On Sarah Apel's fifth birthday, her grandfather Jacob presented her with an olivewood-covered siddur (prayer book) which his father had acquired decades before during a pilgrimage from White Russia to Palestine. In the front of the siddur, he wrote: "Always be proud that you are a Jew, and know that you have a holy land."
Sarah put the siddur under her pillow and kept it there for the next seven years. Although she lived in Upland, a small town in central California, her dreams were of a faraway Golden City. In a recurrent dream, repeated hundreds of times, she saw herself walking on a narrow bridge toward the Golden City. Then she heard a voice from heaven saying, "If you look only at the light coming from the Golden City, you will get to the Golden City."
But as she walked, she heard other voices, coming from beneath the bridge. There she saw beautiful people dressed in beautiful clothes, singing beautiful songs. They called to her to come and join them, but when she moved toward them, she would fall off the bridge and be in "Nowhereland forever, like an empty shopping center, with nothing real inside."
One day in her twelfth year, Sarah's father announced that he had bought a bigger house in an adjacent town, and soon they would be moving. Sarah loved her house, especially the big elm tree in the yard, where she would spend hours yearning to come closer to her Creator. "You may be moving," she told her father sadly, "but I'm not."
One night a few weeks later, while Sarah was sleeping soundly, her father lifted her up and put her into the family car. The next morning, she awoke in a different house in a different town. Appalled, Sarah jumped onto her bicycle and cycled for half an hour until she reached her old house. There a horrifying scene greeted her. A moving truck was parked in front of her house, and a strange family with three sons was moving in. She watched them, disconsolate. Finally, wretched, she got back onto her bike and pedaled away.
THE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE
The dreams of the Golden City vanished. Instead of heeding the heavenly voice to focus on the light emanating from the Golden City, Sarah responded to the siren call of the "beautiful people." By the time she graduated high school, the sixties were in full swing. Beautiful people abounded: hippies with their free-flowing clothes and soulful folksongs, meditators with their religion of universality and love, and native Americans with their exotic culture and bond to nature. The Golden City was forgotten.
In 1965, Sarah was studying art at U.C.L.A. A non-Jewish friend said to her, "I always knew you were a Jew because there is such trust in your eyes. I recently met a young man who also has trust in his eyes. You should meet him." The friend introduced her to Dana Fox, a tall young man who had not known he was Jewish until he was eighteen years old, when someone cracked a derisive Jewish joke in Dana's living room. When Dana laughed, his mother upbraided him, "Don't laugh. You're also a Jew."
Sarah and Dana discovered that they were astonishingly compatible. One day, their conversation drifted to their childhoods. Dana told her that he had grown up in the small town of Upland. Sarah was amazed.
"I grew up there, too, until I was twelve years old. What street did you live on?"
"Sixth Street," Dana replied. "I lived at 554 North Sixth Street."
Sarah turned white. That was her house. Dana was one of the three boys she had seen moving into her house.
In 1966, Dana and Sarah decided to get married. Her mother, ecstatic, planned a wedding in their Reform temple for a Sunday afternoon in July.
The Golden City was burning. All its residents were screaming in anguish.
On the morning of her wedding day, Sarah woke up frantic. She had had a horrific dream of the Golden City of her childhood. This time, however, the Golden City was burning. All its residents were screaming in anguish.
Sarah phoned Dana and told him, "We can't get married today. I don't know why, but it's a terrible day to get married." When Dana reached her side, he realized that she was intractable. But why?
They decided that a rabbi might solve the foreboding mystery of her dream. They looked in the Los Angeles yellow pages under "Rabbis, Orthodox," and found a name and nearby address. Quickly they drove to the rabbi's house and knocked on his door. When the rabbi opened the door, Sarah blurted out plaintively, "Why can't we get married today?"
The rabbi gazed at them and replied, "Because it's Tisha B'Av, the calamitous day of the burning of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It's a day of mourning and fasting for Jews."
Dana, Sarah, and the rabbi all stood there with tears streaming down their cheeks. The rabbi cried because these young Jews had planned to get married on the day so laden with tragedy throughout Jewish history. Dana cried because this rational explanation meant that he would have to postpone his wedding. Sarah cried tears of joy because she had finally discovered the name of her Golden City -- Jerusalem! Suddenly she fathomed the meaning of all her dreams.
