It is a beautiful day. The sun is out. We’re shopping, visiting the individual stalls in the shuk and talking to the owners – some of whom I’ve known for 42 years. The awnings of the stalls hang out into the alley between them, providing much needed shade for products and proprietors alike – just as similar awnings have done for millennia. The cobblestones’ worn faces massage my feet with their gentle edges as I pass over them.

It’s a beautiful and peaceful day.

Most importantly, Abdul is in a good mood.

I can barely get by when he isn’t. He’s 51 years old and it seems like his bad days are getting worse and worse. And his good days are getting less and less frequent. I’m 74 and his rages are getting dangerous for me. I might need to put him in a home – but he’s my boy and I don’t want to. So I accept G-d’s decree and simply enjoy the good days when they come.

Today is a good day. Abdul, my sweet, sweet boy, is following behind me. He’s carrying our shopping bags. He is very strong. Today, that’s a blessing.

There’s a stall here that sells spices. It’s owned by a man named Hassan, who was once from Pakistan. The stall itself is simply beautiful to see and incredible to smell. Dozens of spices crowd against each other in a riot of color and smell. Sometimes I buy something new, something I’ve never had before. I ask Hassan what it’s called. Sometimes I go home and Google it and find a recipe. But sometimes I just smell it and imagine how it might be heated and mixed and added to other flavors to make something wonderful and new. It is always a treat, a luxury.

Today, I feel like a luxury.

I point at something deep brown that looks like a collection of seeds and ask, “Abdul, what about that one?”

He sticks his face towards it, inhales and says in a soft voice that belies his size, “I like.”

So I ask Hassan and he measures out a tiny amount and places it in a small bag. It is enough for a few dishes, it always is – he knows I can’t afford more. I can always tell how strong the spice is by how much he ladles out.

The spice is 30 Zusim. I pay 10 from my own account and 20 in subsidy comes from the government.

Our city is different than most. We don’t receive food stamps, a pension or some monthly ration. We have to spend a bit of our own money, whether we get it from charity or work, in order to get our initial subsidy. Between my savings and my shared subsidy with Abdul, we have enough to barely get by. We could spend more, but the subsidy would diminish and our money wouldn’t go as far.

I want to keep as much for Abdul as I possibly can.

“What is it?” I ask.

It is a formality, I always ask.

“Ajwain,” replies Hassan, “Heat will reveal its flavor.”

I thank Hassan, tuck the small and precious bag into one of Abdul’s larger shopping bags and continue walking down the narrow path between the stalls.

It is then that I see a man I haven’t seen in 42 years; and even then only for brief moments.

A flood of memories come back.

He sees me and he lowers his eyes. He is clearly filled with shame.

And then I see him gather his resolve and begin to walk towards me.

“Time to get up, dear.”

The voice is soft and calm and it shakes me from my nightmare.

I open my eyes.

“How are you feeling?”

“My teeth ache,” I answer, popping out what seems to be a decorative mouth guard. “Another nightmare.”

“What happened this time?”

“Same thing,” I answer. I’d told her in the past. My dreams are always the same. I make some wrong turn, or shake the wrong man’s hand – any stupid mistake really – and I get blown up or shot dead. What I don’t tell her is that my nightmares don’t end with my death; they used to, years earlier. Now they end later, with my family abandoned and suddenly at grave risk themselves.

“It’s the first day,” she says.

“I know. Add it to the reasons I don’t sleep well.”

She just smiles.

“Are you sure you want to be here?” I ask, “With the kids?”

“My dear,” she answers, “I want the kids to see your work.”

“It might be dangerous.”

“It might be. We all have our time.”

We’ve been through the conversation dozens of times before. I still don’t buy that we have a time. I still don’t understand why she wants to be here with the children.

Even I don’t want to be here.

I roll out of bed, wash my hands, shower, pray and eat my breakfast. Oats again; watching my cholesterol. I’m not going to check my blood pressure – I’d probably be hospitalized.

I kiss my wife. I kiss my two little boys and my little girl. And then I open the front door of our trailer, 3 minutes earlier than planned.

There’s a guard there – a guy by the name of Eran. His head is clean-shaven and dark. His eyes are aggressive. Very few things surprise him, and I don’t either.

“Boker Tov,” I announce.

“Boker Ohr,” he replies, in a thick Israeli accent. That’s about the extent of my Hebrew – my work is in English.

Eran leads me out to my Jeep. There’s a driver waiting. I know him as well. The drive isn’t very long, but the Jeep is armored and the time has begun to take precautions.

My office is on the edge of the city. Well, you could call it a city, but there are no residents, not yet. Within minutes, we come to the double-wide trailer that serves as an administrative building. I’d considered living right next door to it, but I didn’t want people to always know where to find me. And I didn’t want to totally lock myself away from the town itself.

There’s a guard inside. He opens the gate and the Jeep pulls up. I get out and walk inside. Waiting for me is a room full of worried faces.

“How are we doing today?” I ask, trying to be jovial.

There is no answer. I didn’t want to be in charge. I kept trying to find others to take my place. But nobody would.

And so I set to work.

“First things first. Security. How is it looking?”

A small wiry man named Itai answers. He’d been a General once, but was now he was retired. I’d spoken to dozens of people – trying to convince them to join up. I’d chosen an Israeli because I needed somebody who knew the terrain. But really, I’d chosen the first person with the basic qualifications who really loved the project. Itai fit the bill.

“All of our systems are working, there’s nothing exciting going on. The people outside have been given pagers and spaced away from each other. We’ve got everybody on deck, nobody is on leave.”

“And the mines?”

“We found another one last night. We think it’s the last of them… We’ll find out today.”

Nobody laughs.

“Information Technology?” I ask. I turn to a tall, blond, American woman by the name of Elizabeth. She was a do-gooder who I sold on a unique chance to make a difference. She wasn’t too stupid either. She’d made billions on Internet payment systems and was ready for a new challenge.

“We distributed accounts to the soldiers last week. We’re paying them locally – partially as a supplement to their normal wages, but partially because we needed somebody to test with. One of them even started a business on the side – selling frozen treats from a vending machine. The tax and welfare system appears to be working robustly and is, at this point, bug-free. At least from a software side. At this point, we just have to see what happens when the real people get here and try to cheat it.”

That draws a few nervous laughs.

Water, sewage, electricity. We have hookups to the outside world, but little else. Gravel roads have been laid out in some kind of pattern. Warehouses of tents await the residents.

Finance is my responsibility.

“I checked the accounts and did the math last night. We’re ready to set the welfare levels. The first five hundred Zus each individual newcomer spends will have two thousand Zus in spending power. The next five hundred will have one thousand in spending power. Then 750 for the next five hundred. And then parity. If you don’t have anything to spend, even if it comes from charity, you get no subsidy.”

Elizabeth types vigorously into her laptop.

“What about tax rates?”

“We’ll start at 30%. Just so everybody knows, this isn’t an income tax. All revenue is taxed at 30% – the same for both individuals and businesses. When individuals spend, they get their subsidy. Until it is used up. And when businesses spend on their businesses or distribute their money to their owners, their withheld tax gets returned and then the owners get taxed on the income they realize. The goal is to encourage productive spending.”

People always begin to drift off at this point – even though I consider it incredibly exciting.

I just hope it all comes together as a living system; a system that pushes productivity while also helping the weakest survive. Elizabeth looks interested – so that makes me happy.

“We also have investors lined up – I think we could pull in a few tens of millions for small businesses.”

People perk up a bit at that.

I pause.


A striking man named Daoud, possessed of a crystal clear voice, answers, “We have import and export permits ready. The Israeli government will allow us to ship through Haifa, although inspections will be heavy at first. A Cypriot airline will provide passenger service to Nicosia – but we need to get the EU to set up a Visa program before they’ll pull the trigger. It will take a while for things to settle in, but I think, once we have a track-record, we’ll be okay.”

It was a massive hole of uncertainty.

“Finally,” I ask, “Avigail, tell us about profiling?”

“When we gave out the pagers, we collected people’s basic documents and blood samples. We’ve begun researching them. We don’t really have enough to establish real criteria for who gets in – we’ll have to play it a little bit by ear.” Avigail, a short, slightly rotund, woman with soft eyes. Avigail was an incredibly considerate person – which was probably why she was so frighteningly clear-headed in her analysis of people.

“What kind of people have come?”

“What types?” she asks.

“Where are they from? What are their ethnicities?”

“We’ve got a good mix. Some Druze, a few Yazidi, quite a few Alawites. Quite a few Arabs, mostly Muslims from Iraq, Syria and the Palestinian Territories. We also have some Pakistanis, some Eritrians and Somalians and even a Chinese family. All in all, there are fifteen thousand people waiting out there.”

The room freezes.

Fifteen thousand.

“Fifteen thousand,” says Avigail, sensing the mood of the room, “And the satellite footage shows thousands more coming in the next few days.”

I look around the room at the worried and stressed faces. The task seems enormous – our path from here to a real city seems frightfully gray. And the responsibility seems overwhelming.

And so I begin to speak.

It is the time to speak.

“Folks, this whole thing started two years earlier when I wrote an editorial. As you all know, it called for a City of Refuge. Not a city of refugees, but a city where people could run to, as immigrants. The editorial called for a place where these people could abandon the failed ideologies of the places they’d run from and build something new. It was to be like Hong Kong, or Amsterdam, or East Berlin or even the New World. It was to be a place where people could flee the ideas that had governed and destroyed their homes and instead build something new and better and hopeful. It called for a place whose ideas would ultimately infect their original homes and transform them into something greater.

“I desperately wanted somebody to take the idea and run with it. Some Prime Minister or President. Some technocrat. Maybe a general. I hadn’t expected a phone call. I hadn’t wanted one.

“But the call came and I was informed that the project had been granted a small budget and a parcel of land. Here. This land. Just south of the abandoned Syrian town of Qunietra. But the budget was small. And the manpower was inadequate. The government didn’t consider this project core to its security. So they wouldn’t require any soldiers to support the effort. And so I began to travel. I used the budget to speak and to seek out people who could help. Security experts, psychologists, informational technology experts. The shopping list was long. There was some money, but our fundamental currency was something else. It was opportunity.

“And so when I met you, I sold each of you on the ideas of a new society, a society that encouraged productivity while also providing social welfare. A society that simplified government. A society that had connection to the unchanging divine at its core; even as it encouraged constant growth and development. I showed you my vision of how it could be possible. And, one by one, you signed up.

“John Winthrop famously called the New World a City on a Hill. He wanted America to be an example to the world. He succeeded. Despite many shortcomings, his efforts were the germ of a set of ideas that transformed humankind. Now the time has come for another germ. This is our City on a Height. And you are the best – not only because of your skills, but because of your dedication. You have taken my very broad concepts and you have made them stronger and more robust. And – in a few hours – you will have made them a reality.”

“This city, this Protectorate, will not be democratic. Not at first. It will be governed by us. The check on our power will be the flow of people. We draw them in and the City will grow. If we abuse our power, they will leave, and our city will crumble.”

“At this point, it seems like we have nothing. Some tents and caravans and computers. We have a border fence. But we do not have nothing. We have thousands of people outside these walls. People who share your vision… Avigail?”

“Yes?” she answers.

“Do we have any shopkeepers?”


“So we’ll have stores. How about builders?”

“Maybe a hundred.”

“So we’ll have houses and apartments. What about civil engineers?”

“We have a few of those.”

“So we’ll have running water and electricity and sewage. Road builders?”

“We have a guy who used to drive a paver.”

“Give it a few days, and we’ll have what we need to build roads. The people will come – and they are coming to build. They are not coming as refugees or as charity cases. They are coming to build something new. So they’ll start poor, but they’ll build and they’ll produce. And they’ll sell, one to another… Do we have singers and writers and artists and directors?”

Avigail nods.

