Simcha chuckled a little at the last one. He’d lived a long,
long time and had yet to meet a trustworthy man, himself included. But a
politician who could be trusted, this he had
He painted in his shop most mornings, a thousand
brushstrokes before noon, and then a thousand after. He was methodical and old,
ancient by modern standards. He remembered when the sun was young and the Earth
was new, to him anyway. He remembered the sea when it was divided and recalled
how his people had walked through it on dry ground.
Simcha did two things well: he painted and he prayed. To be
honest, he had been praying for a leader, a good one, even a trustworthy one if
he was truly thinking about it. It was what he longed for. Why not put an
even-headed man in a place of power? Why not let the good guys run things for a
while? But he had forgotten until he was preparing to go out and meet the new
ruler for himself, or at least see him from afar, and scoffing that it was
impossible. But hadn’t he prayed for the impossible many times before and seen
it happen then too? Simcha was hopeful. Perhaps this was an answer.
He trudged along with his friends, the aged painter keeping
pace with even his friend’s young son easily. The Rif Mountains had been his
home long enough to keep his muscles strong. He knew the air, the hills, the
curve of the land and the pace he needed to keep to get anywhere on time. His
home was simple, but nestled in the clouds.
They approached the meeting place at the highest point of
noon. The sun was searing, scorching, and warning them to stay away, go home,
or hide inside. Normally, that’s exactly where they would be at this time of
day, but Simcha and his friends were hungry. Here was a promise, in a tent, on
A man could lead them, rebuild what had fallen away, inspire
the young, comfort the old, and make sure the bills got paid. They wanted to
see him, to judge for themselves, and talk about it on the way home.
Simcha wanted to look him in the eye. You can tell a lot
about a man by when he looks away. Simcha wanted to see if he would look away
first. He wasn’t sure he would be able to get close enough with a crowd eager
to see the new leader, so he prayed for that too. And he knew if the answer was
yes his job was to simply to look and see.
They entered through a loose flap in the meeting tent and
were stunned to see the place full, filled to overflowing, but with only a
moderate number of people. No more than 40. That was all who came out to see
the man who promised to change their lives? It was the hottest part of the day.
Some people don’t like heat. Simcha was astonished, however, because even an
elderly man like himself had walked the distance to be there and take part. His
heart was heavy at the lack of army around him, the small participation, and the
tiny tent. The organizers must have known the turnout would be like this. Disappointed, but encouraged that he would almost certainly be able to meet the
new ruler, Simcha sat down.
The speech began.
The man was small. Simcha expected that some of his
compatriots would call him unimpressive, maybe insignificant. But just as the
words appeared in his head they were whisked away. The man was short, thin, and
looked unexpected as far as the type of rulers they were used to, but Simcha
could tell he was significant. He had the look of a man who had been sent on
purpose, by a higher king. He smiled to himself. To the painter that meant only
one thing: God himself had sent this man. He fought the urge to revere a mere
man, but listened to every word.
The man was remarkable more for what he did not say than
what he did.
He did not talk about peace. He spoke about work.
“We have a lot to do,” he said.
Simcha noted he said we, not I.
“We have a fight. We did not look for it. It came to us,” he
said, nodded, and added, “We will fight.”
He was inspiring, but his message was simple.
“We can do this.”
“We were meant to do this.”
And then, what took Simcha’s breath away:
“This is the time to do this. Events have been brought
together by hands stronger than ours. We are not alone in this battle.”
Hands stronger… could he mean? And ours. Ours. Simcha was impressed by how he
included them.When he concluded the speech he did it in a way no one
expected, even the devout painter who had been praying for it.
He lowered his head in prayer, asking the Almighty to bless
and keep them, to make His face shine upon them. Simcha couldn’t believe it,
though he was the most faithful man there.
He stayed in his seat. Many of the attendees went to shake
the new leader’s hand and say hello. He received enough compliments to know
he’d done a good job, but did not seem interested in praise. The men shuffled
out into the afternoon one by one until just a few were left and Simcha rose
from his seat.
The new leader came over to him and extended his hand.
“What did you think of the speech?” He asked.
