The pain started around 3 am: a stabbing ache from behind my right eye, like a small demon with a pitchfork: another migraine in the making. I got up as quickly as I could—I had been sleeping soundly, a deep and dreamless slumber; I would have had to rise at 6:30 am, after returning home at 10:30 pm—such is the life of an Rabbi-cum-English professor, God save the mark!—and went downstairs to take my headache-remedy cocktail of choice: Cambia Powder in water, followed by a squirt of Zomig Spray in one nostril. I sat at a kitchen chair, head down, breathing deeply, as the throbbing slowly subsided.
I had put on only one small light over the table: bright lights aggravate the pain, so it took a while before I noticed Him—his greenish-brown tail, like an alligator’s, hung over the back of the couch, scaly, gleaming dully in the halflight, and an odor hung in the air, foul and moist, like three-day-old fish.
I slowly approached, so as not to frighten him off. But this was no gecko or lizard, come to find shelter beneath my roof. He was bigger, broader, as large as an ox, and the sofa creaked as he turned to face me, redyellow eyes blinking, slavering jaws slowly opening in what I assumed was a smile.
Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly, my half-sleeping mind supplied: a bit of doggerel-poetry from a distant childhood, like a forgotten fear.
There he was: the Demiurge, Yaldabaoth by name, the lesser God of the Gnostic System of the Universe. A massive horn, red with the blood of—how many millions of innocent dead?—projected from the center of his forehead, grey-brown-green, like a rhino’s.
“Don’t be upset,” he said, smiling: his shiny teeth shone agleam, row upon row, like a shark’s, and I wondered how many lives those teeth had cut short, “I was careful not to drip any blood on the rug.”
He hawked and spat softly into his claw, and used whatever-it-was to quietly scratch behind his horn, clearing his throat, once again.
“Baby’s tibia,” he said, “they do get stuck in my throat.”
“If you’re here, Demiurge,” I said, “who, then, is running the universe?”
“It runs itself,” he said, “like clockwork. Big, malevolent, uncaring Clock. Tick-tock-tick, Rabbi. I’m only there to keep an eye on things, and make sure that catastrophes fall into place, from time to time. That tsunami in Bora-Bora? That was me. That schoolbus that fell off a cliff in Denver? Me again. The Nobel Prize winner, that French physicist who worked all of her life to attain the Nobel, clutched at her chest (he mimicked the move) and died of a—what? ‘Heart episode?’—while walking up the stairs of the Swedish Academy, everyone applauding for her, just reaching out her hands, could almost touch it?”
He began to laugh, his scales clacking against one another, softly. Big, disgusting, green tears of joy began coursing down his—cheeks? Jaws? I reached him a tissue, from the box; couldn’t have him staining the carpet.
“Thank you,” he gasped, hiccupping as he calmed himself, “I love it when that happens: she had a weak heart—a weak heart, can you fathom this, Rabbi? Just a touch, a little push from me, and it all goes—poof. All of a mortal woman’s earthly hopes and dreams—of fame, of fortune. The well-deserved rewards of a life well-spent, serving humankind. Poof, poof, poof….”
He took the small bone he had coughed up—the baby’s—and began to pick at his teeth. The air was getting fishy-smelling again. It was a little hard to see; it was closing in, junglelike.
The Dragon went on: “I love my work—insofar as it’s possible for me to love anything, that is. I’m supposed to be above emotion; that’s what the Monad keeps telling me….”
“The Monad—the Unmoved Mover,” I said.
“Not even that,” he said. “The Monad does nothing. He floats. Just floats.Everything floats, Up There.”
“And he created You,” I said.
“Right,” he answered, “that’s how it works. A very neat system. One Monad: a Higher God—call him a god, spirit, entity, it doesn’t matter. He is the first, the last, the whole shebang, enchilada, whatever-you-like.”
“And You do everything else,” I said. The smell was curling around my head; the Cambia-Zomig was having a hard time, fighting off the sense of disgust I was beginning to feel, seeing this Beast in my house, on my couch.
Is that all there is?I thought, Pray all of your life, do mitzvote, and, in the End, this oversized evil, Cosmic ‘Gator gobbles up all of our work, all our….
