I think I must have been born searching for God.
People tell me that just as my head crowned during my mother’s labor, there was a clap of thunder and she shouted out God’s name. You’re never supposed to say that name aloud, of course, but my mother couldn’t help herself—with the room shaking around the searing pain.
In any case, that very first word spoken in my presence seems to have lit me up like a dazzling flash of lightning. Maybe that’s why I started so young with all my questions: "Where can I find God?" "What-ever does God look like?" "And when I finally see God’s face, will I be afraid?"
Our neighbor Yeshu told me once he’d never known a kid so intent on finding God. And he knew lots of kids. That’s why he built a dozen small stools for all of us to sit on when we visited him in his workshop for storytelling. I may be an old man now—look at these white hairs on my arms!—but I can still see it in my mind’s eye, as clearly as if it all happened this morning.
Yeshu would work on a door or a wooden saddle, his dark eyes intent on his job and his beard flowing down from sharp cheekbones like hillsides full of wildflowers. While he rolled out his stories, we kids would sit watching and listening, digging our toes deep down into the wood chips and sawdust until they disappeared. And when the story was a really good one, which it almost always was, we disappeared into it in the same way.
One time when I was about ten, one of the village men who were always meeting together at night ran into Yeshu’s workshop and excitedly implored him to come to the river.
I waited a bit and then followed.
Yohanan was there!
All of us kids were crazy about Yohanan. He always played and danced with us when he came to town. He wore animal skins and a camel’s hair cloak, and he looked just like the descriptions of the great prophet Elijah, in the scrolls.
Yohanan ate locusts and never cut his hair or beard, but we weren’t afraid of him. We couldn’t understand why the soldiers were after him. What threat to Rome was this wild man, eating his honey and insects? He carried no weapon other than a sharp tongue.
More than once, my father said to us, "Yohanan’s voice is going to change the world."
But we gave little thought to that. We would sit around Yohanan for hours while he told us what it was like to live alone in the hills, and how bad the king was acting. And though we listened and nodded our heads in agreement, what we were really intent upon was to weave flowers into his great, tangled beard, and put shafts of wheat in his hair.
Eventually he would sneeze and the spell would be broken. Then he would grab at us with huge, hairy hands and let out with a lion’s roar, and we would scatter over the fields like wild pheasants, flapping our arms and squealing.
But even if his words floated past us, his life made us think. Lying in bed at night I would picture Yohanan, when he was only 15, trekking deep into the wilderness to live as a man of the spirit. He would listen to tree branches and field mice and evening sky all talk about life, and in their murmuring he would overhear God’s thoughts. For Yohanan, journeying into the desert in search of solitude was just like Moses going to his mountaintop.
Yeshu took even greater interest in all of this than I did. He was always talking about Yohanan’s purpose in life and quoting to us from his teachings. And as he looked at us one by one, to see if we had listened, he would smile as though he were looking at the Promised Land.
That day at the river, Yeshu and Yohanan embraced like lost brothers. It had been nearly half a year since they had seen one another, and they had much to share. They sat on the bank talking the morning away.
Listening to their voices mingling with the sounds of the flowing water, I thought about what my father had once told me: "Being that their mothers were cousins, Yohanan and Yeshu played together as babies. They were always crawling off in different directions but always arriving in the same spot, laughing like bigger children playing hide-and-seek with their shadows.
"Even now," he went on, "it seems to me they are taking separate paths toward similar ends. And those paths will be forever entwined, crisscrossing into eternity.
"Daavi," my father said, "Yohanan comes in out of the wilderness to touch humanity, ritually anointing us with the living waters of the Earth. But like a storm, he can’t be still and soon moves on. Yeshu buries himself in the hearts of the masses, and when he faces a crisis or feels that he is drying up spiritually, he journeys back into the wilderness in search of the cool healing hand of the natural world.
"Yeshu has the moon and stars in his eyes, but Yohanan’s burn with the Sun’s fire. He speaks straight from his heart, without considering what is prudent. The temple police chased him out of Jerusalem. Their bosses, the chief priests and the High Priest," my father explained, "want him silenced for good."
Watching the two of them laughing by the river, conspiring like kids, I was worried about Yohanan, but glad that no-body was mad at my neighbor and friend, the carpenter.
One morning a few days later, I came upon Yohanan sitting wide-eyed and very still, like a great predatory bird, on a slab of rock in a meadow at the edge of town. I called and waved to him. At first he looked startled, but then he motioned me over with a quick dip of his beard. I ran to him and stood right in front of where he sat, so that we were looking eye to eye.
With a long, crooked finger, Yohanan pointed, sweeping his hand from right to left, and stopping at a flowering crab-apple tree. Mouth open, at first he seemed speechless, but suddenly he took off, striding across the meadow with his long, sinewy legs, so that I had to run to hear what he was saying.
