One of the most intense and spiritual events in our lives together was was when Bob and I climbed Mount Sinai in Egypt.
As we prepare for the jeep trip deep into the Sinai desert, I get emotional thinking that we will soon see the burning bush where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. How I wish Bob could share the wonder of that moment with me. But I am resigned. My husband has always avoided telling me whether he believes in God,
The Sinai has just been returned to Egypt by Israel in the peace agreement of 1979. We arrive at the fourth-century Greek Orthodox monastery of St. Catherine’s at the foot of the mountain. The monks’ beds are hardly wider than our bodies and we don’t sleep well apart, so we begin our ascent the next morning bleary-eyed. But soon into the rocky journey, we feel the pull of this sacred peak and stride past our surprised Sherpa guide, who scurries after us.
“Slow down” says a woman we meet on a steep part of the path. “You’ll never make it.” We notice she has a number tattooed on her wrist, the mark of a Holocaust survivor.
Reaching the top more than two hours later, we stand mesmerized, breathing the thin air and beholding mountain ranges for miles, even glimpsing what we think is the Red Sea way back in Israeli territory.
We walk to the burning bush where the Commandments were supposed to have been given. It is cold up here, but that’s not why I’m shivering. I am standing in the place where God is said to have spoken to Moses, and the sunrise has turned the sky into a flag of bleeding yellow and blue and orange.
“Remember that beautiful passage in Exodus, when God’s voice comes from the burning bush, commanding Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt?” I ask him hopefully.
“God made a good decision,” he replies.
“Bob, we’re on holy ground, Hebrew ground. Don’t be flip. Have you read Exodus?”
“I certainly have.” He is taking in the glowing rock formations and the dry cypress trees and the dirt beneath our feet. I suddenly notice that his eyes are welling up. I feel a terrible sinking inside. It is so hard to miss who my mysterious husband really is. What Israel has done to him. It comes back in flashes: how shaken he had been in the West Bank, imagining Arab rockets obliterating Jewish cities below, how thrilled he was riding in the Israel fighter planes, how astonished by the moshavim with their young farmers who had devised a way to irrigate the parched desert.
I observe now the capacity for passion he seldom lets people see. Here, in the Jewish holy land, he has met survivors and Sabras and boy soldiers ready to give their lives. And most of all, he has met the man, now only a memory, who worked so hard to save Jewish refugees in WWII, to secure their homeland. He has met his father.
I take his hand. He squeezes mine. Then he says “Do you remember when Moses asks God his name? That’s in Exodus 3. God replies, ‘I am who I am.’ That is something to think about.”