“Yes, and there’s a catch,” he said, as though he had been reading my thoughts. He flipped the bone towards the wall, towards our “Rabbis” collection that we had built up, over the years. They stood silently, little statues of wood, plastic, clay and glass, davening, playing their instruments, always making me smile as they did, no matter how hard life got, giving me hope that there was a world of faith, of order, of tradition that was firm and stable under the rule of the God I both love and fear, the God Who could hold this old world in place, even when everything seemed to be crumbling. Was it all—a fake?
“A catch?” I asked.
“Yes: you see, I don’t like you—any of you, you do-gooders, you human beings, moral creatures, any of you—very much. Or at all. You might say—“ and here, the Demiurge fished in one beastly armpit, and took out a small wooden box—“That I hate you, despise you all. What, after all, do you do for Me?”
“Well, we pray to God. We hope that God will help us.”
“There is no God,” the dragon grinned, nodding his massive head slowly, “And I am His Substitute.”
“What if I choose not to believe in You?” I asked, “You are just a—a footnote, in the books about Gnosticism. And Gershom Scholem says—“
“Scholem can go to—well, he’s not there,” said the dragon, “actually, he’s at the Yeshiva shel Ma’alah, the Heavenly Yeshiva, studying Torah with—well, that’s not important. Not believing in Me is your prerogative, Rabbi,” said the dragon, holding the box before him, as if making an offering, “but I wouldn’t put too much faith into it. After all, where is your God when the chips are down? How much goodness do you think this old world has, anyway? This whole thing, this whole dog-and-pony show you call the Universe—it’s all going to Hell. Do you know, the Iranians hanged a man the other day, just for writing poetry?”
“Yes, I know,” I said.
“Well, how does that make you feel?” asked the dragon. He had opened his box by now; I looked: it was a sort of Rolodex, in a mahogany box, all scarred and pitted, and the Dragon was riffling through it: it seemed full of cards—cards with people’s names on them—but it was making a strange noise as he went through them—a sound like crying.
“Crappy,” I said, “because we have to deal with those people,” I said.
“Crappy,” repeated the Demiurge, “crappy. And that’s it? What about—what do you call it?—Tikkun Olam, fixing the world? Where do you get off saying that, anyway, Rabbi? And you, you’re just one person! You sit there, and you think you can actually change anything?”
“I—I—do, I really do,” I stammered.
He stopped riffling through his cards, put the box down on the coffee table, and stared straight at me; he was no longer smiling. His eyes were large and yellow, with bright-red-veins, as though he were in the habit of staying up late, all the time. He put his clawed hands—claws covered with dried blood and pus—on his scaly knees, and leaned forward, causing the couch to tilt dangerously. He stared directly at me, and I leaned back against my chair. I felt sweat-drops forming on my brow. The air was so thick now, with greengold steamy trails passing beneath the light, and his jaw was very close. His breath smelled like corpses.
“You worm,” he hissed, and his snakelike tongue flicked out, brushing my cheek, “You toad. What are you capable of doing? Do you know how a serpent crawls on a rock? Or what gives a horse its strength? Were you there when the fountains of the deep opened up and filled the oceans, and the morning stars sang with joy?”
“How can you—can you—“ I stammered, “how can you quote Job to me? You didn’t write it; it was inspired by my God, the God you say doesn’t exist.”
The dragon leaned forward: he breathed death and fishbreath into my face. His left claw reached out before I could move, seized a handful of my T-shirt—I remember thinking foolishly that, I hope he doesn’t tear it; it’s my favorite Grateful Dead t-shirt, the one that says, “What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been”--and lifted me up, over his head. I looked down, as if from a great height, and saw his rows and rows of shark’s teeth. He shook me gently as he spoke.
“Listen to me, Rabbi-punk. The world sucks: it’s full of poverty and death and shit and all kinds of suffering. It’s supposed to be that way. The Monad and I, we like it to be that way. And nothing you can do will ever change it. Get used to it.”
He flicked me back onto the recliner like a feather, like a dust-mote he was tired of. To my surprise, I wasn’t even crying.
“What if—what if I choose not to believe in you?” I asked.
“As I said before, that’s your prerogative,” said the dragon, “but that really won’t change things. I have to be going: there’s a polio outbreak in Pakistan I have to be seeing to—“
“What if I make it that you can’t leave?”
