SIMON

THE

ZEALOT

by Alfred Brenner

BOOK ONE I When Simon’s mother, Deborah, was thirteen she was told she was going to give birth to the Messiah of Israel. Until then no one knew she was pregnant. She wasn’t even sure herself. She was having nightmares and more than once was seen walking restlessly in the moonlight past the pen where the goats were kept, and back and forth through the corn and wheat, her eyes fixed as if hypnotized, searching for someone. In the daylight hours she was often melancholy and distracted, and her long shiny black hair hung uncombed down almost to her waist and sometimes even covered her face like a veil. When a group of peasants who had been forced off their small strips of land because they were unable to meet the new tax levies came through the village along with their wives and children and aged parents, she who once would have been the 2

first to offer them bread and wine and milk for the little ones and a warm place to sleep, even giving up her own straw pallet, now seemed scarcely aware of their presence. No one could understand what had happened to her. Tamar, a lemon-faced widow with grey hairs sprouting out of her chin who always wore black as a sign of mourning for her husband (he having died more than twenty years before when the tyrant Herod was young and still in his glory and a Roman centurion was almost never seen in the vicinity) was sure it had something to do with Deborah’s forthcoming marriage to Jason, the rich merchant’s son. Young women often became nervous and acted strangely as the supposedly happy day approached. Yona, the stonecutter’s wife, insisted that Deborah had simply acquired too much learning and would never be happy with any man. Others claimed she was under the spell of the Evil Eye. Demons and malignant spirits abounded everywhere in Galilaea and only the holiest of the holy were immune from their influence. Her distraught father and mother, Shemei and Sarah, didn’t know what to think. Shemei had consulted with the local rabbi of the village and with the rabbi of the great synagogue in Kafar-Nahum. He had met with a priest who happened to be visiting from the Temple in Jerusalem, and even with a wandering penitent from an ancient sect in the Judaean 3

desert near the Sea of Salt. But no one had been able to explain the source of his daughter’s mysterious malady. Finally, at Sarah’s urging, he decided to take Deborah halfway around the Sea of Gennesareth to the town of Magdala. There, an ancient woman who had been baking unleavened bread on her open-air oven in preparation for the feast of Passover was said to have seen the face of Moses suddenly appear in the risen dough. Many folk, hearing of this strange phenomenon, flocked to the woman’s mud hut believing a miracle had taken place. The blind, the deaf, the dumb, lepers and hunchbacks, mothers with paralytic children, barren wives, diseased prostitutes, men bent double from arthritis brought on by years in Herod’s dungeons, and women dying of the unknown disease crowded into her courtyard. Among the throng were wise men and rabbis who sat for days discussing the old woman’s vision. One white-bearded scholar, after pouring over the Scroll of Daniel, announced that the appearance of Moses was a Sign. The End of the Days, he declared, was close at hand, seventy weeks, the prophet had predicted, from the night when Daniel stepped into the Den of Lions. Afterwards, after a time of testing and tribulation for Israel, the Messiah would surely appear. But how long the time of testing might be elicited hot debate. 4

In the first place, argued a young black-bearded priest with red eyes from long hours of study, the prophecy in the Book of Daniel of seventy weeks meant seventy weeks of years which was, according to his calculations, four hundred and ninety years. Only then, he concluded, would the Last Days begin, to be followed by the coming of the Messiah and the dawn of the long-promised Era of Righteousness for all mankind. It was in the midst of one of these long and learned debates which everyone listened to and many feared (for talk of the Messiah was considered a subversive superstition by the authorities, and Herod’s spies and informers were everywhere) that Deborah was seen to rise to her feet. She had been seated on the ground beside her parents since early morning, not speaking, not listening, totally uninvolved, it seemed, in what was taking place all around her. Now she stood there silently, stiffly, still apart, facing the old woman who sat across the way in the shadow of her open door. Deborah’s eyes were fixed on the woman, held by the woman’s gaze, as if under a spell. But she was not actually looking at the woman. She was looking through her, or beyond her, at someone or something inside the dark doorway, or on the roof of the mud hut: a grotesque figure with wings like a bat and teeth like a rattlesnake formed out of a cloud of sulfurous 5

hellfire. Was it Belial perhaps? A form Yahweh himself had taken to test and trap His mortal subjects? It was a hot day. The sun was straight overhead and there was no breeze. Yet everyone present felt a chill. People began to shiver without cause. Even the discussion, which had been droning on interminably, punctuated intermittently by hoarse emotional arguments, gradually dwindled. One by one the scholars and the wise men turned their heads and now there was not a single person in that courtyard who wasn’t staring at the slender young woman in their midst. She was only a year or two out of childhood with dark heavy-lidded eyes shaped like the leaves of an avocado tree, but she seemed to contain knowledge far beyond her age. A white shawl framed her soft face and her white cotton gown was transparent, revealing beneath its folds her small firm still-developing breasts and her long legs and her rounded hips that, when she moved, swayed as gently as the reeds that grew along the banks of the Jordan. There was a peculiar radiance that seemed to issue from her flesh, giving her a beauty that women found to be pure and virginal and in no way threatening, but which men associated with high fever and illness, and which aroused in their minds evil thoughts. The silence deepened. The sun blazed down. Everyone 6

had stopped moaning or crying out or complaining or even praying, even the arthritics, their figures distorted in pain, and those dying of the unknown disease eating away at their insides, and the lepers, and the men and women suffering the terrors of Abadon, and the others who were possessed by malignant spirits. They all sat or lay in different postures, rigid as ice. Later people who were there that day would swear that they had felt the weight of an unnatural presence, that the old woman’s courtyard was bewitched. The owner herself remained motionless for a long time in her dark doorway like an oracle in a heathen temple. Suddenly her whole body shuddered and her eyeballs turned inward so that only the whites showed. She seemed to have gone into a trance. Then her dry cracked lips parted and she began addressing Deborah in a hoarse whisper: -You have inside your womb a son... As the sound of her voice reverberated, increasing in volume like a wind rising or an echo in a mountain pass, Deborah trembled. -Long before nine months have gone by he will be born. To many in the audience it was as if someone else was speaking through the old woman, as if she was merely the instrument of a higher power. 7

-And he will be the powerful right hand of...the... Her voice trailed off. She inhaled. There was a scarlet glow on her face. She seemed to be struggling to speak again, to complete her statement. -I see... The old woman’s eyelids closed. The muscles in her neck tightened. The sweat poured in streams down her wrinkled cheeks. -I see... The words choked in her throat. Everyone watched her, waiting expectantly. Then once more her mouth opened and her lips moved. -I see, she cried at last, -the Messiah of Israel! As she spoke these words the crowd began to surge toward her, some hobbling on crutches, others crawling on their knees, all shouting and screaming Messiah! Messiah!, trying to kiss her hands or feet or touch a lock of her hair. Shemei meanwhile stared at his daughter in disbelief and wonder and awe, and then in panic. Simon’s grandfather, Shemei ben Hanan, was a small landowner in Tabgha, one of the hamlets located between the fishing village of Bethsaida and the commercial center of KafarNahum on the northern shore of the Sea of Gennesareth. His ancestors had worked the same earth, growing wheat, corn and barley, cultivating fig and olive trees, and herding goats, sheep, 8

and a few cattle for almost two hundred years, since the time when the priest, Mattathias Maccabeus and his five sons led the great revolt that freed the country and cleansed the holy temple of the Seleucid monarch, Antiochus Epiphanes, and his pagan followers. The house had originally been nothing more than a oneroom structure of white limestone built into the side of a cave, half of which was used for animals. But when he married Sarah (she was twelve years old at the time and he fifteen) in a mutually beneficial union that had been arranged much earlier by the heads of their families, he was able to expand the building to include a central court with several rooms opening on to it. And there was a separate shed now for the cows and goats. Shemei worked hard in the fields and managed his affairs prudently. He observed the Law of his ancestors as set down in the Torah, prayed daily at the local synagogue which was also the rabbi’s home, attended the larger one at Kafar-Nahum for the important holy days and made several pilgrimages to Jerusalem during the Passover season. Each spring promptly on the fifteenth day of Adar he paid the didrachma required of all Jews for the maintenance of the Temple, as well as a tithe (consisting of one tenth of his total yearly crops) to envoys of 9

the priestly aristocracy. But although he was able to hold on to his land and survive economically during a period when other peasants were losing theirs to the powerful money lenders and the great absentee landholders, or succumbing to the rapacious taxes imposed by the tyrant, Herod, Shemei felt that Yahweh did not smile on him; indeed, that he was cursed. He had no heirs. During the first fifteen years of his marriage Sarah had borne him seven sons, all of whom died either in childbirth or during the early months of infancy. After each death Shemei placed the infant in a small wooden coffin he made with his own hands and buried it in the family graveyard behind the house while the rabbi said the kaddish and the entire village mourned. Afterwards he and Sarah covered themselves with sackcloth and ashes and sat in their empty house alone, refusing to see anyone. By the time he was thirty-five and Sarah thirty-two, life had taken its toll. Shemei’s black beard had become streaked with gray, his squat body was bent as if beneath a heavy weight, and Sarah seemed to have dried up and become barren. For five years now she hadn’t conceived. Noah, the potter, thought that the couple must have committed some grave sin which angered Yahweh and was being punished for it, but couldn’t imagine what such hard-working and pious people could 10

possibly have done. Perhaps Sarah had been seduced by evil spirits, Akbor, a young unmarried woman, suggested, her face flushed and her dark eyes wide with iniquitous fantasies as she gathered water at the well. Many in the village wondered what the two did at night in the intimacy of their own bed. Once the rabbi tried to discuss it with Shemei, even suggesting a moist young handmaiden or bondwoman to bear him a child in Sarah’s place, giving many ancient and worthy examples from the scriptures; but he got no response. Thus Shemei, without sons to help him, toiled alone in his fields day after day, month after month. Sometimes neighbors who worked land owned by absentee landlords, or dispossessed peasants of whom the country was full, would join with him when he needed to terrace his fields against erosion, or would assist him with the plowing, breaking the earth with spade, mattock and hoe after the first rains had fallen and, often during the month of Tisti, would work alongside him with the harrowing and the sowing, bending down carefully and placing the seeds in each furrow exactly the way he did. Toward the feast of Passover the fields would become white with the promise of the harvest, and months later when the crops had been gathered, Shemei’s hired helpers and their families would sit down with him and Sarah at the immense table outside in the 11

courtyard to celebrate the end of the solemn ten days of fasting and repentance that ushered in the New Year. Shemei would pour the wine pressed from grapes grown in his own vineyard and, always when he chanted the benediction thanking Yahweh for this bounty, he would murmur a silent prayer pleading for another son. But by now the prayer was merely a habit, empty phrases said by rote. He had given up hope. Even during the most joyful moments of the feast, even during the height of the celebration, while he was singing and dancing, those who were present were always aware of the sadness burdening his soul. At the end of one such festival, but a much larger one than usual in which the entire village had been invited to celebrate the feast of Succoth with citrons and myrtles and willow leaves attached to overhanging palm branches and the playing of flutes, something happened that changed Shemei’s life. Reeling into semi-oblivion from too much wine, he suddenly embraced Sarah in a way that he had never done before, even when they were first married. He tore off all her clothes and, with no one to observe but the animals and the stars, he feverishly kissed every bit of her naked flesh, even the most intimate parts and, as he murmured words of burning passion (words that to her ears were filled with music and close to poetry, the kind that she remembered from a certain long-ago night when she was a 12

young doe-eyed bride and a sweet-voiced rabbi had sung the Song of Solomon), she became soft and moist and receptive and she held her husband in her arms and returned his wet kisses and pressed her entire body close, wrapping her legs around his hips, digging her nails into his flesh, and the two were as one somewhere lost in a rhythm of their own making. And the last thing Shemei remembered was the moonbeams like spilt milk on her nipples and the wild animal-like cry of joy and release issuing from her parted lips. Three months later Sarah quietly announced that she felt life inside her womb. It was after sunset. They were about to retire. Shemei, reeking of manure, had just brought the sheep and goats from pasture and Sarah had put aside her weaving and made sure there was enough oil in the lamp to last the night. Shemei stared at her stunned. At first he couldn’t believe it. He could scarcely remember how it had happened. The moment hadn’t seemed real, merely a dream or some mad intoxicated fantasy. Yahweh, he decided, must have been present. The Lord must have had a hand in the conception. Shemei fell on his knees and thanked Him with prayers. This time, he felt sure, his child would live. He was so excited and nervous he hardly slept that night. He kept seeing his son already as a young man, tall, handsome, 13

a strong and wise leader of his people. The next day during the early morning services at the rabbi’s house, he told all the men present the good news and immediately made arrangements with the mohel for his son’s circumcision and began to think about a name. A smile had lit up his face. He seemed a changed man. But six months later when the midwife brought the howling red wrinkled newborn infant out to him, and he placed it on his knees in the traditional gesture recognizing its legitimacy, he noticed, instead of a little penis between its legs, nothing but a slit; and his heart clenched like a fist inside his chest and his eyes went dead. Simon’s mother often thanked Yahweh for being Jewish; for she knew that if she had been born into any of the other socalled civilizations contemporary with her own - Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Phoenician - where the pagan custom of destroying unwanted babies, especially females, was commonly practiced, she would probably have been killed in infancy. To the Jews infanticide was strictly forbidden. It was a sin, a crime against God and man. Her father, therefore, though crushed with disappointment when he discovered she was not male, which in his eyes made her something less than a 14

complete human being, had no choice but to allow her to live. He named her Deborah, the bee, because of the sting in his heart, not the honey he had hoped to enjoy. Ironically she turned out to be a strong healthy baby, much more active and alert than any of her brothers had been. She would suck vigorously at Sarah’s breast while following Shemei’s every movement with her big black eyes, grip his stubby work-lined forefinger tightly in her tiny fist each time he extended it, smile brightly when he came into her vision, and would often laugh aloud in her high tinkling voice at the faces he made when he frowned. After being bathed she’d kick her fat little legs, roll over, and gurgle happily. She rarely cried, seemed aware of everything around her, was insatiably curious and proved to be extremely precocious. She was able to walk and talk long before her first birthday. By then Deborah had not only charmed everyone in the village (including such hard-nosed suspicious visitors and intruders as Ezra, the hated tax collector, and Joel, the rich grain trader from Kafar-Nahum, who would arrive in his velvet robe with his gold chain around his neck and haggle and scream and bargain to the last denarii over the price of the future wheat or corn crop, as well as Herod’s mercenaries always snooping around the area, searching from house to house for rebels and brigands) 15

but she completely captivated Shemei himself. She had, in fact, become the joy of his life. And so, despite his deeply ingrained peasant conservatism and traditional attitudes regarding her sex, he grew to love and adore her almost as if she had been his first-born son. When his daughter was only four Shemei took her by the hand and led her through the village to the synagogue in order to enroll her in the beth-ha-safer. At the sight of the little girl standing near the altar where the Torah was kept, the hazzan was alarmed and the group of men chanting the Shema Israel was shocked. -A girl? What is a girl doing here? they whispered to each other. -A girl should be behind the curtain in the women’s section. Besides, hasn’t the great sage in Jerusalem, Ishmael ben Levi, warned that educating a female is the same as starting her on the road to moral depravity? Their heads wagged up and down in assent. They unwound the black phylacteries from around their muscular arms and kissed the talliths as they removed them from their heads and shoulders. They all worked with their hands, mostly on the land, and had an unquestioning belief in what they conceived to be the unchanging order of things as created by Yahweh. -Why is Shemei doing this? 16 Malachi, the blacksmith

muttered through his beard. -Why should anyone try to teach a girl the Law? When will she ever be called upon to read the Torah? There was a great deal of talk and discussion in the village as a result of Shemei’s action. Some of the people were in favor, but the vast majority were opposed to it. The arguments became heated. Feelings ran high. Friendships ceased. Fights broke out between neighbors. Shemei realized he was at the center of a potential storm. Still he refused for a long time to be dissuaded from his course. Finally, however, after long consultation with trusted friends and to avoid further violence, he brought his case to the rabbi. The rabbi considered the problem long and hard. He discussed it in detail and from every possible angle with the village elders and the hazzan. They studied the commandments of Moses, the sayings of the wise Solomon, and the words of the prophets Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah and Jonah. They read again the scroll of Leviticus and all five books of the Torah. They even spoke to several learned scholars who advised the provincial Sanhedrin in Kafar-Nahum. But nowhere could they find anything expressly forbidding the education of a Jewish girl. Thus Deborah became the first of her sex in Tabgha to be enrolled at the beth-ha-safer. She was the only girl to sit 17

among the group of boys on the ground around the hazzan, repeating by rote and in unison the sentences he spoke aloud. In this manner she learned to read and write Hebrew as well as Aramaic (which very few other females in the village could do at that time) and became fascinated with the rituals, the commandments and the beautiful and strange legends of her people. She was the brightest and most imaginative pupil in the school and soon began to form her own opinions about everything, many contrary to those of the hazzan or even her parents; and she was not afraid to express them. By the time she was twelve she had begun to develop into a warm and lovely young woman always concerned with the welfare of others, but was also known to be headstrong, selfwilled and even immodest. She was often seen on the streets (brazenly, many thought) conversing with other students (all male), had several times made curt and disparaging remarks to Syrian mercenaries quartered in the vicinity who had quite understandably taken her for a harlot (consequently causing an uproar in the village and embarrassment to Shemei and Sarah), and once at a public meeting had even dared question a visiting high priest from the Temple in Jerusalem over his interpretation of an obscure but significant passage in the Torah. The priest was outraged by the insolence of the young 18

woman. Even the villagers were taken aback. -How does a female come to be present at this meeting in the first place? the priest thundered. -Since when does anyone who is not actually a member of this community, much less a woman, a child, have the right to participate in our affairs? Do you not know that this is a grave breach of conduct? Where is her father? All heads turned toward Shemei. He felt everyone’s eyes on him. He rose slowly to his feet (the meeting took place outside near the two giant fig trees in the place where markets were sometimes held) and, facing the priest, bowed his head and took full responsibility for his daughter’s behavior. A number of women heard him from their doorways as he wrung his hands and wailed, -Woe is me, berating himself over and over. He admitted that he had not disciplined Deborah enough or taught her proper respect for authority, that he had spoiled her with too much praise and too much love. But worst of all he had sent her to school to be educated. In the process somehow he had failed to make her aware of her proper role as a woman, a role subservient to that of man (which had been set out clearly and at length in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and all the other sacred writings sent from Above on which the stability of family life and society itself was based), and had arrogantly brought up 19