“Our city is outside these fences. All of the possibility is waiting outside. There is opportunity and hope waiting to come inside our walls. We have people walking away from the sicknesses of the societies they’ve come from. It takes courage and strength and determination to do that. It says in the Bible that you must bring in and settle escaped slaves. I believe that this is because only the best have the drive to escape. To deny them a home would be to deny tremendous human potential.”

I paused for a minute.

“But these people, the people we want, aren’t alone. There are also people who are hoping to bring their sicknesses to us. They are hoping to destroy us. They are hoping to eliminate our ideas before they can flourish. This is why our first job, today, is to sort them out. Profiling and files can only go so far – beyond that, we will need to rely on our guts.

“One hundred thousand people a month came to Hong Kong. 8,000 bombs – 1,000 of them real and 7,000 duds – were cleared by police. The Communists tried to destroy the poison of hope that had set up shop on their borders. But they didn’t succeed. Our enemies will try to destroy us as well. We won’t be perfect in stopping them. But we have no choice other than to be good enough. That is our first task and it starts today. Everybody will interview today. In the future, there will be a dedicated intake staff. And if we have hard cases, we’ll kick them up to Avigail and ultimately to myself.”

“15,000 people are out there. Tonight, some will come within our walls and we’ll have the beginnings of a new society.”

I turn to Itai, the security chief.

“Are we ready?”

“We are ready.”

“So let’s begin.”

I’d expected something more impressive. I’d expected 30-meter high concrete walls with guns emplaced at regular intervals. I’d expected something like a fortress, or a prison. Instead, I see a fence. It is solid, to be sure – but hardly imposing.

I’d hoped for instructions posted on the road, telling us what to do. But we are in Syrian territory. Signs probably wouldn’t have survived and the Protectorate probably didn’t want to regularly risk lives to post them.

So instead, as we drew closer, we hear a loudspeaker repeating – droning – instructions in English and Arabic. We are to drop off our documents, give blood samples, get some food, water and tents to tide us over and then receive a pager – as a family group.

Then, we are to disperse. They are worried about suicide bombers. The pager would summon us back.

A black woman is walking next to us. She has a baby strapped to her.

“What do I do,” she asks, in broken Arabic, “I don’t have any documents.”

“I guess you should say that,” I answer, “When we come to the fence.”

She nods and we walk on.

The sun is out and it is very very hot. The low grasses and trees of the Golan Heights don’t seem bothered by the weather. And I guess I’m not either. I’m focused on the goal.

And so we walk on.

Signs and fences warning about mines funnel us in towards a small booth. It looks like an armored porta-potty with a window. Now, I can begin to see the security. There are cameras and a few soldiers milling around. But it is so low-key I can barely imagine them resisting the forces whose violence I’d seen. I can barely imagine it, but I know my eyes are deceiving me. This is one of the most secure borders in the world.

I take out our documents out as we come nearer. My children Abdul and Mohammed are walking in front of me. I always keep them in sight. I have ever since the mortar attack.

Ibrahim is to my right, holding my hand. I turn and smile at him. He smiles back.

And then I say, mostly to myself, “I can’t believe we’re coming here.”

“Why?” asks Mohammed with the bright eyes of a precocious 8-year-old.

Abdul just smiles, as he always does. He’s been that way for the last two years. Sometimes I’m thankful for that. It can be good not to understand all the horror you witness.

“I grew up in Damascus. So did your father and his father before him. We’ve been there as long as anybody’s been keeping track.”

“So what?” asks Mohammed. His youth is showing through.

“Mohammed, Damascus is the oldest city in the world. I am so proud of it. It is in our blood and in our souls. Damascus, in its way, is the center of the world. It is the most mature place and we are the most mature people in the world. And, growing up, we knew our future was bright because of it.

“The Americans were immature newbies whose time would quickly pass. The Israelis an infection which didn’t belong. And while the Europeans had their libertine philosophies and their nationalism, we had our far more solid submission to the will of Allah. We knew the West would spin out of control. We knew their technology would only add fuel to the fire of their untethered morality. Their World Wars would multiple and grow and lead to their total destruction. We, blessed with age and perspective, would survive and eventually, we’d flourish. We would be blessed by Allah, who we had not abandoned. We’d live in the shadow of G-d. We’d respect tradition and the prophet. And we’d keep going. Forever connected to our ancient city.”

Mohammed hasn’t looked up. But I can see he’s thinking.

“But we’re here?” he asks, finally. It almost isn’t question.

“That’s right, Mohammed.”

“And this is the newest place. The youngest one in the whole world.”

“That’s right, Mohammed.”

Sometime he stuns me with his clarity.

“Perhaps that’s why I can’t believe we’re here.”

He nods, solemnly and continues his pondering as we come to the booth. A man is waiting within.

We hand our identifying documents through a bank-like receptacle. I am incredibly scared of those documents simply disappearing. But we have little choice. And then a small robotic arm reaches out and collects blood from each of us. The man gestures to the right. A small cart rolls up – it is pulled by a little electric tug. On its back is a large package. Ibrahim opens it. A tent, a pager, water and food.

The tug disconnects from the cart and leaves. “Take the cart,” says the man in the booth. Good thing too, we were already carrying everything we could. We add some of our stuff to the cart and then Ibrahim grasps the end of it, preparing to walk.

“How long will we have to wait?” he asks as we turn and begin to look for a place to set up our temporary home.

“Our turn will come soon enough,” I reply, my eyes taking in the thousands of arrayed tents.

I feel like a traitor to my own history.

“Who’s next,” I ask.

Over the course of the day, we’ve put together an informal prioritization. There’s no humanitarian crises outside the fence, so we’ve decided to sort people by occupation. We need everything, but some people are needed first. For example, doctors. Although we can send people to Israel for treatment, we need some front-line diagnostics. So the eight General Practitioners came first.

We also decided to do the initial interviews as a group – to get a feel for the cadence and the nature of the interrogations. One of two of us would do the actual interview and the others would observe from another room. Afterwards, we’d compare notes and shared criticisms and make our decisions. And we’d rotate interviewers, so everybody got in some practice.

I was the only one, as the most public target, who would not directly interview anybody.

As I watched, I was reminded of a small bit of Byzantine history. When Emperor Constantine V invaded Arab lands, he brought back all the Christian populations of the places he took. He gave them land grants and resettled them in his own territory. The idea then was simple – he’d take productive people from his enemy’s domains and use them to strengthen his own empire.

I wondered when and how immigration had become a bad thing.

Seven of the doctors passed their interviews. The eighth failed.

We’d already decided that we weren’t going to requalify anybody. There was a simple rule: whatever qualifications they possessed had to be presented truthfully. If they were licensed in Syria or Pakistan, they need to state that in order to work. If they claimed qualifications they lack, they’d face exile. But, bottom line, they’d get to work that day.

With doctors in place, we next interviewed those families who the triage guard had noticed seemed to be sick. They were brought in and immediately assessed by our brand new doctors. If their cases were emergencies, they were transferred to Israel for care. If not, their families were put through the normal process. The doctors were to be paid a flat rate for their assessments. In time, we’d transition to the new system.

But, with those priorities behind us, we needed to decide who would be next.

Avigail looked up from her notes. “How about this guy?” she asks, “He was a director of civil engineering in Mosul, under the Americans. Then he moved to Damascus where he worked on civil projects.”

Itai is looking over her shoulder. “Look at his wife.”

“Abal Hussain? What about her?” asks Avigail.

“She’s a photographer and a blogger.”

“So what?” asks Avigail.

Itai, the hardened General, replies, “We’re building something here, she can record it and share it. We want somebody like her to watch things from the very beginning. If she’s any good, she can help it flourish.”

“Is she any good?” I ask.

Avigail pulls up the blog. Gorgeous images of Damascus at war fill the screen.

“That one,” I say, pointing at a picture of the old shuk, “Click on that one.”

Avigail opens in and we read, slowly, about the history of that place and the people who lived there. It pulls us in, deeply.

“She loves it,” says Itai, drawing in his breath, “She loves Damascus.”

“She stopped eight months ago,” says Avigail.

“I wonder why?” I ask no one in particular.

“I wonder,” says Itai, “Whether she could love this place as well.”

Elizabeth, the billionaire IT genius, selects their family on the PC. She clicks “Interview.”

A few minutes later, we can see a tent being folded as another family prepares for their interview.

The pager buzzes. I glance down and it reads, in Arabic, “Come to entrance 2, bring your belongings and tent.”

It is still the first day and I’m amazed that we’ve been selected so quickly.

“What does it mean?” asks Ibrahim.

“I have no idea,” I answer, “Maybe they need civil engineers.”

He smiles, we fold up the tent and load everything on the cart. In the last six months, we’ve become experts at packing and repacking our possessions.

We pull the cart towards a large sign labeled “2” above another armored porta-potty.

A guard ushers us through and we find ourselves in a large empty space surrounded by walls. There is no roof, but the floor is some rubbery substance punctuated with small holes. There is an exit directly opposite from where we came in.

“Good afternoon,” says a voice from a loudspeaker, “My name is Itai Ben-Eliezer. I am the Head of Security.”

“Hello,” I say, feeling awkward trying to talk to a faceless box, even if it has a name.

“We are going to start today by ensuring you don’t pose any personal threat… Do you have any weapons?”

“I have a pistol,” says Ibrahim.


“Back of my waistband.”

As always, his answers are short and to the point.

“Please remove it from your pants, remove the magazine, open the chamber, and place it near the exit.”

He does so and then returns to the center of the enclosure.

A hand snakes out from behind the exit and pulls away the pistol.

“Now,” says Itai, “Please unpack your belongings so we can verify there are no additional weapons.”

We do as he asks. Layers upon layers of our tightly packed possession come away into smaller and smaller pieces, like the skin of an onion. At some point Itai stops us. “That is sufficient.”

“We are going to scan you for explosives. There will be a puff of air from below.”

We nod and the puff follows.

Moments later the exit opens. A young soldier is standing there.

“Come on in,” he says, “We’ll take care of your stuff.”

We walk through and find ourselves inside the Protectorate.

What I see is an empty piece of scrub land with a few trailers. One thing stands out. A massive play structure – surrounded by nothing.

I’ve always lived in a city, in an established place. This is frighteningly empty.

I take what solace I can in that play structure; and the priorities it represents.

We’re directed towards a trailer. The soldier opens the door and we walk in. I was expecting a blast of air-conditioning but the room is on the edge of comfortable. This government isn’t wasting any money. It is either a sign of weakness or of prioritization. I can’t figure out which.

A short, friendly-looking, woman stands up from behind a desk and shakes my hand. She nods at Ibrahim, respecting the space between the sexes. And then she offers us a seat.

“My name is Avigail,” she says, “I want to introduce you to the Protectorate and then you can ask me questions about it. We’ll also have a few questions for you.”

We take our seats. There are about 10 chairs there. I guess they’re ready for larger families.

“This place,” says Avigail, once we’ve settled in, “Is not like any other place on earth. Our mission here is to build and create in the image of G-d. It calls for a new way of running things. But it also calls for commitment from those who join us… Do you understand?”

“I do,” says Ibrahim, surprisingly, “I like to build.”

I nod my agreement.

“We have unusual rules here,” says Avigail, “We are focused on productivity – the fruits of which will be invested in community and connection to the timeless. You do not need to be religious to live here. But whatever religion you adhere to, we will not permit anybody to seek a connection to the divine through destruction. If you preach destruction, we will exile you. If you take a life, we will do worse. There has been enough destruction outside these walls… Do you understand?”

I nod. I’m nervous, I’m scared. I don’t have much faith in these new sorts of ideas. I imagine the implementation will be very messy.

But I want a place where my children can flourish – and the place we’ve come from has no chance of flourishing.

“I need you to say it,” says Avigail.

“I understand,” I answer. Ibrahim follows. And then Mohammed. Abdul does not. When he’s wearing his hat, his injury isn’t that obvious.