Much to their families' chagrin, Sarah and Dana postponed their wedding for two days. On Tuesday, the 11th of Av, the rabbi they had found married them in a traditional ceremony. "Our wedding meal was the first kosher food we ever ate," recalled Sarah years later.
THE BACKYARD MIRACLE
Dana and Sarah moved to the San Francisco Bay area. They rented a modest house on a steep hill, with a lovely backyard surrounded by an eight-foot-high redwood fence. By the summer of 1970, they had two children, and Sarah was nine months pregnant with their third. Dana worked as an elementary school teacher, and Sarah taught art.
One day, Sarah was working in the kitchen. Her two small children were playing in a little plastic swimming pool in the backyard.
Suddenly Sarah heard an urgent voice inside her head, commanding: "Run fast! Bring in the children! Quickly! Now!"
Under the wheels of the truck was the little pool.
Sarah sprinted into the backyard, grabbed one child in each arm, and dashed back into the kitchen. As soon as the screen door slammed behind her, Sarah heard a deafening crash. She turned around to see a huge semi trailer truck filling up her entire backyard. The redwood fence was smashed like so many toothpicks. Under the wheels of the truck was the little pool.
LEAVING THE DESERT
The Foxes' oldest daughter suffered from recurrent earaches. A doctor suggested that they move to the dry climate of Arizona. So, in 1971, the Foxes drove their VW bus to Arizona. There, in a trailer on a hill in the desert near a dramatic cliff drop, they settled, among Mormons, Catholics, and Native Americans.
Two years later, the Yom Kippur War struck Israel. One night Dana had a nightmare. He cried out, "They can't take my land away from me!" When he woke up in the morning, he told Sarah that he wanted to go to the nearest Aliyah office to inquire about moving to Israel.
The Foxes and their three young children piled into their VW bus and drove to the Aliyah office in Phoenix. The aliyah representative there asked them if they had ever been to Israel. They answered, "No."
"Well, do you know anything about Israel?" he queried.
"No," they replied.
"Are you part of a Jewish community?"
"So why do you want to move to Israel?" he asked them, baffled.
Sarah told him about her olivewood siddur from Palestine, and about her dreams of the Golden City, which on her wedding day she understood to be Jerusalem.
The aliyah representative was visibly moved. In a tone uncharacteristic of Israeli officials, he told them: "My children, my children, come home."
They hesitantly decided to make aliyah. They filled out all the forms, and arranged to leave in exactly one month. Then they drove back to their desert home on the cliff.
Sarah was scared. After all, a war was going on, which at that point Israel was not winning. When she and Dana alighted from the VW bus, with the children still playing inside, she told her husband, "If we go to Israel, our lives and our children's lives could be in danger."
The VW bus was careening down the hill at 100 mph, heading straight for the cliff.
No sooner had the words left her mouth than the VW bus started to roll, with the three children still inside. In seconds it picked up speed, until it was careening down the hill at 100 mph, heading straight for the cliff. Dana, Sarah, and some dozen of their neighbors stood frozen in horror. Nothing could stop the vehicle. In moments, it hurtled over the cliff -— then stopped in mid-air. Its back wheel had caught on a small bush. To everyone's amazement, the bus hung suspended in the air, held only by the bush.
All their neighbors started screaming, "A miracle for the Jews! God has done a miracle for the Jews!"
Everyone ran up to the vehicle and with ropes managed to pull it back onto the cliff. The children were uninjured.
Sarah and Dana, spent with horror and relief, walked with a Mormon friend back to their trailer. When they entered the trailer, they were greeted by a ghastly sight. Dozens of strange black insects were everywhere—on the floor, in the frying pan on the stove, even climbing up one of Dana's boots as they stood there. In two years living in the desert, they had never seen a single insect like these. "What are they?" Sarah asked their friend.
The friend quickly grabbed a towel and flitted the insect off of Dana's boot. Then he motioned them out the door. "They are deadly scorpions," he warned. "I have never in my life seen so many at one time."
