My father’s body is laying on the office floor. He has just taken his own life. And the only explanation, the only note, is a verse. “Det 23:19.”
I hated my father before. I despise his weakness. I have long despised his weakness. But now, I am simply confused. He was a man who gave up so much. Who surrendered to everything for his entire life. He defended nothing he believed in. And now, he has killed himself over an obscure Bible verse: Det 23:19.
“Thou shalt not bring the hire of a harlot, or the price of a dog, into the house of the LORD thy G-d for any vow; for even both these are an abomination unto the LORD thy G-d.”
What kind of coward fails to fight for his beliefs, time after time, only to die defending a worthless religious outpost? His body is there, laying before me.
But all I can see is the note. “Det 23:19.”
Why die for this?
Even as I ask the question, I know what I must do. I take the note to the kitchen. I burn it on the stove. And then, and only then, I call the police.
Perhaps I too am a coward.
My father was a preacher and I grew up in his church. ‘Preacher’ might not the right word. He was a leader. He had a small church. And all were welcome. And he did everything you’d expect in a church, everything but preach. What he did most of all was host meals. Not for the hungry, per se, just for people. Any kind of people. He struggled mightily, but he brought people into his church. But he just fed them. He never, ever, preached.
I didn’t understand him or what he was doing. I’d read about churches. We learned about them in school. The teachers always cast a disdainful eye in my direction, as they explained the evils of the past to the students in class. Churches were legal, technically, but very few remained. The ideas they had once held onto were seen as immoral. Those old ideas were condemned and those who persisted in grasping them were themselves condemned. They were paraded on camera. They were interviewed and mocked and ripped apart – publicly. And then they were banished. Nobody would do business with them, nobody would rent them a place to stay, no governments would serve them and nobody would sell them food – much less feed them. Those who grasped such incompatible beliefs were pariahs; modern man knew better than to accept their medieval views.
But my father had a church. It was a single large room with everything from a kitchen to a coat cupboard in that one open space. Only the bathroom and my father’s small office were walled off. I grew up in that church. My bed was a cot we placed in the middle of the floor at night.
At first, I thought my father didn’t believe in the old ideas. He never preached. But, as I grew older, he began to teach. Not his hundreds of congregants, but me. He began to teach me what he believed. And he began to teach me why. As I learned, I realized that he was entirely at odds with the world around him. But I also saw that he defended nothing he believed in. He just ran his little church, feeding whoever would come, but telling them nothing.
He just watched the world go by. He never had the strength to resist it. He ran a soup kitchen for those who needed no soup.
As I learned, I realized my mother had been the same. She too had never preached. But she too was a true believer. And, she too had given up her life for her beliefs. My mother had been identified as a cancer risk when she was still a young woman. A DNA patch was available. She turned it down. She refused it because it would change the core of who she was. When the time came, she was denied any treatment whatsoever. She had rejected the state, and the state rejected her. She had chosen a mysterious and cruel G-d over a little update to her genetic code. They would let her die with the consequences of her choice. Like my father, she gave up her life, but achieved nothing.
And now, because of a single obscure verse, I have no parents.
The police come, eventually. Police are rare in our world. There is rarely cause for their intervention. Murder and robbery are almost unheard of. Suicide is even rarer. With DNA patches, mental illness and depression have largely been cured. Naturally, the police have evolved. They no longer see their primary role as the prevention of physical crime. They see it as the prevention of ideological crime. And so, I know, as they come through the door of our tiny church that they won’t be seeking to investigate a possible murder.
Instead, with the death of so rare a churchman, they will seek something more fundamental. They will seek the cause behind that death.
The police do not cuff me. There is no need to. They just inform me that I am under arrest. I want to scream and shout and fight back. But there is a reason there are no cuffs. Resistance would accomplish nothing. I am just one young man caught up in currents far beyond my own power to control.
Everything began to change generations ago. It all started when we began to learn how to manipulate DNA. Things started slowly. But they accelerated exponentially. The greatest change came in 2015, with the creation of CRISPR, a DNA manipulation kit. All around the world, people began to hack DNA. And before long, the fabric of our world was changed. Parents no longer conceived a child, they designed them around their own values. They put their thumb on the scales of intelligence and beauty and strength. And they chose what they cared about. It was seen as purer than ‘random’ humanity. It was about ideas, not the weakness of chance. Researchers using CRIPR and far more advanced, later, tools, poured their efforts into identifying tradeoffs they could eliminate. They were, and are, always seeking a child who can be more beautiful and more intelligent. And they have succeeded.
While there are variations in degree, human children of my generation are universally attractive and smart and physically fit. But they are not unique. They are produced in genetic batches, like cars. Only small changes to their paint jobs distinguish them from their peers.