his daughter as a son. -What can I do? he cried out. -How can I cleanse myself and make amends to the Almighty? The priest considered the matter for several moments, pulling at his black artificially curled beard and staring intently at Shemei. -To appease the Lord several things are necessary, he declared finally in his deep solemn voice. -You must first offer an unblemished lamb for sacrifice; then for three days you must fast, remaining in the synagogue and praying constantly for forgiveness; and finally you must remove your daughter from the beth-ha-safer and cease her education at once. Shemei drew in his breath quickly and glanced at Deborah. She was staring at him from beneath lowered eyes, pleading silently for him to do something. -You heard? the priest barked sternly. Shemei looked at the tall man in the luxurious camel’s hair robe for a long moment, then he dropped his gaze and slowly nodded. As he did he noticed Deborah out of the corner of his eye biting her lip so hard it began to bleed and rubbing her knuckles against her teeth to keep from crying. A moment later she was gone. When he arrived back on his property, Shemei saw that the door of the shed was partially open. He looked inside and saw 20

his daughter in the shadows milking a goat. Her hands were racing up and down the teats and the white milk was streaming into an earthen pitcher. Her eyes were wet. He felt his heart being squeezed in claws of iron. He stood there in the doorway watching her frantic movements for a long time. -Deborah, he whispered at last, -forgive me for what I did. But it was necessary. Even to his own ears the words sounded hollow. Nor did she look up at him or acknowledge his presence in any way. After a while he left. He tramped across the field and entered the house and told Sarah what had happened at the meeting. -You think I want to take Deborah out of the beth-ha-safer? he wailed. -But how could I let her go on like she was? What the priest says must be respected. I must obey the Torah. Why can’t Deborah understand this? -What she needs, Sarah said quietly, -is the firm hand of a good husband. Shemei lifted his eyes. -Her monthly flow has started. She is ready to bear children. Shemei washed his hands, muttering the prayer. -But no one has approached me. -No one you approve of. -No one worthy, he insisted. -But...he shrugged, -I can understand. What man in Tabgha would want his son to marry 21

someone like our daughter, a woman who is more intelligent and has more learning than most men? How can I blame anybody? Who would have the authority in such a house? Who would carry out the discipline? Who would teach the children and set an example? -What about Eli, or Zebulon, or Jared? Zebulon worships the ground she walks on. -Zebulon has the brains of an ass. -He is an honorable young man, always in the synagogue. -He has the morality of a jackal. -He works hard. -So does my ass when I beat him. Besides, his family is unworthy. What kind of mohar would they provide? Sarah began to churn the butter. -Shemei, she said evenly, -you must find Deborah a husband. -But I told you, he screamed, -no one in Tabgha... -If not in Tabgha, she interjected, -some other place. -Some other place? Shemei paced back and forth shaking his head. -Where? Gamala? Cana? Nazareth? Hippos? Antioch? Among the pagans? You want me to send my beloved child off with some foreigner I don’t even know, to some distant place where I’ll never see her? Or her children, my grandchildren? -Our grandchildren! Sarah was churning the butter so hard 22

tiny pearls of sweat stood out on her red face and neck. -But it does not matter. The fact is, our daughter must be married. As soon as possible. Not to be married would be a terrible shame for her and for us. I could not bear it. Besides, she is our only child. It would be the end of our family. Who would inherit your land? In addition... she lowered her voice, -I don’t have to tell you the way the young men look at her...and how hungrily she looks back. You know what is happening. Shemei’s eyes met Sarah’s. Her open frank stare embarrassed him. His mouth felt dry. It was painful to think of his own daughter in the throes of passion, her legs spread wide, her eyeballs turned inward, Belial whirling her in his mad uncontrolled dance. -I know, he finally mumbled. His voice was strained. -You are right. I will do something. His gnarled hands were clenched at his sides. -I will find someone worthy. He almost seemed to be talking to himself. Shemei immediately withdrew Deborah from the bethha-safer as the high priest had demanded. And so for the first time in more than eight years she was no longer seen walking through the village with her wooden wax-covered tablet under her arm laughing and shouting with all the other students. And once again the place of learning became a male preserve. 23

The following day, which happened to be the first of Tisti (Rosh Hashanah), Shemei stayed from sunup until sunset at the synagogue praying. Everyone in Tabgha was there, including Deborah and Sarah who sat behind the curtain with the other women. As he stood rocking backward and forward reciting the holy verses aloud or muttering them to himself, his tallith covering his head and shoulders, the thongs of the tephillim wrapped tightly around his arms and across his forehead, he felt isolated and beset by guilt. Nor was he relieved when the blast of the shofar, the ram’s horn, ended the solemn service and ushered in the New Year. He continued his prayers at the synagogue for the next ten days, fasting and dedicating himself to silence and selfexamination. In the past this difficult period was one from which he had always emerged cleansed and renewed. But this year Yahweh closed His ears to his pleas and entreaties, shutting him out as if he were a pagan, or didn’t even exist. True, Shemei had disobeyed the Torah by educating his daughter and treating her as a son. But had he not atoned publicly and privately? However, by cutting off Deborah’s education and relegating her to her traditional role, he seemed to have made matters even worse. She did not talk about it. She never complained. On the surface she acted the same as 24

always. But as he often secretly watched her going about doing her daily chores, he was painfully aware of her unhappiness, of the unspoken rift that had developed between them. Most disturbing though, at least in the immediate sense, was the fact that Deborah was not married, or betrothed, or even promised; that he was the cause. For there were eligible young men. But he had stubbornly refused them all. He had to admit it. Why? He tried to justify himself by one argument after another. Not one of her suitors was up to his standards. Deborah was too pure, too intelligent, too beautiful. None of the young men had enough education; none was devout enough; none could offer her enough property or wealth. Yet none of these arguments held up. He sensed that, even if one or two did contain a grain of truth, they were all lacking in some fundamental way. They were mere excuses, justifications. Thus there remained somewhere within him this continuing guilt, deeper than any other, whose source he could not fathom, a heaviness in his heart that would not go away, a burden on his soul related to Deborah’s unmarried state, from which, despite all his prayers, Yahweh refused to free him. Still Shemei could not give up. The guilt was too painful. He had to find relief. He had to do something, make some 25

greater effort to reach and appease the Almighty. He debated with himself for a long time about what course he should take, and at last came to a decision. On the tenth day of Tisti (Yom Kippur) he would go on a pilgrimage, along with his family, to the main synagogue in Kafar-Nahum, the holiest place he knew outside of the great Temple in Jerusalem itself; and there, on the Day of Atonement, the most solemn day of the year, surrounded by the precious scroll of the Torah, the ark in which it was kept, the horns and trumpets, the lamp that never ceased burning, close to the Source of All Things, he would mortify his soul, sacrifice, and pray. Thus he arose long before dawn on that chilly morning and awakened Sarah and Deborah. Then all three performed their ritual ablutions, dressed themselves in their best white cotton garments and, taking along an unblemished lamb as an offering to Yahweh (in accordance with the priest’s instructions) and, with only the light of the new moon to guide them and the silent stars staring down, set out on their journey. They were not alone. The narrow dirt road, scarcely wide enough for a twowheeled cart, was filled with people from all the surrounding villages. 26

It wound through ravines and along the slopes of hills toward the busy market city and customs center on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Gennesareth. As the long-gowned penitents (many of the men wearing talliths and tephillim and the women carrying jars and baskets of foodstuffs on their heads, and most everyone beating his breast and chanting prayers, even the children) shuffled along on their worn sandals and bare feet down toward the fertile plain and threaded their way slowly through orange orchards and groves of fig and palm trees with lambs and goats bleating alongside them, they could glimpse, through the screen of foliage, patches of the clear inland sea hundreds of feet below. In the first rays of the rising sun, with the mists forming just above the surface of the blue water, it looked unreal, a vision of the heavenly paradise Yahweh had promised the Righteous in the glorious New Age to come. By the time they reached Kafar-Nahum the red glaring ball of sun had fully appeared on the eastern horizon, and day had dawned. There were none of the usual lines pressing about the gate, so the guard waved them in. The city itself, normally swarming with noise and activity, was strangely silent and empty. The narrow streets were half27

deserted and many of the shops and bazaars were shuttered. At the wharves the fishermen’s boats were tied up and empty, and on the beach their nets were hanging out to dry. Most work had ceased on this most holy of days and every Jew was in the synagogue praying. However, there were soldiers about, more than Shemei had ever remembered seeing. They moved ominously from building to building examining every doorway and alley, gripping their spears and swords firmly in their hands. The new arrivals continued walking in a group toward the synagogue. It was located on high ground close to the water, its white marble facade visible from a long way off. As they approached, they became aware of additional soldiers, wellarmed Syrian mercenaries, standing at strategic points on the high stone staircase and near each of the three entrances, carefully scrutinizing everyone who entered. -What is happening? Deborah whispered nervously. Shemei shook his head. -Take no notice. It does not concern us. But his words belied his feelings. He wasn’t sure what the mercenaries were here for. Foreign soldiers always made him uncomfortable. Still, he thought, something must have caused this show of force, some kind of incident. Lately more and more 28

disturbances were breaking out all the time. Bandits, terrorists, rebellious sects of all kinds were proliferating rapidly throughout Galilaea. Many were former peasants who had been forced off their land. Shemei knew some of them. Some had been his neighbors. Entire families, men, women and children were even now wandering about the country begging for bread, sleeping on the ground, trying to find work on the farms and orchards in the highlands or in the great hereditary estates in the rich and fertile Gennesareth Valley. Many, as a last resort, had fled to the mountains or deserts. Some hid in caves and, to escape the biting hunger, joined with bands of outlaws in daring raids on merchant caravans, wealthy aristocrats, foreign bureaucrats, and even high priests travelling through the province on Temple business. Already a number of these disaffected people were organizing themselves into small fighting units. The authorities called them brigands and terrorists. Some in truth were troublemakers. But others demanded bread, justice and freedom, and dreamed of a mighty leader like King David of old or Judah Maccabeus, a Messiah who would come and lead all of Israel in a great struggle against the arrogant evil empire in Rome and its client king, the tyrant Herod, in Jerusalem, and establish a reign of peace and brotherhood on earth. 29

It must have been bands of these rebels or bandits, Shemei concluded, who had been responsible for whatever disturbances had taken place. Were not they the ones whom Herod’s mercenaries were always looking for? But actually everyone was under suspicion, every Jewish peasant and artisan, every village rabbi and hazzan, even pious and conservative small landowners like himself. The pilgrims had reached the steps now and had started climbing toward the stately granite columns along the front of the synagogue. Several officers appeared on the porch outside the main entrance looking down, studying their faces intently. Suddenly the one in charge barked a command and the column slowed almost to a standstill. Ahead, Deborah could see a number of centurions, halting the group with the flats of their swords, separating the men and women into two lines, then searching the men and allowing the women to continue onward unhindered. Simultaneously she felt someone brushing up against her pressing something hard and gleaming into her hand. It looked like a small curved knife. She glanced up quickly into a pair of blazing brown eyes. -Hide this, I beg you. The young man facing her was thin with a heavy black beard, about middle height with skin darkened from the sun and long tangled black hair. A tallith 30

was draped over his head and shoulders and he wore an old goatskin jacket. He could not have been much older than herself. She shifted her gaze abruptly. Her father and mother were a few paces ahead. Why was her heart pounding so rapidly? Why were her hands trembling? Why all at once was it so difficult to breathe? She tried to speak but it was impossible. All she could do was shake her head. -Please, in the name of Yahweh. His eyes were pleading, desperate. -Hide it, quickly. His voice was urgent. As if hypnotized, her clammy hands slipped the knife into her bodice. It felt cold and alien between her breasts. Just then the line surged ahead and the young man was out of sight. Glancing neither to the right nor left Deborah quickly caught up with her mother and continued stiffly the rest of the way up the steps. Five thick-chested unsmiling soldiers wearing helmets and breastplates were standing on either side of the main entrance observing everyone in the line closely. She felt their eyes on her searching through her garments. Was there something about her expression, her walk that might give her away? Could anyone see the subversive object outlined within the bodice of her gown? Small drops of perspiration trickled down her spine. At any moment she expected to be halted. 31

People were donating gifts to the synagogue. The porch was littered with fruits, vegetables, flowers, handwoven garments, sandals, pottery, blankets, oil lamps, everything imaginable. Goats, sheep and oxen were tied up near the immense open doors. Deborah kept moving with the other women. She turned her face down and carefully avoided stepping on any of the gifts; then almost without being aware, found herself crossing the threshold into subdued light and suddenly found herself safe inside. The lobby of the synagogue was crowded with men and women. Most were pagans, proselytes of Judaism, known as Godfearers: Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Syrians, part of the myriad mix of peoples who lived under the heel of a powerful and arrogant but sterile empire. In a world whose old certainties and beliefs were rapidly crumbling, they had a desperate need for a more vital and meaningful faith, the kind that Judaism with its one invisible deity and its strictly proscribed morality, seemed to embody. They stood at the rear of the congregation trying to follow and participate in the prayers and rituals inside, hoping to one day be accepted as full members of this emotionally moving and secure religious community. 32

Deborah, pressing past them, kept looking back toward the entrance, searching the faces of the men who were beginning to come in now one by one. She felt tense and anxious. The knife was a burden. A danger. It frightened her. It could involve her in serious trouble, unless she rid herself of it. But how? Drop it somewhere? Hide it? Toss it away? She was unable to do any of these things. She felt responsible for it. It seemed as if some strange bond had formed between herself and the knife’s owner. She felt an obligation to return it. If she did not, she was convinced some awful consequence would result. But who was its owner? The youth with the wild brown eyes and the thick black beard? What was he doing with such a knife (actually more of a weapon than a knife) in the first place? And why had she accepted it? More men from the group she had come with were shouldering into the synagogue. But he was nowhere in sight. Had the soldiers found him out? Were they questioning him? (She had visions of torture.) What had he done? Was he a criminal? A terrorist? Why was she so concerned? She could not understand her own actions, unless it was simply her fear of the knife. She needed to return it to him. Every moment she held it the danger increased. Shemei was one of the last men to enter. He looked around, 33

blinking in the dim light, spied Deborah and Sarah, and pushed his way toward them. -What is happening? Sarah inquired anxiously. He shrugged. -Nothing. -Did they search you? -They searched everyone. -Did they...detain anyone? Deborah broke in. -I don’t know. I didn’t see anything. He seemed impatient, annoyed with the questions. -Come. He took his wife and daughter by the arms and led them across the beautiful mosaic tile floor to the stairway leading up to the Women’s balcony. -Remember, he warned, -what is going on out there has nothing to do with us. We have come here to praise the Almighty, to offer our thanks for His many blessings and to beg His forgiveness for our sins. Nothing more. You understand? Deborah dropped her eyes. Sarah nodded. Then as the two climbed up to the women’s section, Shemei turned back, squeezing through the mass of Godfearers into the central nave, found a seat on the lower of the two benches, and began to pray. All his prayers, which he had learned since childhood and had memorized without conscious effort through thousands 34

of daily repetitions and which he uttered now sometimes by himself, sometimes in unison with the others, prayers which had become an integral part of his life, were directed toward one single object: Deborah’s welfare and happiness; in a word, her marriage. -Hear me, O Lord, Blessed be Thy name forever and ever. His voice rose and fell and his body jerked rhythmically backward and forward, expressing all the passion of his being. -Do not force my child into the Den of Lions, I beg Thee. Do not force her to live a life without a husband to care for her and a family to love her, an outcast among her own people, doomed to virginity and barrenness. Do not punish her because of my sins. Punish me instead. Here I am prostrate before Thee, wretched and unworthy. I place myself in Thy hands. My fate is subject to Thy will. I implore Thee, O Lord God, King of the Universe, Creator of All things, Fountain of Wisdom, give Deborah children, sons who will carry on our tradition and values, the heritage of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As I stand here in Thy sacred house close to Thee, I beseech... During his supplications a number of men had been called up to the ark to read portions of the Torah. He scarcely noticed them. Nor was he aware of the young man who had just joined the hazzan, the rabbi and the seven others around the richly 35

sculptured bimah on which the sacred scroll lay open. But Deborah, seated up in the balcony with the women recognized him immediately. She leaned forward, her fingers gripping the railing in front of her so tightly her knuckles showed white. She heard the hazzan pronounce the young man’s name, Aaron ben David, then saw the newcomer step toward the Torah, kiss his tallith, touch the sacred scroll with it, and begin to half-read half-chant the Hebrew words. As he did the hazzan stood beside him underlining each phrase with an intricately designed golden pointer and translated aloud every verse into Aramaic so all could understand. At brief intervals individuals or the entire congregation responded, the uneven chorus of singing, chanting, mumbling voices echoing strangely throughout the large room. When he finished the passage Aaron did not step down as was the custom. Instead he remained on the bimah and glanced around at the faces before him (Deborah felt he was staring directly at her, his intense eyes penetrating deep into her innermost soul), and it was clear to everyone he was going to make a midrash, an explanation or commentary on the portion of the Torah he had just read. Many thought he looked young to do such a thing. Nevertheless they waited. When he finally spoke his voice sounded unsteady and somewhat nervous. 36

