The house was consumed in flames. I looked around for my daughter-in-law and my grandchildren. They were not to be found among the small group of our neighbors standing in the cold night, their faces lit by the howling fire. I screamed and ran toward the house. I felt the flames burn my hair. My husband caught me and pulled me to the ground. “There is nothing to be done!” he said.
I beat him furiously with my fists—this soft, ineffectual, almost invisible man. This father who had been no father to my beloved son. I beat him until he grabbed my hands and held them to the ground.
At that moment, my life was forever changed. It entered a shadow that only deepened as the days went by. What sort of God destroys the lives of the most innocent among us? What sort of God justifies such senseless suffering? Was I still paying for my sin with the Roman soldier? Was my son being punished for his blasphemies in the synagogue? Clearly God had turned his back on me. Was this to be my fate—to love so deeply and yet so hopelessly? To be raised up only to be cast down? I remained alone, exhausted, unheeded, still ignorant of God’s will. I dreaded what was to come next—telling my son he had lost his entire family.
We sent word to Capernaum for my son to return home. What could I tell him after such a loss? What words were possible? The only words I had were a cry of despair.
It was evening when he returned, the sun setting, the earth rapidly being overtaken by night. When he was told, he reached out to my husband standing next to him to steady himself. His face turned pale, his eyes stared far off into the darkness. My husband said, “Be strong, you must be strong.”
My son looked into my eyes. “I’m a dead man,” he said and walked away from us, as if for the last time.
There was no consoling him, no reasoning with him. He retreated deep into himself, remaining curled in his bed, speaking to no one, taking food and water only if they were forced on him. He never once said a word to me, his eyes staring straight ahead as if entranced. We had a Greek doctor come from Tiberias to treat him, but to no avail. The doctor said he was possessed by an evil spirit. I said, “No, he has given up life.”
Many days passed. Nothing changed. Then one day, he got out of his bed. We were alone in the house. He asked me for some water. I gave him a full cup, and he drank it all, his hands trembling from weakness. Then he said, “I now see what I must do.”
I waited for him to explain.
“I’m going away,” he said. “I’m going to seek my father.”
“That’s impossible,” I said. “You don’t even know his name or where he might be living.”
“Not him. My father in heaven. I see what’s required of me now. Everything I most loved was taken away from me—why? Was I being punished? If so, what wrong had I done? I was just doing what every other man does. But that’s it, don’t you see? I was blind. I could not see. God opened my eyes.”
I asked him, “What do you see?”
“I see but I don’t understand entirely,” he said. “I see that we are called to something greater than the things that distract us here on earth—earning our daily bread, living up to what people expect of us, showing how loyal we are to our people, our traditions, our family. None of this is important. This is a very deep truth, and it’s up to me to carry this truth to the world.”
“The world isn’t interested in the truth,” I said. “People believe what suits them.”
“Yes,” he said. “It’s true of many but not all. Some will listen and some of those will understand and take comfort.”
“What is it you hope to accomplish, my son?”
“To fulfill my destiny,” he said. “Whatever it is God created me to do. It’s like a journey—I go this far and then I go a bit farther; I keep on going; I trust in God to guide me on my way, no matter how hard. I will only know why when I have reached my destination.”
“These are dangerous times,” I said. “I’m afraid for you, son.”
He said, “I can’t worry about that. Suffering, defeat, despair, doubt—these are the demons we must fight and vanquish if we are to be transformed into something better than what we are. There is no victory without bitter struggle, without total defeat.”
I heard his words, but I did not understand them. They seemed to me the words of a madman. He saw the tears form in my eyes and wiped them away with his fingers. I said, “Is this what you want to teach people? If it is, you must know that it is something almost no one wants to hear. People want to be free of struggle and suffering. Only those who must struggle to survive, only those in the midst of suffering are glad to hear there is a meaning to their lives.”
“The truth is the truth,” he replied, “whether we agree with it or not.”
“But how do you know this?”
“I just know it,” he said. “God has given this for me to see.”
“Yes, for you, but why must you try to convince others? These are things that make many people angry. You’ve seen how they can react.”
“I must trust in God,” he said.
I shook my head, unable to speak, the words caught like bile in my throat. I could only squeeze his rough adult hands in my own. I thought: trust in God—look where that has taken us. My poor son, seeking the attention of a father he never had. What does God care who does this or who does that? It’s all for nothing in the end. In the end we return to the darkness we emerged from—like the millions who preceded us, the millions who will follow us—each one looking to be saved from the vast indifference around them. What is the point of such a God—a God who is given all of the credit for whatever good befalls us but none of the blame? What is the point of taking a mother’s love and making it into a cross upon which to crucify her? What is the point of taking her well-meaning, goodhearted son and destroying him upon the cross of his delusions?
I held him close to me, not daring to speak. Even so, my blasphemous thoughts had no doubt already sealed our doom.
I shook my head in misery and despair.
Then he said, “God has decided on the path I am on—a hard path and a path of discovery. I must prove my worthiness. I must show that I understand what God wants of his people. And I must show that I am willing to do anything he commands of me.”
“No!” I trembled to hear these terrible words.
“Please don’t do this!” I begged him.
“I know what I want, Mama,” he said. “Now I must go out and do what I can to get it. I can’t live any other way. My life is worthless unless I try.”
I held him close to me and kissed him over and over, my tears wetting his face and mingling with his own tears.
A mother knows the heart of her son.
My son, my beloved son, I weep to think what will become of him. He will do what he has to do no matter what. He will show God that he is worthy of his admiration. What is most frightening is his courage, his determination to prove himself, to say anything, to take any risk. In the end, I fear, it will come down to the final test—whether or not he is willing to give his life for what he believes. He will reason: “Everything has led to this. God has led me to this final test. I cannot fail him now.”
He will have no fear. He has nothing to live for but his dreams. He is already half a ghost.
I know my son, and I know he will not let himself fail. And it will be unimaginably horrible. The image of his angry denunciations in the synagogue and the effect they caused come back to me. The hate and the ridicule they aroused. The look of murder in the eyes of our neighbors, who took his words as poison.
The future can only bring much worse. The nightmare of a senseless martyrdom that will blight my life till the day I die descends like a suffocating blackness about me. And even though it occurs to me that all this might be exactly what God had in mind all along, I cannot accept it. It’s unthinkable. Nothing, not even God, can put out the eternal light of a mother’s love.
“I can’t worry about that. Suffering, defeat, despair, doubt—these are the demons we must fight and vanquish if we are to be transformed into something better than what we are. There is no victory without bitter struggle, without total defeat.”