"Praise God from the Earth, you sea monsters and ocean depths; fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy winds obeying God’s voice; all mountains and hills and fruit trees!"
Back he strode, through the wildflowers, his skins and camel’s-hair cloak flapping in the breeze, crying out. "Wild animals, creeping things, and winged birds! Young men and women, elders and youth. Let all praise the name of God!"
I was certain that Yohanan was making all of this up right on the spot, but I discovered later he was reciting poetry from the book of Psalms. He loved those old verses. They really got him singing!
Yohanan sat back down, staring at me, a single eyebrow raised, and waited for me to speak. So I did, with the first thing that came into my mind.
"Yohanan . . . you hardly sleep at all. You eat honey and insects. No meat, no bread. Where do you get the strength you need to keep going like that?"
Yohanan looked at me as though he had never thought of this before. He gave several vigorous shakes to his head and beard, and dried blades of grass took to the wind. Even a dragonfly flew out to see what the disturbance was.
"Well . . . God feeds me with power whenever I need it." He sat with crossed arms, staring at the sky.
Then he opened his mouth as if to shout, and I could see every one of his teeth. "That’s why my soul overflows with the power of the spirit!"
For a while he was silent. With a downward glance to confirm that I was still there, he took in a long, deep breath, and slowly let it out through his lips. Finally he spoke.
"Daavi, God gives me more strength than I can hold," he said. He smiled broadly, lots of teeth again deep down in that tangled beard. Even his eyes smiled.
I had never seen Yohanan having such trouble expressing himself.
"But how does God give it to you?"
I asked. "Where does it come from?
When . . ."
Suddenly, he broke in: "From the desert winds. From the mouth of the wolf.
From the great sinking moon, red and round; from the eagle’s wingtips when they touch. From the dusting of stars in the vast dome of night sky. From the dreams I have as I fall asleep. As I roll over in the dark of the night. As I wake up and stare at the translucent white clouds blowing over me at dawn."
On and on he went, hardly pausing for breath: "From the sight of a young mother fox feeding her first litter of kits. From the sound of my own heart beating like a drum when I see water shimmering at sunset. From the smell of a field of red poppies stitched together by the flight of countless bees seeking their power.
"From the unfettered laughter of you children at play. From the cry of the hawk as it hunts the vole. From the wing of the butterfly as it climbs the petal’s edge. From the leopard’s loping . . ."
"Yohanan!" I shouted. "Yohanan, stop. No more. That’s all I can take in at once!" I held my head with both hands, as I shook it. "These are mostly things I know nothing about."
He pulled on his beard, then took hold of me by the shoulders.
I looked deep into his eyes, and there I saw flames. I could feel the warmth of his chest radiating against mine, as soothing as midmorning sun. He smelled like deerskin and honeycombs, wildflowers and dove’s down.
He spoke firmly now, and deliberately:
"He who comes after me will find God in humankind." He paused for a while.
"My God is in wildness."
"Yohanan," I said to him, "show me this God of yours! I want to see God like you do."
"That’s not as easy as you may think," he said. Then he went on, slowly. "It’s not exactly seeing."
"Why not?" I asked. "You see God everywhere. I want to as well."
He looked at me for a long time, without speaking. He peered at my eyes, my mouth, the top of my head, my shoulders, and then my eyes again. He reached out and took hold of my hands and lifted them towards his face, turning them over to study my palms. Then he let them fall back to my sides. His chin dropped to his chest, his mouth lost in his beard.
Yohanan spoke steadfastly, under his breath: "If you want to see God, come into the wilderness."
And at that, he sprung to his feet and strode off.
I stood stock-still where he had left me, immobilized. How could I go away with him, just like that? My mother and father would be worried; they would come looking for me. With one lost child already, how could they survive another?
And just who is this man who is to come after Yohanan? I was still so full of questions. I should have walked along with him partway.
Yohanan never looked back. I stared at him as he disappeared over a hill.
Had I just lost my chance to see God?
Months later, Yohanan showed up at my house early in the day. The hides he wore were full of sprigs of grass and burrs—from spending the night sleeping on the ground.
As always, my mother made him eat a big meal of what she called "people’s food": fresh bread, goat cheese, and stewed figs with spices. But no meat, because he would say, "How can I truly love my brothers and sisters—and also eat them!"
Late that afternoon, I saw Yohanan sitting on a bench in the lengthening shadows of the courtyard. His own shadow sat against the wall beside him like a heavy twin.
I ran up to say hello, and he gestured to me to have a seat next to him. It had been a hot day, so I sat on his shadow side.
I had been thinking a lot about my last conversation with him, so I launched into a question: "Yohanan. . . ."
