CHAPTER 4 - MT. SINAI
The night back in my hotel was a restless one. I kept dreaming about Bobby wearing a little sailor hat. Over and over again he called, “Daddy! Where are you?”
“How could I bring life into this world, and then run off like this?” Soon Bobby would start to worry that I’d never return. Then, because he was so young, I knew he would forget me completely.
On Monday I set out for the journey to Mount Sinai, then under Israeli occupation. It was Passover that week, and Miriam had warned me that it would be impossible to get a hotel room in Eilat where guided tours begin. But I couldn’t be persuaded. I was the kind of guy who always had to have things my way, and I hadn’t yet learned to heed advice from others when it was contrary to my will. Anyway, I thought, Moses didn’t hesitate to march toward the mountain of God for lack of hotel space. Why should I?
There were two reasons for the trip to Sinai. Here Moses and Elijah had spoken with and heard from God. Perhaps it was still His home on Earth. I wanted to ask the Almighty whether my book was or was not divinely inspired. I also wanted to appeal for another not-so-small miracle, the return of my son.
When I arrived in Beer Sheba enroute to Eilat, all seats were sold out days before and it was useless to wait around. There was nothing else to do at first but stroll through the market where people shopped for the night’s chicken dinner. Here customers selected their meal while still alive. I watched the slaughter of a few birds, then discovered that for not too much more than the price of a bus ticket, it was possible to could catch a sherute, (limousine) to Eilat.
Most of the trip from Jerusalem to Beer Sheba had been boring, except for the women. Now the journey grew far more intriguing. We passed Dimona where Israelis make nuclear weapons, then descended into the Negev. Rock colors were spectacular as the sherute dropped ever further below sea level until we passed the blue, utterly flat Dead Sea. The basin was more monotonous. Occasionally we’d drive through a sand storm that would reduce visibility to near zero.
Eilat was reminiscent of Vegas. No gambling casinos, but here where desert terrain collides with a cold tongue of the Red Sea was a modern resort. I spent the late afternoon walking to every hotel in town. I even tried the youth hostel. No luck. There wasn’t a bed to be had anywhere; and despite my earlier brave words, I was now wishing that I had listened to Miriam. I was carrying over $2,000 and though most of it was in traveler’s checks, I wasn’t anxious to sleep on a crowded beach. There was no choice.
The beach was packed with partying Israelis all night. Most had tents and cooking gear. I had only a backpack for a pillow and as such, couldn’t sleep at all. At one point I got up and took a walk toward the Jordanian border. On a barbed wire fence a sign said there were mine fields just ahead. The lights of Jordan’s port Aqaba were only a mile or two to the east. I turned north at the border and started to walk inland. It was pitch dark and it seemed like a good place to have a talk with God. As I began my prayer , troops armed with machine guns rushed at me from out of the darkness. “My God,” I yelled, “Don’t shoot! Ahnee Americanee! I’m American!”
It was an Israeli border patrol. “This isn’t a safe place to take a stroll,” a young sergeant told me. “Please continue your walk back at the beach.”
The following morning I succeeded in getting an expensive room at the Queen of Sheba Hotel. Exhausted, I spent another night in Eilat before continuing.
In the morning I set out along the beach again in the direction of Aqaba. This, I thought, was the Holy Land. Was it too much to expect God to give me a favorable omen? Did He approve of my trip, or was He too busy to care? Then, oddly enough, I noticed water in a stream feeding down into the Gulf of Eilat that was almost a perfect blood red. It looked like the plague of the Nile was being repeated just for me. Perhaps, I cautiously thought, it was red clay beneath the water that produced the eerie effect.
I scooped up a water sample in a Coke bign="justify"> I scooped up a water sample in a Coke bottle, and it was indeed crimson. Gazing out at the sea all was blue except for an area of about a thousand square meters where the stream ran into the Sea. There the waters were red. Was this the sign I had sought?
While I was a religious man, I was also a science teacher and my training in that area caused me to challenge initial impressions. I asked about the red water everywhere, but nobody could explain it or tell me if perhaps it was red algae from a fish farm inland someplace. One man told me he thought it was treated sewage, but he wasn’t sure. Later I learned that the phenomenon observed was due to the presence of a species of blue-green algae known as Trichodesmium. They have a red pigment called phycoerythrin that stains water red in the Red Sea and in the Gulf of California.
