I emerge from the shelter like I do every morning. Every time I come out, I am slower, older, less able to navigate the stairs that lead from deep underground. Sometimes it takes me hours to make the trip. I have to pause on every other step, allowing my heart to recover and slow. I have to allow my lungs to catch up with my exertions.
But I emerge nonetheless. I am an old woman. There is nothing else I can do.
I emerge, as always, into a wasteland. If I had seen this place as a child, I would have cried. I did cry, once. I would have seen the lush green life of the place vanished and I would have cried. But I do not see that now. Now, I see the rare sprigs of grass poking through the dust of long-since vanished buildings. Now I see a tiny insect in the air. Now, I see these things and I rejoice.
Because once even they did not seem to exist.
I was nineteen years old when the end of the world began. I was a cleaner then. But I didn’t clean people’s homes or offices. I was a cleaner with the highest of security clearances. I cleaned a building few ever heard of. It didn’t really have a name, but I called it The Complex.
The Complex was a strange place. There were no secretaries or administrators. The only people who entered the building were the most senior members of the government of Zion. The only people who worked in that place, aside from me, were the members of an Inner Parliament representing the twelve most important people behind the operation of the State.
It was the most secure facility in Zion. It was buried 20 stories underground and stocked with a hundred years of food. It was also open only to a very selective few. I was chosen for the job, in part, because I had no family and no romantic interests. Nobody could be used against me.
And there was nobody I would miss.
Because I didn’t just work in The Complex, I lived there. And I never left.
When I signed up for the job, I was excited. I would be in the literal center of power in Zion. But my excitement soon vanished. I expected to see great men at their greatest. But those twelve people, that Inner Parliament, represented the worst of the nation. It came out with every meeting they had. They would fight and scramble for pride of place. Outside the complex, they represented ideologies. I knew that from before. Some even claimed to speak for the legacy of Israel. But within those doors they cared only about their own primacy.
On the outside, the Government and the State had an ideology. But within the Complex there was only hard-nosed practicality. Theirs was a world truly devoid of any greater function or adornment.
The State, the Society, Zion, all of it was just a machine designed to serve these men.
It is a little unfair to describe them all that way. There were exceptions, in a way. Occasionally, one of the men put forward ideas with a little romance to them. Something meant to capture more than the here and now. One time he proposed a park. But he withered under the attacks of the others. He lacked the spirit to resist them.
And two others seemed to want to bring the others together, which would have been a start. They would encourage them to talk. But they lacked the power to actually bridge the egos in that place.
I knew that outside the Complex, the nation was shattering into a dozen separate camps. And I knew that inside the Complex, those who could tie it back together had no strength to so.
But perhaps worst of all, the nation was not defended. Outside the Complex, our leaders made all the right noises. But when attacks came, and they did – they were simply leveraged to strengthen one of another of the twelve great leaders. And those who might have fought, those who might have risked their lives for their people? They stayed home. They saw no purpose defending this empty State. They saw no reward in confounding our enemies.
And the Prime Minister, the man responsible for bringing the others together?
He was a drunk, unable to face his reality.
I didn’t know this when I was nineteen. I didn’t know this when I signed up.
But I learned it quickly.
Then, the Incursion came.
There was a tunnel, in the south of the nation. The enemy came; hundreds of them. And they slaughtered an entire town. Men, women and children. None came to their defense.
I was in the Complex when it happened. I expected to see the old behaviors fall away. I expected to see agreement, or at least a desire to act wisely. But people don’t acquire goodness in times of crises. These people just seemed to get worse. Fingers were pointed. Blame was apportioned. I saw it on TV. But nothing was done. At least not out the Outside.
But inside the Complex? Instead, anger and rage were taking hold. Inside the Complex, plans were made. And then the State responded. The enemy’s water was poisoned and men were sent in as roving bands of killers. A hundred thousand of the enemy died. The weak were slaughtered first.
But it solved nothing. Faster than I could imagine, it just got worse.
