They call me the gnome. They’ve always called me the gnome. I didn’t used to care. I didn’t care what other people thought of me. I hardly gave consideration to what I thought of myself. I just am. Others can worry about currying the favor and praise of their peers. That has never been my concern. I’ve always acted as I felt was right.
And yet, right now, I care. I’m writing this letter, this explanation, because I care.
I’m on the verge of destroying my life’s work, because I care.
But before I do I must submit myself to your judgement.
I must submit myself because I do not know what is right.
I grew up in the Palestinian town of Bayt Sira. It is a tiny town; only a few thousand people live there. The terrain is rough and uneven. Bayt Sira literally means “the house of the fold.” The land folds around us with our orange-domed mosque positioned at the top of a small hill. When I was a young boy, I would climb the hills around our little village and look down at the picture-perfect town. The beautiful mosque rose from the middle of it. And all around, scattered like dice thrown by All-h Himself, were the houses we lived in.
Not many years before I was born, the Israelis established a city on the border of my town. You could make out their children playing in the yards of the villas they built. They were only 300 meters from the edges of our homes. But they were so different. They built in ordered lines, governed by some unseen hand. They reshaped the land to fit their plans. More often than not, we reshaped the land for them; the men in our town building their city. While we conformed to the logic of the hills and the needs of those who built each building, they seemed to be governed by some larger plan. We copied their architecture; our newest buildings resemble theirs. But we have never copied their planning. But something else was different. The smell was different. Ours was a land almost barren of trees. The smell of sand and the faint odor of life’s resistance to nature pervades our world. But, when the winds shifted, we could catch the odors of Maccabim. The tree-lined streets and beautiful homes were so close to us. But it was their scent, the scent of life, that cultivated our resentment.
We were not good neighbors. Even as we worked for the Israelis, earning our money building their city, we fought against it. The latest rumors, conspiracies and injustices would fly through our town just like any other town. And the young men and boys would protest. The Israelis eventually shutting down the road that ran in the gap between our two towns. It was too risky to use.
After the protests, the boys would come back to the village, sharing their exploits in the face of the occupiers. They would boast of their bravery in front of the girls. And they would mock me as I watched them. They mocked everybody who didn’t take part. We were cowards. We were failing to stand up for our people. But I didn’t react. I just watched. To me they all seemed like simple and empty toys. They were so predictable. I was not interested in them.
I suppose that’s why I got into the models. These weren’t the kinds of models you buy in a shop and assemble. No, I gathered scraps of this and that: bicycle chains, twigs, sticks and rocks. And I built models. I built tiny homes and tiny cars and tiny people. I built a miniature version of my village. Those who saw it could identify the tiny people who stood in its streets. There was Ibrahim, the mayor. There was Ahmed, who ran the grocery store. Children stood stock still in my little streets – frozen in play. But in my mind, the people in my village did things that weren’t expected.
It was engaging in that way. It was far more interesting than my reality.
I built a little Maccabim as well. I imagined what their people would look like. They were so close but aside from the occasional soldier, I never really saw them in person.
And soldiers don’t look like people; they’re not allowed to.
I spent all my time on the model. Eventually, it got too large for my parent’s home. Luckily, one of the buildings on the edge of our village’s central square was abandoned. It was made of a faded and crumbling orange concrete. It had a musty and dilapidated smell. Nobody wanted to live in it. The windows had been removed, and repurposed for another home.
I moved my model there. I moved it and I kept building.
I didn’t really live in Bayt Sira anymore. No, I lived in my imaginary village, spending all of my time with it. It grew more and more complex. People started to come to see it. One night, a group of boys crushed my miniature Maccabim and laid my little Jewish people down in puddles of ketchup. I didn’t curse the boys who did it. They were just simple toys, repeating the actions they had been programmed for. They were mindless. But the Imam did curse them. He was fascinated by my work and he protected it.
I rebuilt Maccabim, and they never crushed it again.
