- This English version was first edited by Abraham Barzely from a literal translation of the Hebrew original. Barzely's version was also edited by Elizabeth Pask. A new Hebrew version was then prepared by Tirtsa Arzi, who consulted these two English versions, and this is a new English translation of this version. (1998)
- (C) All rights reserved to the Hayut Foundation.
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Part: 1 - a
The story starts no doubt with the donkey, the Hamor. The old donkey was dying, and I, Isaac, took it upon myself to take him outside the camp to leave him far, so that the stench of the carcass will not reach us.
I led him, the old donkey who had patiently carried me so many times on his back and could carry me no more. I led beyond the nearby hills. There I bound his legs and left him to die in the teeth of jackals, wolves and hyenas, and then the vultures that finish all flesh.
When I turned to go, I had again a strange vision: This time I saw on the hill strange buildings, built of grey stone. Buildings with thin walls, some straight and some curved. Below, at the foot of the hill, I saw giant beetles running upon turning wheels upon a dark strip. I looked toward the valley of Be'er Sheva, to our camp, and it appeared now to be a huge city of thousands of buildings, some incredibly tall. And it was an open city with no walls around it. I rubbed my eyes in wonder, and suddenly the vision disappeared without a trace. I saw only our camp as it was before, and returned there.
The next day, when I rose up early in the morning and went up into the hill to see what remained of the old donkey, I saw in amazement a live, healthy donkey, standing upon its legs, braying joyfully at me. Had the old donkey broken loose of the rope with which I bound it? >From closer, this donkey looked different: it was younger and lighter in color, and the rope was tied to its neck as a tether. I went still closer and examined him carefully. It was certainly a different donkey (though it looked much like the old one), but the rope was the same one I tied the donkey with the day before. I knew the rope, because when I interlaced it with my own hand, I was thinking about matters of ropes and knots: I was thinking of my own life, also tied in knots, thirty-seven of them, as the years of my age, and more knots will form in the future, though I do not know how many, and I wondered why my life-cord does not tie with others'. And since I recalled this deliberation, I remembered all the threads which I had laced together. So who had untied the old donkey and replaced it with a younger one? The only people who come here are the shepherds of Gerar, the Philistines with whom my father had made a covenant in the year when Ishmael was driven away.
And again I made another knot. Also the matter of the Philistines troubled my mind. Why had father made a covenant with them, after they had stolen our well? Why had father forgiven their king, Avimelekh, he who had taken my mother from us just before she became pregnant with me? Who of the two is my true father? Is there a connection between the events? Are they the ones who exchanged the old donkey for another one? Was it intended as a present? Or was I seeing visions again? I stroke the donkey with my hand, and felt him with all his being. No, this is no vision. But since I remembered yesterday's vision - of the city of immense buildings - I climbed up the hill to see if it was again there.
This time I saw no visions - but I saw the riders drawing near. I was gripped by an obscure fear when I saw them. My eyes fixed on their confident, arrogant leader on his horse and on his companions. Much before it was possible to see his face I knew: this is Ishmael. My brother Ishmael, who had disappeared many years before, when I was a small child. My brother whom I did not know whether he was devoured, or did he die of thirst, that bitter day after father had driven him from home; him and his mother Hagar. There was no doubt in my heart - this was surely Ishmael. I was beside myself. I did not know what to do: Should I run and fall upon his neck and hug him - or run home and tell the news? And perhaps he would not be happy to see me but the contrary: he would hate me? After all, it was for my sake that mother insisted upon driving him away into the desert, putting his life in jeopardy.
Some inner sense of duty commanded me to run to my mother, to Sarah, and tell her: Mother, Ishmael had returned! I took the donkey and ran back to camp. I was running toward Sarah's tent when I came upon my father. I had not seen him for many days. He had been in the desert, searching for his God, who had not spoken to him for weeks and months, and suddenly he was standing in my way. I said to him "Father, did you know? it's Ishmael!". "Yes. I know my son." he replied, "Ishmael is back, and the vulture swoops at the carcass. But where are you running my son?". "To tell it to mother." I answered. But he blocked my path and said "No. Keep it from her. Spare her that knowledge. There is not much time left". There was something strange about my father. A strange glint in his eyes. "Father?" I asked, "Has God spoken to you again?". "Not yet," he answered, "but I know that today He will speak. Today, at dusk, when you go to the field as is your habit. Come my son, I want to show you something."
We entered his tent. On the table there lay a small sharp knife and many straps of leather. "This idea came to me in the last week," he said, "but I still do not know how to execute it precisely. I am trying to prepare a kind of amulet from straps and threads of leather. An all-leather amulet. Two amulets in fact. One for the head and one for the arm. I think... no, not think, I know! I know that if I succeed in preparing the right amulet - I shall be able to reach God each time I pray."
Worry gripped me. In fact I had been worried about my old father for weeks and months. He had become more and more desperate in his attempts to contact his God and to converse with him more before he died. And now - the adored father, who had smashed the statues of all the idols, who had abolished all the means by which people tried to force their will upon God - now he himself was trying to prepare an apparatus for spells and to press himself upon God. My father saw my perplexity, but apparently mistook it, because he went on to speak about the return of Ishmael. "Do you remember that two months ago I left the camp and journeyed into the desert leading a camel caravan?" he asked, then continued before I could answer, "I went to look for Ishmael. When I found him, we both went to a city far away, by a mountain, at the edge of the desert, and there we built a shrine for God. A temple for the children of Ishmael... We built it not upon the way to Damascus, the way by which I came forth from Ur of the Chaldees, but on the opposite way, journeying southward to beyond the desert. We have erected a black cube, in which we placed a black stone that had come down from heaven. But when I returned back north, to our camp, I realized that we made a mistake. The stone we placed there was not the right stone. It did not contain the word of God. However, I know that there is a mountain in the desert, where what must be written down will be revealed. Only then, my son, we shall be able to build the temple. But this will not be a fixed temple made of stone. Not yet. We shall carry our temple as black cubes upon our flesh, upon our hands and heads. Together we shall build it, I and my children. Only then will God always be with us, at every prayer time".