“Abdul,” asks Avigail, I guess she has his name from our file.

“His brain is injured,” I say.

“Take off your hat,” I say, to Abdul.

He raises it, revealing a significant indentation.

She checks her notes and nods. “Okay, he doesn’t have to understand.”

Her phone buzzes and she picks it up and looks at it. A look of surprise crosses her face.

“Ibrahim,” she asks, suddenly changing the topic, “Are you the father of these children?”

“No,” answers Ibrahim. Once again managing as few words as he can.

I interject, “My husband was killed, in the army. We met afterwards.”

“That’s okay,” said Avigail, “We just have a concern. A very specific concern that women like you might have had their husbands held hostage so that other men could be smuggled in. Because of this, we’re going to need to interview you separately. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” I say, “Do you also want to interview the children?”

“No,” says Avigail, “They make terrible witnesses. And the process can be incredibly stressful for them. They can play outside, if you’d like. We’ll have a soldier who can watch them.”

“I’d like that,” I answer. Abdul probably won’t climb the play structure. But Mohammed will, and he’ll enjoy it.

The soldier reappears at the door and guides my boys out.

As another soldier appears and guides Ibrahim away from me, I sit nervously.

I hope we pass the test.

“Where did Ibrahim get his education?” asks Avigail.

“Saddam Hussain University.”

“Why did he come to Damascus?”

“His family was killed in Mosul. His wife and three sons. ISIS had taken over. He’d worked with the government – he was a government official. They came to his house but he wasn’t there. So they killed his family. And he fled.”

“Why not go to Baghdad? People don’t normally flee into Syria.”

“He heard they were watching the routes towards Baghdad. He didn’t think he could make it. He thought he’d have a better chance going the other way. I don’t think he wanted to come to Damascus – just get out of Mosul. He ended up sneaking out what food and valuables he had, putting them in his bag and starting to walk.”

“What were their names?”


“His wife and children?”

“I don’t know. He’s never said.”

“Why not?”

“Why not? I think he’s just been traumatized about his past. He doesn’t talk a lot.”

“How did you meet him?”

“My husband was conscripted and killed while in the army. I used to blog – taking photos and telling stories about Damascus. I spent what savings we had on ever more expensive groceries. And then I ran out. So I started begging. I knocked on doors and begged for food. I knocked on his door. I don’t know why, but he let me in. He’d managed to get himself a job with a paycheck from the government. His skills are valuable. He let us stay with him.”

The topic suddenly jumps again.

“When was Abdul injured?”

“After my husband was conscripted. He was out playing, there was a mortar. A rock must have hit him – judging by the dent. I don’t let him out of my sight anymore.”

“Does Ibrahim like him?”

“Abdul? I guess so. Ibrahim doesn’t speak much.”

“Does he love you?”

“He’s protected me. At great risk to himself. That’s what I care about.”

Avigail pauses. “Fair enough.”

Avigail ruffles through her notes.

“When?” she asks, suddenly.

“When what?”

“When did he protect you?”

“I’d brought the kids to get some ice cream – a very very special treat in a war zone. My grandparents had made it from goats’ milk. I was coming home when a militia member accosted me. The front lines kept moving and I guess, that day, we were almost on top of them. I was in sight of the house. The militia member told my kids to run – and they did. They ran to the house…”

I pause, “Do I have to talk about this?”

“Yes,” says Avigail, “I’m afraid so.”

I breathe deeply, “Okay,” I reply, “He covered my mouth and forced me into an empty store-front along the road. I tried to scream, but he hit me. Hard. I shut up. He started pulling my dress up, violently. And then Ibrahim appeared, behind him.”


“And Ibrahim shot him. Killed him on the spot. I still remember how his face exploded. He never had any idea what we coming. We ran home. I was so scared. Ibrahim was so scared. It would be clear he’d been killed, at short-range. There were powder burns. This wasn’t some sniper – that would be obvious. We were worried for days that somebody would find out, investigate and come for us. But nothing happened.”

“Why did he come for you?”

“Why did he save me? I have no idea. I guess he cared about me. It was certainly risky.”

“When did it happen?”

“About six months after we’d moved into his house.”

Avigail again looks at her notes.

“What color were his shoes?”

“Whose shoes?”

“The man who attacked you.”

“Black” I say.

“Black,” she repeats, “Okay…”

She continues, “So is that when you left?”

“No, we left later.”


“After they came for Abdul.”

“Who came for Abdul?”

“Militia men. They came to recruit him.”

“Why him, he doesn’t seem like an aggressive boy.”

“They wanted him to martyr himself. There’s less of a loss when the bomber is already damaged.”

There’s silence. And then Avigail softens dramatically.

“And so you left?”

“They gave us a day to decide. And we decided to run. To the only place we could. Here.”

“You, your kids, and Ibrahim.”

“Yes,” I answer.

“Thank you,” says Avigail, “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Avigail comes back into the control room. “How does it look?”

“The stories match,” I say, “Ibrahim doesn’t talk much, but he told us more about why he let Abal in. You might like to know.”


“Because he thought she might be able to get him across borders.”


“Single men have a hard time traveling.”

“They sure do. So why did he protect her?”

“He doesn’t know. He didn’t really clarify – I’m guess living together made him feel some connection. You know they still aren’t married – they’re just together. He protects her and she gets him across borders.”

“It sounds like a wonderful match,” she says.

“It does, tremendous things can grow from foundations like these.”

She thinks for a moment and then says, “Have Daoud ask him about the shoes.”

Daoud, the diplomat, is interrogating Ibrahim.

“The militia man’s shoes?” I ask.

“Yeah. See what he says.”

Daoud is wearing an earpiece. I press a button and tell him what to do.

In the room, Daoud suddenly switches topics.

“What color were the shoes?”

“Which shoes?” asks Ibrahim.

“The man you killed. The man who was threatening Abal.”

Ibrahim thinks for just a second and then answers, “White.”

The answer is clear and definite and confident. Exactly what it should be.

Except that it doesn’t match.

We argue, of course. It is one question. One tiny detail in a flood of a story. But their answers were so confident and so certain. Nobody said they didn’t remember. They filled in a detail, and they got it wrong. It happens sometimes. People remember things incorrectly.

Or people coordinate their stories, beautifully. But mess up a detail.

Ultimately, I make the call.

He has to leave, he represents a threat.

There is screaming, crying and fighting.

The arguments come in a flurry of middle-eastern verbal struggle. “He has to stay,” Abal argues, “He can’t be forced out. He has to stay, they won’t let him live.”

There is more than simple convenience at work in this relationship.

But he is a threat. They can leave together, or she can stay with her children. Those are the options.

In a tearful split, they separate. Abal and her children stay.

Ibrahim is rejected. He promises to return.

I watch it all from my video – strangely disconnected from my decision.

Over the next few weeks, the city grows immensely.

For my part, I travel through it, watching and supporting and learning. The cream of a billion people are coming to a tiny city on the Golan. The sprouts of investment crack through the dirt – small markets, a medical clinic. Workmen and engineers begin to build the city – funded by our modest budget and the very beginnings of our tax revenues. Slowly, things rise.

With a tearful eye, Abal catalogues her new home and its growth. Even I can see that, reluctantly, she is beginning to fall in love with her new home.

And then 42 days in, Itai calls me into his office.

“I need to show you something,” he announces, gruffly.

He has me sit, he opens a web address, and then he plays a video.

It is Ibrahim. He is in an orange jumpsuit. And he is being beheaded.

And just like that I realize that I was wrong. I’d made the wrong call.

And I’d destroyed a life.

I stop showing up for interviews. I’m avoiding another decision.

I start avoiding the streets. I don’t want to see Abal. I’m ashamed by my decision.

Before the year is up, I’ve resigned.

The decisions that must be made are not decisions I can make.

I never wanted this position. It belongs to Prime Ministers or Presidents.

Not me.

The city has grown in my absence. There were growing pains. There were attacks. I watched the news as the little city defended itself – and was defended by others. But millions live here now, in the metropolis on the heights. Its borders have been expanded greatly. Territories in both Syria and Israel have placed themselves under its rules. Freight lines and roads connect it to Haifa. A full-size airport connects it to the world. Its citizens enjoy full rights and they have recently earned the ability to vote for their leaders. Their passports can carry them almost anywhere in the world.

The ideas behind it are infecting the neighborhood; bringing the first shoots of life and potential to lands that have for decades been suppressed by totalitarian Islam.

It is the City on the Heights. Even as the images of Ibrahim crying for refuge fill my sleep – pride fills my days. It has been 42 years. I am not a young or healthy man.

And so my wife, who insisted the whole family live in the city in the first place, insists that we visit once more.

I’m walking through the shuk, amazed. It all seems so ageless – like it has been here forever.

But I can remember the emptiness that was here when we started.

People of every color and culture surround me. The borders still haven’t closed – and refugees arrive from the world over.

The air is vibrant with the unique life of this place.

I’m walking through the shuk when I see an older woman. She seems vaguely familiar. There’s a late-middle-aged man behind her. He is wearing a baseball cap. Beneath it, I can see the edges of a familiar indentation.

I want to look away. I want to run.

But the time has come for apology.

I steel myself and approach her. She inhales deeply as I approach. She’d seen me around, in those first few weeks, but I’m surprised she remembers me.

“I’m sorry,” I say, “For Ibrahim.”

“What?” she asks.

“I made the decision. The decision not to let him in. I killed him. I thought he was from ISIS and I was wrong and they killed him.”

She smiles broadly. “You weren’t wrong,” she answers, “They kidnapped my husband. They said they’d kill him if I didn’t get Ibrahim in. I tried to get Ibrahim in. I tried as hard as I could. I cried. Not for Ibrahim, but for my husband. But you caught him. And you exiled him. And then they killed him. And it turned out they’d already killed my husband.”

“Why’d they kill Ibrahim?” I ask, suddenly confused.

“I don’t know,” she answers, “I’ve never tried to understand. Maybe because he failed. Or maybe just because they thought it would weaken the Protectorate.”

I think about my decision to resign, prematurely. They weakened me. Perhaps they succeeded.

But then I look at the city that has been built and I realize that maybe they didn’t weaken the Protectorate.

Maybe the Protectorate was stronger with somebody else in my position.

“You were in charge?” she asks, “In the beginning?”

“I was,” I answer.

She smiles even more broadly. And then she turns to Abdul, her simple son.

“This,” she announces softly, “is the man who saved our lives.”

Looking at her, he answers in a soft voice that belies his size, “I like.”

I admire the beautiful boy carrying the bags of groceries.

I feel the smoothed cobblestones beneath my feet.

And I realize that this is truly a beautiful day.



to learn more about the rough ideas behind this story visit: http://createconnectprotect.com/pp/

No Entrada

The “No Entry” sign glows in my night vision – warning us off. It seems like every other sign surrounding rural land in America. Except the words are a little off. Normally, they say “No Trespassing.”

I don’t pay the distinction much mind.

We have a clear mission ahead of us. The dossier is clear. The surveillance is clear.

In the middle of the Arizona desert, a dozen miles from the nearest town but only two from the Mexican border, is this place. It looked like a modern farm in southern Spain or the Middle East. The land seems to be covered with sheets of plastic, creating what is probably a massive greenhouse. Unlike most of those farms, these tarps are contiguous and opaque; people can move between them without being spotted. Unlike of those farms, these tarps cover hundreds of acres without a break. They are also higher than normal. Rather than hugging the likely crops below, they rise fifty or hundred feet in the air. It was hard to tell just how much volume was being concealed.

Finally, they are camouflaged – blending beautifully into the terrain.

Drugs are the likely explanation. I am a DEA Special Agent, I’m partial to that explanation.

I pass another sign. “NO ENTRADA.”

Bold letters. Below it, in English “Secure Area!”