-You know the place in Enoch where the prophet describes his vision: ...And I saw that a white bull was born, with large horns, and all the beasts of the fields and the birds of the air feared him and made petition to him all the time. And I saw till all their generations were transformed, and they all became white bulls. The first among them became a lamb, and that lamb became a great animal and had black horns on its head. And the Lord of the sheep rejoiced over it and over all the oxen..? Everyone was silent now, giving Aaron full attention. Deborah wondered how this unusual young man could know so much. Clearly he had studied a great deal, for the lines from Enoch had a hidden meaning. The lamb represented the coming Messiah, a dangerous subject to the authorities and some of the people in the synagogue, but welcome to others. Gazing at him, he seemed wild, almost emaciated, and she was afraid to imagine how he lived and what he had done (the knife between her breasts scorched like fire), but she felt drawn to him in some strange and mysterious manner. He was speaking again. This time his voice was stronger, almost harsh. -He who sits in haughty isolation in his palace of marble; he who has reigned over this land these many years in the name of the Great Beast, this appointed underling of Belial, this monster with iron claws whose mouth spits fire, this 37

accursed creature, will one day, soon, find himself face to face with the Anointed One and an endless army of the pious dead risen from their graves. Be ready! he shouted, his clenched fist raised above his head. -The Day of Judgement draws closer! He turned and, as cries of consternation broke out in the synagogue, dashed down the aisle, his worn sandals scuffling loudly across the inlaid tile, and disappeared out of a side entrance. Thus did the conflicts and troubles of the outside world invade the sanctity of the great synagogue in Kafar-Nahum. Such a thing had happened in other synagogues, but never before in this one. Among the worshippers there was confusion and fear, as well as shock and outrage directed at the young firebrand who had disturbed the peace and tranquility of this holy place. Nevertheless there were many who felt he had expressed their thoughts exactly, who defended him and were quite pleased to hear that the tyrant Herod, ruler of Judaea, Samaria, and Galilaea, and client of Tiberius, the emperor of Rome, who had rebuilt the Great Temple and paid for his armies and his spies, his mistresses and his slaves with the taxes he squeezed from the labor of the Jewish people, would be destroyed by the Messiah. If it was really true, if it was not just another dream. Men sprang up and argued with each other, screaming and shouting, their 38

faces red, their eyes bulging, momentarily forgetting that the King’s spies and informers were everywhere, even here in the House of God, listening, observing. From the balcony women watched in consternation. Nor could the hazzan and the rabbi, standing side by side on the bimah, pleading for quiet and order, regain control. Shemei rose from his hard bench and looked about horrified at the sacrilege that was taking place. This high holy day and all that he held sacred was being befouled and besmirched. His prayers for Deborah would go unheard and unanswered. His personal need for redemption and relief would be unfulfilled. The entire purpose of his pilgrimage had come to naught. Everywhere people were on their feet, some crowding into the aisles, continuing to debate and discuss the new situation. Others remained in their seats, shaking their heads and muttering their apprehension or disgust at this almost unheard of eruption. Yahweh would surely punish the hotheads, Shemei thought. And well He might. Especially the young stranger who started it all. In the confusion and uproar he noticed a group of welldressed obviously wealthy men coming down the aisle, headed toward the lobby. Among them, speaking loudly and gesturing excitedly, was a big beefy individual with florid cheeks wearing 39

an expensive silver-threaded robe over which hung a linen tallith whose fringes came down well below his knees and several diamond rings on his thick well-manicured fingers. Shemei recognized him immediately. Simultaneously the big man caught sight of him. He halted, stretched out his arms and smiled broadly. -Shemei... Shemei quickly squeezed out into the aisle, and the two men embraced. -A good year to you, Shemei. -And to you, Joel ben Levias. Joel was a merchant. He had grown up in Tabgha but had left early and become very successful as a speculator, buying crops from the peasants and selling them at good profits to large national and international traders. He had, years before, married a rich social-climbing woman from Kafar-Nahum; consequently, he and Shemei led different lives and no longer got together for a walk or a social drink as they had in the past. Now their relationship was mainly on a business basis. Joel would visit Shemei’s land during the harvest, survey his crops, and then make a bid, which Shemei would immediately refuse. Afterward they would bargain furiously for days at a time. Sometimes their conflict was so emotional they would almost come to blows and Joel, in anger, would start to leave. 40

But eventually one of them would give in and they’d embrace and, over many cups of Shemei’s good wine, would toast each other, their families, their children and still unconceived grandchildren, and vow eternal friendship. -I am pleased you have come to worship with us, Shemei, Joel was saying, -but it is not a good time. Shemei shrugged. -What Yahweh wills... Despite their long relationship he always felt socially awkward and diminished somehow in the merchant’s presence. But he did not blame this on Joel. It was his own failing. He had remained a peasant with lines of dirt in his gnarled fingers and rough manners even if he did own his own land. Joel, on the other hand, had not only wealth, but social graces. He had risen to become a respected man of the world. Joel continued to glance around, frowning. -It is sinful what has just happened. And to think, in my own synagogue. And on the highest holy day of the year. Come, he suddenly gripped Shemei’s elbow, -let us get some air. I feel stifled in here. He turned and started walking rapidly toward the lobby. Shemei almost had to run to keep up with him. The lobby was filled with men talking excitedly. Outside the mercenaries were still patrolling the area. Joel, halting at the open doors of the main entrance, stared out at them. Shemei 41

came alongside him. those troops? he asked idly.

-How long must we put up with

-We will put up with them, Joel snapped grimly, -as long as necessary. As long as this country is overrun with incendiaries like the young madman who interrupted our service just now. I tell you, they are worth every drachmae they are paid. Without them our lives, our property would not be safe. Shemei nodded in agreement. -Yes, of course, you are right... he paused. -Of course, that young man is not the only one who believes that the End of the Days are close. -That is nonsense, Joel almost shouted. -It arouses among our people nothing but false hopes and will lead to suffering for everyone and destruction of our nation. His jowls trembled and his hands clenched and unclenched. -But I don’t want to talk of these things. He looked directly into Shemei’s eyes. He was still clearly overwrought. -I have known you for a long time. His voice was suddenly quieter. -Yes...a long time, Shemei agreed. -I have sat with you in your house and you have sat with me in my warehouse...and we drank wine from the same bottle and broke bread together and fought over the prices of corn and wheat. From the days when I used to walk from village to village with a sack of supplies on my shoulder behind my 42

father, how many times have I looked at your land with envy. And later, when I could afford to buy it, how many times have you refused, even after I promised to keep you on as my overseer. But nothing would move you. You know, you are a stupid stubborn peasant...or have I told you this? He smiled faintly. Shemei dropped his eyes. -But I can talk to you, Shemei, and you can talk to me. About personal things. The family. My wife. Taxes. The credit I can offer you on future crops. His voice lowered. -I can talk to you about intimate things. My servant girls, the pagan women I have consorted with, the demons who inhabit my body. And you understand and tell me Yahweh will forgive me because of my struggles against them. You know something, I should never have married a wealthy woman. He glanced at Shemei slyly. -I always wondered, though. You must have your women too. Shemei met his eyes, then quickly looked away. -Yahweh forbids it. Besides, who has time? The merchant sighed. -Yes, I know. Then he shook his head. -I tell you, Shemei, I no longer understand anything. It is not like it was when we were young. I am convinced Yahweh is angry with me. 43

-Why should Yahweh be angry with you? -He punishes me for my sins. -He does? How? Joel hesitated for a long moment, licked his thick lips, rubbed his forehead with the back of his hand. -My eldest son, Jason...You have met him? -Once, I think. Two years ago. During the feast of Purim. In your warehouse. A handsome youth... Joel shrugged. -They say. I was praying for him. I was asking Yahweh’s forgiveness, when this interruption... His hands clenched and his mouth tightened. -We all have sinned. Joel moved his face closer to Shemei’s, glancing around nervously. -My son is no Jew. His voice was hoarse. -Do you hear me? -No Jew? How is that possible? The palms of Shemei’s hands were moist and his breathing was coming in gasps as if he had been running. -Do you see him here at the synagogue making peace with Yahweh on this holy day? Shemei slowly shook his head. -He did not come? -Yes, he came - only after I threatened to disown him. But then he left. My wife went with him. Everything he does she 44

approves. Even if he does not fast she will find excuses. Shemei did not know what to say. At this moment all he could feel was pity for this man whom he usually envied and sometimes even hated for his ruthless business practices and his immoral behavior. -My son associates with pagans, Joel continued. -He goes with Egyptians and Syrian friends to their temples where they worship idols and engage in the most abominable practices, where all kinds of magicians and charlatans congregate and the priestesses prostitute themselves with strangers. The priests drink human blood, and everyone present partakes in their weird rituals. When I think of what my son does, I become ill, tear my garments as if he were dead. I know he attends the Roman games at Herod’s Colosseum and, Yahweh protect me, he wrestles without clothes with the Greek and Roman boys and is often seen in those call baths. Shemei wanted to close his eyes to these sinful goings-on. He couldn’t look at the pain in Joel’s eyes. -He is my eldest son. He will someday inherit my fortune. What can I do? Disown him? He is my son, my flesh, my blood. Shemei, you are a man who abides by the Torah, an old friend who I respect. Tell me. Give me advice. 45 dens of corruption that our rulers

Shemei could do nothing but shake his head helplessly and shrug. -Perhaps you should speak to the rabbi. -The rabbi advises me to get him married while I am still in control... People were swirling around them, talking in groups, coming and going, waiting for the service to resume. A few men had begun to venture back to their seats and a number of women were still coming down from the balcony. Among them were Deborah and Sarah. -More than anything, Joel was saying wistfully, -I would like to follow the rabbi’s advice. I would like to see my son married to a nice, clear-headed, pious Jewish girl from a good family. A girl who is strong in her beliefs, who has high moral standards. A girl who is not afraid of work. I would like before I die to see Jason with his own family and children. I think maybe such a thing could bring him back like a stray sheep into the fold. It could make him a new man... -Yes, Shemei agreed, -it could. -But it is not likely. -Why not? There must be many young women... -I have yet to meet one, Joel burst out. -In the circles where I now move, among the merchants and money lenders and big landowners, including even daughters of important priests, 46

members of the Sanhedrin even, they are all the same, like Jason. The young people today think only of adornment and pleasure, and nothing of traditional values... Listen, he bent forward suddenly, lowering his voice, -I like to have a good time. I like wine. I like female flesh. And if Jason should want such things now and then, who am I to blame him? But I am worried. I have a wife, children... I go to the synagogue and pray... I... -Shemei, a shrill female voice broke in. Both men turned to see Sarah and Deborah approaching. As Joel quickly exchanged holiday greetings with them, Shemei noticed that he kept staring at Deborah in a strange manner. -Your daughter has grown, he said, not removing his gaze from her. -She has become a young woman, a very lovely young woman. Deborah reddened and lowered her large liquid eyes. -I remember her when she was still a child, so happy and playful... But I have been to your house many times in recent years and I did not see her anymore. Where have you been hiding her, Shemei? -Well...Shemei hesitated. -I have not been hiding her. She is in the house...she has many chores... -I have been attending the beth-ha-safer, Deborah blurted 47

out. As she did, Sarah pinched her arm surreptitiously and Shemei glared at her. -Oh? The merchant’s eyebrows went up. -A girl like you...? For how long? -Since I was five years old. -It was a mistake, Shemei muttered. -I removed her... -And what did you learn? Joel persisted, ignoring him. -Many wonderful things... -You can read? -Yes. And write too. In Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek. And do sums... -Truly? Joel seemed impressed. -I also studied the Scriptures, the prophets of our people, Enoch, and... -Enoch? -Yes, she said, refusing to acknowledge the furious glances of her parents. -The prophet’s words were spoken by one of those men. That man who read the Torah before, the young one who caused all this commotion in here... -I see. The merchant frowned. -Do you remember some of the other things the prophet Enoch said? -Well...Deborah hesitated. -He had a vision. A great but terrible vision... 48

-Yes? -In his vision he heard the judgement of Yahweh...Heaven... -Concerning what? -Evil... Even Shemei and Sarah were looking at Deborah with a new interest now. -Concerning the nephilim, she went on, -who brought evil into the world. Enoch heard Yahweh declare that the nephilim would die, but their souls would become evil spirits intent on the destruction of mankind, and they would continue to plague mankind until the Day of Judgment. Suddenly it was if Joel and Shemei and Sarah and their daughter, Deborah, were enclosed in a cone of silence. None of them could hear the voices or the movements of the people coming and going all about them. Joel, Shemei and Sarah were gazing intently at the young girl standing before them. What she had said touched them in some strange way more directly and more profoundly than anything they had heard so far that day in the synagogue, even the passages read from the Torah. -So what must we do, Joel now asked, -to protect ourselves from these evil spirits? -We must be vigilant, Deborah said. -We must never let down our guard, for they are everywhere... 49

But Joel’s interrogation was not over. He continued to ask her more questions, not only about Enoch and other prophets and the scriptures but more personal ones, about her duties at home and her friends and her attitudes toward elders and children; and as she answered each one openly and innocently and with utter honesty, he studied her, her still-developing adolescent body with remnants of baby fat still visible, her luxuriant black hair, the simple white bodice that clung to the indentations of her small breasts, the lack of adornment on her wrists and around her throat and on her long, beautifully shaped fingers, and his left eye began to close as it always did when he was thinking hard about something. Shemei had often seen that intense expression on his face, especially when the bidding for a grain or fruit harvest became critical, but he could not imagine what was going on in the merchant’s mind now. Afterward everyone but Shemei returned to the central hall of the synagogue. He remained seated on the hard bench praying and fasting for the rest of the day. The service ended at sundown. When the last song was chanted and the last passage of the scriptures recited and the final blessing pronounced, the worshippers rose. Each person turned to his neighbor, expressed good wishes for the coming year and moved slowly into the aisle talking and laughing. The 50

tension of the last ten days was over and there was a look of relaxation and release on every face. All except Shemei’s. He could not realize that his mission to the synagogue at Kafar-Nahum had already begun to achieve its purpose nor that Yahweh was about to answer his most fervent prayers. Two weeks after Yom Kippur Joel ben Levias arrived unexpectedly at Shemei’s home. He came with such an amazing offer that at first Shemei believed him to be a messenger from on High. Only then did he recognize the miracle Yahweh had performed. It was late afternoon. Shemei returned from the fields bent over and sweating from a day of hard labor to find the merchant waiting for him in his courtyard. Sarah had provided the guest with a cup of the best wine, had made him comfortable at the wooden table under the shade of the ancient oak, and was now seated cross-legged in the cool of the doorway weaving a basket. Shemei was surprised to see Joel. What business has he come here for? he wondered. It is too early to discuss the future crop which will not be planted until next spring; in fact, the last harvest has just been delivered. It must be trouble, he thought 51

fearfully. Joel will find an excuse to refuse further credit or will insist on payment of previous loans. Then what will happen? We will be forced off our land like so many others, and where will we live and how will Sarah and Deborah survive? The merciless Yahweh, he felt, was still punishing him for his sins. Worried, he welcomed the merchant with as much grace as he could muster, sat down on the unstable wooden bench across from him and poured himself a cup from the wineskin. The sun’s rays filtered through the branches of the great oak and the checkered shadows moved back and forth across the two men’s faces and backs as the breezes became stronger. Joel shaded his eyes from the momentary glare. -You are wondering what brings me here? -Yes. This is not your usual time. Shemei lifted up his cup, automatically recited the prayer thanking Yahweh for the fruit of the vine, and Joel joined him; then both slowly sipped the rich red liquid. -It’s very nice. Joel smacked his lips. Shemei nodded. -The earth has been fruitful, thanks be to Yahweh. Joel glanced around. -Your daughter, Deborah...I don’t see her. 52

Shemei avoided his eyes. -Sarah, where is Deborah? Sarah barely lifted her eyes from the basket. -I believe she’s at ben Ezra’s helping them press the olives. -She seems to be a fine young girl, Joel said, -well-versed in the scriptures...beautiful... Soon she’ll make a fine mother for your grandchildren. Shemei smiled proudly. -She was first in her class... -Truly? Among all the boys? You are fortunate to have such a daughter... -Thanks be to Yahweh. Shemei could not quite suppress the note of cynicism in his voice. -I understand she’s still not betrothed? Shemei shook his head. -Not yet. -Then she must be promised? Shemei, frowning, shook his head again sadly. He was embarrassed by these questions. He didn’t want to talk about Deborah. Discussing her, especially with this inquisitive and sharp-eyed merchant, made him uncomfortable. Why didn’t the man get to the point of his visit. -Good, Joel said. Shemei stared at him. Good? His visitor was actually beaming. He can afford to laugh at me, he thought to himself bitterly. He doesn’t have an unmarried, an unmarriageable, 53

daughter. His daughters all have husbands. -But surely Deborah is not the reason for your coming to see me, he said aloud. -You must have more important things on your mind. -No, not at all. Joel was smiling broadly. -I have come to make an offer for her hand. -Her hand? Shemei swallowed nervously. -But you already have a wife. Joel laughed. -Not for me, for my son. I have come to arrange a marriage between your daughter, Deborah, and my son, Jason. Shemei suddenly felt dizzy, as if something had hit him hard between the eyes. He gripped the table to keep from falling off his seat. -But your son, you said, is not... -I have decided it would be beneficial for both of us, both our families, Joel broke in. -I have considered it every day and every night since our meeting in the synagogue on Yom Kippur. I have now examined all sides of the issue. There are problems, of course. I recognize that my son and your daughter come from different worlds. I also know that Yahweh, in his wisdom, divided mankind into classes. He made some men rich and some poor; some debtors, some creditors; some aristocrats and nobles, and some slaves; some wise and some foolish. My son Jason would be marrying out of his class. He would be 54

reaching down. This is a difficult thing for me, especially for my wife’s family, to accept. My wife and her family are said to be descendants of certain priests. Nevertheless, on balance, in this union I am convinced the good outweighs the bad. Besides, did not the rabbi say, go down one step in taking a wife? A woman of higher rank might despise her husband. I hope you will forgive me but I have inquired extensively into her character. I am told that she is an honest girl with an education. A little headstrong, perhaps, but I believe Jason needs a wife like Deborah. Not only would she bear him healthy and intelligent sons, she would keep his household under control. Her learning, her piety, her moral character must, in time, bring him back to his people and his Creator. I have seen it happen. Also, I am told that Deborah is clear-headed and wise and would not squander his fortune. Jason will have a fortune, Shemei. Your daughter will be the wife of a rich man. With your land in addition... He drew in his breath. -Furthermore I am ready to offer you a most generous mohar, one hundred shekels of silver. To Shemei, Joel sounded as if he were bidding for a future crop, or a piece of land, or discussing an investment. He could not understand the merchant’s urgency. Many would be honored to receive such a proposal. Yet his first instinct was to refuse, as he had refused so many times before. No one 55

was good enough for his Deborah, problem though she was. Yet this offer was different. The more he thought about it the more exciting it became. Indeed, it was fantastic. It exceeded his wildest expectations. He saw in his mind the shocked glances of his friends and neighbors when the announcement became public. Even as they congratulated him, he could already hear the anxious whispers in the village. But no matter. Deborah’s life would be secure, more than secure...and so would his and Sarah’s. They would not have to work so hard in their old age. Every dream he had for his daughter would be fulfilled. In her would the meaning of his own life be realized. Through her the fortune of his family would take a new dramatic turn for the better. His chest overflowed with pride. He wanted to shout aloud with joy. Yahweh, the all-wise and all-powerful, the great Yahweh, King of Kings, Master of the Universe, had heard his prayers and smiled upon him. No greater miracle could he imagine. And forever after, as long as there was breath in his body, he would praise the Lord and thank Him and keep His commandments. Like Abraham of old who had placed his beloved son, Isaac, on the sacrificial altar, he too was ready to obey without question Yahweh’s most extreme demands. And so Deborah’s marriage was arranged, and the date set. The negotiations were difficult, complicated and drawn56

out. The contract took months to finalize. There were many meetings between the heads of the families, sometimes with several rabbis, priests from as far away as Jerusalem and scribes in attendance, busily giving advice and making notes. There were social gatherings where all the members of both families were introduced, and then the betrothal in which the prospective bride and groom saw each other for the first time and exchanged rings as the guests drank Shemei’s wine and feasted on roast lamb. These were mainly stiff and formal affairs, even though they usually ended up with music, dancing, and feverish intoxication. During the betrothal ceremony Deborah suddenly became uncharacteristically shy and very nervous. As the tall and handsome Jason with his puffy beardless cheeks and golden hair studied her from behind his weary mask of boredom and indifference, she felt like a new calf being examined before purchase, and on the day of her important prenuptial interrogation by Jason’s mother, his sisters, aunts and other female relatives, she was seized by an almost uncontrollable panic that left her trembling for hours afterward. The interrogation resembled a judicial inquisition, the kind that the Sanhedrin conducted periodically against suspected Messianists and other nonconformists and malcontents in 57