But I stick out from my peers. I am not as intelligent as most. And in conversation, they can detect it. More obviously, I am ugly. People may not place all the weight of their thumbs on the scale of beauty, but they rarely abandon it altogether. My parents did not tip the genetic scale. I am not only fat, I have close-set eyes, a broad and flat nose, acne and basically no chin. People never notice my blue eyes or brown hair. It is far easier to describe me as ‘the ugly one.’
I stick out, a mute testimony to the hidden beliefs of my parents.
Of course, the tweaking of humanity was only the first part of our genetic manipulation. New kinds of people have been created. We created judges. They combine brilliance with selfless dedication to the law. They are not machines, the law is inherently gray. But human corruption has been taken from them. There are servants of every kind, cleaning the streets and homes, repairing infrastructure and growing crops. Strength and stamina define them. But they serve humanity. And there are, of course, the companions. They are not dedicated to the service of law or humanity as a whole, but to the love of their caretakers. They have the intelligence and anatomy of humans. And they have the loyalty of dogs.
As the years have passed, more and more of these manipulations have appeared. Our economy has rewarded innovators and innovation has accelerated. Human children exist, but increasingly even they are rare. Why have a child, who may or may not obey, when you can have a child-companion who will always be loyal to you?
Now, instead of families there are human-companion pairs with companion children. The companions are legally married and recognized by the state. There was some resistance to this, at first. But it was snuffed out. After all, who would want to deny people validation and love and respect? And who would want to deny the selfless companions the same. Must they live lives without fulfillment simply because of antiquarian ideas of marriage?
For his part, my father abhorred it all. He would quietly read to me from the Bible, verbally highlighting the texts that rejected our reality.
He abhorred it, but he did nothing to combat it.
The police station is a pleasant place. The ceilings are high and the room is well lit. There is no threat in the air. There are no cursing criminals, cages or cells. There is nowhere to run, after all. In a world of loyal servants and swift and fair judges, there is nowhere to hide and no reason to hold the guilty. Justice can be delivered swiftly, once the truth is uncovered.
Instead of barriers and walls, there are just a few open desks, with police detectives – servants all – sitting patiently at them.
I am brought to one of them. I guess she has been assigned my father’s death. She is, not surprisingly, a strikingly beautiful servant. Humans are known to yield more easily to physically beautiful people. Had I been a child, the servant would have been matronly. Had I been interested in men, a male detective would have been chosen. Everything has been designed to get my cooperation with a minimum of struggle.
The detective asks me questions. I find myself acting just as my father had. I am pleasant and agreeable, but I shed no light on my father’s death. She’ll have to work it out for herself.
But I know it won’t take her long.
And it won’t take long, beyond that, for the punishment to be delivered.
I am placed in an apartment. There is no outgoing network access here and there are no phones. The point is not punishment, but separation. I might have dangerous ideas and they can’t allow them to spread. And so, my communications must be controlled. The apartment is pleasant. It is well-stocked and well appointed. Prisoners live well. They live better, actually, than I had with my parents.
My mother had been a doctor, but not a popular one. Her patients were drawn from the continually dwindling number who rejected genetic treatments. And so, even before she died, we’d always struggled for money. And the church business, in a world without churches, is not a profitable work. It didn’t help that my father sunk everything he had into those meaningless meals.
The apartment is nice. I decide to enjoy it while I can.
The man had been a regular at the church. His name was Andrew Bright. He was a researcher – human, not servant. And he had been a tremendous success, before coming to my father’s meals. Hundreds of thousands of companions and companion-children of his design could be found worldwide. He had made a fortune in his business. He was also a very public person, constantly praising the value of companions and the validation they offered. He was a poster-child of modern values.
It surprised me when my father welcomed him. I knew he felt this man had done a great deal to undermine humanity itself. We’d talked about the evils of Andrew Bright and his ilk.
As my father taught me, Andrew Bright had ripped apart the fabric of human life itself.
The cause was easy enough to understand. Human relationships are fraught with work and risk and danger. They are filled with unpredictability and disloyalty. They are condemned by judgement. But companion relationships are pure and trustworthy and giving. And so humans do not relate to other humans. Instead, they just stay in their own homes. Goods are delivered to them by some types of servants. And entertainment is created for them by other types. And validation and love are always close at hand. No matter their own imperfections or limitations or choices, they are loved. Why would they seek out the challenge of human relations when they live as atomic units, disconnected from the world around them?
Andrew Bright may not have created this problem, but he did a great deal to advance it.
And still my father welcomed him; just as he had welcomed dozens of his companion creations.
With time, Andrew became a regular. And then he came to my father, in his tiny office, and offered him a gift. It was a substantial gift, enough to run the church for a lifetime. I saw my father’s face then, the conflict in his eyes. Andrew, of course, could not detect it.