Sarah and Dana understood that God was sending them a clear message. Suddenly Israel did not seem so dangerous. On the spot, they both resolved to follow through with their aliyah plans. That very afternoon, they started selling their furniture. As soon as they sold their first piece of furniture, the scorpions disappeared. Every last one of them.
A few months later, the Fox family arrived in Israel. As they descended the stairs from the airplane, Dana -- now Shlomo -- said, "We have come home to become Jews again."
Twenty-eight years later, Shlomo and Sarah Fox-Ahshrei have 8 children and 18 grandchildren, all learning and practicing Torah throughout the Land of Israel. Shlomo translates religious texts from Hebrew to English. Sarah has a unique vocation. A time-honored tradition promises that if one prays for something specific at the Western Wall for 40 consecutive days, the prayer will be answered. Sarah, who spends hours each day praying at the Western Wall, performs the service of "doing 40 days of prayer at the Kotel" for those who live too far away to do it themselves.
WHEN CAN YOU TRUST "A MESSAGE"?
God is always communicating with human beings. While the messages most of us receive may not be as dramatic as the Foxes', most of us at one time or another experience Divine guidance -— through intuition, dreams, or the uncanny unfolding of unlikely circumstances.
How can one know if a "message" is really from God rather than from that notorious ventriloquist, the ego?
The Torah specifically prohibits reading omens. Two white doves circling around the heads of you and your date should not be interpreted as a sign that you should get married. The sudden appearance of scorpions in your home is not an omen. Rather, it presents a clear, rational fact: life-threatening danger. If you were worried about following a certain course because of its prospective dangers, now you must weigh those possible dangers against the reality of your actual, present danger. Omens are open to diverse interpretations. Messages present facts; we may or may not want to draw the obvious conclusions.
From Sarah and Dana's story, we can garner three clues as to when to trust a "message":
- If the message bids you to do something inconvenient, difficult, or downright distasteful, it is probably not coming from your ego. Sarah's message to postpone her wedding cost her the ire of her mother, who had spent months planning the event. Dana's dream-message to move to Israel in the middle of a war was a challenge that ran counter to all their preferences. Rebbetzin Hinda Adler used to say: "If it's difficult, that's a sign that it's good."
- When in doubt, consult a spiritual guide well versed in Torah. Sarah's dream convinced her that that was not the right day to get married, but she couldn't understand why. They intuited that an Orthodox Rabbi would be able to shed light on her dream-message, which he did. Many spiritual guides are charlatans, who interpret messages according to their own personal profit. Someone who in all matters subserviates his or her will to the will of God as revealed in the Torah is more likely to be an objective interpreter of your message.
- If it contradicts the Torah, then it is not a message from God. The Torah is the ultimate Divine message: direct and irrevocable. The Torah specifically warns against false prophets. They are false, even if their prophecies come true or they can work miracles, if they bid you to do anything that contradicts the instructions of the Torah. The same principle applies to all kinds of "Divine messages." There has not been a single day since Sinai that God has not communicated indirectly with human beings. However, there has not been a single Divine communication since Sinai that contradicts the message of Sinai. If a married friend tells you that he knows from a dream or his intuition that it's God's will that he have an affair with his secretary, you can tell him with total certainty that it isn't a message from God.
The more we see God's hand in our lives, the more manifest His hand will be.
Divine messages work like mother's milk. Just as the more the baby nurses, the more milk is produced, so too the more we look to God to direct our lives, the more He will. The more we see God's hand in our lives, the more manifest His hand will be. And the more we obey His directives, however difficult, the more the flow of Divine communication will course through our daily lives. If Sarah had ignored her dream of the burning city, or decided that, in spite of the message, postponing the wedding was too difficult, one wonders whether she would have been able to hear the inner voice that warned her to save her children.
The key to understanding God's messages is honesty. If you scrutinize such messages honestly, intelligently, and without prior agendas, and you seek guidance from someone who is committed to the will of God above his or her own will, and you are willing to follow even directives which are scathingly difficult for you, then you can trust your inner guidance as having a Divine source. What the Prophet Elijah called, "the still, small voice" of Divine inspiration is always speaking to us. The more honestly we listen, the more clearly we'll hear.
In the comment section below, share with readers a miracle that has happened to you, and the message you have learned from it.