A day later by the youth hostel I joined a group that was headed south. The first part of the trip down the Sinai coast was fast and breathtaking. We stopped to view the coral island with its Crusader fortress, then at a fjord. After diving at the reef near Nuweiba, and competing with swarms of flies for lunch, we turned inland and the modern highway was soon replaced by sand and rocks (today the highway goes all the way to Mount Sinai and then on to Cairo).
It was April, but it was already very hot. We drove on at a painfully slow speed for what seemed like an eternity. Ari, our guide, showed us ancient Hebrew writings on rocks just south of the desert path, then took us to a 5,000-year-old ruin that included the oldest roofed buildings in the world. The structures all had windows facing roughly west. They were tombs. It was possible to date the exact time of the year for the death of each person buried there because the window for each tomb pointed to where the sun set on the day of the burial.
As we continued, there was nothing but sand and rock for as far as the eye could see. Then, in the midst of nowhere, a Bedouin had his head pressed down against the sand as he prayed towards Mecca. A camel was with him, but nothing more. Another 20 miles passed before we saw another sign of human existence.
We spent the night at a Bedouin encampment about five miles from the foot of Mount Sinai. The grandeur of the mountains by now was most gripping. Somewhere out there God had appeared long before and had given his people the Torah. Millions of fellow Jews had heard His voice. Was it too much to ask that one more Jew would be so privileged here?
Ari cooked up a stew for dinner over an open campfire after everyone had taken their turn peeling potatoes, carrots and onions. It might have been because I was so hungry, or perhaps because some flavoring of the manna from heaven was still in the air, but I had never enjoyed a meal as much before.
When darkness ruled the heavens, the star field was so rich only the blackness of jagged peaks could reveal where sky caressed earth. The awesome beauty and tranquillity of such surroundings seemed to speak volumes that God must still be near. We tried to sleep until about 1:30 in the morning, then rose under the now ascended nearly full moon to complete the trek to the Mountain of God.
After a half-hour drive, we arrived at the Santa Caterina Monastery located at the foot of Mt. Sinai. The Greek Orthodox structure was built some fifteen hundred years ago. Because of its isolation, its monks hadn’t learned of the occurrence of World War II until 1948.
Everybody started the climb together at just past 2:00 A.M., but the group was soon completely divided by the physical conditioning of the climbers. I took the lead, not wishing to share the initial experience at the summit with a pack of tourists.
At first the climb up the Snake Path was gradual and not too tiring. The moon was soon poised over the peak of the mountain. High cirrus clouds crowned it with a halo ring and moonbeams lit the rocks ahead, often giving an almost surrealistic impression of angels standing in the way of the ascent. With each step up, the vista expanded and I felt all the closer to God. Two hours into the climb, I reached the Staircase to Heaven, built centuries ago by the monks who then lived below. It consisted of huge cut stones. The angle of climb was now much steeper, about forty-five degrees, and the ascent was increasingly difficult. I had run marathons before. This was almost as hard.
The summit was reached only fifteen minutes before sunrise. A small Greek Church sits nearby with the peak sporting a room that served as combined synagogue and mosque. Just beyond it was a sheer drop that had to be nearly a mile. There, on the precipice, I began my prayer to El Shadai, the Almighty. When I was finished I yelled, “Shema Olum Adonoy Elohaynu, Adonoy Echod,” a modification of the central prayer of my faith. My version meant, Hear, oh world, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. The standard Jewish version addresses Israel rather than the world, something I felt was too narrow a message. My prayer echoed twice off the surrounding mountain peaks before silence ruled again. Not long after this, the first of the other tourists arrived and my chance to hear from God was over.
I stayed for about an hour. Many were the nights that I had imagined this place when I couldn’t sleep. It was one way to overcome my frequent insomnia. I wanted to fix the true image firmly in my mind. Not having heard a reply from God, I started down the mountain feeling the very reverse of the emotions that had spurred me on to get to the top. The climb had taken just under four hours; the descent was over in an hour.
At the base of the mountain, I toured the monastery and gave the head monk a copy of my book for the library, the second largest theological collection in the world (the Vatican has the largest). Outside the monastery, one of the Swedish girls in our group was sunbathing topless.
Back in Israel, I went to a travel agency to make arrangements for the trip to Miami. Before I could be waited on however, I was accosted by the Jewish version of the Salvation Army.
Nathan Levy wanted to know if I needed a place to stay.
“I’m a bit low on cash,” I admitted, “but that’s not the only reason I’m going home.”
“If you’re a Jew, then Israel is your home. I’m from the Yeshiva Aish Ha Torah. You can have a room there for free if you’ll study the Torah with us,” Nate said.