the Temple. Jason’s mother, Tabita, a portly and bejeweled matron, sat on a beautiful chair with golden arms carved in the shape of lions’ heads imported from Rome. On either side of her were her well-fed and perfumed daughters, Diana and Drusilla, with their heavily rouged cheeks, painted eyes and elaborate hairdos. Reclining on lounges around the rest of the spacious room in the Roman-style villa, and waited on by halfnaked male servants, were the remaining female members of the family. All were exquisitely attired in the kind of expensive gowns usually seen on the wives and daughters of successful traders from Athens or Alexandria. Deborah faced this formidable group alone. She had walked all the way with her father from Tabgha and stood there now, barefoot in her simple white cotton dress with the pleats and the woolen shawl around her shoulders that she had knitted with her own hands, feeling inadequate and very vulnerable, while Shemei waited outside. The women scrutinized her weaving and embroidery, lifting their noses distastefully and shaking their heads. They probed her knowledge of delicate perfumes, of diamonds and other precious stones, of hair, eyes and make-up. They barraged her with questions about etiquette, about how to handle servants, how to supervise a large household in order that her husband 58

might be free to engage in his own important pursuits; and then, almost in passing, tried to find out what she knew about the rituals, the festivals, the preparation of food and the dietary laws of her people. She departed white-lipped, choking back tears, for it was obvious that she had no experience and little knowledge of the subjects that had been asked her, and that, with few exceptions, her answers to these questions had utterly failed to satisfy her interrogators. Marrying into a higher social class, she discovered, could be agonizing, frustrating and painful. The pressures were enormous. Several times she wanted to scream or shed hot tears, run out on the whole affair. Often when she was alone, she’d scream in frustration to the empty heavens or shed bitter tears. But only the oxen heard. She said nothing. Thus preparations for her wedding went on apace and no one knew her real feelings or could understand the wild emotions pulsating through her heart. Soon the entire village became involved. The women, always busy, worked harder than ever. Although the date was months away, they already began to discuss the kind of food to be served, and which housewife would be responsible for what dish. There were difficulties and conflicts. For example, who would prepare the lamb, 59

the vegetables, and the fish? Since not even the entire group combined had enough money for the amount necessary for all the guests, it was decided to invite all the fishermen from the Sea of Gennesareth and their wives. Meanwhile, the women of Tabgha washed, mended, sewed and spun, preparing for the big occasion. The men also were involved. They discussed the ceremony daily and at length during their morning and evening prayer sessions in the synagogue. They debated the exact procedure to be followed and, as might be expected, there was much disagreement and many heated disputes over the details. Many times did the rabbi or the hazzan have to be called in to make a decision based upon the most traditional practice and the most authoritative interpretation of the scriptures. So, as the weeks passed, Tabgha became gripped by a kind of frantic excitement like that which takes place during the outbreak of a war. Indeed, in the village, involvement in the wedding helped to divert people’s minds from their more pressing, real problems: the worsening harvests, the latest increases in taxes, the mounting debts everyone owed to the money lenders and the merchants, and the sudden proliferation of illness, of deformed infants being born, of stillbirths, and the overwhelming nameless fear that followed the villagers about day and night. Every day one 60

heard stories about the Messiah (every week a new one was said to appear) and the presence of mercenaries and slinking spies. In addition, there were persistent rumors brought in by traders and members of caravans from Jerusalem that King Herod was ill, perhaps seriously, and that riots and uprisings had begun to break out in many parts of the country. These tended to make everyone even more anxious; for, hated tyrant though he was, Herod represented for many a longed-for stability. So it was that the villagers plunged into the coming affair with that mindless energy common to religious fanatics or drunkards intent upon blotting out all consciousness through wine or god. At times Deborah tried to imagine what life would be like as Jason’s wife. It was difficult, even for one with her vivid imagination. Her mind often was beset with anxieties and doubts. Moving away from her family and her village to a new home in a foreign city, among new people whom she did not understand and who did not understand her, whose interests and way of life were foreign to her own (even if they were rich) was not something she could look forward to eagerly. Inside she would often feel a sadness, a deep emptiness. She accepted the marriage only with difficulty, as a burden she had to go through, an important religious and social 61

obligation, a vital step toward her destiny as a woman, like painful menstruation. Moreover, it made her father and mother, indeed, the entire village, very happy. And, among her friends and acquaintances, she was the center of attention. Any one of them would have been overjoyed to have been in her place. So she continued to keep her true feelings secret, smiled often, and buried herself in the traditional bridal activities of preparing a trousseau, getting her finger- and toe-nails cut, while listening to the advice and lewd remarks of the older women on how she should conduct herself in the marriage bed, (she kept delaying the necessary shaving of her head), immersing herself for the first time in what would become the monthly ritual of the mikvah, plus all the ordinary everyday chores that were expected of her. Yet, occupied as she was, she would, at odd moments when no one was watching, steal away alone into her tiny room, (which was not actually a room, merely the space where she slept) partially partitioned off from the rest of the house by several goatskins sewed together. There, she would secretly and very carefully lift a corner of her pallet and gaze at the knife that was hidden beneath it, which she was keeping for the unknown young man who had thrust it into her hands many months before. Sometimes in the sunshine, or moonlight, 62

the blade seemed to come alive, like a bright mirror reflecting her searching furtive eyes. Sometimes she’d run the tips of her fingers gently along the razor-sharp edge, and always she would feel an intense excitement pulsating through her body. Once she cut herself accidentally and noticed two tiny drops of blood on her white bed. They frightened her, but also moved her strangely, for they caused her to think of her coming wedding night, the painful breaking of her hymen, and the long-awaited loss of her virginity. Even when she was not actually looking at the knife, she would visualize it in her mind. Many times while performing her usual tasks during the day it would appear like a specter before her eyes. No matter how busy she was it would always come unexpectedly, sometimes causing her acute embarrassment, especially when either of her parents was present. It would also invade her dreams at night: the perfect hue of the curved blade, the intricately designed handle of silver on which were printed seven ancient Hebrew letters whose meaning she could not fathom. The knife was beautiful but dangerous, like certain poisonous plants that bloom in the desert. There was something mysterious about it as well, reminding her of the sacred scrolls that only a select group of holy men were allowed to see, scrolls that contained deep and terrible truths. Sometimes also in her 63

sleep (and even during her waking hours) she would see the young man to whom the knife belonged and hear his voice and feel him pressing his weapon into her hands exactly as he had done before, his black smoldering eyes gazing into her own, setting her entire being ablaze. Where was he? Was he alive? Would she ever see him again and return his knife? She no longer had any expectations. Still she held onto the knife and continued to dream. In no time at all her dreams began to cause her anxiety. Despite the aching pleasure they often gave her, she was sure that they must be, in some manner, sinful...especially now that she was already betrothed and would soon become a married woman. So one day during the feast of Pentecost, she took her courage in her hands and confessed to the rabbi. Not everything. She did not mention the real knife, or its true owner. Only the one in her imagination. The rabbi scratched his lined forehead, pulled his tallith closer around his shoulders and listened patiently. He was a thin but vigorous old man and he had heard everything. He took Deborah’s soft warm hands between his cold wrinkled ones, studied her lovely oval face, shook his head slowly, perhaps regretting his own departed youth, and assured her that her dreams were not unusual. Many young women before 64

their weddings had even stranger ones. -Do not fear, he said, -you have not sinned. Yahweh is preparing you as he does all new brides. Soon you will be married and give your husband children. When that takes place, your visions will disappear, and the Almighty will bless you with happiness beyond your imagination. Not long after that interview (her wedding was now less than two months away), Deborah was in the nearby village of Bethsaida with her mother, buying some material for her bridal veil at the small crowded market, when she saw across the tide of faces, the thin almost furtive figure of a young man staring at her. She saw him for only an instant, but she knew who it was immediately. Her heart began to hammer against her ribs so violently she had to lower her eyes. But when she lifted them a moment later other heads and other faces were swirling by and he had disappeared. She kept looking around. Had it actually been him? It didn’t seem possible. Yet... Just above the cloudless eastern horizon the early morning sun hung like a burning dish, and on the ground the night shadows were already slipping away behind walls and 65

buildings and beneath trees and bushes. A cock was crowing somewhere and here in the marketplace people were pressing past each other from one peddler’s cart to another, stopping now and then to bargain for fine linen or clay pottery or blownglass vases or leather sandals or necklaces or precious stones or vials of rare scents imported by ship and caravan from faroff places, while market inspectors with high-pointed hats and large badges on their chests walked about observing everything with bored officious glances. Her mother was carefully examining a roll of silk thread, discussing with a neighbor the possibility of knitting it into a lace veil by the time of the wedding ceremony, when Deborah suddenly became aware of the clatter of hoofbeats and turned her head to see a group of Idumaean cavalrymen galloping into the marketplace amid a cloud of dust. They halted so abruptly their horses reared up on their hind legs; then almost immediately, they began to fan out through the crowd, scrutinizing every male face and questioning everyone about a youth who they insisted must have just come through here, and describing him in such detail that Deborah was sure he was the one she had seen. The commanding officer threatened the entire village, the entire province with dire punishment if the fugitive was not apprehended. Ten young men were pulled 66

out of the crowd and told they were going to be crucified unless someone gave information about his whereabouts. The mercenaries built three crosses and struck their prisoners with the flats of their swords until they lost consciousness. Still, no one present said a single word. Neither Deborah nor anyone else gave the mercenaries any information. -These Jews wouldn’t give us a breath of the wind that comes out of their arseholes, she heard one of them mutter as his horse brushed slowly by. -They think they fart perfume, his big burly partner growled. There was a sharp command and the Idumaeans suddenly swung their horses about, dug their heels into the animals’ flanks and galloped away, leaving everything unfinished. Standing among the tense silent crowd, Deborah watched them disappear, nervously wondering what had caused this sudden change in plans and where the young man had gone and what kind of crime he had committed, hoping secretly that they would not find him. Very soon afterward Deborah and Sarah left Bethsaida and returned to their own village. On the way back they came upon the dead bodies of three men placed prominently along the route that wound through large areas of empty pasture land interspersed here and there with clusters of bushy turpentine 67

trees. Two of the corpses lay almost directly across the rutted path. The other hung from an improvised wooden cross. The dead men were most likely Jewish peasants, but it was difficult to be certain for their faces were almost unrecognizable. Their clothes had been stripped from their bodies, their necks had been broken, they had been castrated and their penises stuffed into their mouths. Crows were pecking at their eyeballs. Vultures were wheeling about overhead. Sarah and her daughter stood for several moments among a small group of people who had stopped to stare at the remains of the man on the cross. Deborah remained there motionless, as if under a spell. The sun beat down in waves. The odor of decaying flesh was sickening. Gnats, ants, flies and other insects swarmed over the dried blood and matted hair below the navel and crawled into the empty gash where the genitals had been. Someone, a travelling peddler, was muttering that the dead men were not from around here and thus must have been suspected of having been bandits or terrorists, perhaps of even having been active in the riot at Beth Arath. No one present knew what he was talking about, never having heard of any riot, even though the existence of Beth Arath, one of the largest estates in Galilaea, was almost as well-known in the region as Jerusalem itself. The half-eaten eyeball of the man on the cross kept gazing down 68

at Deborah. She tried to move away, out of its line of vision; but the lopsided skull-like face slowly turned, as if following her, and grinned. With a start she thought she recognized it as that of the young man whom the Idumaean mercenaries were looking for. He was coming down from the cross, his arms outstretched, directly toward her. Cold sweat was breaking out along her spine and beteen her breasts. She began to tremble. Abruptly she clutched her stomach and bent over and vomited. By the time they returned home, the sickly greenish cast to Deborah’s cheeks was gone and she seemed to have recovered. After all, this was not the first time she had undergone such an experience. Armed men were always making these sudden unprovoked raids on peaceful citizens, arresting friends and neighbors, and often leaving in their wake mutilated corpses. There would be wailing and tears and prayers from the family at the grave and in the synagogue, Yisgidal, v’yisgidal, shema, rabbo, and everyone would talk about it sadly (or even angrily if they were certain no government informers were present) for weeks and months afterward. And the villagers would seek ways to assist the widow and her children, and soon afterwards the matchmakers would become busy. And that would be a 69

signal that the mourning was over. In time it would become a memory, part of the pattern of community history and legend of the recurrent cycle of life and death. One got used to it. Not always, however. Certainly not in Deborah’s case, at least not yet. Despite her surface demeanor, deep inside where no one could see, she had gone into mourning. She tried to relieve her sorrow as one usually did, in work: spotlessly cleaning the house and the outside areas where the animals were kept, milking the goats, gathering the eggs, fetching the water, and making the bread. But as she ground the barley between the round stones of the small hand-held mill, as she kneaded it until her fingers were red, inserted the fresh yeast, and carried the risen dough in the sloping wooden trough on her head to the outdoor oven, she kept seeing again and again that anonymous skull, that half-eaten eyeball glaring rigidly at her, and then the nightmare vision of the spectral figure climbing down off the cross, its bony arms outstretched, coming to embrace her as a lover might. She was so frightened she fled to the mikvah, threw off her clothes, and completely immersed her half-naked body seven times in the cold water. Everyone knew that Beezelbub, the Devil, made it a practice to torment betrothed maidens in countless ways, possessing their souls and often forcing them to 70

commit unspeakable acts. Holding her breath under the water until her head seemed ready to burst, she prayed to Yahweh with the passion of one about to die. Afterwards Sarah asked her to try on the bridal gown (the same one she herself had been married in many years before) in order to see how the thread for the veil matched the rest of it, to make last-minute adjustments. Except for small changes necessary in the length and a slight tightening in the bodice, the gown fit perfectly and Deborah looked beautiful (like an angel, her mother said). The bride herself felt like a maiden being dressed for the coffin, that her marriage bed would be her grave. As she was being helped out of the gown Deborah asked her mother questions: Did she know why the soldiers raided the marketplace at Arbel that morning? Had she heard of a riot at Beth Arath? Did she have any idea who those dead men they saw along the road were? Sarah shook her head. She knew nothing, she said, and cautioned that it was better not to think about these things, to put them out of her mind and try to make believe they had never happened. Deborah sat down on a bench with her hands working between her knees and stared at the floor. The skirt of her short 71

linen undergarment was pulled up above her thighs. Sarah was carefully folding the bridal gown but had just turned to point out her daughter’s immodest position when Deborah, in a low voice with her eyes never leaving the floor, blurted out for the first time her true feelings about her forthcoming marriage. As she went on, her back began to tremble and the words caught in her throat; then she dissolved into a flood of tears. Sarah took her in her arms and soothed her, stroking her long black hair and rocking her back and forth like an infant. -It will be all right, she murmured, -it will be all right, Deborah. Every young girl feels the same as you as her wedding day draws close. Before my wedding, I felt the same. I was so frightened I couldn’t eat. But we all survive. We bear children for our husbands and perform our duties to our families as Yahweh has ordained. Later that day Joel, the merchant, arrived in his chariot along with his son, Jason, bearing gifts for the betrothed. The women of the village watched nervously from their doorways and the men looked up frowning from their work on the nearby farm and pasture lands as the vehicle bounced along the narrow rutted road, while the children, who would usually be following screaming excitedly, were warned to stay indoors. Chariots were rarely seen in Tabgha. Only high government 72

officials, wealthy merchants, large landowners, ruling high priests, or military commanders rode in them. Thus it was at first feared that this must be an official visit connected in some way with the incident at the marketplace that morning, and that the townspeople would be held responsible for something they had nothing to do with nor knew nothing about. But as the simple conveyance, which was little more than a kind of lattice-work box mounted on two spoked wheels drawn by a pair of asses, came close enough to be recognized, the fear evaporated; and when villagers realized that the chariot was heading in the direction of Shemei’s house, they were deeply impressed. -Soon Deborah will be the wife of a rich man, Hannah, the old maid with the lopsided face, muttered enviously to the young virgins at the stream as she lifted a basket of newly washed wet clothes onto her head. -After the wedding she will not even recognize us, Zeitan, the shoemaker’s daughter complained. But Hagar, whose left leg was shorter than her right and whose dreams caused those who heard them to blush, declared that no matter how wealthy Deborah became she would never really change. -The man I marry can be poor as dirt. Only that he should 73

give me many male children. -And if you are barren? the beautiful Marta asked. -Only that my husband should try, Hagar told her. -That he should try many times, Zeitan shrieked. And they all laughed until the tears came. Joel and his son were welcomed warmly into Shemei’s small house after which the bridegroom-to-be presented his betrothed with the mattau, consisting of a silver brooch inlaid with diamonds, fashioned by a master craftsman in Sepphoris, and a delicate chain spun of the finest gold. Deborah accepted the gifts with well-chosen words of thanks, and with all due modesty. Sarah and Shemei were of course highly pleased, not only with the expensive jewelry which would remain in their daughter’s possession forever (unlike all other family property which was legally that of her husband’s) but with Deborah’s changed attitude. She appeared to be making a valiant effort to smile and even speak to her perfectly groomed and handsome but rather aloof future husband. Sarah felt the intimate moment she had just had with Deborah must have somehow contributed to her daughter’s changed behavior. Shemei thanked God that the effects of Deborah’s education were at last wearing off. He was in fact so delighted he insisted that his guests stay and dine with him. 74

Unable to refuse without causing bad feelings, they reluctantly consented. Now the sun was dipping below the horizon and the world darkening into a soft purple silhouette. Sarah was finishing her preparations for the evening meal and Deborah was outside in the courtyard lighting the oil lamp at the center of the long wooden table. As she murmured the prayer thanking Yahweh for the gift of light, she saw Jason talking to Joel near the grapevines that screened off the far side of the courtyard. She was, perhaps for the hundredth time, trying to imagine what it would be like lying in the same bed with him and receiving his seed and bearing his children, when she spied her father approaching with a black-bearded rather thin, emaciatedlooking young man wearing a worn cloak of camel’s hair, a rope belt around his waist, and a tallith draped over his shoulders. In his right hand he carried a short thick staff and his movements seemed furtive and tense. For a moment she stared at him, unable to move. Then, almost choking in disbelief, she turned in panic and fled back into the house where Sarah was slicing the cucumbers and placing the onions and lettuce on a large clay dish. She clung to the back of a chair, breathing in gasps and hoping that her mother would not hear the loud thumping of her heart against 75

her ribs, and waited until her limbs finally stopped shaking before stepping back to the partially open back door. It was no nightmare. It was him in the flesh. Where he came from and how he got here she could only guess, but clearly he had met her father somehow and been invited to join the family and the other guests at the evening meal. These guests, the itinerant field hands Lemech, Noah, and Betah, and the two men from the village who had recently lost their land due to last year’s steep tax increase, Nahum and Malchus, were lumbering into the courtyard now and taking their places around the table beside Joel and Jason. All noticed the young man standing beside Shemei. They looked at him intently and inquired who he was. -He is a smith, Shemei explained. -He came up to me in the fields today and asked if I had something that needed repair. So I showed him the broken olive press, and already it can be used. -Perhaps he can fix the ploughshare as well, Betah, a big hairy man from Decopolis, suggested. -And the mattock too, Noah added. One of his eyes was blind as a result of a childhood infection and he kept twisting his head around as if trying to see better. -Also the scythes need sharpening, Lemech, who had only two fingers and a thumb on his left hand, chimed in. 76

