fell silent, my soul ceased hovering like a helicopter around the operating theater and shot up like a rocket into outer space.
I knew that I was dead, and that my soul had been released to find its own way, like a tourist without a map. My soul traveled at a frightening speed up through a long endless tunnel. Far in the distance was an incredible light, brighter than a thousand suns. I was being taken toward the light, I don’t know by whom, like the medics who had carried me up the graveyard stairway to the ambulance. Suddenly, it felt like someone had turned up the heat. As we sped onward through the furnace-like tunnel, my parents and grandparents appeared, calling out my name, reaching out their arms to embrace me. But no matter how hard I tried, I was unable to reach them.
Faces, horrible faces, peered out at me from the darkness of the tunnel, rushing forward to scratch out my eyes, like the demons and ghosts in an amusement-park House of Horrors. I didn’t know who they were, but I felt a terrible shame, as they called out, “Wicked man! Sinner!”
It seemed like a long time before Saba Yosef arrived at the hospital. With his hooded white gown, he didn’t look too different from the masked and gowned doctors in the operating room. No one seemed to mind that the old man was there. As far as they were concerned, their work was finished. My brainstem was gone. There was nothing more they could do.
Fortunately, Saba Yosef was not about to throw in the towel. He stood alongside my body and started some surgery of his own. When he rested his hands over my head, my whole being trembled, as if the scattered, jigsaw-puzzle pieces of my spine and skull were flying back into place.
Suddenly, with what sounded like a screeching of brakes, my express ride through the darkness began to slow down, and the furnace inside the tunnel began to cool down, as if a heat shield of love had been jettisoned into place. With closed eyes and a look of atomic concentration, the holy man prayed for my soul. As for me, I was in the center of a tug of war, being pulled in opposite directions.
Finally, my invisible escorts let go, and I was catapulted forward into the infinite light, a light that was more than light, an indescribably radiant pool of kindness, healing, and love. But I was only given a momentary taste, as if to briefly experience the eternal heavenly bliss that I had forfeited forever by pursuing ephemeral earthly lusts. Then, I was hurled into a terrifying empty void where I was standing in outer space with nothing under my feet to prevent me from falling.
Hearing the thundering crash of a judge’s gavel, I turned to see the incredibly holy figure of Maimonides, presiding over a tribunal of sages, their beards flowing behind them like rivers into the golden gardens of Paradise. I didn’t see anything that looked like God, but I felt His presence everywhere, filling me with an unbearable shame.
Poised over the terrifying dark abyss, about to plummet into oblivion, I was treated to a movie of my past, where all of my deeds, and words, and thoughts, and wasted moments flashed by in an instant, portraying every single moment of my life, my childhood, high school, college, marriage, everything I ever did, with all of my stolen pleasures and adulteries graphically filmed in a “This Is Your Life” youtube that filled me with a feeling of horrible shame, much worse than the fires of hell.
“But I didn’t know!” I protested. “No one ever taught me!” I cried out in self-defense.
“He didn’t know,” the Maimonides concurred, speaking up in my defense. “Furthermore, he has expressed his sincere repentance.”
Suddenly, my hovering over oblivion ended, leaving me on the floor of a celestial courtroom.
“Because of his repentance, his punishment in the afterworld is waved,” an evil, menacing voice declared. “Nevertheless, he is sentenced to death. You can take him into the Garden.”
Up on the movie screen behind the tribunal of judges, I saw my funeral in a New England cemetery with manicured lawns. I saw my friends, some grown-up little-leaguers, my colleagues from school, the one-armed principal standing beside my wife - only my daughter was missing as a hired minister eulogized me, saying all kinds of exaggerated fables about what a wonderful person I was, a model to the community, an inspiring teacher, and all the other generalities and falsehoods that eulogizers are wont to say at funerals. The platitudes and evasions filled me with shame, realizing that all of the judges in Heaven, and the Ruler of the Universe, knew the realities of my life, and the paucity of my truly altruistic deeds.
“It’s not true, it’s not true, the things they are saying,” I called out, embarrassed to the depths of my being, unable to look at the screen.
Then the hooded image of Saba Yosef appeared before me, like a counselor for the defense.
“You can go straight into Heaven, right now, if you choose,” he informed me. “Your repentance has opened the gates.”