We’re only a few meters from the edge of the place. The place is massive. Getting up close just reinforces it. I can’t imagine how it was built without anybody noticing.

I stop short of the edge and lower myself to the ground. Silently, the rest of my team takes their positions at my sides. There are 40 of us – as many as Special Agent in Charge Reams could assemble in a week. It’s dark and we move silently. We mean to take the folks inside by surprise.

The radio in my ear bursts into life.

“Are you in position?” It is Reams. She in a modified RV a few miles back which serves as our mobile command center. Her voice is crackling with excitement. I know it well. We’ve been in a relationship for almost a year now.

I look at my team. I count them. Everybody is there.



We rise and move forward. Two of the team members, we call them the Js – Jim and John – approach the tarp, take out their utility knives and slice an opening in the material. It is harder to do than we expect.

I’m the first to go through, my pistol in my hand, and what I see surprises the hell out of me.

I’d expected carefully cultivated fields. Maybe poppies. But the place is a literal jungle. Moisture hangs thick in the air, bugs seem to fill every available crack. It is surprisingly hot and uncomfortable.

I take my position and gesture for the rest of the team to follow.

“Inside,” I whisper in my radio.

We prepare to advance.

Suddenly, a voice loudly rings out, “YOU ARE IN A SECURE AREA, PLEASE DEPART IMMEDIATELY.”

I almost jump out of my skin.

“What do we do?” I ask Reams over the radio.

She hesitates, for just a second, before she answers.


To me, this Friday evening seems just like all the others. The pews are filled with community members. They are happily chatting, each one to his friends. There are 143 of them; men, women and children.

They seem a happy bunch, in their shared delusion. They are dressed in what they call their Sabbath best. The hall is filled with bodies poured into roughly processed cotton shirts, pants and dresses. A few are wearing wool. They are dressed like poor people from centuries past. I consider it pretty funny. The rest of the week, they wear normal clothes. Modern, properly manufactured, clothes. But for the Sabbath, for reasons I’ve heard again and again, badly made off-white garments dominate.

The Preacher has his reasons, of course. He always does.

My problem is that these people comply. No matter what he asks, no matter what he says, they comply.

It drives me insane. He is just a man, not a god. And we are also men. Respectable, hard-working, men. And yet the sheep in the community force themselves to be satisfied with their limited lot.

The Preacher’s brother walks in the door.

He always shows up first.

He loves people. At least he pretends to. He makes his way through the room, shaking hands, smiling, connecting. His eyes radiate concern and connection. And everybody always acts so delighted to see him. Every time, they are so delighted to see him. It is all an act; it is all falseness. It has to be. Like high school girls giggling at some meaningless trinket. Why don’t they let the truth emerge? Is it so frightening to have real emotions; to question what we’re doing here?

The brother isn’t at fault. And neither is the community.

It all falls into the lap of the Preacher.

Today isn’t like all the other Fridays. It is an anniversary. Six years in this place. Six years making the visions of the Preacher a reality.

A room full of people. Hard-working people who were looking for meaning in their lives. Now, they’ve found themselves in a Church in the middle of nowhere wearing rough cotton breaches. They might have been something special, someplace else. They blistered hands speak to the possibility behind their wills and their dedication. But here, they are just tools in one man’s prophecies.

The Preacher’s brother comes up to me. He always looks so hopeful; like this time his mission voice and soft demeanor will break my cynicism. I admire the effort, shake his hand politely, and beg silently that he’ll leave me alone.

Just then, the door opens and the Preacher walks in.

Silently, as if on autopilot, the entire community makes their way to their familiar benches.

And, one-by-one, they sit.

For his part, the Preacher makes his way to the pulpit. He isn’t much of a speaker. He doesn’t seem to care about his audience. He doesn’t seem to care about touching their souls. All he cares about are his words and his thoughts. I have no idea why they like him.

I lean against a wall – waiting for yet another sleep-inducing speech from the thief known as the Preacher.

“Inside,” came the jittery voice over the radio.

The agents all had cameras, so I knew why they were nervous. Nobody was expecting a jungle. Certainly not in the Arizona desert. I have no idea how the people inside the compound did it, but it makes sense. A jungle climate is perfect for cocaine. Everything was fitting.

The first call had come in a week ago. The county sheriff, a guy by the name of Jimmy James (I kid you not) had received it. The caller, who was anonymous, described a case of child molestation by the leader of a weird desert cult which had a massive facility in the desert.

Weird cults weren’t unheard of. Neither were claims of molestation.

But massive facilities – or any facilities – that Sheriff James hadn’t heard of – that was unusual. Sheriff James knew his county inside and out. He grew up here. He hiked here. He’d watched the border at night and the towns in the day. He knew people by name everywhere he went. He knew which couples were fighting and whose kids were trouble. And he’d driven on every road and gone everywhere you could go. Or so he thought.

But he hadn’t.

The caller provided coordinates. A deputy called them up on Google. At first glance, there’d been nothing there. It was a reasonably flat and boring part of the desert. But then the deputy noticed the shadows on the trees didn’t match. “It’s just google, they took that patch at a different time of day” pronounced another deputy, confidently.

But it still didn’t seem quite right.

There might just have been something out there, in the desert.

I’m Special Agent in Charge of the Phoenix Division of the DEA. My name is Jennifer Reams. I’d like to pretend I’m some outsider trucked in from New York with a high falutin’ education. I do have the high falutin’ education. But I’m actually a local, chosen for a local position precisely because I know Arizona and the people who live here very very well. I’ve known Sheriff Jimmy James since we were in the Curley school together in the tiny town but well-built town of Ajo.

So when things seemed to get a bit big for James – what with the suspected compound being hidden, and being so close to the border – he didn’t have any problem calling me. We were, and are, friends.

When I first read the Sheriff’s notes from the call and looked at the Google images I wasn’t that impressed. If I hadn’t known Jimmy I would have written it off as a prank that he fell for. But I trusted him. And so I sent a plane up over the border – with explicit instructions to see what it could see in that uninteresting part of the desert.

What they saw was a massive greenhouse. Although the infrared signals were weak, there were well over a hundred people inside and the place was a blur of activity. No roads led to the facility and there were no runways we could see. It might have been self-sufficient. But more likely, it was supplied by tunnels running under the border. How it got product out remained a mystery.

A few more missions were flown, to flesh out the picture. That’s when we got three breaks.

First, there was at least one tunnel. We saw a jacked up Lincoln Navigator pop up in the middle of nowhere one day. It had emerged from a tunnel about three miles north of the facility. It headed straight for State Highway 86. We followed it from there to a Medical Clinic in Tucson. Two men got out. One was older than the other. And about an hour later, both returned. There were no large bags in their possession so whatever they’d brought to the clinic wasn’t large enough to support a 150-man operation. We didn’t go in to the clinic. We just didn’t know enough yet.

The second break was the runway. On our third surveillance flight, as we watched, a section of the tarp was pulled back and a Cessna Caravan came in for a short landing on the revealed strip. Thirty minutes later it was back in the air and the tarp was closed. We analyzed the take-off and it became clear something heavy had been put on the aircraft. That kind of product could support their operation.

The third break was a possible pattern. On Friday night, everybody in the place gathered at a central building. It was probably some kind of weekly status review. Whatever it was, it provided us with the perfect opportunity to go in.


So I called a meeting with the Chief Inspector, Chief of Intelligence and the Chief of Operations. I laid out what we knew. And one week later – a miraculous time – we had 40 agents in the field ready to bust one of the largest and most audacious operations we’d ever encountered.


I hear the voice over my headphone.


And a fraction of a second later “What do we do?”

I’m not sure. We’re watching everything with the plane. There are no sentries and none of the locals have moved from their Friday night gathering. Whatever they’re seeing has to be something automated. Some kind of robotic voice.

If the agents move fast enough, they can probably get to the heart of the facility before a real reaction can be organized. And if they don’t move now, they’ll never have the element of surprise again.

“Go, go, go,” I order, “Get control of the situation.”


“Six years,” pronounces the Preacher as the room quiets down. Everybody seems to want to hear what he has to say but I can pretty much guess what it will be, the man isn’t original.

“Six years we have been in this place. It is a remarkable achievement… For six years we have worked in the image of G-d. We here are blessed. We are blessed with wealth, with ample food, with health care, with modern communications – with everything the world has to offer. We do not need to work. We can rest, like Adam in the garden. But we have learned from the Garden and the evils that come from rest alone. We have learned Adam’s lesson and we realize that we have an obligation. There are fields that should be planted and crops that should be grown. And so we pick up where Adam left off. He had no tools, and we have no tools. With our hands…“

And just as he’s done a million times, the Preacher raises his rough hands to illustrate the same old point.

”…we work the earth, spreading the seeds of life where there was only waterless emptiness before. For six days we act in the image of G-d – creating order out of chaos and life out of nothingness. Without need or want, we have put our hearts and our efforts into the soil and we have made a garden bloom in the desert. And on the seventh – today – we rest with the fruits of our labor. For six days, we wear the best the modern world has to offer. But on the seventh, we wear what our own hands have created. For six days, we eat from the food the world provides. But on the seventh, we eat from that which we have grown. We rest in our labor – blissfully aware of our productivity. For six days we talk to the world using the latest apps. But on the seventh, we rest at home with our families.”

The preacher draws in a long breath, “The rest of the world does not do this. They do not live with the Lord. Instead, they live in a world of plenty driven by ever increasing automation, but they fight over spoils. The rich covet all they can gather. Corruption infects them. The sons of those who made their billions are rotted by their wealth – using the tools of government to secure their own continued domination. The poor are little better. A few struggle to produce and climb from the valleys of poverty. But far too many, having used what power they have to force the basics of subsistence from the hands of the wealthy, cease producing themselves. They can’t compete with the massive mechanical factories. Rich and poor alike fight for the division of spoils instead of seeking the Lord and wondering how they may imitate him. Pride, personal pride, however undeserved, has become the objective of all men. Wealth is a way of scoring that pride. But it is not the only way. Their sexual practices are put on public display. Reality TV shows and YouTube videos with tens of millions of views provide the individual with the hope of climbing into the ranks of the known. And all of them rot because of it…”

The Preacher pauses. “But not us.”

The preacher’s voice approaches a near whisper. “For six days we work and produce and on the seventh day – today – we stop. And by stopping, we touch the timeless Lord himself. We imitate the Lord and thus become close to him. By resting in our work we give meaning and power to our lives.”

“We are the new Adam and our garden is better than Eden.”

The Preacher raises a cup.

“This wine was produced by our own grapes. And processed by our own people. It is the first time we have used our own wine on a Friday night. It is a beautiful occasion.”

All around the room, glasses are raised. I even raise mine. A few kids get ahead of the game and start drinking. The taste of the wine convinces them it was a mistake. They thought it was grape juice.

And then the ancient chant begins:

“It was evening, it was morning, the Sixth Day. And the heavens and the earth and all their host were complete. And on the seventh day God completed the labor He had performed, and He rested on the seventh day from all the labor which He had performed. And God blessed the seventh day and He sanctified it, because in it He refrained from all his acts of creation which in creating God had made.”

The Preacher pauses, “Blessed are You, the Lord our God, King of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine.”

It is just as people lift their cups to drink that the screaming and gunfire begins.

We take our first few steps into the dense jungle undergrowth before we find ourselves completely blinded. Flood lights overwhelm our night vision, our radios are jammed by static and an onslaught of what seems like screaming fills our ears.

I see a glimpse of something huge with numerous arms and legs. It is carrying a machine gun.

We have pistols and rifles.

I try to tell the men to fall back – to run – but barely a word is out of my mouth before I feel my body being pummeled and torn apart by machine gun fire. They couldn’t have heard me anyway.

For a brief second, I remember how hard it was to qualify with my Glock 22. The DEA tests are notoriously difficult. But I passed. I made it. First time.

And it didn’t matter. Faced with eight-legged screaming robots, the best pistols in the world are irrelevant.