The Demiurge snorted. “You have no power over Me. I am the Ruler of the earth below and the heavens above. I decree who dies, who gets born with defects. I am the reason that planes fall out of the sky, why bombs kill innocents. Get me: I am the only Thing in this universe that makes sense. If you had any real intelligence, you would fall down and worship Me, but I don’t need your worship; I am self-sufficient; the Monad planned Me that way; it was the last voluntary act He did, before settling back into the Sleep of Aeons. And so it is; so will it ever be.”
He rose, and shook himself, like a dog, like a boxer entering the ring. A few browngold scales molted off his hide as he took a massive step forward. As he strode heavily to the door, past me, past my books—all those religious tomes that I loved so much, that I had studied from all of my life—I saw that I had just the one chance, the only opportunity to stop him. I squeezed past, scraping my chest and arm painfully on his back-plates, and reached into the bookcase for the Sefer Tehillim, the Book of Psalms.
“Dirshu Adonai V’uzo—Seek the Lord and His strength,” I read—it was my Pasuk shel Shem, my Name-Verse (everyone has one), beginning and ending with the same letters of my Hebrew Name, Dovid, “Beloved of God,” not that I was feeling all that beloved at that moment, or even vaguely feeling God, in the Presence of so much Evil—as the Demiurge put his hand on the door. To my surprise, the knob glowed red. His claw shook from the heat; he was unable to turn the latch.
“Arghh—it’s hot!” he snorted, and put his inflamed hand into his mouth: “It burns—O Monad Monad Monad, it burns—“
“God is my firm tower, my sure sanctuary on the day of danger,” I chanted, in Hebrew and English, and the Demiurge clapped both hands to his ears.
“Stop, Bless you, Stop!” groaned the Beast, sinking to his colossal knees on the front-door carpet.
We may have to buy a new one, before this is done. If I survive. I thought, foolishly.
All over that massively ugly frame, small yellow sparks were beginning to dance. Smoke began to curl out of his ears.
I did not stop chanting Psalms; after a few more, I switched to Kohelet-Ecclesiastes, my favorite book of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible: its central lesson is that one may be cynical, but it is forbidden to Give Up on Life.
By that time, blue-gold-red flames were encircling Yaldabaoth the Dragon entirely; strange mystical otherworldly flames, that consumed his fishlike, death-stinking body, until nothing remained, except a small pile of ashen-white flakes that I was able to scoop into my hands—OK, I used a Dustbuster—and dump into the backyard, between the mermaid and the suncatcher, both hanging on our yard fence.
The sun was rising, as I lay back in the recliner, and closed my eyes, just for a bit. By this time, Kirby, our Shih Tzu, had awakened, and jumped into my lap. I was glad for his chocolate-brown, furry warmth. Until I heard a knock at the door.
I opened it, to behold an Archangel, clad in mystic samite, white-gold-blue from top to toe, armed with a Sword of Truth, a Buckler of Faith, and a Helmet on which were engraved the words, Kadosh L’Adonai Eloheem—Holy to the Lord God. Seeing the little traces of Dragondust remaining in the front hall, She looked down and nodded to Kirby and me.
“Did you summon me, Rabbi David?” she asked, in a voice soft, yet commanding, “I am Rachmielah, God’s Archangel of Compassion and Mercy. Do you need my help?”
“Thanks, I’m good,” I said. I was tired—bone-tired, all of a sudden, and the day just beginning.
Her eyes were as blue as the lapis lazuli of the High Priest’s breastplate. She smiled; the sun was rising.
“The challenge, Son of Man,” She said, “is to bring that Goodness into the World.” And vanished.
I went upstairs to brush my teeth: another Working Day had begun, and I needed coffee….
Note: Gnosticism is an ancient system of belief which may have heavily influenced both Jewish Kabbalah and Christianity. Briefly, it posits that a Big God, the Monad, the Unmoved Mover, created a Lesser God, the Demiurge, who runs the Universe, but doesn’t like us much. It is possible that this belief led directly to Kabbalistic theories of the relationship between the Ein-Sofe and the Sefirote, or perhaps the Archangel Metatron, as well as the Lurianic Tsimtsum.
Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis: The Nature & History of Gnosticism. NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 1987.
Gerschom Scholem, Kabbalah. Jerusalem: Keter, 1974.
Martin Seymour-Smith, Gnosticism: The Path of Inner Knowledge. NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.