Sure enough, the towering gateway to Paradise was opened, as if waiting for me to enter.
“I want to go back to my wife,” I told him. “I don’t want to die. I want to live a better life. I want to prove to all of the people at my funeral, and to all of you, that I can be a better person. Isn’t that what you were trying to teach me?”
The loving light, and an irresistibly beautiful music, reached out toward me from the Garden, as if enticing me to change my decision.
“Are you certain?” the old man asked like a friend.
“The decision has already been rendered,” the evil voice interrupted. “The case is closed. The death sentence stands.”
“Take me instead,” Saba Yosef called out.
The proceedings froze. Everything in the celestial courtroom stood poised to hear the verdict. The silence lasted forever.
“I will deposit my soul with this tribunal,” the old warrior saint continued, “on the condition that you give the accused a second chance. If he reverts to his ways, then my soul is yours for the taking. But if he keeps true to his promise to live a better life, then we both remain free amongst the living.”
Even Maimonides seemed surprised at the unusual offer. For over ninety years, the Angel of Death had been waging all of his powers and skills to remove this holy Jew from the world, but permission had never been granted. Now, to save me, the old man was putting his own life on line in barter.
“Request granted!” Death’s booming voice consented.
The sound of Maimonides’ gavel echoed throughout the universe. I was lifted up by a powerful suction and swept away, back through the dark tunnel at an incredible speed until I was back in my body. Once again, the monitors started to beep. The nurses still in the operating room stood frozen. All eyes gazed up at the screens. Heartbeat normal. Blood pressure normal. Oxygen level normal. Brain waves steady.
“Open your eyes, my friend,” Saba Yosef said. “You can get up now. Everything is fine.”
With tubes sticking out all over me, I started to rise.
“Doctor Friedman! Doctor Friedman!” a nurse screamed, rushing forward to hold me down.
Saba Yosef went home. The startled doctors took another CAT scan, but didn’t find anything wrong. My skull, my brain, my spinal cord, everything was one-hundred percent normal. Even so, they kept me in the hospital for the entire day, so they could keep an eye on me and measure my vital functions. No one could explain what happened. Some nurses attributed my recovery to Saba Yosef, as if it were another ordinary happening in the mystical city of Safed. But there was no medical explanation for the miracle that had occurred. An elderly Sefardi woman, visiting another patient in my room, commented, “God is great.” That said it all.
After I was released from the hospital, I drove back up the forest roadside to the rural cottage to thank Saba Yosef and wish him goodbye. When he came out to the porch, I bent down to kiss his hand as I had seen others do. But he pulled his hand away and gave me a big hug, as if I were an old friend. Startled, I could feel his almost skeletal frame.
“Remember,” he said. “If you revert back to your old ways, you will not only be jeopardizing your life, you will be jeopardizing my life as well. Just make sure that you guard over the lessons we learned and keep to the golden path.”
I promised him that I would.
He walked with me out to the car.
“Can I ask you one last question?” I inquired.
“If you only have one question after all that happened to you, I must be a very bad teacher,” he said with his half-toothless grin.
“Do you think I am doing the right thing by going back to America? Maybe I should stay here near you.”
Saba Yosef glanced around, as if appreciating his home in the forest.
“Yes, it is very beautiful here,” he concurred. “Nevertheless, Maimonides writes that complete penitence is when a person returns to the same place that he was, and being presented with the same temptation, turns away from it, not because he fears punishment, or because he no longer has the strength, but because he is truly penitent over the misdeeds of the past.”
I nodded, apprehensive about letting him down.
“If you were tested in the past, you are going to be tested a hundred times more now,” he warned me. “A man’s evil inclination is an old-time warrior, even older than I am. Be on the lookout for him. Don’t ever drop your guard. He has many different disguises. Sometimes, he can appear as an enemy, and sometimes as a friend.”
A car drove up the road and stopped. A family climbed out, and the mother guided a youth who looked to be blind. Like most people in the world, I thought.
“Remember,” the old man said. “You’re out on probation. The stakes are much higher now.”
He put his hands on the top of my head and blessed me. Once again, I felt the same loving shield of invincible, protective rays that I had experienced in the hospital.
“May the Lord bless you and watch over you,” he said. “May the Lord shine His countenance upon you and be gracious unto you. May the Lord raise His providence upon you and grant you peace.”
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