I stop.

There’s static on the line. The videos have gone blank. In the distance, I can hear screaming. Not the screaming of men, something fundamentally more frightening. And then the thumpa, thumpa of heavy machine gun fire. Not the weapons our people are carrying.

I look at the surveillance footage. There is still nobody anywhere near our people.

“BRET!” I shout into the radio, “BRET ARE YOU THERE.”

But just as quickly as the screaming began, it ends.

I watch on the infrared feed, my only connection to the inside of the facility, as my men stop moving.

40 of them.

Gone in an instant.

And then, just like that, the infrared itself is blinded.

We can see nothing, hear nothing, and know nothing.

I put my head in my hands and ask nobody in particular, “What the hell just happened?”

Every in the room is frozen.

“Stay here,” I shout, as I run for the door. I’m their Preacher, I hope they listen.

I barely know what is going on, but they have no idea whatsoever.

I do know one thing. Somebody tried to attack our facility.

I heard hundreds of rounds. Somebody major tried to attack us.

And on the Sabbath!

I laugh at myself, just a bit.

I care about the Sabbath, but I doubt they do.

They’d probably see it as an opportunity.


My house is right next to the church. I run into it and head for the bathroom. I open the door and recite the secret passphrase, and seconds later the bottom of the bath has transformed into a staircase. I rush down it and into a small office. The stairs close up above me. From here, I can see everything.

I pick up the red phone. It is just as old-fashioned as you’d expect from a secure military phone. I generally enjoy its retro look. Today, I just hope it works.

I wait a few seconds. There is no ringing. And then I hear a voice on the other end.

“What happened?” it asks.

“Somebody attacked us, I’m still trying to figure out who.”

“Are the robots safe?”

I check the panel. “Yes, all are accounted for.”

“Good. Did anybody see them?”

“I don’t know,” I answer, “I’ll investigate.”

“Keep me informed.”

“I will. But I need you to know, it wasn’t a small attack. I’d guess dozens of men by the amount of gunfire I heard.”

“I’ll look into it,” promises the suddenly concerned voice on the other end of the line.

“Thank you,” I answer. Although I suspect he knows more than he’s letting on.

And with that, the Secretary of Defense of the United States of America hangs up the phone.

They have guns?

That’s the only thought running through my head as I watch the Preacher run from the room.

The robots have guns?


Nobody here has any idea at all, of course. They’re all beginning to panic.

It’s a strange time for me to step up.

“Settle down folks,” I shout over the rising din, “I can assure you, it is very much under control.”


There are confused faces. How would I know what’s going on? I’m not the Preacher, I’m not his brother, I’m not in his inner circle.


But I know something.

It’s why I’m here.


There are robots. Not just any robots, but robots whose mechanical bodies have been paired with organic brains. I developed the brain fluid that enables the mechanical bits to sustain the organic bits in a reasonably efficient manner. I enabled everything to happen. They are smart, learning, robots. The most advanced the world’s ever seen.

They are the reason the people here can live so well while dedicating themselves to digging into the earth with their fingers.

But I don’t get the credit. I don’t get the control or the money or the power. I get to watch from outside as the sheep follow their shepherd. I get to watch as the people dig at the earth with their fingers while living off royalties they don’t understand.

The Preacher thinks this is the future. He sees robots producing everything and people needing to find meaning and peace despite the plenty. He thinks of this community as a test-bed; a place for people to prepare for what’s coming.

Even I’ll admit that he might be on to something.

But of course, he didn’t choose this place randomly. There are rare earths and copper and other fundamental ores here. From this spot, burrowing far underground, the robots themselves can retrieve the fundamental building blocks of their kind. Buried beneath the Preacher’s house is a factory, where robots make more robots. And every few weeks a plane comes by and picks up their product. I have no idea who the buyers are. But they buy the robots, week in and week out.

And they must be paying quite a bit of money.

Of course, I don’t know how much. Despite the fact that I enabled it all to happen, he’s cut me out. I don’t see the books, I don’t have sheep following me. I’ve been marginalized.

I watch him and I know, given how much power he has, that he must be abusing it.

That’s why I called the Sheriff. I just wanted to cut the Preacher down to size.

But I didn’t know the robots had guns. And if they had guns, I’m sure they won whatever battle they had. Whatever the Preacher’s faults, he doesn’t do things badly.


I didn’t want anybody to die.

As I watch the last of the attackers die, I know we have succeeded. No video has been broadcast, no descriptions have been issued by the radios. And nobody is going to leave.

We have succeeded. We have kept our secret.

We hide underground. All day, we hide. Above us, people work the land. Below us, the others work the rich ores of the area and produce more robots. But we sit in the middle, our eight massive legs and integrated machine guns buried in the dirt.


It’s the most important thing.

The Preacher knows everything. But nobody else does.

The people who work in the facility have no idea we’re here.

The people who live nearby – there aren’t many of them – don’t even know the facility exists.

The Buyers can see that we work, but they cannot know how we work. We’re programmed to destroy ourselves, completely, if they try to pry into our bodies or brains.

Secrecy is more important than life itself.

Nobody can know we’re here.

So we sit under the ground, making sure nobody learns about the facility. We sit in shifts. Some of us monitor the world above us. But others practice. We disconnect from our physical bodies and link into virtual versions of ourselves. We practice our mission – keeping secrecy.

We are inserted into scenarios – threatening scenarios of our own making. We practice moving with our guns, using our signal generators, listening to our surroundings. And fighting. We fight individual infiltrators and armies of men.

We aren’t given specific orders or particular jobs. We can work out how to achieve our missions. It is what makes us unique.

That’s what I was doing when the intruders arrived. I was in a simulation.

By the time I was yanked out and had made my way to the surface, the last of the attackers was dying.

I immediately checked with my teammates.

Forty men had arrived, a significant force.

We warned them. They advanced.

In the end, not one of them even issued a distress call.

We could take on an army. Which is why we’re here.

I’m sure the Preacher would be proud.

It’s amazing how quick the media get here. The first TV truck, it must have driven for two hours, shows up a few minutes after the firefight it over.

My team, and my friends, have probably been killed by some drug lord inside that massive tent. But I don’t know for sure.

I start making calls. I start with my own command. But before an hour has passed, I’ve lined up resources from the State Police, to the National Guard to the FBI, ATF and Border patrol. SWAT teams from Phoenix and Tucson are assigned. My message is all the same. 40 sent in. And then silence. They might be dead, but they might not. We need massive and immediate resources to find them and just possibly save them. And we won’t be surprised by the same tricks again.

We keep the press at bay, outside our little perimeter. We have no idea if the people inside are watching TVs of their own.

The patrol aircraft are the first to arrive. All the agencies seem to be represented. By none of them can see anything. Something on the ground is blinding them.

It will be a few hours, but we’re going to go in – in force. There’s a chance my men might still be alive. There’s a chance Brad will have survived.

Now, I just need to wait.

From within the small office under my house, I’ve analyzed the footage.

They were DEA agents. It must have been some sort of terrible mistake. They had idea what was here, and I had no idea what was coming.

I would have let them in. There were no drugs to see here. There might be some questions, but not the sort that would really concern them. For them, there was nothing to see but an odd group of people farming the land with their fingers.

But the spider-bots didn’t know. I put them there to stop people intent on learning about what we have.

I put them there so my customers couldn’t learn our secrets.

I expected an army to show up. Anybody’s army.

I didn’t expect 40 completely helpless DEA agents with pop-guns and gusto.

They should have turned away.

I should have let them in.

Now it is too late.

I can hear the calls being made. I’ve got two hours, tops. Then they’ll come in much larger numbers. And they’ll still have no idea what is waiting here.


I wasn’t expecting this, but I’m still ready.


The phone rings, it is the Secretary of Defense.

“You know what’s happening?” he asks.

“I do. It was a stupid mistake.”

“They are going to come in in force.”

“Mr. Secretary, I expected you to come in in force. I can stop them.”

“I don’t doubt it. I’ve seen what your machines can do. I’d ask you not to, but you’d probably ignore me.”

“I’d ask you to stop them from coming, but you’d ignore me.”

“That’s true. I would. You can have no connection to me or the United States Government. We have paid very very well for your secrecy.”

“I will do what I need to do.”

“You always have been good with secrets.”

The phone clicks, I state my passphrase, and the stairs in the bathtub reappear.

I have a plan, it is time to put it into action.

The attack is launched six hours later. They start by bombing the tarp itself. There is no return fire.

Then they roll in with APCs and even a few tanks.

Aircraft watch from overhead.

The walls of the facility crumble. The cover disappears.

They discover the bodies first. The 40 Special Agents, left where they fell.

There is rich farmland, divided into sections – each with its own climate and its own crops. The jungle was only one section of the facility. They find no farming tools. No tractors, no animals. No hoes or even spades. It is like the place was farmed completely by hand. The vineyard is perfectly constructed. But there are no people. And there are no drugs.

As the forces advance, they come to the first houses. Watching carefully for a flood of defensive fire they bomb the houses before they enter them. They aren’t going to be surprised again.

But they find nobody.

Bit by bit, they draw closer and closer to the church-like structure in the center of the town.

There find the Lincoln Navigator. But there’s nobody in it.

They surround the church, expecting a firefight at any moment.

They blow open the doors.

But the place is empty.

There is nobody anywhere. Somehow, in four hours, the town has been evacuated. Somehow, despite massive surrounding surveillance, almost 150 people have simply disappeared.

The search effort continues for days. The investigation for months.

But nothing is found.

The place remains a mystery.

I am stunned as I enter the cavern behind the Preacher and his brother. It is massive and lit by huge banks of LEDS. There are individual caves cut into its edges. Enough for every family.

The robots have been busy.

The people around me look in wonderment. They have no idea what they’re seeing. They have no idea who has excavated this place.

The Preacher has thought ahead. There are stacks of food – some from the world around us, but a great deal harvested from our own crops. I can’t tell if it’s been stored here for a while, or if the robots just rushed it down here. I can’t even tell with the caves themselves. Did the Preacher know this was coming or did his robots do this work in just the last few hours?

I suppose they could of, but I don’t really know. I’ve never even seen one of his creations.


As people enter the cavern, I watch their eyes scan the room in wonder.

And then the Preacher turns to speak.

“For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards, and harvest your crops, but the seventh year is a sabbath of sabbaths for the land. It is God’s sabbath during which you may not plant your fields, nor prune your vineyards. Do not harvest crops that grow on their own and do not gather the grapes on your unpruned vines, since it is a year of rest for the land.”

The people watch him. I watch him.

“Welcome to our sabbatical. We have food enough for two years here. We have a massive cistern full of water. We have planted for six years. This year, the seventh, shall be a year of rest and study.”

And with that he turns and walks to one of the caves along the side of the master cavern.

Our Sabbatical has begun and there are no other answers.