My father told Andrew, then and there, that he would get back to him in a few days. And that had been the beginning of the end.
As I sit in the apartment, watching some meaningless show on screen in my bedroom, I can already envision the cameras and the hot lights making me sweat. I can already envision the questions. They’ll be broadcasting it globally, as they have before. It is a modern inquisition. I will be made to confess to the world. And with that, they’ll be condemning me and my father and everything we believe in.
After all, companions do not validate those who abhor them. And humans do not validate those who question their most questionable decisions.
I know how it will go. I’ll be typecast as a ‘random’; a throwback to an era before proper human design. I’ll be typecast as a religious nut, with a suicidal preacher of a father, and a mother who preferred to die than manipulate her own DNA. I’ll be typecast and then they’ll strike at what I believe, mocking my own rejection of modernity. I can see it, and there is nothing I can do to stop it from happening. I can not avoid becoming their exhibit.
I know I’ll do what others have done. I’ll rail against them. I’ll try to explain to humanity what they’re missing; the challenges G-d has placed before us that we simply sidestep with our technology. I’ll try to argue that sitting at home being loved and entertained is not fulfillment. And I will be mocked. And I will achieve nothing. I will achieve less than nothing. Because all I will accomplish is the further consolidation of their crushing ideological front.
But I don’t know what else to do.
In the three days that followed Andrew Bright’s offer, my father knelt in prayer at the front of our church. He ate and drank nothing, although I continued to host our meals. The guests would look in confusion at the man kneeling at the foot of the unused dais. I was also confused. My father had been willing to accept so much, even though he rejected these ‘families.’ The ones we served meals to. But he never spoke a word of it. I knew him better than any other person and I never saw him show any sign of disdain for the guests at our table.
And yet, Mr. Bright’s genuine generosity and appreciation seemed to have brought my father low.
I watched him pray. And I imagined that he was seeking some sort of guidance.
And then, on the third day, he rose weakly to his feet. There were no guests then. I was cleaning in the kitchen. I watched him go. And then, a minute later, I heard the report of the gun.
My father had found his answer. But I still didn’t understand the question.
Why had he given up everything after Mr. Bright’s offer?
The note has revealed something. And the detective will work out the connection. Mr. Bright offered my father money. Mr. Bright made his money selling companions and companion children. He rented prostitutes and sold dogs – substitute relationships. His livelihood was abhorrent: Det 23:19.
This was why my father could not take his money.
That much was obvious. But why had this driven him to suicide. Why had he decided to die on this hill, and none of the others?
I am summoned to another interview. Hardly an hour has passed. Already, the detective understands what drove my father to his own death. The only question she’ll have is whether I too am a danger to society.
I sit at her desk, physically comfortable but wracked with uncertainty.
Do I make my stand here? Spitting helplessly in the face of a bureaucrat who has committed no sin of her own? She is, after all, simply a creation – she is not responsible for the essence of her being. Do I waste myself here and then vanish into obscurity – or worse, into the maw of universal condemnation?
Or do I lie? I can tell her I have rejected my parents, both of them, entirely. They might let me go. I might reenter society. They’ll monitor me, to be sure. But they won’t think I’m a threat, because I won’t be one. Perhaps I could get a companion of my own, and simply disappear into a safe obscurity.
Wasn’t this what my father would have done? But I know the answer to that question. This is not what he did.
“Joshua?” asks the detective, in her sweet and pleasant voice, “Do you know why your father killed himself?”
“Can you tell me?” she asks.
And I do, “He could not accept a gift from a man who sold companions. He killed himself for even considering the offer.”
She nods, politely.
“And how do you feel about his decision?”
I give her the first answer that comes to mind. “He shouldn’t have given up his life for something so trivial.”
She nods again.
I find myself asking, in that moment, was it actually so meaningless? After all, my father was not a stupid man.
“I meant,” she continues, “Do you agree with his decision to reject Mr. Bright’s offer?”
I think for a moment. The Bible had commanded it. But the Bible commanded many things my father ignored. Why had he died for this?
Perhaps this was just a step too far. He had spent his life being boiled slowly. He spent his life retreating. But at some point, perhaps, he had drawn a line. He had decided he could not take that which was abhorrent, and dedicate it to the service of G-d. His church could not be funded by prostitutes and dogs.
The other decisions were the society’s responsibility. But this one was his. It was something small, but reality is built on small decisions.
I decide to lie. I don’t understand enough, not yet, to give everything up for this point alone.
“No,” I say, “I don’t agree. He should have accepted Mr. Bright’s money.”
The detective just nods. It is clear she doesn’t quite believe me. But despite all of our genetic advancements, we still can’t tell – for sure – when somebody is lying.
But her question continues to nag at me.