-Yes, there is much work for him, Shemei said. -So what do you call yourself, stranger? Nahum, the dwarf with the enormous head asked in his high screeching cackle. The young man eyed the questioner and looked away. He seemed very reluctant to answer. -He is called Aaron...ben David, Shemei interjected after an awkward silence. -So, Aaron ben David, Noah inquired, -do you live in this district? Why have we never seen you? -I have not been here before. -Where are you from then? Aaron looked away. -I travel, he said. -Where? Kafar-Nahum? Magdala? -Further. -Galilaea? -Beyond. -You have seen the wide world then. Aaron shrugged. -And so young. -Praised be to Yahweh. During this discussion with the stranger, Deborah ventured silently out of the house carrying a tray of flat cakes. She was setting them on the table, trying to remain unnoticed, when 77

Shemei called out: -Deborah, make another place. Then he turned to Aaron and said, -That is my only daughter...my only child. Deborah had halted and Aaron was looking her full in the face. -Shalom, he said. -Shalom, she breathed. She felt her cheeks burning beneath his intense gaze and quickly lowered her eyes. -She is betrothed, Shemei went on, -to Jason ben Joel who sits there beside his father, the merchant. He pointed proudly. -We will celebrate the wedding before the feast of Nicanor, Yahweh willing, -and if you are here, we would like you to join us. Deborah scrutinized Shemei’s face as he spoke, and also that of her future father-in-law. With relief she saw no sign in either man’s expression that he recognized Aaron. True, a year had passed since that Yom Kippur day when he had caused such consternation in the synagogue at Kafar-Nahum, and both men had seen him only briefly. But so had she. Then why did she, and not they, remember him? Perhaps it was the circumstances of their meeting. Perhaps it was because something of his, something dangerous and somehow very important that she still kept, that had lain between her naked breasts, establishing a secret connection between them. 78

-Will he stay with us long? she asked her father as casually as she could. -As long as he is needed, Shemei said. Before anyone touched his food there was the ritual of the washing of the hands, first the left, then the right, according to the law, accompanied by the usual prayer. After this, Shemei rose and, draping his long tasseled tallith about his head and shoulders, pronounced the blessing for the barley bread that Sarah had baked that afternoon, and then the benediction for the wine pressed from grapes grown in his own vineyard. When he finished everyone lifted his cup and carefully sipped the heavy blood-red belly-warming liquid. The repast, which consisted of fish that Sarah had bought at the market (caught before dawn by fishermen on the Sea of Gennesareth), vegetables, fruit, olives and locusts, was like most Judaean meals, a religious rite. But it was also a festive occasion (of which there were many these days) celebrating Deborah’s forthcoming marriage. There were toasts to the future bride (who sat there, face flushed, sensing Aaron’s eyes upon her, wondering what he was thinking) to the groom (who seemed distant and out of place with his carefully curled hair and fine garments), to the children that would come (Yahweh grant her many sons) and, not least of all, to her proud parents, 79

Shemei and Sarah. There was also the playing of the flute by the one-eyed Noah, the singing of hymns, and discussions of the teachings of the ancient prophets. Throughout, Deborah was unusually quiet. In the nearby pasture she heard the cows lowing and somewhere in the distant hills a lone wolf howled. Above the crooked roof of her father’s house she spotted three bright yellow stars forming a strange configuration in the sky and felt a chill as if she was being warned about a coming disaster. Meanwhile from beneath her long lashes she continued to watch Aaron’s every movement. Who was he? What was he up to? Why had he come? How had he found her? Surely his arrival was no accident. Was it his knife he was so desperately seeking? Or something else? Had Yahweh made the young man aware, even over all this time and distance, of her lonely passion, and guided his footsteps here? The conversation at the table filtered intermittently into her ears. The men, hungry for news of the great world, had begun to ask Aaron questions. When had he been in Jerusalem? Were they still rebuilding the Temple? When would it be finished? Had the famine last year in Judaea taken many lives? And the destruction caused by the earthquake near the Sea of Salt, how bad was it? Were the rumors about Herod’s poor health true? 80

Was the king planning to inflict any new taxes on them? Would he unleash more raids by mercenaries like the one this morning in Arbel? As they spoke of these terrible events, the voices of the men who worked on Shemei’s land tightened and one could see the desperation and frustration on faces due to their own bleak circumstances. Strange illnesses were passing through the villages like epidemics. The Evil One was everywhere. His demons possessed their wives and daughters and forced them into obscene practices. Their children were always crying and hungry. They sought help from wizards and magicians and resorted to agonized prayer and severe fasting. But each day conditions only became worse. Why, Nahum wanted to know, was Yahweh so angry with His people? What sins had they committed that He should inflict such punishment upon them? Then someone asked in a low voice, -What about the Messiah? -Yes, the Messiah, the others whispered eagerly. -What about the Messiah? Aaron looked at them sharply. -The Messiah? -Have you heard any news? Noah asked. Aaron dipped a crust of bread in his wine. -What news? -Have there been signs? Lemech broke in impatiently, -signs from Above? 81

The newcomer shrugged. -Signs? Yahweh has indeed sent us an earthquake. And yes He has inflicted upon us a famine that has caused much hardship and suffering among our people. -Because we have not followed His commandments, Shemei interjected hoarsely. -We are not vigilant enough in the struggle against Belial. -Perhaps. Nevertheless, on the other side of the Jordan many of the Elect are waiting. In the desert caves to the south the communities are preparing, cleansing themselves... -Has He been observed? Aaron rubbed his beard thoughtfully. -I cannot say. I myself have observed nothing. Still... His listeners leaned closer expectantly. -There have been reports. -Yes? Tell us. Aaron sat hunched up and studied the circle of faces in the flickering light of the oil lamps. -In the center of Meggido where the final battle of Armageddon will rage, he was speaking almost in a whisper, -a male child, blind since birth, has seen the lion that dwells in the heavens descending like a falling star, his mouth breathing fire and his roar like thunder. A young virgin, who was ravished by the seven-headed scorpion, 82

awoke from her terror to find a rabbi whom she had never seen before standing at the foot of her bed. He wore purple robes and was exceedingly tall and very beautiful and he had four arms and in each of his four hands he wielded a burning sword and on the mighty shield he carried was reflected an image of the New Age to come and it was wondrous to behold. He wet his lips. -In a small synagogue in the town of Nazareth, which had been defiled and polluted with the most obscene practices by pagan priests and priestesses, the crown of King David was discovered. It is of fine-hammered gold laced with rubies and pearls and is said to shine with a light so pure everything it touches is transformed... Everyone at the table listened and trembled. It was so quiet the caterpillars could be heard nibbling on the tender leaves of the fig tree. The very movement of the air seemed to have stopped; for it was clear that these reports had to do with the onset of profound events. But suddenly the merchant Joel, father of Deborah’s future husband, broke the spell. -Young man, he cried out, -the signs and portents that you relate have all been heard before. Wizards and prophets appear every month announcing the coming of the Deliverer. Great crowds follow them wailing, fasting and praying, but never has He appeared. Never. But perhaps, he 83

smiled skeptically, thrusting his large heavily jowled face toward Aaron’s, -you can tell us when that great day will be...? Aaron shook his head. -I know nothing, merely repeat what I have heard. -Perhaps it is all rumor then and there is no Messiah... -Perhaps... Yet, Aaron went on quickly, -the prophet Daniel has declared that He whom we await so eagerly will make Himself known. -When? Aaron contemplated his questioner in silence for a long moment, his eyes alert, his hands nervously moving, and the others leaned forward straining to hear what he would say. -Daniel has written that after the return from captivity Jerusalem shall stand for seventy weeks of years, four hundred and ninety years, which means there are four and thirty years remaining, which means... his voice rose, reverberating like an echo -... in that day the assaults of evil will have reached their most malevolent intensity, and humanity will have sunk to its deepest misery and our peoples’ suffering will have become unbearable...But then, according to the words of the prophet Enoch, the moon and the stars will change their courses, and will confuse the false priests and astrologers who study them 84

in order to make gods of them. Then will all those insolent rulers who build up their fortunes by oppressing the poor and persecuting the weak be driven from power... and all the wicked and the sinners of the earth will be destroyed... Thirteen years later, shortly after she had been brutally assaulted and mutilated by a cohort of Roman Legionnaires, Deborah would recall Aaron’s words of that night and the quiet intensity with which he spoke them. She would picture in detail the furtive way in which he tasted his food and how carefully he sipped his wine, barely touching his lips to the earthen cup, as if he feared even the slightest intoxication and needed to be alert and under control constantly like a soldier patrolling an occupied country. Nor would she forget the rapid movement of his eyes, even while he was quietly conversing, the thick blue vein throbbing along the side of his forehead, nor his white teeth flashing whenever he smiled. And once or twice she would remember when he thought he was not being observed, she had noticed him glancing surreptitiously out toward the fields like a fugitive on the run...which, she had suspected, he was. Nevertheless the sound of his deep husky voice and the passionate, almost visionary expression on his dark blackbearded face had moved her deeply. She could not understand 85

then, nor could she explain later, the strange and powerful attraction she felt for this young wanderer whom she barely knew. Perhaps it was Yahweh’s doing (as all things are) but it was already clear that ever since she had first seen him, it was Aaron, not Jason, the man to whom she was betrothed, who haunted her fantasies...who came again and again in her dreams to fetch her from her father’s house on the eve of her wedding wearing splendid garments and a crown on his head, and she borne through the village in a litter with her hair falling to her shoulders and a veil covering her face and golden rounds on her forehead, and everyone, the entire populace, singing in the procession... By the time the meal ended the empty moon had disappeared, only to reappear a moment later, like an astral presence from behind the dark devil clouds rising across the night sky. Aaron and the men who labored on the land rose, muttered goodnight to the others and lumbered away to their sleeping quarters on the floor of the barn. Joel continued to watch them narrowly until they had disappeared into the thick black shadows beyond the row of turpentine trees, then he turned to Shemei. -I would keep my eyes on that man, he warned. -You mean the one called Aaron? 86

The merchant nodded. -The one you hired today. -Why? Shemei looked at him quizzically. -What is wrong? Has he done something? -I am not certain. But there is something about him. He rubbed his nose thoughtfully. -I believe I have seen him before. Deborah caught her breath. -Where? Her future father-in-law gazed at her thoughtfully, then he shook his head. -I do not recall exactly, but I know I have seen him, heard his voice. He drew his intricately woven tallith closer around his shoulders. -Sooner or later it will come back to me. -But I don’t understand, Shemei muttered, -why are you so worried about him? -Did you hear what he said...? Jason broke in impatiently. Deborah glanced at him sharply, as did her father and mother. Until now, he had not seemed to be listening to their conversation. -It is true, Joel said. -What that young man said gives us concern. True, conditions are not good right now. Everyone knows that. There is famine, earthquake, one disaster after another. People lose their land. Many are hungry. Disturbances break out all over. He inhaled deeply. -But Aaron’s words cast blame, point a finger, not at Belial, or at our own sins, but at the 87

wealthy and the powerful, at our rulers... -They are the words of the prophets Enoch and Daniel, Deborah cried out. -Even so, the merchant replied, -they question, they incite... they create false hopes...they lead to violence, to rebellion... Listen, he went on, his expression darkening, -these outbreaks and disturbances are not something we can ignore. They are not something taking place far away in Jerusalem or in the wilderness near the Sea of Salt... This violence, he shouted, emphasizing each word with a blow of his fist on the table, -has reached our own doorstep! -Yahweh protect us, Sarah murmured. Shemei swallowed nervously. -Our own doorstep? Something has happened. Tell us, Joel ben Levias. The merchant Joel looked about, then leaned forward, his arms on the table. -You know Beth Arath? Shemei nodded. –Surely, I know Beth Arath. Everyone knew the great hereditary estate. It was less than a half day’s journey away, adjacent to the village of Bethsaida, and was as large as some countries. Vast numbers of peasants, tenant farmers, skilled artisans and slaves labored there. The crops it produced were plentiful and in great variety, the best in Galilaea. They were shipped all over the country and abroad, as far away 88

as Rome. The great aristocratic family that owned it, several of whom were high priests with homes in Jerusalem, ruling members of the Sanhedrin, employing a well-trained private army to keep order and a steward and assistants to manage its affairs. -I was there only last month trying to buy seed for next year’s wheat crop, Shemei remembered. -In exchange I offered my best wine, the best wine in our whole district, everyone says. But Melas, the steward, cursed be his name, refused. -Melas is dead, Joel said solemnly. -Dead? Shemei stared at him. -But how is it possible? -He was killed...murdered. Shemei felt his mouth go dry. He was unable to speak for a moment. Had his curse caused this to happen? Claws of guilt tore at his insides. -Do they know...who did it? The merchant’s big head moved up and down slowly. -People on the estate. -People? -People who worked there...peasants, slaves. As I understand it, a group of them fell upon the steward with ploughshares, spades, mattocks, hoes, with sickles and goads, with everything they could find, as he came out to survey the cornfield early one 89

morning before Sabbath. After they killed him they cut off his penis and testicles. -O, Heaven have mercy. -He used to take their wives and daughters to his chambers... But what steward does not...? -Melas’ bodyguards were not with him? -They were, but there were many peasants, also slaves and artisans...In their fury they overcame the guards. Then they went on a rampage. Most of the other laborers on the estate joined in, for to a man they hated Melas and all his works...The crazed mob burned buildings, sacked warehouses, destroyed everything in sight. -Awful. Awful. Yahweh preserve us. -But some who were there claim this never would have happened if...the merchant lowered his voice almost to a whisper, -if the laborers were not incited and led by agitators from the outside... -Agitators? -They called them Zealots for Israel... -Zealots? -Among them was a rabbi... -A rabbi did such a thing? Shemei could not believe it. -He was young, headstrong. He worked as an artisan. 90

Deborah, cleaning the table, glanced up at him, and listened intently. -The mob stuck Melas’ bloody privates on a pole, her future father-in-law continued, -and marched in an obscene parade mocking the owners of Beth Arath and our sacred high priests and even King Herod himself whom they reviled as a Godless pagan, servant of Belial...Meanwhile they prayed and chanted hymns to Yahweh... -Yahweh will punish them, Shemei said. -A rabbi? Deborah interjected. -They were led by a rabbi? The merchant nodded. -It was claimed that he had studied in Jerusalem, at the school of Hillel...but had been forced to flee... He had come to work at Beth-Arath only a short time ago... Deborah swallowed hard. Her throat was dry. -What happened to him? -He disappeared. She felt a knot forming in the pit of her stomach. -By the time the troops arrived, Joel explained, -most of the terrorists had fled. But mercenaries continue to search for them. The provincial Sanhedrin is still sending cohorts out into every town and village, every farm and dwelling in this vicinity, arresting all itinerants and beggars, every homeless person 91

whose name is not on the tax rolls. Every day they conduct raids, take in suspects for questioning... So that is what happened this morning at the market, Sarah murmured to herself. -Those criminals must be found, the merchant thundered. -They must. Abruptly, he reached out, gripped Shemei’s wrist, and glared into his eyes. -Tell me, what more do you know about that man you hired today? Shemei lifted his shoulders, wagged his head slowly back and forth. -Nothing. Only that he is an artisan...that he travels... At that moment Deborah heard a voice. It was screaming shrilly and it seemed to be coming from deep inside her. Then she became aware of words issuing from her own lips and they were saying, -Stop it! These are lies, rumors planted by the Evil One. Aaron was not at Beth-Arath. I cannot believe it. He had nothing to do with it. He is not to be blamed. He is not... And then there was silence and everyone was staring at her. And her face was burning and her mouth was sand. That night Deborah could not sleep. She was confused, anxious, and tormented by guilt. Not because of anything she had done, but because of what she longed for, of what she might do. 92

Her unprovoked and apparently unmotivated outburst in defense of Aaron, she feared, must have revealed her secret. Still no one had said anything afterward, neither her parents nor the silent young man to whom she was betrothed, nor his father, except to ask what was wrong, was she unwell? Sarah had passed it off as quite normal, murmuring something about the tensions young girls often go through as the day of their wedding approaches, and the others seemed to accept this explanation. Yet Deborah could not be sure and was still anxious and not at ease. The room was dark and still. Her eyes remained wide open. Through a crack in the ceiling she saw what appeared to be a red gash spreading across the curved sky and streams of blood gushing out as from the slashed throat of a young lamb. The darkness stirred. She heard the whisper of crawling things. Imps with black wings and long cruel tails were flying above her head. They swarmed down, their thin black tongues flicking out between rows of sharp white fangs. They crawled into her bed, beneath the blankets and slid obscenely under her nightdress. They touched her flesh in many places and wherever she felt them she was left with aching insatiable desires. All at once she was aware of soft eerie laughter and felt someone watching her. Belial had entered the room and now she knew that this would 93

be only the beginning of her punishment. She awoke with the first crowing of the cock, dressed, and prayed to the Almighty with all her strength, pleading for His help and His mercy. Then she kneeled beside her pallet, carefully reached beneath it and, glancing around rapidly to make sure no one was watching, felt for Aaron’s knife. It was there in the exact place she had hidden it. Slowly, carefully she withdrew it. The sharp blade glittered in the dawning light. She quickly slipped it inside her bodice and hurried to the door. Even before she opened it she heard Aaron’s voice. ` A moment later she saw him in the courtyard along with her father and the other field workers, intoning the morning prayer. They stood and sat around the table very much as they had last night, except now they were all wearing black phylacteries wound around their arms and on their foreheads, and at intervals they would all stand and sway back and forth, their voices rising and falling in a weird half-singing halfchanting cacophony. Indeed, it almost seemed they had never gone to bed. She remained there half hidden in the early morning shadows watching and listening, following the words in her mind and singing along under her breath until the men had finished. She noticed that, during the entire prayer, her father 94

kept glancing suspiciously at Aaron. Afterward she watched them depart, trudging slowly out toward the fields to begin their long day’s labor. On the way she saw her father standing there hesitating and looking around once more at the young artisan who was still unwinding his phylacteries. At length he turned and began to walk toward the small shed where the broken farm implements were kept. No one else was in sight. Seizing the moment, Deborah stepped through the doorway, hurried along the path and caught up with him, touched his shoulder. He swung about, tensing; but as he did, she quickly handed him the knife and turned to flee. -Wait! he whispered. She hesitated. He approached her slowly. -Shalom. The knife lay in his outstretched hands. -This is mine? She nodded. He turned it over several times between his fingers. A shy smile was on his face. -You kept it safe for me all this time? Her eyes lowered in assent. -I thank you. He seemed not quite at ease. -It means a great deal to me. -I know. She dared not lift her face, afraid what he would 95

see there. Neither of them was able to speak for a moment. The silence expanded, became awkward. -But why...? He looked at her questioningly. -Why? Why is the knife so important? What is it used for? He ran his fingernails thoughtfully along the sharp blade. -It has many uses. -What uses? she persisted. -For cutting wood and meat and fish... as a weapon... He had a way of speaking which concealed rather than revealed what he meant. -A weapon? -For protection, against savage beasts... It was given to me by my father. -Ah... -He was killed. -I am sorry. He continued to study her in silence, as if not sure whether he could trust her, but finally, in a voice just above a whisper, he said, -It is a weapon...in our struggle. -Are you...a rabbi? she blurted out. His eyes did not leave her’s. -A rabbi? I? Why do you 96

ask?