  1. This reading states: “You shall return, each man to his achuza, and you shall return, each man to his family…” Achuza is not the same as property – it is inheritance. Because the property is assigned to families, the timelessness of the family is preserved by the inheritance of the Jubilee.
  2. If the sixth year is to be so great, why would we worry about the seventh? In fact, the sixth year is made great because of our intent to adhere to the seventh. Our trust in Hashem gives us the opportunity to rest in holiness. This is almost quantum holiness – where the effect can drive the cause.
  3. While the Torah refers to an inheritance, it does not refer to land ownership. Why? We only inherit the relationship with Hashem – because of that relationship we have effective title to the land. But absent of that relationship we have no claim. We return to our inheritance and we return to that relationship and an understanding of the timelessness of Hashem. In this world, loss is undone.
    1. Why can property in walled cities can be owned in perpetuity. Because cities are far more ‘man made.’ They do not offer a connection to the timeless in the way that land does. So there is no need to treat them as connectors through time. In a city, you can create wealth and lose wealth – but as we know families very rarely maintain title to things for generations. On the other hand, the cities of the Levites retain a holy character and can not be sold. In part, this is because for the Levites these cities are an inheritance in Hashem.
    2. The price of farmland is worked out by the value of its crops – with no discounting for time. Risk is ignored in the sale of land. This is a sign of our outright obstinence in the face of a ‘fallen’ reality. But city land can be sold in perpetuity – because it is not infinitely expensive it is clearly discounted for time. Risk is included. Why? Our relationship to Hashem must be approached as ‘risk-free.’ But the creations of man need not be treated in that way.
  4. Slaveowners in the South used verses 44-46 as justification for owning slaves. For me, this makes it one of the most troubling sections in all of Torah. Non-Jewish slaves are distinct in three ways: One, they can be worked with rigor. Two, your children can inherit them/their families. This reminds of the movie The Help, where the cleaning lady is inherited. But these pesukim never say you can sell a slave. While you may acquire them and they may serve you for generations, you are commanded to hold on to them. In fact, it never calls them property – it calls them an inheritance. The relationship to the slave’s history becomes part of your relationship to your own history and to Hashem. You are not free to break this connection or to pretend that you have actual title.  In many ways, rigorous labor or not, this slavery represents a far softer form that that practiced by the other nations or by foreigners in Israel; after all, they sold their slaves to you.
    1. In fact, the redemption from Egypt wasn’t a redemption of slaves per se – it was a redemption of the children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov.
    2. The Industrial Age opened up a great moral opportunity to societies everywhere – they could live well without slaves. A man can produce about as much energy as a lightbulb uses – just imagine how many ‘slaves’ we have at work in our homes today. In a world where slavery is an almost totally necessary reality, can we see the form commanded here as moral?
  5. I’ve always read the land as getting back its missing Sabbaticals by not being farmed. But in fact the land is abandoned by the Jewish people and its Sabbaticals run away. Without the work, there is no Sabbath.
    1. At the end of the curses, Hashem will remember his covenant. In order to fulfill it, he must rescue the people. But he will also remember the Land. What covenant is there with the Land? There is one covenant with the land – the rainbow and the promise that there will be no flood to destroy the earth. If we think of the Jewish people as a seed to raise up our world to be ‘Better than Eden,’ then perhaps if the Jewish people are not remembered and do not bring the Sabbath to our land, then there will be no purpose to the Earth and Hashem’s covenant with it would also be undermined.
  6. This starts with the description of a strong pledge: “I pledge my Life to Hashem.” Rather than holding a man to such a promise, the value of that life is assigned. It is an escape valve limiting the negative impact of such a pledge. In this context, the different valuations of men, women, children and the elderly can be understood. A child or woman or old person has less opportunity to fulfill such a vow or (if they were vowed by someone else), less opportunity to help. Their inability should reduce the cost of such a vow – it represents the power they have to commit to it.
  7. What is this section about? Why does it matter what the consecrated land is valued at? I think this is of a piece with the previous reading. The question is, what does it cost to go back on such a permanent decision/donation. And the answer is given here. And until the year of the Jubilee, such a decision can be reversed. Why reduce the value as time passes? It is not because the land is worth less or more – if the Kohen keeps it forever it is worth basically the same amount. It is because if there are only a few years to reverse the choice, it has to be cheaper to walk it back. But if you have 49 years to take back such a decision then the cost can be higher.


  1. Judah steps up and provides the assurance Joseph needs. He puts his neck out on the line for his brother – the opposite of what happened with Joseph. Why? What is the only thing that changed (aside from the famine) while Joseph was away? The story of Tamar. Judah grew as a man by taking on not just truth, but responsibility. And he demonstrates it here and changes the future of the family.
    1. If we think of Avraham as connecting to others, Yitzchak as connecting across generations, Yaacov as fighting Fate, Yosef as planning and purpose then Judah can be thought of as taking responsibility.
  2. Joseph immediately tells the brothers not to worry about selling him (which they didn’t actually do). Why shouldn’t they worry? Wouldn’t he seem to have been vengeful and cruel up to this point? In fact, he has been testing, but not cruel. He has been gathering data and making plans. Fundamentally, Joseph only looks forward. Potiphar doesn’t suffer, Potiphar’s wife doesn’t suffer, his brothers don’t suffer. Joseph has no hatchet, he is too focused on the future. The past exists only as a data point.
  3. For the second time, we have a reference to Joseph as the ‘father of Pharoah’. Earlier, they call out AvRech (father of the King) when he is promoted. It seems to be a standard position in Egypt. I’m reminded of the Toyoda clan, which adopts adult men into the family to carry on the family name. Why? Because the actual genetic stock might not be up to snuff. Egypt had tremendous dynasties. Perhaps this was enabled by having AvRech – a smart administrator who could guide the less than perfect Pharoah. A regent, like Bismark, answerable to the King. The post disappears with Joseph – by giving so much property and power to Pharoah, he changes the fundamental nature of Mitzraim.
    1. Jacob seems unable to believe that Joseph was alive. But we saw in the ealier gift to the man in Egypt, that he suspected this was true. The wagons convince him of what he already suspected. This highlights the difference between hope and reality. Normally Jacob must fight for a reality better than the image of the future. Now, his image matches his reality – it can be hard to accept. He is not fighting Fate, but realizing Hope.
  4. Hashem promises Yaacov that Joseph will ‘place his hand on your eyes.’ The image I have is of death – the hand closing the eyes. But the line between the personal and national is obscured in this passage: “I will make you into a great nation…” And this gives another image – of the Jewish people placing their hands on their eyes for Shemah Yisrael. The character of Yisrael (Yaacov’s name) is fundamentally one of fighting Fate. It is the arm of Joseph – which represents purpose and planning – that enables us to close off our apparent reality and focus  on the reality of Hashem and our greater purpose. The hand of Joseph covering the eyes enables Yisrael to shema – hear and live up to our Avot. Joseph may not be an Av, but he is an enabler and that is reassuring to Yaacov.
  5. The wives of the brother’s are not named. The emphasis is on all being the descendants of Yaacov. But there is one exception – Joseph’s wife is named, as is her father. The tradition is that Potephera is the same person as Potiphar. Joseph’s wife, the daughter of Potiphar, was assigned to him by Pharoah. In so doing, Pharoah shamed Potiphar (changing the second part of him name from multiply to commoner). But Joseph does not shame Potiphar – Joseph does not choose his wife and Potiphar remains the governor of On. Joseph also has two amazing children who are focused not on ego, but on the future. His wife doubtlessly played an important role in raising the children (he was busy travelling and running Egypt). By seeing past the shame and the ego and by playing a key role in instilling those forward-looking values in her children, Asnath becomes a member of the Bnei Yisrael. And her father, by remaining an effective governor of On, earns the same honor.
    1. Why name every member of the family now? When Hashem redeems the people  from Egypt, he pulls slaves from another society. Slaves tend to be a hodgepodge of peoples all mixed for the purpose of hard labor. One might argue that Hashem simply rescues slaves because they are slaves. With the entire family being named, it is clear at the beginning of their transformation they were all descendants of Yisrael – and the Canaanite blood in them is irrelevant. The Jewish people are not rescued because they are slaves, they are rescued because they are the children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov and every one who leaves is connected to those who came.
  6. Pharoah asks ‘how many are the days of your life?’ Yaacov gives a long response. He identifies two lengths – the length of sojourning and the length of life. He has soujourned – a ger or stranger, fundamentally unsettled – for many years. But the years of his life are short and bad. How can we square these? They key is in this distinction. Life is first ascribed to animals – and one gets a sense of life being undomesticated or free. Jacob has always been constrained – yes, he’s fought the constraints – but his life is defined by battle.  When he says his days of freedom/life haven’t ‘achieved’ what his forefather’s days of freedom achieved, he is saying that his days of freedom have been neither numerous nor productive. But his days of struggle are many indeed – and they have been productive.
  7. Joseph buys the land of Egypt and thus the people. He transfers them to cities and he sets them to work as tenant farmers – like blacks after the civil war. Joseph enslaves Egypt. Just as the baker is imprisoned, so too is Egypt. His changing of Pharoah deprives Egypt of a respect for what came before and his changing of Egyptians deprives  them of the experience of productivity. The become neither Good nor Holy – they become a people Hashem can punish because they have lost all redeeming qualities.
    1. Joseph tries to set the Jewish people up so they can live well in Egypt. But it doesn’t work. Their very wealth and success become the reasons the Egyptians can’t afford to let them go. Joseph ends up playing a key role in enslaving the Jews while also demonstrating the limits of plans. Fate can be defied, but Hashem’s edicts are greater than any Fate.


  1. When Joseph was being released, the guards rushed him. But he interceded. He insisted on shaving and fresh clothes. He could delay Pharoah, but he could not look anything but great. Joseph understood his power in the society – it was always connected to his looks. Joseph recognizes the tools he has available and uses them. At this point, after the disasters of wandering towards Dothan and into his brother’s trap and being along with Potiphar’s wife, Joseph has become – far more than any of his fathers – a planner.
  2. With Joseph’s first dreams, G-d did not appear. In the second, the interpretation belongs to G-d. In the third, Joseph recognizes that there is not ‘one’ interpretation. Rather, Hashem can grant you a favorable interpretation after the dream. He realizes dreams have no power of their own. Hashem is behind everything. Joseph puts Fate in its place. He follows this by explaining that even if the interpretation of the dream is negative, it can be overcome by somebody who plans and is perceptive. He puts Fate below the powers of even a well-organized and thoughtful man.
    1. The word for selling and grain are the same – shavar. It is associated with grain sales later, but always as a curse. This kind of sale is not normal, there are other words for that. This is a soul-rotting sale of desperation. It is not a sale for growth, but survival. It reminds me of farmers eating their cattle for lack of water – they destroy their future to preserve their present. More ominously, it reminds me of Jews selling everything before they flee. Joseph undoes Egypt with these sales – making all of Egypt the property of Pharoah and creating a rotting society.
    2. I saw a discussion online: if you eat yourself would you be twice as big or nothing at all? This seems like the description of Egypt.
  3. After his appointment, Joseph immediately goes ‘on tour.’ He doesn’t sit and give orders and believe they will be followed. Joseph micromanages the greatest project in human history. Why? Why not trust that it will work or that Pharoah’s command will be carried out? Joseph has become a planner. What is he planning? It is simple. When he later reveals himself to his brothers, the first reason he gives for being sent down to Egypt is that Hashem sent him to save lives, not just their lives. Joseph might just see this project as his purpose
    1. Why does Pharoah give Joseph so much more power than he asks for? Joseph has made a fundamental leap. His pitch to Pharoah is that Pharoah can preserve the land – not the people who last but a generation – but the timeless land itself. We crave something greater than themselves; call it purpose. Joseph offers Pharoah purpose – and presents himself as a vehicle for fulfilling it. Pharoah will offer him anything to make it reality.
  4. Why does Joseph remember the dream now? Perhaps he has settled into Egypt and forgotten the past? Certainly, he has stayed connected to Hashem, but not his family. Perhaps this break is why he never reaches out to his father. But Joseph then jumps from the dream remembrance to accusing his brothers of being spies – seeking to see the emptiness/nakedness of the land. Why would Egypt be worried about a few Canaanite spies seeing the naked truth about Egypt? Especially when so many others from Canaan are buying grain? Perhaps Joseph is actually expressing his plan. Perhaps he intends to see the nakedness of his family – and ascertain whether he should return.
  5. Yaacov offers the strangest gift to the man in Egypt. It is the ‘song of the land’ and he calls it a ‘Minchah’ – not just a present. Minchah comes from Nach – comfort. One calls to mind his ‘guarding’ of Joseph’s fate. Perhaps he unconsciously hoped that the governor of Egypt might be Joseph and perhaps he imagined that the ‘song of the land’ would be a comfort to him.
  6. If Joseph was seeking to uncover the nakedness of the brothers’, they passed their first test. They returned the money. They demonstrated honesty in business and they brought Benjamin. Joseph is deeply touched, but this isn’t enough for him to decide to reunite. He is a man of planning and perception. He needs more evidence that he should return.
  7. And so Joseph threatens to keep Benjamin. If they will defend Benjamin at risk to themselves – repudiating in action their previous sins – then he will reunite with them. If not, then he will stay with Benjamin – whom he loves – and let them suffer for their own problems.


