“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
God’s wisdom is eternal.
I was born in a country where the mere mention of God could get you into trouble, and I did not learn about God’s wisdom until I moved to the United States of America.
In my twenty-three years of living in the Soviet Union, I had never seen a Bible. There was no room for God in the USSR. Religion was anathema to the Communist Party.
In contrast, most people who live in the free world of the West can practice their religion of choice. The parents of young children can introduce them to Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam, Confucianism, or Baha’ism at one point or another in their developing lives. Children can attend religious schools where they can study the sacred texts of the Old Testament, Talmud, the New Testament, Srimad Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads and Veda, Tripitakas, Guru Granth Sahib, or the Holy Quran, among many other religious books that are available to study.
None of these sacred works were for sale in the USSR. My own introduction to the Old Testament at age thirty-three in New York was an awe-inspiring experience.
It happened while I was at Barnes & Noble on a lunch break, searching for a specific book for my three-year-old son. Mindful of my limited time, I looked for a salesclerk as soon as I stepped inside. Almost immediately, I found one and asked for her help. She walked me over to a specific area of the store and pointed her finger at a book.
Taking a step forward, I pulled the thin paperback from the shelf and flipped through its colorful pages. I double-checked the edition number and the author’s name against the information given by my son’s teacher to make sure that everything matched.
Satisfied, I was about to leave when, out of nowhere, a compelling yet unfamiliar voice told me to go to the Judaica section and pick out a Bible. The words I heard made me uneasy. Not knowing what to make of them, I turned around to confront the speaker, but no one was there.
Bewildered, frozen in place, and disappointed, I listened to the sound of my fast-beating heart that echoed in the silence of the aisle and resonated inside my brain. The words I heard sounded genuine, and their message was so powerful. My intuition told me to heed the advice. At that instant, I knew I had to find the Judaica section.
Overwhelmed with emotions, spellbound, I looked for signs to direct me to the place I needed to discover. I almost lost hope when, once again, I heard the same voice telling me to look up.
I lifted my head and thought my eyes would pop out of their sockets. To my amazement, I actually found myself standing in front of the Judaica section, the very place I was seeking. I felt my heart in my throat and wondered what kind of invisible force had brought me here. I had little understanding of what had happened. Shaken to the core of my being, I could not recall moving a muscle after selecting my son’s book.
However, my inner excitement was dampened quickly by the inability to control my actions. I hated that. I like to be in charge, especially regarding my physical body. Still, in a trance-like state and with child-like admiration, I slowly walked down the aisle facing the many shelves stacked high with religious manuscripts. There were rows upon rows of Bibles. Each sacred text contained God’s words. I could not take my eyes off of them.
I wanted so badly to touch these books, but the non-believer in me struggled with the idea of placing my hand on a holy scroll. Just thinking about committing this act, in an instant, put my body in a state of flight or fight. The high dosage of adrenaline surging through my veins brought back the long-forgotten constant fear I lived with inside the Soviet Union. I reminded myself that I was in Barnes & Noble and did not have to flee.
In the USSR, people did not talk about God or the supernatural. They did not discuss omens, enchantments, or other types of mysticism. Practicing religion of any kind in public places was forbidden and even punishable by law. The only deity the oppressed masses of the proletariat were allowed to worship was the Communist Party.
To promote the Party’s own self-aggrandizement, the communists used fear as a tool to control the population.
In front of Judaica, I took a few long, deep breaths, exhaled slowly, and, surrendering myself to fate, I began to entertain the idea of finding a Bible. As I continued to examine the various editions of the Old Testament, I searched for one I could take home.
Never had I seen a Bible. I reached out and gently touched the sleek spines. Real, they were real! There were hundreds and hundreds of them, neatly arranged and perfectly aligned against the wall.
In my mind, I reflected upon the knowledge all these Bibles had hidden inside.
I looked closely at the many tomes and different sizes of the sacred text. Some were too large for me to carry, and others were small enough to fit into my pocket easily.
I lifted a thick, heavy volume bound in supple, grainy leather with awe and admiration and inhaled the distinct, pungent aroma of the cured hide. I savored this moment and took time to flip through the glossy and velvety pages of the Old Testament. I loved the craftsmanship of the rare editions, but these beautiful Bibles were too expensive for my budget.
I am a firm believer in fate and the idea that things happen for a reason. Being inside Barnes & Noble at that instant in my life re-affirmed this belief. Deep inside my soul, I felt it was providence. It was meant to be.
