Rafael Ban Jacobson
A Gentle Symmetry

Translated by Alex Forman


I will keep Your statutes;? Oh, do not forsake me utterly! Psalms 119:8

Following Jewish tradition, a boy who loses his father assumes his responsibilities all the sooner. Thus, at twelve, I had my Bar Mitzvah. The date marked entrance into adulthood: I would now be the man of the house. But what house? Ours died with them, in the accident, four years earlier. Aunt Samara assumed guardianship. I was not undone with affection, but was cared for; there was nothing more I needed. In the emptiness of those days, I would have perceived a kiss, a caress as audacity — dare to occupy their place? Never. Sometimes God´s judgment can be gentler than an eight-year-old boy’s. She was the image of my younger mother, however, and though I would never have said so at the time, this comforted me. Our house and Aunt Samara’s apartment were sold, and she and I moved in together in a city neighborhood affectionately called The Ghetto by its own. And it was faithful to its name. The building where we came to live faced the synagogue practically, and all of its residents were Jewish. Whether or not it was my aunt´s intention, I evolved little by little from being a kid accustomed to a family of three to one belonging to a much larger family. On the streets in the neighborhood, in shops, and above all in the synagogue, people whom I hardly remembered would come up and say to me: I knew your parents and your grandparents too. I was at your bris. If on the one hand, it was strange to think that someone I did not know was present at my circumcision; on the other, it awakened a sense in me that, at last, perhaps, I was not so alone. At home, it remained just the two of us, until Aunt Samara got a job at a rural university. Encouraged by me and all our friends and neighbors, she moved away. I told her: No need to worry. You’ve done so much for me already. I want to stay here. The apartment is small. The maid comes three times a week. I’m just two blocks from the market and the synagogue. The school bus picks me up every day. I´ll be fine. And so it was. I was eleven. I hadn’t a clue about the bills, my aunt paid them all; money just wasn’t an issue. Most of the time, I didn’t worry about shopping. People knew I lived alone and they made sure I lacked for nothing. It became habit to leave the apartment door unlocked; this way, neighbors could come in when they wanted to see that everything was in order. Often, when I got home, I would find dishes washed and the kitchen table covered in bags full of groceries. Thus, it was strange to be declared man of the house now. Only now. Rabbi Levi smiled: At times, laws of life speak louder than the written word of God. It’s strange, I said, I’ve had the responsibility for some time, and yet my heart is racing now. Don’t be silly. It’s normal to feel a little nervous. But you know the liturgy better than I do. It is I who should be nervous for fear of shaming myself in front of you. We laughed together, he was having fun, joking, and I was trying to believe him. Outside, behind the graying buildings, the sun was dissolving and the first stars chimed in here and there announcing the Sabbath. As custom demanded, it was time to wrap myself in the tallis. I received the prayer shawl that very morning delivered to the door of the house, a gift with a note from Aunt Samara: They see us from the infinite beyond, and are proud of you. The tallis had belonged to my father. At the entrance to the synagogue, I felt disquieted by the usual announcement. It read: Daniel Lipman´s Bar Mitzvah. Lots of people milled around. Familiar faces. Shabbat Shalom. And I stood there, as if suspended. Those steps were not mine; the blood throbbing in my temples did not belong to me. To whom then? I looked around as I ascended the steps to the bimah. Every chair was occupied. Many who infrequently came to service were present: some neighbors, the school principal, teachers, friends and their families. Even Pedro. I nearly fainted. Not even my aunt could make it. I felt so alone. Then I remembered the principles of faith I would recite toward the end of the ceremony. God exists, but His existence is not limited to time. He is One. His unity is unequaled and infinite. He has no physical form. He is incorporeal. Nothing can be compared to Him. He existed before all creation. He was the First. None other preceded him. In Your great mercy, God, You will raise the dead. God in my thoughts. Singular and solitary, in greatness and eternalness. Rock of all men. Indeed, how could I feel alone when His solitude was, in fact, absolute and eternal? How could I be sad when He does not forget us and will always return us to life? This prayer that my lips opened to intone, my belief, and the symbols that surrounded me in that moment created ties that united generations one to the other, sealing my existence in an irrevocable pact of birth and death, searching and exaltation.


I sang my Torah portion with ease and exuberance. Conducted the service in full voice, spirit, and presence. The hour of the Kiddush in which I would lift the cup of wine, bless it, and toast to life. A tear, round and restrained, in no great hurry fell within my chest and, only by luck, did not roll down my cheek. This was the instant when family would normally ascend the bimah, embrace the new son of the Commandments and recite the prayer together. The words left my mouth tremulously, more and more slowly; I did not want to finish. I needed to prolong the moment, in hope of a miracle. No miracle, but something better. Life, in its simplicity surprised me. It did so without loafs from the heavens or parting seas. Rabbi Levi approached me and placed his arm around my shoulder. Simultaneously, one of my teachers ascended the bimah, others followed. Within seconds people and voices exclaiming L’Chaim — To life! — together, surrounding me. And I was silenced by a sob, the floodgates opened and the soul became bare before the senses. Never did the bimah of our synagogue seem so small.

The desert – inertia and silence, from which everything emanates. So thought the Prophet upon reaching the city. He himself was a desert of dry skin and a beard of white aridness, self-diluting in the monochrome of surrounding sands. More invisible than his figure in the landscape was the intention that livened his steps. The ancients came, tremulous, to meet him. Would your coming be a good sign? Yes, I’ve come to sacrifice Jesus. Purify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice. Following him was the man the Eternal One sent him to find, the Father of eight sons. Among them only One, the only one to be blessed, singular as the Lord himself. The Prophet stifled his fear – if the King only knew of his mission, there would in fact be sacrifice: his own flesh. Bring me your sons, he said to the Father. The first, tall and dignified, greatly impressed him. And the voice of the tempest spoke to the Prophet: Don´t be swayed by appearance or by stature, this one I excluded. It is not with men’s eyes that God sees, since man sees outward appearances, Yahweh, however, sees the heart! The second came before the Prophet. It is also not he that Yahweh chose. The Third. It is also not he that Yahweh chose. And the sons passed one by one, without glory embodying them. Have you run out of sons? Inquired the Prophet. There is still the youngest who is watching over the sheep, responded the Father. As soon as the youngest came into his presence, flushed, beautiful eyes, handsome appearance, his skull exploded with the majesty of revelation: Here was the new king. Taking the horn vessel that he had carried with care throughout his journey, as if divine purpose laid there liquefied, he blessed the chosen one among his brothers. And, he blessed him with the anointment of oil, and with the tears that flowed from his eyes upon feeling, once again, that the Eternal One had worked by his imprecisely wrinkled hands. And, from that day on, the Spirit of Yahweh took possession of David. The spirit of creation. The infinite.