  1. Where Yaacov defied Fate – and became an Av because of it – Joseph seems to embrace it. He sees the dreams and shares them. As a servant of Fate, Joseph can be great, but he can never be an Av. But perhaps even more ominously, Yaacov ‘guards’ his dreams. Yaacov, for his favorite son, seems to treat Fate as something to protect. This, for a man like him, is dangerous.
  2. Joseph’s brothers refer to their brother as a dreamer – and somebody they must kill. Today, we see dreaming in a positive way; either it is a reflection of aspiration or it is prophecy. But, in Yaacov’s family, it was different. Dreams of Joseph’s sort are a future to be battled. But there are two ways to battle the status quo. One way is to build and the other is to tear down. When well-earned jealousy and anger enter the picture, the brothers contemplate murder – which falls into the destructive bucket.
  3. Joseph’s brother’s plan to sell him, but passing Midianites beat them to the punch. They sell him to Ishmaelites – people who from their cargo are clearly not slave traders. And then, stranger still, the Midianites are also the people who sell Joseph to the Egyptians. What are the Midianites doing in this transaction? The word Midian means to haggle or trade. Selling slaves was a specialty business. I’d suggest that the brothers may have failed to sell Joseph, so middlemen were necessary to make Fate into reality.
  4. Tamar’s act is another in a series of ‘immoral’ acts that define our history. These include the acts of Lot’s elder daughter, the marriage of Moshe’s parents that violate the sexual rules (almost every other one of which seems to belong in the category of big no-no), and the marriage of Ruth and Boaz which (from the straight-forward reading) would seem to be prohibited. Tamar upsets the status quo – but she does so constructively. But she does more than defined the genetic history of King David. She redefines Judah himself. Judah was a man who ‘went down’ from his brothers and hung out with a low-class friend and visited prostitutes (for his friend to pay off secretly) all while pretending to be moral. He took public morality to the point of ordering his daughter-in-laws execution for harlotry, something he had partaken in. But she raises him up – even in great danger. She doesn’t say “this is Judah’s”, she lets him admit the truth. And he does, he recognizes he had fallen, he does the right thing – and he rises in the face of adversity. These are the ways of leadership – but sometimes they must be brought out before they become real.
  5. At the beginning of the reading we see the Ishmaelites handing over Joseph. Why? Perhaps the non-slave trading Ishmaelites might only have been able to sell him wholesale. The price might not have been high enough and so they may have returned to Gerar with him. But the Midianites could get a better deal and enabled him to stay in Egypt. As we see later with Balaam, the Midianites are religious – but in the ancient way of respecting and defending the status quo. They are tools of Fate. And Joseph’s dream is a Fateful dream. Of course, the Jews exterminate them when they leave Egypt – it is part of our DNA to resist reality and undermine those who defend it.
  6. The Torah makes a special point of saying that Joseph faced no oversight. Why? In the first place, Hashem’s blessing of Potiphar’s House helps. But in both cases, his beauty and charisma play a key role. He is very Greek – wrapped up in Fate and physical beauty. But unlike Greeks, he continues to fear G-d, which rescues him.
  7. We come to the dreams of others. Now, Yosef interprets (for the first dreams, his brothers did). He recognizes dreams alone lack power. They need interpretation. This is the first step in his rise above Fate  – and thus his fulfillment of it.
    1. The Egyptians had wine, but grew no grapes. In Canaan, wine had been made for thousands of years (a new cellar from 1700 BCE was just found). But the Egyptians invented bread that rose and remained the world leader in it for millenia. It is their ‘living’ food, which is one reason we ban it on Pesach. The dreams are that the cupbearer/Israel will have his head lifted up to serve his King in a time of 3 somethings. On the same timeline, the baker/Egypt will have its head lifted off its shoulders. As it takes more than 200 years, this is 2+ centuries (rounded to three just as we’d round two and a half days to saying something will happen in three days).
    2. As part of this prophecy – both parties are in prison in the intervening years. The Israelites as slaves, and the Egyptians as people without creative ability locked into dependency on those same slaves.

Summary of Speech for Jared’s conversion (shortened because it borrows from the above and squished in with some later remarks):

As we see in this week’s parsha, Jews have a difficult relationship with Fate. It is a force to be fought. Jared points out that Jewish history is a history of resisting, painfully, the dictates of reality. This is who we are. Jared has joined this people. He was born one way. A statistician could predict his future. But he has chosen to fundamentally counter his reality. Whether it was triggered by an event in Jerusalem or done out of the blue, the act of converting to Judaism – of taking on our challenges – is an act of defiance. G-d creates for six days and rests on the seventh. But when he creates, he doesn’t get out a hammer and nails. He speaks and changes the status quo constructively. This is creation. And Jewish creation is epitomized by the challenging of our reality and all its shortcomings in a productive way. We see this borne out by Tamar – she challenges her reality, she breaks the rules, but she does so constructively. When Jared joined the Jewish people, he took on the characteristics of the Avot. Avraham was the first person to work with one other person and connect to them through that – namely his wife. Jared, by evidence of the many people here today, connects to others. Yitzchak connected across generations, we see that in Jared connecting Moses – his non-Jewish son – with his father who is also here. And Yaacov defies Fate. And in the very act of conversion, Jared does the same. We live in a world where Fate seems to be against us. Israel’s superpower sponsor is withdrawing the from the world – we are threatened by an extremist and increasingly powerful Persia. And we must resist. It is who we are. It is my beracha to Jared that he continue to defy Fate and build a Jewish life. And it is my beracha to the rest of us that Jared show us a bit of the defiance we need to create a better future and hasten the coming of Mochiach.


  1. Why would Yaacov send out a message to Esav saying how rich he is and how he wants to be favored in his eyes? It seems like a suicide note. Yaacov is playing with ancient and powerful ideas of fate. His blessing was success and for brothers who would bow to him. This message seems to be trying to play on the impact of the blessing; look, I’m successful (so beware) but I’m also not asking for you to bow (so don’t be angry).
  2. What earns him the name Yisrael? That he fights man and G-d and overcomes. As I see it, he fights fate and defies it. The cast path – whether it be from a prophecy in the womb, or birth order or the love of a father or from Lavan – doesn’t constrain him. Yaacov pays a dear price every time he fights fate; but he eventually wins. He sees G-d face-to-face – which MUST mean death – and he survives.
  3. Why does Yaacov separate his bands in the first reading? Surely Esav could kill one and track down the other. He’s been waiting years, I wouldn’t think he’d get distracted. We see why later. Yaacov finally approaches Esav with his entire family. The other band must be everybody else – bystanders who Esav will not track down and kill. Yaacov is protecting his charges. They don’t need to fight his fate.
  4. Why does Yaacov want to pay Esav? Because Yaacov becomes a vassal with the gift. When you read Esav’s blessing, he has a chance to break free of the ‘blessing.’ Yaacov is saying – “you’re free, I am granting you superiority.” Esav, bit by bit, realizes Yaacov is terminating his dominance. Like a great man, Esav must make a show of turning down the gift – but it cements the reality he desires. Yaacov isn’t left empty handed though. If Esav takes the gift, he can’t just kill Yaacov. After all, he’s accepted his tribute.
  5. Yaacov is named Yisrael again. What happens before? He fulfills his vow to Hashem and recognizes where his ability to defy fate comes from. And then he buries Devorah under THE elyon. It is a prominent burial for a servant. Where Eliezer is fated to be buried in obscurity, Yisrael ignores fates and honors Devorah.
    1. If it is a tree, the elyon seems to be the same species of  tree where the idols of Yaacov’s camp are buried. But there is a difference. The sentence of the buried idols can be translated as “he buried the strange gods by the god of Shechem.” He destroys Shechem’s god and condemns the other gods with it. But Devorah is honored – and another word is used so as to ensure no confusion.
    2. This reading has the first use of the word ‘tumah.’ What happens? We see a pattern of lost potential in Tumah – human and higher animal bodies are tumah. When Dinah is literally ‘oppressed’ she has potential lost. It is a waste of tremendous human potential. One might imagine Dinah being the 13th tribe. Interestingly, the same word is not used later in rape law.
    3. It is not Shechem’s neshama which desires Dinah, it is his nefesh. Animals have Nephesh. It is not his soul, it is his animal spirit.
    4. And again, we see love. But it is a double-edged sword – it does not yield joy.
  6. Rachel’s naming of Benoni is one of the saddest statements in Torah.  The word anah is a diminutive of ani (I). She’s dying and even as she is giving birth to a son (which the midwife sees as wonderful) she casts herself as a lesser person – not because of her suffering and death, but because of her life. Unlike Leah, Rachel was beautiful and loved. Her eyes were not weak. She seemed to have a great fate. But that did not yield her long life, many sons or great joys. She says ‘she is dead’ earlier and it seems that it is about to be reality when Hashem rescues her with the birth of Yosef. She seems to be both a blessed and a fundamentally depressed person. She is totally aware of her own lost potential.
  7. There is enormous ink spent on Esav’s children. It reinforces the invalidation of Yitzchak’s blessing. But why is that so important? Perhaps because Yaacov is right, fate can be overturned. Esav’s many progeny and kings demonstrate that is true. Aside from the promises of Hashem, we must recognize that blessings or curses, good fates or bad, strengths or weaknesses – everything that is cast in stone can be broken to bits. We are a people who connect like Avraham, link across generations like Yitzchak and defy the boundaries of our lives like Yaacov. And with these strengths, we have the power to roll back the expulsion from the Garden and even exceed its limitations.