Resolved to find the one meant for me, I searched for a perfect copy of God’s word, but finding one to satisfy my requirements proved challenging. I wanted an inexpensive softcover version of a Bible with a large font that was easy to read. I needed the book to be light so I could carry it in my tote back and read it on a train on my way to and from work. It took me a while, but my persistence finally paid off when I came across a decently sized paperback. This unique, soft-covered, large-print edition won me over, plus at only $16.95, it was affordable. The title read, “The Concise Jewish Bible,” and I liked the sound of it. An overwhelming feeling of relief washed over me when I realized that my search had ended and I had accomplished my mission. I now had access to God’s sacred words!
Armed with the Bible and the picture book for my son, both pressed hard against my chest, I walked toward the register proudly. But as soon as I got in line to pay for them, my resolve had wavered. The stark awareness that later I would read the holy text hit me like a ton of bricks. I felt intimidated.
Inside my head, I berated myself for picking up the Bible I now held. You know well that you have zero, zilch connection to this subject matter. It’s a fact. Face it! You will never, ever, ever read it. The simple act of opening the book terrifies you. How could an atheist like you take what it says seriously? Stop being ridiculous. Save yourself some time and money. Do yourself a favor and, please, leave it alone.
Coming up with more excuses not to buy it, I retraced my steps back to Judaica and reluctantly placed the book in its designated spot. But, a few minutes later, when I returned to the register, my body again was overtaken by the same invisible force. This time, the now familiar voice became thunderous when it ordered me to go back and choose a Bible.
In the end, the unseen, mysterious, uncontrollable force won even though I resisted surrendering to its power to the best of my ability. In my determination to win, I stubbornly went back and forth at least twenty, if not more, times between the Judaica section and register. I checked my watch on my final trip and realized that I had only minutes left to get back to work. I grabbed the sacred text for the last time, went back to the register, paid for it, and hurriedly walked out of Barnes and Noble.
That night, upon returning home from work, I opened the Bible with humble trepidation and endless curiosity for the first time in my adult life. I read it one chapter at a time and found myself craving more of God’s eternal wisdom. Night after night, I acquired new knowledge about the history of my people.
I reflected upon my ancestors’ sacrifices to please their God. Their deeds and unbreakable faith filled my heart with pride and joy. Day after day, page after page, I kept reading. It became like a ritual, almost an obsession. I could hardly put it down until I came to the final page.
Knowledge is power and ignorance is not bliss. Finishing the book taught me so much about the identity stolen from me by the atheist establishment of the socialist society. And it also brought me closure. Rejecting my miserable existence in the former Soviet Union, I stopped being ashamed of being Jewish. I, instead, experienced the immense pleasure of being part of a people the Creator referred to as “The Chosen Ones.”
Aristotle said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”
Reading the Old Testament, I understood what it meant to be Jewish. I discovered a religion called Judaism and learned that only those who practice it are identified as Jews. In a godless country of not enough, my nationality was Jewish, not because I practiced Judaism, but because my ancestors, who all died before I was born, did before the Communist Party took over.
Jesus was thirty-three when he changed the world. When I was thirty-three, I found a place where I belonged and discovered my identity. Things certainly happen for a reason.
The fateful lunch hour I spent inside Barnes & Noble turned out to be a significant turning point in my life. What happened to me that day was divine intervention. God was letting me know that he exists and that I should not be afraid of connecting with my roots. He made me aware that he is part of me, and I am part of him. God lives inside all of us. We can connect to him through our inner self and take part in his eternal wisdom. God created us in his image. We refer to our Creator as a divine, omnipotent presence. I could only assume that each one of us has the capacity to reflect these fine qualities onto others. To do so, we have to be open-minded, kind, non-judgmental, and compassionate.
God is willing to share his knowledge that has existed throughout all time with us. His wisdom is filled with mysteries. I am a living example of it. Inside the bookstore, the unseen deity had, in his not so gentle, rather disturbing way, awakened my spirituality.
His presence shook me to the core of my being, and later on, I realized that I needed that rude awakening to help me understand that God cared about me, and he wanted me to get to know him better. I also understood that, despite being ignorant about the religion of my people, God had never forsaken me. He walked beside me during the darkest hours of my life when I had to deal with anti-Semitism, the loss of my beloved father, and the subjugation of my rights in a country of not enough. He did not give me more than I could carry, and by doing that, he made me stronger and more compassionate.
Years later, I forgave my abusers and freed myself of the past. I moved on and became wiser. Wisdom is not a given. I worked hard to earn it. Wisdom became part of my journey, and for that, I am eternally grateful to God.