All the time while father was talking, I was hearing him with preoccupied mind. I wondered whether he will also talk about the meaning of the return of Ishmael. It is clear that now, when they have already met again and reconciled, something will also happen about my own standing. Am I still the heir - or will Ishmael the firstborn inherit my father instead of me? Ishmael has sons, whereas I - a young man in his prime - am still single. How can I continue the dynasty without children? Now father even erected a shrine for Ishmael's children. But then he informs me that he erected it wrongly, that it does not contain the divine word which is his highest aspiration. What does he intend to leave me as legacy, a building, or some theories and writings? I was in distress, but I chose to continue talking about the things that bothered him - about amulets and the search for God: "But father, how can you make the amulets you desire, if you do not know what spells to write in them?" I asked. "My son," he said. "What is the most important is the Name of the creator of heaven and earth, and I shall write His holy name in the amulets". "But do you know His name?" I asked. "Whether I know it or not, my son, you will have to discover it by yourself. But just now another name was revealed to me, the name of the one who will reveal the holy name." he answered. "It is Israel. Not Ishmael, not Isaac - but Israel. This Israel is the name upon which the blessing will rest, a name that is so akin to your mother's name, Sarah... This Israel will be called to reveal the explicit name of the Creator: Hear, oh Israel, the Name our Lord, the Name is one. I do not know this Name and who this Israel is, whether a man, an angel or even God Himself. Only his name has been revealed to me, and that everything that God promised me - will be through him."
So, the old man is again engrossed in letter-games. From the time I grew up I knew it was one of his foibles. Yes, I could readily follow his new calculations. I knew the method. The sum of the Hebrew letters of Israel (éùøàì) is 541, the sum of the digits of this number adds up to 10, two digits which add up again to 1, the one God. Also the sum of the letters of Hebrew Ishmael (éùîòàì) is 451, which adds up to 10, which adds up again to 1, the one God. Likewise the Hebrew letters of my own name, Isaac (éöç÷) add up to 208, which adds up to 10, which adds up again to 1, the one God. Then the letters game led me on to think about my own name, Isaac-Yitzhak (éöç÷) which means 'will laugh'. My strange name. What has laughter to do with such an earnest family? Laughter as the command of God? Because it was God whose name is hidden from me who chose this impossible name for me. Strange are God's ways as far as names are concerned. For God also chose my brother's name, Ishmael, which means in Hebrew 'God will hear' or 'Will hear God'. And this was no help, look what cruel fate befell him. Father himself drove him, his son, away from our home to die. But perhaps it is just the opposite, perhaps he was rescued because of the name, perhaps God heard his crying when he was dying and saved him?.. And as for me - was I given a name that signifies fun and easy living. So I could sit in the tent and study while the slaves took care of all my needs. Am I also threatened by some danger? And if so - will laughter rescue me from it? It would be a strange danger and a still stranger rescue.
"Daddy" I finally said to him, "Enough reveries. Ishmael must have already reached the camp". We then left the tent to meet Ishmael.
They must have known each other well, for, when Ishmael saw my father, he prostrated himself on the ground before him, then rose and hugged and kissed him. And father kissed him too. But nevertheless - there was much tension between them. I could feel it in the air, and did not know whether to be pleased or sad about it. Father made fast rules at once: "Ishmael my son", he said, "please leave at once, so as not to grieve Sarah. Go to the tent outside the camp and wait there for us. Tomorrow, my son, we shall go on our journey."
I could feel the agitation of the two of them, even though not another word was spoken. Ishmael just bowed and left in the direction of the tent father appointed for him, and father too turned back and did not even glance at my direction, and returned - apparently - to the leather straps that so preoccupied him. I was left alone, acutely feeling an emotion which I could not understand. It would have been natural if there were guilt feelings and even animosity between the two of them, but it was clear - and father also explained to me just now - that they had met and reconciled. If father had built for Ishmael a shrine in his land, he must have also blessed Ishmael from the depth of his heart. And Ishmael, who had looked so confident and proud when he rode in, paid father full respect and also kissed him, without any signs of animosity. Yet the meeting between them had been amazingly short.
Ishmael had not related to me at all. It had been as if I had not existed. In fact - neither of them had related to me. My presence must have been unwelcome. It must have intruded upon them. Why could not we - Ishmael and I - have embraced each other? We were so close to each other in our childhood. So close. But now there was a distance, and an estrangement, and I could not approach him as father has done. Father who had driven him away on my account. But was Ishmael driven away or sacrificed (hukrav), namely "brought near"? Maybe both. He was certainly sacrificed for me. So that I could stay here in the tent and study.Was driven away because mother did not want the son of her bondwoman to inherit from father. But he was also brought near. It seems that Ishmael has forgiven father, but has not forgiven me. Does he hate me? Is he jealous? As a matter of fact, I am jealous of him. I sit here in comfort, while he had to fend for himself. Already as a boy he faced mortal danger in the desert, and stood well its harsh tests. Tests which I certainly would not have stood up to. All together, he seems much more capable than I to lead the tribe. This I must admit. For what have I changed since the time that he was cast away for my sake? I am still dependent on the table of father, by my mother's tent, and she still decides for me. In fact - just because of her that I have no wife and children yet, and thus certainly inferior to him. If only I could talk with her about this. But how?
Next ... Part 1 - b
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