  1. We open with Yaacov ‘praying.’ We associate this with Ma’ariv, but as with the other two prayers there is no actual ‘praying’ going on. In this case, Yaacov sleeps and Hashem answers his greatest fear: that he has no future. This fear runs throughout – it is why he forces Esav into selling the birthright and why he goes beyond Rebecca’s opportunism to lie to his father and ensure he gets his blessing. Hashem sees this and, in Yaacov’s greatest moment of need reassures him with a prophecy of thousands of years in the life of Israel (his name). It isn’t enough – Yaacov only offers his ‘house of G-d’ conditionally.
    1. At this point, Yaacov is not yet great enough to encounter Hashem while awake.
    2. Why does Yaacov merit such attention? What has he done that is so great? Abraham worked with his wife, Yitzchak created connections between generations. Yaacov did something perhaps even greater – he defied fate. The ancient world was dominated by the idea of unavoidable fate and he fought it, and lost and fought it again. He never seemed to believe reality was set in stone.
    3. My brother Isaiah points out that the sun goes down when Yaacov leaves Israel and comes up (before the encounter with Esav) when he returns. The sun rises and sets on Israel’s presence in the land.
  2. Yaacov’s challenge is more all the clearer when he weeps on Rachel. He lacks confidence, but encountering her gives him some hope – something even Hashem couldn’t provide.
    1. On the Lavan track, we encounter a very different well than Eliezer found. Aside from Rachel, no women come to draw water. In fact, there’s a big rock on the well because nobody trusts anybody else any more. The community has been poisoned. We’ll see why as this parsha continues.
  3. Leah lacks a connection to Yaacov. So Hashem blesses her with children. Why? She is deserving of being a fully connected part of humanity. This need for connection is part of what sets Abraham apart. If Leah can’t connect with her own husband, Hashem will connect her by giving her children who form a link in the ongoing chain of humanity.
  4. Hashem zachors Rachel. When used with Hashem, this term normally describes when somebody must be saved in order to keep the covenant. Rachel says earlier that she is dead without children – she might now be in such dire straits that she needs rescue to be zachored. But where’s the covenant? Hashem has promised her nothing. But just as Yishmael was saved because of a covenant with Abraham, Rachel may be saved because of Hashem’s covenant with Yaacov and her connection, in turn, to him.
  5. The rods thing is a weird miracle. First, it isn’t presented as a miracle. Second, we know from genetics and biology that peeled sticks don’t make animals go into heat and have stripped children. Third, Yaacov has a whole story about it in which he changes key details (like whose idea it was). fourth, Hashem doesn’t seem command this weird act beforehand. So why does Yaacov do it? He does it because he believes it will work. He is uncertain about the future and he feels a need to change fate through action.  Hashem caters to him by making it a miracle after the act. And Yaacov returns the favor by eliminating the mechanics of what he did (and including Hashem)  in his description of what occurred.
    1. While Yaacov may believe his trick will work – ultimately he does recognize it comes from Hashem – after all, who could he be emulating? This might be why Hashem talks to Yaacov – and perhaps during the day. He has risen since his departure from Canaan.
  6. Lavan refers to “G-d of y’alls father.” What y’all is he referring to? I think this reinforces Lavan’s role. Terach had the same G-d as Avraham. Rivka and Rachel and Leah do. But Lavan has his own gods. He is incompatible with his own family’s G-d.
    1. We always talk about Rachel dying because she hid Lavan’s gods and Yaacov saying whoever hid them would die. But he didn’t say that. He said if Lavan finds them whoever has them will die. But Lavan doesn’t find them. I think Rachel dies for the same reason the Jewish people were evicted. She is a member of the family of Avraham and she is in the land of Avraham and she has idols. Those three ingredients are combustible.
  7. Why is Lavan incompatible? We see why right away. He says all the women and kids are his, which is patently ridiculous given the earlier agreements. But in the next verse, he agrees to a covenant with Hashem as a witness. Laws and covenants have predictability and stability and tradition. They have Kedusha. Lavan, except under threat of force from Hashem, is outside of all of this. When people like this have an influence on society we see what we saw at the beginning of the parshe with the total lack of trust around the well.


  1. Going back to his ‘prayer,’ we saw Yitzchak thinking profoundly and facing uncertainty after having tried to connect where Hagar did. He is seeking some sort of anchor. He looks up and Rivka emerges as the answer to his prayers.  So why does Yitzchak love Esav? I think he loves him because he is so physical. He seems to moored and solid and part-of-this world. Rivka might love Yaacov because he is more like Yitzchak, spiritual. But that is precisely why Yitzchak rejects him.
    1. Yaacov buys the birthright precisely because he has this long-term non-concrete vision of the world. And Esav sells because the here is now is more valuable than an abstract right. But he also buys it because he is unwilling to accept the role Fate seems to have determined for him.
    2. In line with that Fate, we can see Yaacov’s birth as a defining moment. He is destined to be born second – but he fights it from the first instant.
    3. Yitzchak has not emerged from his father’s shadow. He is given a command and a blessing; but not on his own accord. The blessing is because of Avraham. There is no mention of Yitzchak’s own merit. In fact, Hashem says to Yitzchak that nations will ‘bless themselves by your seed.’ But when Avraham receives a similar promise he is told ‘you will be a blessing.’ Yitzchak seems to be skipped.
    4. This is the third mention of Love in Chumash. The first is Avraham for Yitzchak. The second is Yitzchak for Rivka. And the third is Yitzchak for Esav. But this love is different. It says Yitzchak loved Esav *because* of something. By giving a reason, the love is actually qualified. If Esav didn’t have game in his mouth, would he still be loved?
  2. Yitzchak earns his living planting and sowing. It is far more ‘solid’ than shepherding. And he ‘sports’ with his wife – also a more physical description. Yitzchak seems to be seeking this solidity and physicality – and settled feeling. He is fighting his true character.
    1. Yitzchak does the same sister act as his father. But it works out differently. Why? Because Yitzchak alone among the Avot “sports” with his wife. He has one wife, he loves her and he sports with her. It all seems so perfect. Yet they seem to end up with real problems. Why? We’ll get to that.
  3. Yitzchak is driven from Gerar. As he retreats, he names more and more wells. The act of naming is one that describes the state of mind of the namer. When he has fled and is redigging his father’s wells, he is ‘oppressed.’ When he digs his own (contested) wells, he is ‘hindered.’ The third, when he finds his own water, is ‘enlarged.’ Yitzchak, through the process of retreat, sees himself growing. While security might be what he sees, it is actually displacement that strengthens him.
  4. Hashem blesses Yitzchak – again, in his father’s name and not his own. In the eyes of Hashem, he is still lacking something fundamental. And then we see Yitzchak’s making a treaty with Abimelech. Abimelech comes to him, trying to assure there is no bad blood in the eyes of G-d. What has changed? Perhaps Yitzchak’s growth, while not complete, has brought on Abimelech’s concern.
  5. The next day, Yitzchak’s men find water. They name the well Shiba, which can mean ‘complete.’ He has made a treaty, on his own terms, with Abimelech. The Torah says the city (which was already called “Be’er Sheva”) is known as “Be’er Sheva until this day.” Yitzchak’s has made his mark. He has achieved strength in this world. So he decides to bless his material son with a material blessing.
    1. Rebecca’s initial suggestion was just to recognize he was in a blessing-giving mood and arrange for Yitzchak to bring in lamb meat. After all, how could Yitzchak confuse wild game with lamb? Rebecca’s idea is opportunistic, not deceptive. Esav had just married a Canaanite and Rivka wants to put Yaacov forward as a candidate for blessing. But Yaacov seems unwilling to take up the opportunity in a straight-forward (and risky) way.  Yaacov lacks confidence and so he thinks he must ‘pass’ as Esav. This sets up a terrible sequence of events.
    2. Adam Smith talks about three kinds of people: hunter/gatherers, shepherds and farmers. Spiritually, shepherds are the greatest (time to ponder, travel, take provisions with them for warfare, not tied/lashed to crops and material). This is why shepherds always lead the Jewish people. Esav’s intended blessing is the blessing of a farmer. A prayer that he rise above being a nomad (always hand-to-mouth, desperate and not spiritual). But for Yaacov the shepherd, farming is a step down spiritually.
  6. Esav whines and pulls a fit – especially over Yitzchak’s long-term vision serving him so much more effectively. With this, Yitzchak seems to see the error of Esav’s material way. Afterwards, Yitzchak blessing Yaacov and establishes a pattern which we continue to this day; he blesses his child in the name of his father. Note that he withheld this blessing from Esav. Where Avraham had a unique connection to others in his time and prayed to save them, Yitzchak  has a unique connection between generations. He is an anchor in time, not in a time. The act of connecting the chain of generations is perhaps Yitzchak’s greatest legacy both to Kedusha and to ourselves.
    1. Esav’s intended blessing didn’t include the birthright of Avraham. This was always to be saved for Yaacov Perhaps as the lesser brother militarily and materially, Yaacov would have better carried out the spiritual mission of Avraham. After all, Avraham was never promised domination over his relatives – and neither was Yitzchak.
  7. Yitzchak sends Yaacov away after the blessing. By playing an active role in preserving and strengthening the chain, Yitzchak finally earns his place in a blessing of Hashem. In the next parsha Hashem blesses Yaacov as the ‘G-d of Avraham and Yitzchak.’

Chayei Sarah

  1. Why would Ephron offer the burial plot as a gift only to name an excessive price moments later? And why would Avraham reject the gift, but pay the excessive price? What if Ephron (like the Hebronites) genuinely saw Avraham as a Prince of G-d. The gift of land can earn them eternal merit. When Avraham refuses, he does so because he doesn’t want the locals to have that merit. At that point, the locals aren’t selling the land, they are selling the merit of having given Avraham a deal. The price for losing merit – in terms of cold, hard, cash – is very high indeed.
  2. Avraham’s last two major actions are to bury his wife and find his son a wife. These are actions that commemorate the past (so effectively that we remember it) and ensure the future. But they are intertwined. The future is about the land, but he intertwines it to the past (Sarah) and the past is about his family, but he intertwines it to the future (the life of his descendants). The connection to timelessness is a key aspect of Kedusha and these actions ensure the timelessness of Avraham’s life.
    1. Isn’t it odd that the servant determines where Yitzchak goes and who he marries? I’d suggest the servant has the role of Alfred of Batman. His relationship to Yitzchak may well be stronger than Avraham’s. Avraham has the first ‘loving’ relationship with Yitzchak and loving relationships in Torah are often troubled.
  3. There are questions raised about Eliezer’s “test” for Hashem (if she does x, then I know she’s the one). Some say it was forbidden, others say it was permissible. But it wasn’t a test. If we look at the prior reading we see that Hashem’s angel accompanies Eliezer. He’s there to help, and Eliezer is simply telling him what’s needed. And the characteristic that Eliezer is looking for is the one Avraham has – a joy in serving others.
  4. Lavan and Betuel both say “The matter stemmed from Hashem, we can say to you neither good nor bad.” Later, when Lavan is chasing Yaacov, Hashem commands Lavan in the same way. Where does this concept come from? Why can’t he say good? The answer is in Lavan’s introduction: he ran to the man upon seeing the gifts and says ‘come, oh blessed of Hashem.’ When Lavan speaks good, he desecrates Hashem’s name through deceit and greed. When he speaks ill, he desecrates the name of the person he is speaking to.
  5. Here we see Rebecca has many servants, so why was she drawing water? Earlier, it says that “the women would come to draw water.” Not the slaves or maid servants, but the women. This is hard work. Looking forward, Yaacov had to roll a rock off a well which was intended to stop theft, but Rachel came to water the sheep. Moshe has to protect Yitro’s seven daughters because they would be driven from the well on a daily basis, but they would draw water – the source of life. The pattern remains. Holy women draw water. It is indicative of the health of this time and place that all the women go to the well.
  6. Yitzchak’s father dies, Hashem blesses him and he moves back to Be’er Lachai Ro’i. What is this place? It is the first place where Hashem answers a prayer. Not Avraham’s, but Hagar’s. Like Avraham’s prayer, Hagar’s is unspoken. Hashem sees what is needed and provides it. Yitzchak goes here perhaps shattered by the Akeidah. But he has left before meeting Rivkah. Why? His unspoken need was not addressed. And then he is literally thinking profoundly in the face of twilight. He is desperate. He raises up his eyes, perhaps towards heaven, and Rivka appears. His prayer is answered. Why, however, does he move back after his father’s death?
    1. If we look at the four unspoken prayers we see a pattern. Hagar runs from oppression, but really wants status (thus looking down on Sarah). Hashem answers her unspoken (and perhaps unknown) need by promising her Yishmael will be important. Avraham looks at S’dom and is enthralled by the scene of destruction. Hashem recognizes his need and Lot is rescued.  Yitzchak is unmoored from this world and Rivka fills his unknown need. And Yaacov is facing an uncertain future and the ladder fills his need.
    2. In each of these cases the Avot, perhaps unintentionally, open up a pathway in time for prayer. In these cases, they pray as we do – we pray more like Eliezer or Malchitzedek. But they create (perhaps even passively) an avenue for connection to Hashem that continues to exist each morning, afternoon and evening.
    3. My brother Isaiah mentions that Avraham is the only man in Chumash who gets to retire. He passes his test early and is rewarded with a peaceful and long retirement. Others must be challenged and produce their entire lives.
  7. In a flash, we see Yishmael’s descendants: the true offspring of Hagar’s prayer. Yishmael also prays successfully. But he passes in a moment. Why? Perhaps because when he contends it is with his brothers, not with Hashem. Hashem’s relationship with the chosen family, shown with Avraham and reemphasized with Yitzchak, is meant to be more complex.