Jonathan St. Clair, a Knight Templar in the year 1290, possesses an ancient scroll with a cryptic inscription. He apprentices himself to Rabbi Samuel, the Gaon of Baghdad, in hopes that he can decipher it. But Rabbi Samuel has been targeted for assassination. The two men are journeying along the Lake of Galilee to Jerusalem.
Between the lake and a stand of pine trees, Rabbi Samuel sat by a bright campfire warming his hands. The sun had set and the sky was ribboned with crimson clouds.
St. Clair dropped an armful of pine branches by the fire. He crouched on his heels next to the rabbi and began breaking the rough branches in his hands, carefully feeding the flames beneath an iron pot. “This will bring our tea to a boil.”
“Your resourcefulness impresses me, Jonathan.”
“In thirty years of soldiering one learns to live with simple pleasures.” St. Clair pushed back the hood of his robe and ran a hand through his hair.
“Aren’t you worried about someone seeing our fire?” asked the rabbi.
“No. The cove shelters us from Magdala. This fire can only be seen from the other side of the lake.”
“With any luck that’s where we’ll be tomorrow,” the rabbi said. “On that further shore, safely beyond the grasp of the emir.”
“But how are we going to secure passage? We gave the emir all our gold.”
“Not all.” The rabbi smiled. “I kept a little. It should be sufficient to persuade a fisherman to take us.”
St. Clair peered into the pot, then moved it off the fire. “The tea is ready.” He filled an earthenware cup and handed it to the rabbi.
Taking the cup, the rabbi inhaled deeply. “Ah, plenty of mint.”
“It alleviates foul breath,” St. Clair said as he ladled a cup for himself.
“And beneficial for passing water.” The rabbi took a drink. “You know, between this tea and your command of Arabic, I’d say you’ve adapted to the region rather nicely.”
“I had a good teacher,” St. Clair said as he sat cross-legged on the ground next to the rabbi. “My commander at the Safed garrison, William de Rogé, encouraged me to learn Arabic and to respect that which was noble in the Saracens.” Staring into the fire, he took a sip of tea. “And when he learned of my visits to the academy of Rabbi Jacob, he arranged my watch so I could continue.” He paused, a smile playing on his lips. “He was my mentor and my friend.” St. Clair drained his cup. “And he died with the others.”
A wind moved through the pine trees and St. Clair turned his head. Holding his breath, he stared into the darkness, listening. The fire’s light played on the spreading branches above them.
St. Clair turned back to the fire. “After the Mamluks took the citadel, Baybars promised clemency to all Templars who laid down their arms. Once they surrendered, he had them pile our dead along the tower keep. With my head wound,” St. Clair ran a finger along the scar on the side of his head, “I was cast in among the dead. When I awoke, I found myself beneath the bodies of my comrades. I couldn’t move, but from where I lay, I saw everything. I saw Baybars line up the prisoners. I couldn’t move so I prayed. And as I watched and prayed, each of my brothers was put to the sword. They saved the worst for Rogé. While I watched and while I prayed, they flayed him and then they burned him, but with wet branches so he would not die quickly.” St. Clair drew a deep breath. “My prayers meant nothing. God wasn’t listening.” He snapped a twig and fed the fire. “That was the last time I tried to speak to God in prayer.”
The pine trees whispered and creaked in the night wind. St. Clair turned to look into the darkness. He felt the rabbi’s hand on his shoulder.
“And yet, you continue to perform one prayer office after another. Why?”
“Discipline, Rabbi—like my celibacy—just discipline.”
“Prayer has no other meaning for you?”
St. Clair paused before he answered. “Prayer is my way of saluting God. He is my king. I am his soldier. When I pass him, I salute. But we don’t speak. Not since that day.”
“Did God say no to your prayer, Jonathan? Was it His will that your friends die? These are good questions.” The rabbi climbed to his feet and ladled himself another cup of tea. “More for you?” he asked.
St. Clair shook his head.
“I’ve seen the innocent die, Jonathan—earthquakes, floods, disease. I lost my wife and a child to a pestilence. I’ve questioned God’s justice. I’ve questioned His goodness. I’ve even questioned His existence.” The rabbi eased himself down to a sitting position next to St. Clair. “These questions raise a dust of doubt, and these doubts cast long shadows over our lives. It wasn’t easy for me to dispel the dust. It wasn’t easy to come out from the shadows.
“How did you do it?”