-Are you? I have heard rumors.

He hesitated for a long moment. -I teach sometimes in the synagogue. A strange excitement suddenly began to pound through her organs, the excitement of danger. But also of something else, something larger than herself, some meaning, some connection with something she did not fully understand and was afraid of, but wanted to give herself to totally, body and mind, heart and soul. -How did you find me? she asked. -You did not know my name or anything about me... The shy smile returned to his lips. -It took a long time. It has been almost a year. He cleared his throat. -I...I did not dare to hope you would actually keep this for me... -But still you came? -I prayed... Again their eyes met. -Yahweh heard me. She was having difficulty breathing. -I am pleased you have your knife, she said. -He directed me...to you...from the beginning, even when we first met. You saved my life. There was an intensity, something about him that communicated itself to her so powerfully she felt herself beginning to tremble. 97

-Please, she whispered wildly. -I should not be speaking to you like this. I am betrothed. Very soon I will be...married. I have many preparations to make, I must go. Impulsively, she whirled about, her skirts swinging around her ankles, and fled. She was vaguely aware of footsteps following her and, later at the well, standing among the other gossiping women of the village awaiting her turn to draw water, thought she spied him out of the corner of her eye. Even if it was him, she was sure he wouldn’t approach her here (then the women would really have something to set their tongues wagging about), so she dawdled, lingering longer than necessary. On the way back she glanced around, hoping to see him, but he was gone and she was strangely disappointed. During the remainder of that day and the ones following, Deborah kept herself even busier than usual. She spun and wove, washed clothes in one of the nearby springs, lit the Sabbath lamp and kept watch over it to make sure the flame did not die, added to her wedding trousseau and assisted her mother in the preparation of the meals. Yet always Aaron was in the forefront of her mind. Despite her firmest resolve, she found herself straying across his path, often deliberately going out of her way to see him (or be seen) while walking to the 98

mikvah or returning from the synagogue with her friends or leading the goats to pasture; and at high noon she managed to spend time in his presence as part of her chores. During the hour when the sun was directly overhead and burned with its most withering power Shemei and his hired laborers would rest from their toil in the shade of a nearby oak or fig tree or beneath the shelter of a makeshift sheepskin covering, strung out on four poles. As they lay or sat on the ground Deborah would approach from across the fields and serve them wine and cheese, or bread and honey and grapes, figs, and oranges, and sometimes goat’s milk. On her way back to the house she would seek Aaron out and stop wherever he was working to make sure he received his share. She would find him kneeling beside the olive press or hammering a broken plow or sharpening a scythe, or notice him sweating on the side of the roof repairing a gutter, often wearing nothing but a loincloth. She would stand waiting at a respectable distance from him keeping her eyes averted. Nor would he look directly at her, merely murmur a circumspect and barely audible Shalom and try to concentrate on his work or the food instead. But though not a word was spoken between them, they were intensely aware of each other’s every movement and most minute expression. 99

He remained in Shemei’s employ until a day before the following Sabbath. Shemei was so impressed with his quiet efficiency he dismissed Joel’s warning, cast his suspicions aside and gave him more and more jobs to do. In the village meanwhile he became the subject of talk from morning until night. The men at the synagogue realized that he was extremely knowledgeable in the Torah and the scriptures, and several times at the services asked him to make a midrash. Old Laish asked him to prepare his son for his bar mitzvah and the young girls flocked around his classes, making all kinds of excuses. Dina, sixteen years of age and an old maid because a husband had not yet been found for her, was shameless in her advances and it must be said that the usually well-behaved Kara and even the shy Berenice admitted in secret that they had dreams since his arrival that caused certain disturbances in their organs. Deborah would become silently furious when she heard or saw her friends’ behavior and acted out her frustrations by finding fault with everyone and even defying her elders. No one could understand what was troubling her. How could they? Wasn’t she the most envied maiden in Tabgha? Wasn’t she betrothed to the son of the wealthiest merchant in the area? She did not understand it herself. At night she often cried bitter tears and found it difficult to sleep. 100

As for Aaron he smiled at the girls but spoke little and was extremely circumspect in his demeanor. In the synagogue for example no one ever heard him mention the Messiah, yet such talk arose more often and more heatedly since his arrival than ever before. Shortly past noon at the end of the first week after Aaron’s arrival, Deborah discovered him squatting beside the shed reinforcing the supports of Sarah’s straw pallet. She offered him bread and red wine along with some fruit, and was standing before him, trying uneasily and with difficulty not to steal a glance at him as he began to peel an orange, when Chayym, the village scribe, brother of Zebulon, one of Deborah’s former and most persistent suitors, appeared from the direction of the road. Chayym, dark as an Arab, was cursed with a deformed body and a strange-looking head because years ago his mother, having conceived him out of wedlock and seeking to eradicate the consequences of her sinful act, had tried to destroy him before birth. He was exceedingly intelligent, had studied all the sacred writings; moreover he loved people, especially his halfbrother, who despised him. When the little man, almost a dwarf, with a tallith down to his ankles and large delicate hands that hung below his knees, saw Deborah, he hurried toward her waving his arms excitedly. 101

-Where is your father? he screamed in his high cracked voice. -In the fields. What is wrong? Did something happen? she asked politely. -Soldiers are in the village. He scarcely paused to catch his breath. -They are on their way here. They will be here very soon. She noticed that Aaron had abruptly ceased peeling his orange. -I must go and warn him, Chayym said, turning to leave. But Deborah quickly caught hold of his wrist. -Tell me. Why are the soldiers coming here? Her lips felt stiff. -They say that some of the men who were in the uprising at Beth Arath are hiding in this vicinity. They suspect everyone. They take in for questioning all who help or shelter the terrorists, even those who employ them. He glanced sharply at Aaron. -Who is this? -He...he’s a...a relative, Deborah stammered. Chayym’s face relaxed into a quick toothy grin. -I have not met you before, he said to Aaron, -nor have I seen you in the village... So it must be that you are one of the family of her betrothed. Welcome to Tabgha. It is not a good time with all this... with the soldiers, but...he shrugged, -it will pass, with the 102

help of Yahweh. I must go. Shalom. He swung around abruptly and shuffled away toward the fields as fast as his short legs would take him. Even before his lopsided figure disappeared like a wounded animal behind the enclosure where the goats were kept, Aaron immediately lifted the pallet onto his shoulders. -I can no longer remain here, he said, and started to carry it into the barn. Deborah followed. -Tell your father I have finished repairing this. She could feel the tension in his voice. -Ask him please to forgive me. But I must leave. I was happy to work for him. He is a good man. In the gloom she watched him as he picked up his few belongings (some tools, a skin of wine that he had evidently prepared for such an emergency, an extra pair of sandals, and a parchment for writing, a sacred scroll) and stuffed them inside his bag. His movements were strained and hurried. -Where will you go? He shrugged. -Where they are not looking. -It is not safe anywhere. His eyes narrowed. Then he smiled fleetingly. -You know I will return... He wrapped his cloak around his shoulders and reached for his staff. She shook her head. -You will be captured. 103

The smile tightened on his lips. -Have no fear. -There will be many soldiers. They will surround this area like a noose. Every road, every path will be blocked. She was moving closer to him, speaking urgently. -What makes you so certain? -It has happened before. They come often searching for fugitives... They could be in the area already, moving in to cut off all escape... Listen. The thudding of horses hooves and men’s voices could be heard in the distance. He stiffened. -I will manage. He tried to move past her. -No! Aaron, do not go. She clutched his arm and held on frantically. -Deborah, I have no time. He wrenched away, then suddenly reached for her shoulders, pulled her back close. -I will see you again. He kept gazing into her moist eyes, gripping her so tightly she had to press her lips together against the pain. -Have faith. Yahweh is with me. He smiled again, released her, turned. -But it is not necessary to leave, she cried out as he started to hurry away. She ran after him. -I know a place to hide close by...here on my father’s land. A place where they will never find you. She gasped for breath, -Aaron! Her voice caught. She 104

stumbled over a rock. Instantly he halted, looked around at her. -Are you hurt? -She shook her head. She lay on the ground, still breathing hard. -Are you all right? She lifted her skirt up to her knee, rubbed her bruised flesh. -I am all right. He took a hesitant step toward her. -Can you show me that place to hide? -Yes. She quickly scrambled to her feet. -It is safe? -Much safer, I think, than if you try to flee. -Where is it? -Not too far. Come... Just beyond the northern border of Shemei’s property, along the foothills of the mountains which surrounded the Gennesareth Valley, was a desolate area consisting of large broken rocks, gullies worn out by rapidly running streams, gorges, sudden sharp and jagged peaks, and dark hidden caves. A pagan legend told how in ancient times when giants and dragons roamed the universe, mighty battles were waged there. It was said that black-winged creatures with immense 105

dagger-like claws came out of the clouds, and demonic beasts with long scaly tails coughing fire rose from deep within the belly of the earth and that, during their terrible and bloody conflicts, they tore the land apart, uprooting mountains and causing gigantic slides and quakes. All that remained was this wasteland, a forbidding graveyard of the fallen whose spirits still haunted the sunless ravines and caverns, and whose souls wandered night after night searching for living bodies in which to take refuge. Most of the inhabitants of Tabgha and the nearby villages knew of this isolated and haunted place, and tried to avoid it. But now and then a desperate peasant would bravely attempt to cultivate the hard barren soil. Inevitably however he, like others who had come before him, was forced to abandon it to the birds and the winds. Deborah had stumbled on it one day while wandering alone during the troubled period after Shemei had withdrawn her from the beth-ha-safer. Her mind had been so distracted she had lost track of time and space and hadn’t at first realized where she was. But nothing untoward had happened. No malignant spirit had attacked her. She had come to no harm. On the contrary, for the first time in weeks she had felt at peace. Standing on the high ground looking up at the white cotton 106

clouds floating slowly across what looked like a great blue sea, she had felt closer to Yahweh than she ever had before. When the winds whispered through the crevices of the rocks it sounded as if He had been speaking directly into her ears. After that she often visited the desolated area alone. It became her secret haven. There, she felt transported, transformed, protected from the injustices and cruelties of the world. There, in her isolation, she could study again the words of the ancient prophets and imagine herself as one of the legendary heroines of her people. There she could pray on a natural altar of stone and contemplate the beauty and magnificence of what the Creator had wrought and feel His presence always beside her. There, too, more than once, she came upon, hiding in a gully or cave, an escaped prisoner or a family of homeless wanderers, or a runaway slave, or lepers, outcasts from society, with black fingerless hands and stumps for arms, or a holy penitent fasting until death for the sins of mankind, or condemned men who had been driven mad from torture in Herod’s dungeons, or sometimes armed brigands and rebels hiding from the authorities. Usually they were hungry, sometimes actually starving, often in rags. After her first fears and attempts to flee, she came to know some of them. She brought them food and clothing pilfered from her father’s house and listened with 107

fascination to the stories of their lives and experiences. And each time one departed she shed tears as if losing a member of her own family or a close friend. It was to this spirit-haunted isolated and hidden refuge that Deborah now conducted Aaron. Although, as she had said, it was not far, it seemed to take a long time to get there. Avoiding the main route, she led him through a low marshy area. They then climbed in single-file through narrow obscure paths so overgrown with brush and foliage as to be practically invisible. Several times he was forced to go ahead and use his knife to cut through the thick vines and once, despite all her precautions, they almost ran headlong into some Syrian mercenaries. The sun was gone from the sky but it was not yet night. A thick layer of heavy clouds had suddenly appeared and hot winds had begun to sweep in from the desert far to the south. The sky had darkened suddenly accompanied by distant thunder and there was a sense of foreboding in the air as if the Great Beast himself had emerged from the lower regions and was about to go on a rampage. Aaron had just finished hacking through some tall weeds and both he and Deborah were perspiring from the exertion of the climb when she heard a low voice barking a command. It sounded close by. She swung 108

her head around quickly and glimpsed, through the screen of underbrush and branches, the figures of uniformed men coming in their direction. She could make out two mounted on grey horses and perhaps eight or nine following directly behind on foot. At first they seemed like spectral beings half hidden in the pale mists that were rising up through the trees and bushes from the nearby springs. But as they came closer she could see that several had their hands on their swords. Although not in battle formation, all were moving at a steady pace, their eyes and muscles alert like hunters about to flush out a cornered prey. At that moment she felt the touch of a hand on her shoulder. She glanced around and saw Aaron gesturing frantically, pointing at the ground, silently mouthing words. -Down! Lie down! She immediately dropped to her knees and, following his example, flattened herself face down beneath some nearby bushes. Aaron was beside her, wriggling so close they were almost touching and pulling some loose branches and leaves over both their heads and bodies. They lay very still, silent, scarcely breathing, listening. She could hear his body pounding in rhythm with her own, a bird screeching, and then, approaching slowly, directly toward 109

them, the crunch of footsteps. Suddenly the mercenaries were all round them, pushing noisily through the underbrush. She squeezed her eyelids shut, expecting at any moment to be stepped on, to be apprehended. Several horses and men passed by. She could feel the movement of air against her cheek. She blinked and her eyelids parted. She glimpsed a pair of naked hairy legs planted less than an arm’s length from her head. Her throat tightened. Her heart clenched. Two soldiers had halted there. They were fumbling with their uniforms. She could see their sandals secured by strips of leather wound around their calves, the bottom edge of their skirts, their swords hanging at their sides, and then suddenly became aware of two thin yellow streams splashing against a tree trunk directly in front of her eyes. She heard the men mutter something and laugh softly as they fumbled again with their uniforms and then she heard them crunch away to join the others up ahead. After a while she peered across at Aaron. He was watching her in bitter amusement. -Those miserable spawn of Belial almost peed on us, he muttered under his breath. -I hate them, she grimaced. -Have they gone? He rose and carefully surveyed the scene. -It seems so. He reached for her arm and helped her to her feet. -How far must 110

we still go? She straightened her skirts. -We are almost there. The area was swarming with gnats and flies. She slapped one off her cheek, and pointed. -It is up ahead, just beyond those trees. -You go first, he said. -I will be close behind. But be careful. It was already dark. There were no stars. The moon was blanketed behind thick storm clouds. Jagged yellow streaks lit up the heavens followed by approaching thunder. Small animals scooted silently into holes and under rocks and birds raced in flocks high above. A storm would be here any moment. Ahead, barely visible, were black irregular shapes jutting up in silhouette against the foothills of the far-off mountains. The earth under their feet was hard, full of stones of all sizes, difficult to walk on. Behind her, Deborah heard Aaron stumbling. Several times he stubbed his naked toes and once he cursed out loud when he bruised his knee against a sharp rock. She reached back and took his hand to guide him. It was a simple natural gesture but the touch of his flesh on hers seared through her like fire. She sensed a similar reaction in him. Still neither she nor Aaron withdrew his hand. Thus, with their fingers intertwined, their warm palms pressed together, she conducted him slowly and cautiously, 111

feeling her way (because she had never before ventured here at night) along an invisible and dangerous path up the side of the mountain. With each step small pebbles and stones were loosened beneath their sandals and slid noisily downward. Once she almost fell, clutching at him for support. He held her tightly. For a moment close in his arms she felt like a small child again, and was aware of his dark eyes gazing into her own as her father’s often had long ago. But then she shyly drew back in confusion. Now everything began to look familiar and, though it was night, she realized that they were standing outside the mouth of the cave. -We are here, she breathed. The moment they entered it began to rain. It was as if Yahweh had held off until now only for their benefit. Then the sky burst open, and the heavens poured down in grey sulphurous sheets, streaked with intermittent yellow flashes, flooding the wadis and overflowing their banks. In no time at all countless torrents had formed and were churning and roaring down the sides of the mountains, pulling earth and stones and small bushes and trees along with them. Many lizards, spiders, caterpillars, and insects sought refuge in the cave as did squirrels, mice, moles, weasels, and other small animals. Outside on a ledge a goat stood soaked and forlorn, and overhead three black crows 112

cawed and dived. Deborah and Aaron stepped further inside. The interior of the cave was so dark they had difficulty seeing each other. Soon they came upon a depression that had been dug in the ground. At the bottom some red embers glowed among what looked like a heap of charred logs. -Someone was here, Aaron said. His voice sounded tense. -Yes. They must have left quickly. They make fires in here for warmth, and to cook... But it wasn’t soldiers, she quickly reassured him. -How can you be sure? -They fear this place. Everyone fears it. Everyone who knows of it. It is said to be cursed, a home of demons, of evil. She could sense him staring at her in the dark. -But you do not believe this? She shook her head slowly. -I believe Yahweh comes here, not Belial. I have sometimes felt his presence. He has spoken to me. She swallowed quickly. She had never told anyone this before. She was embarrassed. But somehow she felt he understood. He said nothing. It was silent in the cave. Outside, the storm howled and raged. A bat flew by. The one yellow eye of an owl blinked down at them. 113

Suddenly she heard Aaron moving about. -I think I should try to build up the fire, he said, -before the embers burn out. -Yes. I will help, she said. They found leaves, twigs and dried branches scattered on the ground. He placed them very carefully, first one leaf, then another, on the still-burning wood, gradually adding some bark while she fanned rapidly with her skirts. The sparks glowed. Finally a leaf caught and then a twig, and soon a blazing fire leaped and danced in the fire pit, creating warmth and light inside the cave. Neither of them spoke much. They were both strangely shy and awkward. She sat on a rock and stared into the fire pit. Outside, beyond the mouth of the cave, intermittent flashes lit up the slanting sheets of rain. A silhouetted leafless tree was bent almost to the ground in the driving winds. Thunder crashed with the force of a landslide racing down the mountain. -The storm does not stop, he said. -No. She wrapped her arms around her knees. -It grows worse. -The road back has become dangerous. You will be unable to return tonight. -I know. -They will look for you. Your father...the entire village. 114