Suddenly his hand leapt to my knee, and I closed my mouth on my question. Out of the side of my eye, I could see he was staring at something. He stood up, and glancing down at me, smiled and said, "Come."
He walked straight towards the corner of the courtyard, and I hurried after. Kneeling, he reached out his hands toward a tiny flower emerging from the spot on the ground where the two walls met. The last rays of sun lit the petals.
I knelt beside him. He pointed and began to speak.
"Daavi, look at this flower, down inside the folds of lucent, veined leaves. Look deep, past the luscious yellow petals. Draw closer. Peer way down inside the gilded cup. Do you see the tiny fronds all covered with golden dust?"
I moved ever nearer, nodded my head, and waited.
"If God has a Torah, this is what it looks like." Yohanan’s breath moved slowly in and out of his chest. I listened while I waited for him to go on.
"See the rounded paunch, just under the bloom, where the seeds lie hidden?"
I nodded again.
"Think about it, Daavi. From every single flower springs creation!" A smile danced on his lips.
"God’s work has only just begun. . . ." He looked over at me, the sun in his eyes warming my face. Then he looked back at the buttery flower, leaning down even closer, his fingers reaching towards the petals and trembling almost imperceptibly.
When he spoke it might have been directed at me, but it sounded as if his voice had turned inward.
"And in each and every flower . . . lie the beginnings . . . of eternity."
I dared not speak. His words echoed in my ears. I tried hard to expand my thoughts so I could embrace creation and eternity.
A glance from Yohanan signaled to hold my mind in check, and just look. And so I did, noticing how the lovely petals quivered as our breath brushed over them.
I felt a sweet happiness in my chest that I have rarely felt since then. When finally I glanced over at Yohanan, I saw him gazing gently down at me.
Slowly we both stood up and walked back to the bench to take our old seats. Yohanan looked at me like my father did the first time I stitched a piece of leather right.
We sat together for a while, until at last I stood up to go. Yohanan put his arm in front of me and said, "I think you arrived with a question that still sits there on the end of your tongue."
I sat back down and drew in a slow breath. "Yohanan, how far into the wilderness will I have to go to find God? Does God live deep in the wilderness, far away from everyone?"
He laughed at the sky, as always.
"You only have to go in as far as it takes to leave the jumbled thoughts and noise of this world behind you so you can open yourself up. It might take only a single step. Or two. Like just now.
"Daavi, you won’t find God with just your feet! You’ll find God with your eyes, and your ears, and your mouth and nose, and the tips of your fingers. And most of all, with your heart.
"You’ll find God in tiny flowers blossoming in the mountain frost. In the clear water running over your shoulders as you lie in a streambed." His eyes widened. "In the taste of the wild raspberry. In the tongue of the mouse as it licks honey from the palm of your motionless hand.
"Many people look for God only in the Temple and in the Torah. They search through the past, or deep in their heads, but nowhere else. For me, that is unwise. God is out in the wild places. Right now. In sunshine and cool breezes and starlight.
"The only inside places where I always find God are the human heart and soul. And these open up in the wilderness!"
Shaking his great mane, Yohanan went on, "Daavi, you must go there and see for yourself."
I silently promised myself that some day I would.
The next day, Yohanan was gone. It was a long while before he came back. Too long for me. But then one morning, there he was, like a stork returning north in the spring. Not to stay forever, but not to be missed either.
The first chance I got, I sat down with Yohanan and began talking to him about God: What he thought about God. And how Yeshu spoke of God. They seemed like two different Gods!
"Yeshu says God is love," I told him. "God is inside every one of us. Even the possessed woman and the Roman Centurion have God inside of them. And God occupies the spaces between people. God lives in our communities, in Nazareth and Bethlehem. Even where villagers are cruel, God is there too, working with those people." I looked at Yohanan. He was staring back at me with those stormy eyes. I thought I could see his head nodding.
"But you, Yohanan, you say God is in wildness. God is in silence, and eagles’ wings, and the mouth of the wolf." I looked at the ground beneath my feet. Then I went on.
"After you told me that, I spent a whole night dreaming of a wolf in front of my face with its jaws wide open. Each time the animal approached, I would push my fist into its hot, steaming mouth to keep the rows of long, yellowing teeth away from my throat. How could that be God?" I gazed back up at Yohanan.
He looked at me for a long time. Just when I thought I must have been stupid to ask such a question, he suddenly spoke.
"Let me tell you a story," he said, leaning towards me with his hands on his knees, his elbows akimbo. He looked like an old daddy stork getting ready to launch into flight from a rooftop.
"Once there was a woman and a she-wolf," he began, "who were both trapped on a narrow island in the middle of a flood-swollen river, just after a storm. The woman had a baby boy in her arms, and the mother wolf had three pups.
"The two mothers locked eyes.