Within days, there was a war. Nobody planned it. But it happened.
And three days later I was in the Complex – with only the drunk Prime Minister – when a rumble shook even that fortified place. I didn’t know it yet, but the world had exploded in a nuclear conflict.
And nothing was left.
Now, I struggle up the many flights of stairs. I want to see and measure the first flowerings of life. But I gave no new life of my own. The Prime Minister, a drunk, drowned himself in the present and gave no thought to the future. Now, I am alone.
Soon, I know, there will be nothing.
One day soon, I won’t make it up the stairs. And then?
Then, it will be the End of Days.
I open my eyes slowly. And before me, I see twelve men. I see my sons. But I remember what I had seen before. I remember the strange woman in the strange place. I remember a world gone dead.
I think perhaps to tell them of the End of Days. I am old. I am weak. I will soon die.
But then I realize, in that moment, that I have the power to change their future.
I can scold those who sought to supplant my legacy. I can curtail those who acted in rage. I can encourage those who tie the people together. I can strengthen those who add beauty to its power. I can empower those who would defend it. And I can turn aside the reality I have seen.
I look at my twelve sons and I begin.
Through criticism or praise I give them opportunity where there was none.
With my last breaths, I change the world.
I die, knowing the world will live on. No old woman will be the last.
And then I bring my feet into my bed and join my fathers that came before me and the nation that will come after.
In this week’s Torah portion, Yaacov appears to be suffering from dementia. He is flowing through time, living in the past. But then touches the sons of Yosef and he sees the future. He sees their future and he sees the End of Days. The standard interpretation is that he does not share what he sees. The standard interpretation is that Hashem hides it from him.
But perhaps he does see it. And perhaps he does all he can to change it. He blesses his children, filling them with opportunity. But some blessings can be negative, just as criticism can lead to growth. And so he blesses Reuven to prevent him from hijacking the legacy of Israel. And he blesses Shimon and Levi so they will resist their own weakness, anger and lack of self-control. And he blesses Yehuda, poetically warning them of their perversion through the blood of grapes and the consuming of the future – represented by milk. And he blesses Gad so that Gad can live on the edge of Ani (self-identity) and be surrounded by his brothers, beginning to unify them. And he blesses Issachar as a chomer (which can mean mortar) of garem (which can mean sinew)- giving him the drive to be a mortar sinew linking the nation together. And he blesses Dan, encouraging them to be a nachash (symbolically a tool of Hashem) which strikes war-like horses on paths. The presence of these horses on back paths suggests incursion. And he blesses Gad, the attacker who secures the people. He blesses Asher so he can bring true satisfaction to the nation. And he blesses Yosef so he can bring a adornment to an ox and resist those who would try to destroy him. Finally, he sees the ever-prowling guards of Benyamin; the guards that keep his people safe.
One could question why the Torah shows up Yaacov in this weakened state. I think the reason is clear. Even in his weakest state, even with his last breaths, Yaacov could change the world.
Perhaps he no longer saw the End of Days because his own words changed our future.
On Wednesday, my mother was just diagnosed with an extremely aggressive form of leukemia. My mother, like Yaacov, has lived both a blessed and a tragic life. As only a tiny microcosm of this, she lost her eldest son at the age of seven, but she has been blessed with well over twenty grandchildren.
My mother has spent her life trying to change the world. Hopefully she will continue to do so. She is a brilliant and multi-talented woman. She is an author, a playwright and a Professor. She has been an executive. She is a Renaissance woman in a world of specialization. While her name is not widely known, I believe her influence has been great indeed.
And she is, in many ways, my inspiration. And I know many others have been inspired by her.
Of course, if I have a blessing to give it is that she will survive this disease. But no matter the prognosis – and these things seem to shift daily – I offer this story as a blessing. It is my blessing to her, and to all our family, to the Community of Israel and the world which she loves that G-d give her the insight and the strength to continue her work through the time she has remaining.
Like Yaacov before her, her power still remains.
Her words can still change our reality.