They will worry. She shrugged. -I will see them in the morning. -They will notice that I am also missing. She looked at him. -What will they think? -Evil thoughts. She kept watching him openly, without guile. -But they will have no reason, he burst out. The vein on the side of his forehead was throbbing and his right hand was clenched. -Still, he went on, concerned, -it will be bad for you. She did not answer. -Even if there had not been a storm it would have been dangerous for you to go back tonight. Already when you led me here the hour was late. Troops were moving all about. You knew this when you informed me. He was staring directly at her. She dropped her eyes. -Why did you run this a risk? -You would have been captured. -But what about you, Deborah? -I would do it again, she said quietly. A flash of lightning lit up the darkness in the cave and she saw him illuminated by such an otherworldly glow that, with 115

his long curly hair and narrow bearded face and the tallith hanging loosely over his shoulders, he seemed angelic, unreal. The young David must have looked as beautiful as he, she thought, on the day he killed the giant, Goliath, and freed our people from the yoke of the Philistines. She watched him rise and open his bag and take out the wineskin and two metal goblets. He filled them with the bloodred liquid and he handed her one and together they chanted the benediction and afterward, slowly sipped the wine. It felt warm and pleasant, a gift of Yahweh, spreading through her insides. They sat staring into the flames, conversing quietly about ordinary things. She spoke of the men and women in her village and her life and education, of the beth-ha-safer where she learned to love the great prophets and patriarchs of the past who had brought enlightenment to the Israeli tribes, and she detailed the events leading to her forced withdrawal. She was very confused, for she could not understand how a revered high priest from the Temple, a man from one of the ancient priestly tribes, could act the way he had. He seemed no better than one of King Herod’s officials or a Syrian officer. But of course, she hurriedly explained, correcting herself, she did not actually believe her own slanderous words. Still... since then she had 116

heard from several of her friends how he had plied them with wine and sweetmeats and gifts, and fondled them sinfully on his couch. Indeed, Dina and Kara often whispered about what had taken place in the privacy of the high priest’s chambers to the other young girls when they were at the mikvah together or drawing water from the well or washing clothes at the stream, and not a few had blushed and had sinful desires and weird frightening dreams. But none of them had ever told their elders about it, for they knew no one would believe them. Rather, it was they themselves who would be punished. Deborah was as well aware of this as any of her friends, so she had remained silent also...until now. Aaron listened carefully and it was clear from his few remarks that he had little love for any of the high priests. But about himself he spoke little. Instead he told of things he had seen during his travels. He said that he always visited the synagogues in the towns where he stayed and sometimes spoke during the services. She gathered that he also formed groups to discuss the scriptures and even to take certain actions on their own behalf. On the road he had met all sorts of people. Old and young, rich and poor, merchants and thieves, pagans, prostitutes, and holy men. And everywhere he had found unrest and dissatisfaction. Since he had first left home after 117

his father, who was a stonecutter, had been crucified for an act of defiance against a Roman official and fled to Jerusalem six years ago (he mentioned this almost in passing as one incident among many without obvious emotion, but Deborah noticed a tremor in his voice and a slight trembling in the eyelid of his left eye as he spoke of it), he had never seen so many starving and deformed beggars. So much disease. The blind, the deaf, the lame, epileptics and paralytics were everywhere. Women were hysterical, men ran from shadows. The land was held in the grip of a great fear. The Evil One and his demons appeared to control everything. Every Jew seemed to be on a pilgrimage to a sacred shrine or a holy place. Many fled to the desert and gave themselves up to agonized prayer and fasting. Every day a few desperate ones tore off their garments and ran wild and naked over nettles and rocks into the wilderness. But Aaron was sure that the Almighty had His reasons for causing these things. -Yahweh watches over us, he said fiercely. -Our people turn toward Him as toward the North Star. Soon everything will change. Each day signs and portents increase. Every pregnant girl feels that the Messiah is in her womb. And soon, for one of them, it will be true. He whom we all await will arrive to lead us in the final mighty conflict against evil. Afterward he recited the evening prayer and spread his 118

heavy goatskin coat on the ground near the fire pit for her to sleep on. She lay down and covered herself with it to keep warm. She slept on one side of the cave and he on the other. It was so quiet she could hear the bats’ wings flapping and outside the rain drops pattering on the leaves. It took her a long time to fall asleep. Her thoughts were mainly of Aaron. No longer could she avoid the bitter truth. She loved this man. Her love for him was far stronger than her feelings for the one she was about to marry. Moreover she desired him with her body. She wanted him as a husband as well, as the father of her children. But she also knew that such thoughts were sinful. From them dire consequences would ensue. Already, by coming here with Aaron, she had taken a dangerous first step, a step on a path that could lead only to disaster. -But I brought him here, she explained to Yahweh, -to save his life. And I did. I did. Inside she kept screaming and protesting. But it was as if she was under water and no one could hear her, and soon she was exhausted. She slept poorly and saw the figure of the high priest flying above her. He was dressed in his Temple garb and his cloak was flapping like a bird’s wings and his head was spinning completely around on his neck. Circling him in a kind of dance 119

pattern were a group of men in sackcloth wearing phylacteries of iron that clanged like chains when they moved. Their eyes were red and glazed with hate, and they were hurling stones at her. And she began to scream and gasp wildly for breath. When she awoke she opened her eyes and saw Aaron’s face coming in and out of focus. He had rushed over to her and was kneeling beside her and feeling her forehead with his hand and gently stroking her hair. -I must be ill, she whispered hoarsely. Her forehead, her entire body was burning, but she could not stop shivering. He wet her dry lips with a few drops of cool water. She tried to smile her thanks and with great effort she asked him what happened to the flying priest and the men who had been stoning her, but he didn’t seem to hear or understand. He began to rub oil on her arms and shoulders and throat, speaking soothingly, praying, and spreading his tallith above her head to ward off the Evil One. More and more she became convinced that he was a messenger of Yahweh, immortal, an angel come to fetch her, because she was going to die. She felt an urgent need to urinate and whispered into his ear to help her (something she never would have done normally). He half-carried her to the mouth of the cave and turned his eyes away as she squatted shamelessly outside in the rain. 120

Beside her bare foot, as she relieved herself, a single flower trembled. A snail had crawled half-way up a leaf. Between some rocks a newly formed wadi, rushing downward, churned and bubbled. She felt a need to cleanse herself and stepped into the stream, shrieking with the shock of the cold clear swiftly moving water. She heard Aaron’s voice calling frantically and before she realized it, he had jumped in beside her and was trying to pull her out. She resisted, fleeing, laughing with abandon, splashing about and trying playfully to pull her tunic up over her head. She felt like a child, the wild child she had never been. He caught her in his arms, subdued her finally, then carried her kicking and squirming back into the cave. She was so wet he had to help her remove her clothes and quickly wrapped her in his coat, drying her with it and trying not to gaze upon her nakedness. Again she tried to squirm away. The coat opened, and her right breast slipped out and the soft girlish triangle where her thighs met was exposed. He immediately covered her once more. But she knew he had seen her nudity and was pleased in some strange perverse way, actually revelling in it, wanting to see his also. Kneeling beside her, Aaron gripped her shoulders and gently lowered her down onto the hard floor of the cave. He 121

bent over her, adjusting his coat about her like a blanket, trying to make sure she was as warm and comfortable as possible. His face was so close to hers she could feel his breath on her cheek. She gazed up at him, but he seemed too intent on what he was doing to notice. His hair hung in wet curls over his ears and his eyelashes still glistened with drops of rain. A line from a part of the Holy Scriptures which had never been mentioned in the beth-ha-safer, but which she often read secretly, came back to her: Behold, thou art fair, my love...Thou hast doves eyes within thy locks...Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet... In her mind she heard the languorous notes of a lovely lyre and saw just above her the face of the beautiful young King Solomon. She lay there on her back, his child bride, bedecked in silks and jewels, intoxicated with the music and the wine and the strong perfume, waiting. Except he seemed to be slowly rising...withdrawing... In panic she reached out and caught hold of him, pulling herself up and pressing herself against his body. He sought to break away, but she held on and clung to him with an unexpected strength. He attempted to speak but she quickly pulled his head down and stopped his lips with her mouth. Together they slipped to the ground rolling around and panting like two animals in a death struggle. She bit him fiercely and dug her nails into his back amazed at her own boldness and 122

passion. I am giving up Heaven, she thought, life after death. But she couldn’t stop. The coat had opened again and slipped off her shoulders. She was naked, but still she shamelessly embraced him, kissing his mouth and his beard and his eyes. There was a madness inside her, as she hoarsely implored him, a violence pounding through her body. She wanted whatever was going to happen with an urgency she had never even imagined before. Moreover in some deep dim part of her mind she realized she had to make it happen. Because even though she was in fear and trembling, even though she knew it was a sin, a terrible unforgivable sin which, when it became known would horrify her whole village and perhaps destroy her mother and father, it would free her. There was no other way. Now she felt his resistance gradually weaken and her kisses being answered. And his arms tightened about her and his breathing quickened with even more passion. And her own desire mounted in response to his and she felt herself rising like a wave reaching a peak. Then in the dark on the floor of the cave their shadowy perspiring bodies throbbing in frenzy, she felt her whole being stretching, every nerve and muscle reaching; and then a scream suddenly deep down inside her which came rising up slowly, becoming louder and louder, and she began to 123

shake and tremble. And she began to scream aloud with all her strength. And the wave broke and crashed. And then it was over and she was sobbing and clinging to him, in fear and trembling, hiding her face in his chest. And he was holding her, stroking her shoulders and hair and back. The sun’s rays slanting in through the mouth of the cave discovered Deborah lying in Aaron’s arms. He was still asleep when she gradually opened her eyes. The first thing she was aware of was the sound of birds. Every winged creature in the universe seemed to be singing and chattering in unison. Then she felt his warm body curled against her back. His left arm was flung over her shoulder. His hand hung loosely half-open just above her left nipple. Gently she took it and slowly kissed each of his fingers, then pressed it against her breast. As she did, he came awake. She turned to face him and the next moment their lips and tongues and hands and bodies were seeking each other’s. Never had Deborah, even in her wildest fantasies, imagined such passion. They possessed each other again and again, but still it did not quench their desire. Each was a burning chard continually setting the other on fire. He was a young rabbi and she was a very young peasant girl already betrothed to marry. Both knew full well the sinful nature of what they were 124

doing. Later Deborah would admit that she sensed the noise of dark spirits muttering in the cave and saw the yellow eyes of demons and heard a howl that sounded like laughter. It was the Evil Serpent who had first tempted Eve in the Garden, Belial, the Devil, and now he was back mocking her with obscene gestures and lewd promises. But still her passion persisted. As the sun rose higher Aaron sought to tear himself away, but she clung to him kissing him desperately. -My husband, she said, -I wish to be with you forever. -And I wish to be with you. But you are betrothed to another. There was a tormented expression on his face. –May the Almighty forgive me, I have violated your innocence. I have committed blasphemy. -No. It is I who am to blame, she cried. -But we will marry and the Almighty will bless us. -Deborah, hear me. It was I who came here seeking you. Since that day at the synagogue when I first saw you and gave you my knife I could not forget you. Wherever I travelled you were there like an angel before my eyes. For almost twelve months I searched for you everywhere. I wanted you for my bride. But you were already betrothed. Nevertheless I still desired you. I who have no right to any woman. Do you understand? He was shouting so loud she covered his mouth with her 125

hand. He wrenched himself away and beat his breast. -Do you not understand? It is I who must be punished. He drew on his clothes and went outside and washed his hands and said the prayer. She hurriedly followed and prayed alongside him. She noticed marks on his neck and shoulders that she had made with her teeth and nails. There were others, she knew, covered by his tunic, all over his body. The morning was cool. The sky was so clear and the ground still so wet with dew it seemed to have just been washed. A bird with yellow-tipped wings flew by. She thought it a sign. -Deborah, you must go back, he said. -They will be alarmed. -Yes, I know. But wait for me. I will return. She gripped his hands. -We will be married, Aaron. I will ask my father to annul the betrothal. -He will never consent. -He must, she screamed. -He must. -Even so, I cannot remain here, Deborah. -We will hide you. Sooner or later the soldiers will stop looking. -But you do not understand. I have given my life to Yahweh and to the struggle for His Kingdom. I cannot stay long in one place. I must go from village to village to teach, to show 126

people the way. I cannot be married. I cannot have a home. I am a wanderer on the face of the earth, an outcast. Besides I am wanted by Herod. My life hangs by a slender thread. She gazed at him in silence for a long moment. -Do you want me, Aaron? she asked, quietly. -I want you, Deborah, I want you to be my bride, if you will... She touched his beard with her fingertips and repeated the words of Ruth. -Then wither thou goest I will go. She embraced him and pressed herself against him with all her strength. -Wait for me. I will return before the day is over. Please be careful. -You also. They embraced again, reluctant to let each other go. Then she turned quickly and ran down the path. She looked back once. He was still standing there watching her. Deborah returned along the same paths she had come on. She crossed the low swampland to her father’s farm and was making her way through the barley field when she saw four Syrian mercenaries crossing just ahead. She halted and cut sharply to the left trying to avoid them, but one of them had already seen her and the next minute all were pushing swiftly 127

through the recently harvested area in her direction. They took her in custody as they would a prize bullock or ass they had found by accident and, guarding her closely, led her back toward the house. Everything on the farm appeared in a state of confusion. It was almost as if a battle had passed through. Many mercenaries were in evidence. Some seemed to be guarding the area. Others were questioning people from the village who were milling about near the house, gathering in small clusters, talking in low voices and glancing at them with a mixture of fear and hostility. A squad under the leadership of a brass-helmeted officer came by with a burly itinerant laborer in tow. His hands were bound behind him and his short tunic was stained with blood. Deborah recognized him immediately; it was Betah, one of her father’s best workers. She wondered what they wanted with him. She caught sight of the widow Tamar with her drawn lemon face and black garments, and the golden-skinned Marta who had a milky film over her right eye but who was so beautiful no Syrian could resist gazing at her, and Malchus, the long-haired dwarf, and the rawboned Zebulon, brother of Chayym, the scribe, one of the hardest-working young men in the village who had gone into mourning when her betrothal was announced. 128

She was surprised to see that neither he nor the others were working even though it was not the Sabbath or even a feast day. She heard her name being called out and stared ahead to see Zebulon’s tall rawboned figure coming toward her and several of the townspeople turning their heads in her direction. Did she look different? Did her sin show? Could they see? They were all converging upon her now, shouting and screaming excitedly: Deborah, are you all right? What happened? Where were you? The Syrians held them off; but Deborah, seeing the happy welcoming faces of friends who loved her, was suddenly overwhelmed with feelings of deep isolation and guilt. Her eyes began to tear and her throat tightened so much she could scarcely speak. The mercenaries conducted her into the courtyard of her house where a centurion in full uniform was seated at the table talking intently to her parents. The centurion rose stiffly and Shemei and Sarah, who had not slept all night, were overjoyed to see their daughter. They jumped up and rushed toward her embracing her tearfully and giving thanks to Yahweh. Meanwhile the small crowd of villagers, restrained by the soldiers, waited at the entrance. The centurion then sat down across from Deborah and her parents, removed his helmet, and questioned her about her 129

whereabouts last night. He wanted to know (as did Shemei and Sarah of course) not only exactly where she had been but all the details: when she left, why, why she didn’t return until now, and (the centurion’s eyes narrowed and his voice took on a harsh edge) had she been alone? Both Shemei and Sarah swore that Deborah had never slept away from home at night before. -It is true, Shemei broke in. -I take a solemn oath before the Lord in Heaven. My child is a virtuous girl, a virgin. She is already betrothed and is soon to be married. As he spoke Deborah felt a sharp pang stab her heart. -I want to hear from Deborah herself, the centurion snapped. He was younger than most officers and very ambitious, and he trusted no one. Deborah swallowed hard. Her cheeks burned and her sleeveless dress was soaked with perspiration. The material stuck to her back and her breasts hurt. Always she had difficulty telling even the simplest falsehoods. Everyone, she was sure, could see right through her into her soul. It seemed impossible for her to lie. Yet it was necessary. To tell the truth would be to betray the man she loved, as well as the Cause he had dedicated his life to. Fortunately her fertile imagination came to her rescue and she was able on the spur of the moment to concoct a tale about how she went looking for several lost sheep late yesterday 130

and before she realized where she was, it began to rain. She kept looking, hoping the rain would stop. It didn’t of course. By now, she continued, becoming more and more engrossed in the story herself, she had wandered out into the wild country far beyond the boundaries of her father’s land. The storm became more violent. There was lightning, thunder. She didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t go home. The blasts from the sky were frightening. The lightning terrified her. The only shelter she could find was a big fig tree, but it was totally inadequate. Lying there on the ground she saw the driving winds tear off an immense branch right above her head. The rain soaked her through to her skin. She shivered from the wetness and the cold. Curled up, she nevertheless fell asleep somehow against the tree’s thick trunk. When she awoke it was daylight and the storm had ended. She removed her wet clothes, laid them out to dry in the hot morning sun and afterwards hurried home. She glanced swiftly at the Syrian. His eyes had never left her face. The fingers of his right hand tightened around the handle of his sword. Did he believe her? -Were you alone? he asked expressionlessly. -Alone? Her throat felt dry as sand. She needed something to drink desperately. -Who could I have been with? -Aaron who works for your father disappeared yesterday 131

nearly about the same time you did. He is still missing. -Aaron? There was a roaring in her ears. -Did you see him? You knew him of course. He was working here. He was a travelling artisan. Also a rabbi. She shook her head silently, unable to trust herself to speak. The centurion leaned forward. The muscles behind his jaw were clenching and unclenching. -Are you sure? -Yes. Her voice trembled weakly. His hard searching eyes found hers. They would not let her go. She wanted to turn away, to scream, to cry out, to confess her lies, her sins, only please please stop this. Nevertheless she could not, would not flinch. Moments passed and she continued to sit there as if frozen, staring back unblinkingly into the two whirling black pinpoints of his irises. Suddenly the officer picked his brass helmet off the table, rose, bent his head forward slightly to put it on, turned stiffly and walked quickly toward the entrance. But before leaving he halted, looked back at Shemei once more and declared in his deep harsh voice that he would return. Then he was gone, followed by his men. As soon as the mercenaries disappeared, Shemei and Sarah once more embraced their daughter, holding her close in their arms and swinging her around as they used to when she was a 132