“Did you mean it,” was all Simcha asked and looked as deeply
as he could into the man’s eyes. He had to know. Was it real?
The leader paused for a long while and then said this:
“I am an ordinary man. You may not think I am insignificant,
but by myself I am just one small person. I think some vain thoughts, some
brilliant, maybe. I try to make myself strong, but the truth is I need a leader
myself. I will not move, walk, or step without first seeking guidance from
above, because to do so would be foolish.”
He hadn’t intended to say that to the aged painter, but the
look of respect in Simcha’s eyes reassured him. The elderly man bowed his head
“I will be praying for you to continue in that way,” he
The king smiled slightly, nodded his head and said, “Thank
May He pick up your anger and run with it, throwing it far away, past Mars, past the stars and, when you realize it's gone, pick up love instead. Not that kind of love that is about you or what you see or what you get, but the kind that picks up a blade and hacks away at someone else's anger, pulls it free, and runs off with it, throwing it into the sky.
My great-great-grandmother was 109 when she taught me how to make hummus. She would churn the machine by hand to grind the chickpeas. No one did work like that anymore, but she said it helped her to remember how hard it was not to forgive. To hold up your enemy in your heart and offer them to God was a gift for you.
She would pray a blessing, peace, and names, over and over. I forgive you. Some of the names she made up because she did not know who had dropped the bombs on her village or who had killed everyone she loved. Though she would remind me, it is far more difficult to forgive someone whose name you know. In turn, the sky would open and forgiveness would fall from it into her eager hands. She needed every bit of it just to live, just to take one more breath.
We celebrated the Forgiveness Festival each year, making the meal that would remind us why we do this, how our chains were broken, and for my great-great-grandmother, where our peace comes from.
Born in 1969, she had lived an entire liftetime before I came along, but as she liked to say, just kept on living after that. She could remember her days, each of them, clearly because she had the mind of Christ, not the feeble mind people expect when your eyes are old and your hair is gray.
She could recall a smile at a friend's joke 40 years before and what she felt like the first time humans landed on Mars. She remembered the speech a great man gave in a dark place. She had memorized each word, but discarded the memory of the darkness. She remembered his funeral with tears and forgave his killers, who she had always believed to be her own people.
She had forgiven wars and horrors and selfishness, foolishness, and deception. She had forgiven me, I believe, and herself, if you can.
Her health was startling. Who walks that far without a cane at her age? She didn't have time to stand still, she would tell us. But she seemed to me to have all the time in the world. As long as the sun rose, so did she, and I imagined she'd live forever.
We chose our ingredients for the meal carefully. Each would symbolize our forgiveness in one way or another, some long completed, and others yet to come. Her entries were simple, usually items we could not find anymore. Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ice Cream helped her forgive a friend, though she had long since forgotten what for. The company no longer existed, so we made the ice cream at home by hand with an old machine that required effort like everything else.
Each Spring, before the festival, we would travel far to the east to a town called Ufa for Bashkortostan honey. The best in the world, she would say. I would heartily agree, though it was the only honey left in the entire world. Her reason for including it in the festival was strange to me. She'd been afraid as a child, often and of most things. The dark. Monsters. People. Deep water. The Soviets.
"Did you forgive them?" I would ask.
"Kind of," she would always say, then add, "They never attacked us, so there wasn't really anything to forgive."
And then I would prompt, "Did they ever forgive us?"
"No," was her answer every time.
I am still not sure what she meant, but it never sat comfortably with me. I felt there was more to the story. But we can't forgive for others, only ourselves, and sometimes we do not understand another's burdens.
We would come to the salad last. In the bottom of a glass jar would go the dressing, a glop of oil and other fats and something called Ranch seasoning. It tasted tangy and sweet, but was disgusting to me. It was bloblike and messy. It had long gone out of fashion, only the elderly ate it now, covering perfectly good food with it. And, so, we did too. Above that, the jar would be filled with vegetables, then seeds, walnuts, and at the top spinach or lettuce or nothing at all. She shook the jar before serving and poured the whole thing into a bowl. I asked her once who she forgave with the salad. She told me simply that she just liked salad and it was time to celebrate because our chains were broken and we were free.