But even as I rebuilt it, I realized my two towns had no real movement. They had no real life. They were a replica of reality and they were even more static than reality itself. The only differences were only in my head. Only in my head did the people do the unexpected. And so, I began to play out a different reality with the model itself. Roads began to take different paths. The fixed reality of the place began to change. The changes were subtle at first. But people noticed them. And it drew more and more of them. They would visit from Bayt Liqya and Safa and other nearby villages. They would watch my model and be sucked into it. They would ask questions about why things were the way they were.
But I had no time for them. Their reality was not of interest to me.
My model was developing, but it was still static. I wanted more of my imagination to come to life. And so, I learned about mechanical devices. I learned about springs and actuators and wheels and gears. And I started to make little cars that would drive on the roads. And I kept learning. And I managed to make little dogs and little people that would move through my village. The place was coming alive.
The visitors began to come from further and further away. They would watch my place my little wind-up people and then they would watch them move from place to place. They would watch them do things they would never do. They would watch them meet and seem to talk and interact in ways they would never interact. I liked to think it made them think. But I saw no evidence of that. They remained predictable toys.
As I worked, the building around me was transformed. People were coming from Ramallah and Al-Quds and Bethlehem and Tulkarm to see my model. People were watching and asking and thinking. The village had repaired the building the model was in. They loved the tourism. The old musty smells disappeared. And the smell of my models, of old metal and oil cans and bits of wood, began to dominate the space.
But I was not satisfied. My people were no better than those cut-outs that surrounded me. They were no less predictable. I set them on their paths and they followed them. I needed more. And so, I began to study artificial intelligence and biology and computing. And, bit by bit, I began to create a new kind of figurine for my model. One that could be rewarded and punished. One that could feel pleasure and pain.
I don’t know exactly how, but I still remember the moment it came to life. And when it did, I realized that I wanted to know this little figurine. I wanted to relate to it. But how could it relate to me?
The answer was obvious. I built models and then watched them and interacted with them and imagined what might be. I wanted my little figurine to do the same. Then, we’d have something – our fundamental drive – in common.
I suppose I could have made the figurine make models. But then it would just have been another animatron. I wanted it to live. And so, I gave it a choice. It would receive a little joy from sitting around. But if it built and then rested it would lose a little joy as it labored, but be granted a deeper and more fundamental joy in its rests. It would experience fulfillment. I gave it a choice, so that it could choose to know me.
But it did not create. It wandered, experiencing my little world. But it did not build like I built. And so, I placed my finger on the scales. I brought it pain. I brought it death. I made it so that it could only survive if it created like me. I forced it to be responsible for its choices.
And then, it did create. I was excited. I made dozens of the little thinking figurines. But then they stopped creating. They just stole, one from another. They stole what they needed and what they wanted. They overcame risk by taking from others within the model.
I saw the pain and the loss and the corruption and I wanted to destroy what I created.
And so I did. I erased them all. All but one. And I began again. I gave them law this time. I taught them to kill so that theft and murder could be prevented. And their crimes subsided; corruption did not fill their world. But they did not reach out to me.
They only created what they needed. I could not relate to them. I thought about adding more pain, but I knew there would be no point. If I tipped the scales too much, they would once again be automatons.
I would be unable to relate to them.
My model was becoming more and more famous. Visitors were coming from other countries. Jews even came, under the protection of the Imam. Some even came from Maccabim. But the model was not safe. Some of those within my land considered it blasphemy. Others thought it an affront to our people and their pride. My figurines did not do as they would have done.
But I ignored them all. I lived in a different world.
And I wanted to know the living things I had engendered. And then I realized the solution to my problem. I picked one of the little living figurines. And I added more pain and more joy to it. That one would lead. That one would be an example. Others would see it building and connecting with me and they would imitate it and find their way to me without coercion. They would see its joy, or they would see its pain. Either way, I would be able to relate.