"Perhaps having heard the same stories that you have heard about wolves, and therefore afraid this wolf would attack her and her child, the mother clutched her baby to her breast and plunged into the water to try to make it to shore. In an instant she was up to her neck, and the raging water tore her baby from her arms!
"Twisting her body, she caught a root that extended from the island and pulled herself back ashore. Desperately she ran down the shoreline, searching the water sweeping past for a sign of her baby. But the only moving body she saw was that of the wolf streaking past her and throwing itself into the river. A few moments later the she-wolf surfaced, swimming relentlessly against the current to return to land at the far end of the island, the baby boy held firmly in her mouth by his clothing.
"When the wolf made it to shore, she gently laid the baby on its back.
"The mother raced down the island shore toward her child.
"While the mother ran, the wolf noticed the baby was coughing up water, so she turned him face down with her muzzle and forepaw, and she put her mouth around his chest. She squeezed gently until the baby spit up water and bits of leaves and then gasped for breath.
"Meanwhile the mother had arrived and stood frozen, an arm’s length away, staring into the eyes of the wolf until finally the wolf released her grip and trotted off to check her pups, any one of which could have been the baby she had plunged into the water to save.
"The mother knelt down and bent over her coughing child, patting his back and gently opening up his clothes. She found not a single tooth mark on his skin. Her shoulders shook as she wept."
I looked up at Yohanan, and raised one hand to my open mouth, the other one touching his knee. "So," I said, "God is in the mouth of the wolf . . ."
Yohanan smiled back at me, the top half of his face framed by his long hair and forest-like beard. "Daavi, before you think you understand God so easily," he said, "I’ll tell you another story.
"My great-uncle Moshe once traveled far to the west and north, across the great sea that the Romans call Mare Nostrum." With a wry smile down underneath his bushy moustache, he added, "I guess if you control an empire, you can name an ocean ‘Our Sea.’"
Yohanan went on. "Uncle Moshe journeyed 20 days’ walk beyond Rome, in search of famous mines he had heard of from a traveler: Gold, and silver, and salt.
"He came to a land where the mountaintops are higher than the clouds and covered with snow all year. The winters are so cold, the lakes become solid as rock.
"One clear-blue winter day, late in the afternoon, Uncle Moshe sat in the doorway of an abandoned woodcutter’s hut, high up on a mountainside overlooking a great white lake. Below him he suddenly saw a lone elk burst onto the solid surface of the lake, running like fury with its head and antlers thrown back, its tail flitting from side to side.
"A few moments later, five wolves raced out onto the frigid lake, fanning out in a tight semicircle behind the elk. Every time the elk turned, the wolves turned in unison a breath later. Relentlessly, the five wolves gained on the fleeing elk, its antlers flashing fire as they caught the final rays of the sinking sun.
"The elk was running for its life, and the wolves were running for theirs.
"One wolf, the color of charred firewood, ran faster than the others, his ears and tail flat out in the wind. As the elk tired and its hard hooves slipped and churned wildly on the rock-white lake surface, the charcoal-colored wolf relentlessly closed in.
"Instead of leaping on the elk’s back, or biting its hindquarters, the lead wolf suddenly threw its body down, and sliding in a sharp curve hit the elk’s legs broadside, sweeping it off its feet like a hand would sweep breadcrumbs from a tabletop. The elk fell heavily, its antlers inscribing a curving scar on the lake’s solid surface.
"The next two wolves to reach the downed elk bit through the tendons on the backs of its rear legs, and the final two tore open the elk’s throat. It took all five of them to drag the carcass back to shore, where a jumble of thin wolf pups awaited their supper. Hungrily they fell upon the fresh kill. On the hardened lake behind them, a long streak of glistening blood stretched toward the setting sun.
"The charcoal wolf stood, head down, its legs apart and shoulders heaving as it got its breath back. Then it arched its back. Raised its muzzle to the sky. And opened its great mouth to sing."
Yohanan stopped talking. I stared at him in stunned silence.
Now I was confused again. "Are people like wolves?" I finally asked.
He waited for me to go on.
"And are wolves like people?"
"That’s only part of it," he answered.
Noting my distress, he spoke in steady tones, "Daavi, God is in the butterfly wing and in the mouth of the wolf." He was looking into my eyes. In his voice I caught a sliver of Yeshu’s. "Think about God with your heart. And in your dreaming. Not just with your head. You seek answers where there are only questions. You will not find God by looking straight ahead, but out of the corner of your eye."
He stopped for a moment, giving me time to think. I could see he was not going to make this easy for me. Maybe because there was no simple understanding of something as vast and ancient as God.
Then he went on softly, "Daavi, the human spirit is a wanderer. Knowing God is a journey, an unwalked path across the desert sand. A path you make for yourself each step of the way. Sometimes alone and sometimes with others.
"Close your eyes, open your heart, and walk!"