Was this all my father had done? Had everything else been surrendered?
The detective continues: “Has your father sacrificed in other ways for his antiquated beliefs?”
“No,” I say. I believe it, for just that instant.
But then, almost as quickly, I realize that it isn’t true. My father lost his wife. My parents were always poor. He dedicated himself to sharing meals with creatures he abhorred. And he was silent for his entire life.
He sacrificed for his beliefs in a million little ways.
But he didn’t fight back, did he? He just suffered silently for a cause only he believed in.
“Why did your father feed so many at his church?”
I don’t know the answer to this question. I’d never asked it. I’d prepared what felt like tens of thousands of meals and I’d never asked why.
I think about the question. But I don’t even know enough to lie.
Deep down, a realization begins to gnaw at me. The meals were the core of everything. My father had been fighting the entire time.
As I sit there, seeming to consider my answer, my father’s choices unfold before me.
He brought people together so some kernel of humanity could understand the value of human relationships. He drew them out of their apartments and homes so they could experience something different. They would not accept his rejection. Rejection would achieve nothing.
But, perhaps, they could accept his loyalty. Not the blind loyalty of a companion to a human caretaker; but the loyalty of a human to his G-d.
Perhaps by giving them the experience of that loyalty, he could begin to change humankind.
“He liked people,” I say, simply. The detective nods. It is hard to argue with liking people. It isn’t a crime. And the answer is entirely truthful. Of course, my father’s own success destroyed him. He converted Andrew Bright, in his way.
But he could not build his church off the profits of what he abhorred. That was a line he could not cross.
“Are companions abhorrent to your G-d?”
I know the answer to this question. Or, at least, I know the answer I will give. I will lie to this detective, as my father lied to everyone but me. And then I will continue what he started, offering meals too all who wish to come. I will offer them the challenges and risks and great rewards, of human relationships.
And I will never speak of what I truly believe.
I will lie. And then I will be free. And then, perhaps I too will marry a human woman. And, perhaps, I too will have an ugly child. And, perhaps, like my father I will have a church, where I will never preach.
Instead my family and my life will serve as an example. Preaching in silence, as my father had done.
“Do you reject companion marriage?”
I am speaking easily now, giving her the answers she wants. This is ground I can surrender.
But what if Andrew Bright offers me his money? What will I do then?
I sit there, lying pleasantly to the detective. She drones on, trying to find a trace of heresy. But I know her beliefs, the world knows her values. They are easy enough to ape.
And so even as I lie, I silently mourning the great man my father had been.
And I know what I will do with Mr. Bright. If he makes the same offer to me, I will take a risk. I will explain, privately, that his money is not welcome.
And if my father’s greatest convert turns on me, then I will know that there is no hope.
But perhaps, just maybe, Mr. Bright will give me his most valuable gift: his silence.
My father gave everything to undermine a world without human connection.
Perhaps, just maybe, his great works will be carried on.
As the patrolmen walk me from the station, I emerge absolved of all charges. And I know, then, that my father was no coward. He was simply a man who chose his battlefields carefully.
But his own caution drove him to suicide – he betrayed more than he could accept. He betrayed his G-d.
I can lie to the servants and the companions and the humans around me. But I can not lie to G-d. My service to Him must always be pure.
Only then can I, like my father before me, fight back against a tyranny the world does not see.
This week’s Torah portion is a collection of small laws. Placed in the context of the Pinocchio nation – brought to life through Moshe’s great speech – it seems like an odd reading. Some classify it as a simply a collection of laws that had no prior place. To me, at least, it has a clear purpose and role. The other readings spoke of great trends and goals and values. They spoke of our immune system and our self control and our responsibility and our love of G-d. But none of that is real without the little things. None of that is real without the tiny practical building blocks that define the relationship between humans and between humankind and G-d.
The first part of the reading focuses on laws of neighborly consideration (which includes respecting G-d’s role in the definition of species). The second on preserving reality in relationships (which is where the dogs and prostitutes come in). The third on defending the spark of our humanity (with limits on punishment). And the final section focuses on fighting back against the breakdown of human consideration (honest weights).
Together, these sections speak to the little things.
The book of Devarim is about creating a nation, a living, breathing, nation with a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear. The great values that describe such a nation might motivate it. But it is these small practical laws that hold together. It is this laws that enable the body of the nation to form.
After all, our lives are rarely defined by a constant pursuit of the highest moral visions. Instead, we build on small things. We build on routines: conversations with parents, groceries for kids and even meals shared with the communities around us.
It is only on the basis of these small things that we can pursue our greatest objectives.
p.s. Just for context, my family is dog-sitting this week and I routinely eat GMO foods 🙂
Joseph Cox lives in Modiin, Israel and is the author of City on the Heights, a thriller about finding hope in war.