The little figurine, the one I chose, cried out against the pain I caused it. It cried out against the horror and risk and death it encountered. But it did not walk in my path. It simply reached out and begged. It did not understand what I wanted. It did not understand I wanted it to know me. Begging was not enough. Those around me knew how to beg All-h. I wanted it to walk in my path so I could truly relate to it. I wanted it to be better than the simple toys that surround me.
But it did not comply.
As time passed, I gave that singular figurine more and more pain. I laid incredible suffering upon it. But it did not learn. And I knew I must stop. I could not watch its cries of desperation to a creator who would not answer. The pain it felt ate at my very soul.
I realized then, I realize now, that I could simply change that figurine. I could rob it of its free will. I could make it act as I want it to act. And then, perhaps, its peers would follow. But I also know that if I did that, I would destroy it. I would destroy the one I had chosen.
And ultimately, nothing will be learned or achieved.
And now? Now I do not know what to do.
Which is why I stand before you.
Because, for once, I do not know what to do.
Do I let the figurines just live and kill and destroy?
Do I force the chosen figurine, through pain or the removal of its will, to lead the others to a better future? Do I force them to relate to me?
Or do I tear it all down, erasing the pain that fills the model I have created?
I do not know.
I am on the edge of destruction and I do not know what I must do.
Perhaps, just maybe, that singular figurine will understand what I need of it.
Perhaps, just maybe, it will raise its head and understand its purpose and all can be spared.
Or, perhaps not.
I do not know what to do.
G-d creates the world and then rests on Shabbat, making it holy. I believe it is because He is surrounded by a world of automatons, a world He totally controls. Without us, the world is entirely predictable and robotic and uninteresting. And so G-d breathes His spirit into Adam so that Adam can be like G-d, unpredictable. He is supposed to act in G-d’s image and feel the spirit of G-d within Him. He is supposed to come into a relationship with the Divine.
But G-d doesn’t dictate Adam’s path. If he did, Adam would have no path. Instead he plants two spiritual rivers. The first of these rivers is called Pishon, which means ‘spread out’. This implies the river has influence on the world around it. It surrounds a land of change (based on the root chol). It has within it good (tov) gold with stones of distinction (bedel from the root hevdel) and stones that connect the human and the divine (the shoham stone that brings together aspects of the priests’ garments). This river describes a process of creation (G-d calls things ‘good’ when He creates them), of distinctions and of connection to G-d. And, it seems to run in a circle; building virtues upon virtues. This is the great reward of fulfillment in the story.
The other river is called gichon, which means ‘belly’ or ‘stomach’ or even ‘move slowly’ or ‘slither’. It is a lowly river, representative of base desires and a lack of drive. It surrounds a land called Kush, which can mean ‘darkness’ or ‘inferiority. Darkness, by the way, is what defines the time when G-d isn’t creating. Darkness isn’t good or productive. This is the alternate, a place without productivity, without goodness and without connection to the divine. It also flows in a circle, but is more like a drain. This is the small joy of inaction in the story.
G-d, like the Gnome, gives us a choice. We can choose to create in the image of G-d and grow continually towards Him, or we can be lazy and shiftless and circle the drain.
Of course, Adam chooses the second path. So G-d introduces pain and evil and loss. It is better for man to know good and evil and be able to relate to G-d than to know neither and be forever distant. But our failure continues. We are corrupt. G-d brings the flood and then chooses the Jewish people as a model for the nations. But we do not walk in the path of G-d, so we can relate to Him; and so our pain only increases.
I can only imagine that G-d watches, pained by our suffering.
Today, we are at a moment of crises. Our will can be erased, we can be erased – or we rise up and walk in His footsteps and find our way into a relationship with the singular Divine. We can walk in the path of G-d. And if we do, then all famine and sorrow and loss can be erased. If we do, then the prayers of those desperate for salvation can be replaced by the joy of a relationship with our Creator.
We need only lift up our heads and understand. And then the world can be transformed and the blessings of G-d can be unleashed.
p.s. I live in Modiin, a city of over 90,000 people which includes the town of Maccabim. I have never been to Bayt Sira.
Image: עדירל , WikiCommons: 47684058