“Let me answer with a midrash. Seeing you bring sticks for the fire just now reminded me of one.” The rabbi took a sip of tea before he began to speak. “There was once a very poor man. Weak with hunger, he went to gather wood for a fire. After hours of searching, he had just managed to fill his old sack with sticks of wood when the sack tore open. All the wood fell out. In anguish, he prayed to God, ‘Lord, I am wretched and full of sadness. Send the Angel of Death, I beg you. Take me from my miserable life.’ No sooner had he uttered these words than the Death Angel appeared. ‘You called for me?’ he asked the man. ‘Ah, well . . . yes,’ the poor man stammered, looking for a way out of his predicament. Then he pointed to the wood on the ground. ‘I need some help gathering up these sticks.’ ”
St. Clair smiled. “An amusing story, Rabbi, but what’s the relevance.”
“The notion of God granting our wishes, however noble and altruistic, like some jinn that leaps from a magic lamp, is ridiculous.”
“How can you say such a thing?” St. Clair challenged him. “Is it ridiculous to pray for those who are innocent and good? Is it ridiculous to pray for those you love?”
“Let me tell you another story, Jonathan. When I was a boy in Baghdad, there was a magician who performed in the great suk. He would use special incantations to make coins or doves appear or disappear. He was amazing! One time he made a donkey disappear! His magic tricks seemed to defy nature.” The rabbi scratched his beard and then smoothed it with his hand. “Many people treat prayer like magic tricks. It’s an easy mistake to make, especially when one is young. One uses prayer like one who rubs a lamp and expects God to pop out and do your bidding. But, magical thinking invites false hope.” The rabbi paused and leaned toward St. Clair. “To pray means to ask intelligently, to respect the world God has created. Prayer cannot be wishing for results. When we ask God to alter events that have occurred or are already in motion, we are making a vain petition.”
“Really, Rabbi!” St. Clair snorted. “I’ve studied your liturgy. You Jews flatter God like any Christian. You beg for healing, for wisdom, progeny, wealth—”
“I don’t deny that,” the rabbi cut in. “You’re right. Even when we speak of ourselves as servants of God, we set up the problem of pleading for a result, and this lowers us.” The rabbi paused and took another sip of tea. “God didn’t intend for that. We are, after all, created in His image. And this is key. If God created us in His image, then the divine image is implanted in us. Therefore, prayer becomes a way of discovering God’s image within us, and what we must to do to know His will. Prayer becomes far more than a petition. In true prayer, God is both the one to whom we pray and the one who prays through us. It becomes a two-way relationship, a covenant. We are not passive supplicants begging a master for something. We are active partners with the divine. This is what I tell my students when they petition or praise God—occasionally put your own name into the prayer in God’s place.”
St. Clair turned sharply. “What blasphemy is this?”
“Wait and listen. It is not that we, God forbid, claim to be God. It is, as I told you of Kabbalah—as above, so below—from an activity below, there is a corresponding activity on high. Without the impulse below, there is no stirring above. You say correctly that much of prayer is flattery, petitioning God with words of praise and adoration. You are correct. But this is not idle flattery if, in praising God, we aspire to emulate His attributes.”
“I’m familiar with that concept, Rabbi. We call it imitatio dei—in ascribing compassion and mercy to God, we define our own moral imperatives.”
“That’s it exactly. When we pray and we walk after His attributes, we become good partners with God. In this way, prayer becomes a two-way bridge on which we meet the divine that is reflected within us. And on that bridge we don’t just salute, we embrace God. We embrace the notion that we are created in His image, with the freedom and the responsibility to inquire, to think, to love, to work, and to create as if we’re doing God’s part in this world . . .”
“Shh!” St. Clair looked into the darkness among the pine trees. “Did you hear that?”
After listening intently for a minute, St. Clair let out his breath. “I’ll be glad to put more distance between us and the emir. I have an uneasy feeling.”
“Is that why you put on your mail hauberk this morning?”
“I thought you were sleeping.”
“I was, but the racket you made putting it on woke me. Why—”
“Shh! There it is again.” St. Clair stood up, staring into the darkness among the trees. He bent down and grabbed his stave from where it lay by the fire.
“The emir’s halka?” the rabbi asked in a soft whisper.
St. Clair put a finger to his lips as he stared into the shadows beyond the circle of firelight, his eyes gradually accommodating to the darkness. Then he slowly pointed with his stave. “There.”
Michael Cooper of Lafayette is a pediatric cardiologist at UCSF-Benioff Children’s Hospital in San Francisco. His debut novel, “Foxes in the Vineyard,” won the 2011 grand prize in the San Francisco Writers Conference Indie Publishing Contest. “The Rabbi’s Knight” was a finalist for the Chaucer Award for historical fiction recognizing emerging new talent.