small child. While her mother poured the wine her father whispered hurriedly into her ear: -You do not know what has been happening here. They believe I have been helping Aaron, giving him refuge. He glanced around and lowered his voice even further. -Joel the Merchant spoke the truth. He was indeed the one who instigated the peasants and slaves at Beth-Arath. Deborah listened silently as she sipped the wine, afraid that if she said even one word she would give herself away. Shemei then invited the townspeople, who were still waiting outside, to come in and share their happiness and, while Sarah went into the house to get food, he himself passed around the wineskin. Still, during the eating and the drinking and the overall gaiety, the tension remained, for the soldiers had not departed. Moreover, their officers had warned that they would not go until the fugitive was apprehended. The fact is, even in his absence, Aaron was the center of attention. There was much hushed and emotional discussion and even violent arguments about him, who he was and the role he played. Some of the more conservative ones blamed him for the presence of the mercenaries and the threats against Shemei, and the village itself. Others declared that he was a brave man doing Yahweh’s 133

work, that the path he had taken was the one that could lead the people to a rebirth and to freedom. Deborah listened and watched their sweating faces. None apparently associated her with Aaron in any way. None seemed to notice the marks of guilt that she was sure were erupting all over her flesh, on her forehead and cheeks and between her breasts and on the most intimate parts of her body. The big meal celebrating Deborah’s safe return did not end until well after the noon hour, at which time the women began to return to their homes and the men to the fields and their work-benches. Just as Shemei was setting out with his two helpers (the other three had been taken away for questioning because they were itinerants), Deborah suddenly darted up beside him and asked if she could speak with him, alone. She had something important to tell him. He smiled at her serious demeanor and ordered his men to go on ahead and begin the day’s harvesting, he would be with them soon. He then put his arm around her shoulders, led her toward a row of tall oleander bushes, and asked her what was on her mind. But before she could answer he plunged on enthusiastically: -The wedding, yes? Of course. What else could it be? It is almost upon us. Soon we complete the harvesting of the olives and the grapes... Then come the holy days, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, 134

then, praise heaven, the haknashah, the big event. Your mother says you are almost ready... Deborah wet her lips. What she was about to tell him was going to be even more difficult than she had thought. -But, he continued, -last night I was afraid it would never take place. I kept seeing a funeral instead of a wedding. His voice took on a sterner tone. -Deborah, in the future, there will be no excuses. You will be home before the evening meal. Even if it should storm hail and brimstone. He abruptly caught himself, reached across and gently touched her cheek with his fingertips. -You know, we worry about you... It will be lonely for us when you are gone. -Father, she blurted out, -I do not want to go. -Of course. He kissed her forehead emotionally and drew her close. -What young girl wants to leave the bosom of her home and family? I do not want to see you go either. You are my only child. But you must. It is the will of Heaven. It is a sacred duty. The Almighty said to Abraham, multiply and be strong. And I say the same to you. He smiled wanly. -But your new home will not be so far. We will see you... -But, Father, she broke in, -I do not wish to marry Jason. 135

-So...? He inhaled, patted her hair tolerantly. -I understand, child. These moments of anxiety come to many betrothed girls as the wedding day approaches. It will pass. -No, she cried out, -it will not pass. I tell you, I do not wish to marry Jason. -But you will, my child. He was having difficulty controlling his impatience. -Father, I wish to marry someone else. He stared at her. -Someone else? You have cast your eyes on another man? He was breathing rapidly. -You, a betrothed woman? This is a sin. -Forgive me, Father. I love him. -Love? He began to laugh so violently his face turned a fiery red. She put her arm around his shoulders and patted his back gently. -What does love have to do with it? You have a duty to the Law, the Torah, the Almighty, to your family. You are betrothed to Jason ben Joel, a fine young man, the son of a merchant. No one could have provided you with a better match. You will marry him and you will respect him and in time you will come to love him as a good Jewish wife should. And you will share his bed and bear his children... -No! The cry rose almost involuntarily from her throat. -I cannot. 136

-You defy your father! Choking, perspiring, he gripped her shoulders and began shaking her with such rage her teeth began to chatter. -What are you trying to do? Shame me and my family before the whole village? Do you forget your sacred vows? -No, Father, I... -Who is this man? Her mouth went dry. She could not speak. -Tell me who he is. She swallowed. -Aaron. Her voice faltered. He stood there for a long moment, his eyes fixed on her. -Aaron? You said, Aaron...? Which Aaron? Not the artisan? -Yes, Father, she nodded. -I want to marry him. -Marry him? Are you mad? Never! he shouted, his face contorting in fury and anguish. -Even if you were not betrothed I would not consent. You will never marry Aaron as long as I live. -I must. -You must? He gripped her arm. -Why? Why? She felt his shriveled eyes boring into her own and his fingers digging into her flesh. She could not tell him that in her soul and in the eyes of Yahweh, who knows all things, she was no longer a virgin, that she was already married. It would 137

destroy him. -Father, she pleaded, avoiding his stare, -you must annul the betrothal, and allow me to marry Aaron... If you love me and seek my welfare... Shemei shook his head slowly from side to side. -This cannot be, he wailed. -This cannot be my own daughter, speaking like this to me. It is a demon. Yahweh punishes me for my sins. Deborah, my only child, is possessed by profane beings. The Evil Archangel, Azazel himself, has taken control of her. I hear her voice, but the words she speaks are his. He beat his chest with his fist. -Woe is me. He wrapped his tallith tighter around his shoulders. He took out his tephillim and quickly wound the leather thongs around his right arm and head and, bending forward and backward, murmured aloud to himself the fifth verse of the nineteenth psalm contained in the little black box pressed against his forehead. -Nothing shalt thou have to fear from mighty terrors nor from the arrow that flies by daylight. Then once more he focused his red watery eyes on Deborah and, pointing a trembling broken-nailed forefinger at her breast, warned her once again of the consequences that would ensue if she broke her solemn vows and failed to marry the merchant’s son, Jason. Heaven’s curse would follow her all the days of her life. She would be unable to bear children, only monsters and imps. Her nipples would grow long as cows’ udders and she 138

would give suck to unclean beasts such as pigs and wild boars. In time the marks of Satan would appear on her private parts and cause such virulent itching that she would be tormented with lascivious thoughts night and day, and she would lust after every man, even strangers, but none would have her. Deborah hid her face in her hands and tried to shut out these harsh pronouncements. Already she felt the curse of the Almighty and the twin serpents of fear and shame spurting their poison into the depths of her being. But her father had not finished. -Do you know who Aaron ben David, this man you seek to marry, really is? he cried. Deborah lifted her eyes. The Syrian officer, Shemei explained, had told him many things about the young man in order to impress upon him the danger he represented, as well as to frighten him into revealing where the fugitive was hiding. -I told him I did not know where he was. It is they who know everything. He abruptly lowered his voice as two mercenaries passed by. -This man you say you love is a fanatical rebel. A Zealot! -He is a rabbi, Deborah murmured. -I know. The officer already told me. But this makes him even more of a threat because a rabbi’s words are listened to and acted upon by many people. They are sure he was one 139

of those who incited the rebellion at Beth Arath and was also a leader. But this is only the latest of many terrorist acts they accuse him of. -Terrorist acts? In Deborah’s mind Aaron’s knife gleamed dangerously. Between her breasts she felt its cold sharp excitement. Her flesh tingled involuntarily. -How do they know what he did? -They know everything. They have spies and informers everywhere, watching, listening. He glanced around nervously. -Aaron was born from a nest of vipers. -Vipers? -If you were to marry him, your children would grow from the same nest. -Vipers? Shemei shrugged. -The officer’s word. Not mine. Still, Aaron’s father, whose name was David, had a violent nature and his mother, Rachel, was of the same breed. He committed acts of rebellion, of violence mainly in the vicinity of Sepphoris. She assisted and supported him. Deborah wondered if she would have enough courage to assist Aaron in the same way. -He made implements for the land, Shemei continued, -plows, scythes, and also he repaired them; but that was not 140

enough for him. Whenever there was a riot against taxes, he joined it. Once when a big landowner, a high priest named Hsidas, decided to build a road through the holdings of some peasants to transport his produce, Aaron’s father incited all the people nearby to resist. Troops were called. The resisters were suppressed in a bloody attack. Twenty peasants were slaughtered. David and the other leaders were crucified; Aaron’s mother was sold into slavery; the children all fled and scattered. There were six girls and five boys. Aaron was the youngest. All the sons, this officer told me, are wanted by the authorities. Deborah’s chest was so tight she was unable to speak. -A few years later Aaron appeared in Jerusalem. In their records he is listed as an artisan, one of thousands, who worked on the rebuilding of the Great Temple. The project has been going on for a long time, ever since Herod became our ruler. Some day, Deborah, after you are married to Jason, he will surely take you on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and you will see the magnificence of the Holy Place with your own eyes. I tell you it is a shrine worthy of Yahweh Himself. In a sudden vision Deborah saw the lean agile fourteenyear-old Aaron, naked except for a loincloth, clambering up the high towers of the sanctuary, perspiring on the summit of the 141

golden cupola in the hot sun. It was so real she wanted to call out to him. But Shemei’s voice intruded: -They have other records, he was saying, -showing that Aaron studied the Law at the school of a rabbi from Babylonia named Hillel. He shook his head. -But his father’s blood was in him already at this early age. He joined a secret sect of young fanatics who claimed to accept no ruler except Yahweh and were sworn to resist unto death the payment of tribute to any foreigner. They meant of course Herod, the Idumaean. They spoke in the Temple courtyard and organized followers. And those who did not accept them, they attacked with violence. Meanwhile everyone of their names became known to the authorities. For, you see, even in such a dedicated sect the king was able to place his spies. Deborah listened, but said nothing. -Thus it was that when Herod erected the large golden image of a Roman eagle above the main gate of our holy temple, defiling our sacred Law of Yahweh against graven images, two of the leaders of this sect, scholars and teachers, Judas ben Seraphaus and Matthias ben Margoloth, both rabbis, decided to act. Shemei kept glancing around. His voice was so low Deborah had to step closer to hear him. -Only part of this was told to me by the Syrian officer. I heard much of it from 142

two merchants at the last market day in Kafar-Nahum who had just come in by caravan from Jerusalem. They told me of many rumors about the king’s health. He is said to be confined much of the time to his bed...that he is suffering from a terrible disease. Some even claim that he has lost his reason... -What about the rabbis, Father? Did they do anything? -They surely did. The merchants said that along with other young zealots, they climbed up on the gate and, crying out that they were doing the will of Yahweh, tied thick ropes around the eagle and with the help of the mob pulled it down. And that, as it smashed to the ground and broke into many pieces, the immense crowd that had gathered let out a great roar. He shook his bowed head. -Surely the Evil One is abroad in the land. -Did Aaron take part in any of this? Deborah asked nervously. Shemei frowned. -Do you think he is not as mad as the others? But what I cannot understand is that they are all young men with learning, some rabbis, some even priests who serve in the Temple... Of course when Aaron first came here I did not know anything about him. And when I heard the story from the merchants I did not connect him with the incident. But after that officer who questioned me described him and informed me that he was one of the first on top of the gate, I understood 143

everything at once. He said the Temple guards were called out very quickly. They captured Judas and Matthias and many of the others and King Herod gave orders to burn them alive. One of the merchants witnessed it. He said they died still shouting defiance with the name of the Almighty on their lips. Shemei drew in a breath and lowered his eyes in a kind of reluctant homage. -And Aaron? -He was one of those who escaped. It is known that he fled from Jerusalem, for there have been reports of his appearances in many parts of Judaea and Galilaea since, especially Beth Arath. They are desperate to capture him...and I cannot see how he can avoid capture much longer. At her father’s words Deborah felt a cold chill of fear pass through her body, but at the same time she felt a sense of pride and admiration for the man she loved and wished to marry. -Father, she said after a long silence, -I think I detect in your speech a certain regard for Aaron. Am I mistaken? He glanced at her. -No. It is true, he admitted. -Though I deplore his methods I cannot deny his courage. -Why then are you so angry when I ask for your consent to marry him? -Because, my child, you are already betrothed. 144

-But... -And also, he burst out, -because he is not for you. He has nothing. He is a fugitive, always running, hiding. Living with him you would spend your life in fear never knowing from day to day where you would sleep at night, or whether you would have food for your children. And what happens when he is captured and executed? Then what would you do? -Father, she choked, -I...I love him. -But I love you, he exploded. -I want for you a good life, not to suffer and starve and grow old before your time. In less than a month you will be married to a handsome young man who will provide you with everything you desire. Anything else is out of the question. Do you hear? he screamed. -And I refuse to hear another word about it! Deborah watched her father lumber away to the fields with a feeling of hopelessness in the pit of her stomach. It was as if she were locked up in a dungeon. He had a key to release her, but nothing could convince him to use it. She wanted to lie down on the ground and curl up and die. In a month life would be over. Slavery would begin for her in the midst of feasting and rejoicing. Did other young girls on the brink of marriage feel the same? Was she the only one? Why did she feel so alone... 145

despite what her mother had once said about all brides having fears similar to hers, had the Serpent of Evil actually wormed its way into her soul and spread its poison? Was she indeed possessed as her father had stated? How otherwise could she have sought Aaron’s body with such passion in the cave yesterday, and so freely given him her own...she her father’s pearl, her mother’s joy, one month from the bridal couch, until that moment an undefiled virgin whose sins had never extended beyond her imagination? All she knew for sure was that Aaron was waiting for her, that he hadn’t eaten or drunk anything since the day before, and that she had to get to him as soon as possible. But first she had to remove all suspicion and doubt from herself. She saw her mother coming out of the house and immediately went to help her prepare the dough for the bread, then quickly fetched the water, poured oil into the lamps, milked the goats and completed all the other normal tasks required of her. After that she went to the barn and, making sure no one was about, surreptitiously filled a skin with wine, concealed it inside the folds of her shift along with a sack of cheese, fruits and vegetables, and stole hurriedly away. She walked rapidly along the same route she had taken with Aaron. Her eyes were everywhere and her heart was beating 146

wildly. Several times mercenaries passed and she had to abruptly crouch beneath high bushes or flatten herself on the ground, squashing the cheese against her body and bruising the oranges and grapes. She arrived at the cave well before the noon hour. The sun was a flaming circle hanging low in the cloudless western sky and shadows were beginning to lengthen. As she entered, it was so difficult for her eyes to immediately adjust to the darkness that she became blinded for a moment and her throat caught with the fear that he was not there. Then she saw him. He had been sitting cross-legged on a rock writing something on a strip of papyrus with a split reed dipped into a mixture of lamp black and gum; but now he was on his feet emerging like some strange being from the shadows. And the next thing she knew she was rushing toward him and her arms were about him and her whole body was shaking with sobs. She clung to him for a long time and he kept stroking her back and kissing her hair gently, waiting for her pent-up emotions to gradually subside. All at once she remembered the food she had brought and set it out for him on a flat rock. He was indeed famished and while he gulped it down she told him uneasily about how her father had reacted to what she 147

had asked him that morning.

-Aaron, I feel so alone and

so frightened. I do not know what to do. I know what we did is sinful in the eyes of the Almighty and that I will be punished, but I cannot give you up. She felt her eyes misting. Through a haze she saw him stop eating and move closer searching her face. -You are truly willing to give up your marriage, your family, your loved ones? he asked. -With me you would have to live the life of an outlaw, hunted like an animal. -I have already done that. I know. I know everything about you...about your father...and your role in the incident of the golden eagle...I want to be with you. I am strong and I can work hard and I can help you... I have no one but you, Aaron. She felt his hands gripping her shoulders firmly, and drawing her body to his. -I want you for my bride. Before Yahweh, I vow to be at your side, to comfort you and protect you for as long as we shall live. Never will I leave you, Deborah, and on the Day of Judgement...together we shall march with all the Elect through the Gates of Heaven. She kept embracing him, sobbing happily, pressing her mouth deeply into his. Kissing him, she inhaled on his tongue and lips the pungent odor of the cheese and wine she had brought. Her face became hot and small drops of perspiration 148

began to form above her upper lip. She was aware of her nipples hardening and pressing outward against her thin cotton shift. His arms tightened about her and she felt his heart beating rapidly in counterpoint with her own and she wanted at that moment to remain in his arms, shutting out the world forever. But that could not be. Lying beside him on his heavy coat later, her fingers entwined in his, she asked him what they should do. -I think we must leave here together, as soon as we can. Together. The word was like music in her ears. -Where would we go? -Wherever it is safe. As far as possible. Beyond Galilaea. The desert perhaps. Perhaps the hills. Perhaps even a large city. Jerusalem itself. Among all those people it would not be easy for them to find us. The excitement pounded in her. Suddenly a whole new world was opening up, a dangerous world, but marvelous too and with all kinds of possibilities. -There are mercenaries all about. -We will have to avoid them. -But I must return to my home first. He frowned. -Why? -Well, Sabbath begins at sundown. If I am not with my 149

family I will be missed. There will be a great alarm. The troops will be out searching through the whole area and we will surely be captured. His eyes narrowed thoughtfully. -Besides, she added, -I will want my coat for traveling. We will need food and drink. And I want to see my family once more before we leave. -When will you go? -Now. -And when will you return? -After the Sabbath, as soon as possible. At sundown. He shook his head. -No, I think the following day. The first hour after dawn. They will not immediately be aware of your absence and we will have time. -I will return, then, she said. Once more they embraced, clinging together, not willing to release each other. She kissed him one final time, drinking in the honey of his mouth. Again her face grew hot and her nipples began to harden. -I must go, Aaron, she breathed and tore herself away. She heard his voice calling, -Be careful. I will be waiting. But she did not look back. She moved carefully but as fast as she could down between 150

the jutting rocks. She thought she saw a large black bird sitting on a distant hill observing her. It reminded her of the Angel of Death. She crossed the swampy area through a familiar route and heard a loud voice calling, and then another answering. It must be soldiers, she told herself, and paused like a frightened doe, every sense alert. The voices continued back and forth for several moments and then she heard the clatter of footsteps and the clank of armor, and then silence. She waited, listening tensely. The silence continued. She began to run. She reached her house shortly before the evening prayers and hurriedly explained to her mother that she had been out grazing the sheep, then plunged immediately into her devotions, giving no one an opportunity to question her further. At the synagogue again, and again during most of the following day, which was the Sabbath, she implored the Almighty to forgive her for what she was doing. After all, both she and Aaron would be serving and dedicating their lives to Him and all of the Elect of Israel. Besides, she loved Aaron. Did not that count in His mysterious scheme? She sought to talk to Shemei and Sarah about personal matters, remembering small incidents from her childhood, her first day at the beth-ha-safer, with all the pupils staring at her and the first time the hazzan struck her with his rod, and how 151

excited she became when she learned to read the words of the ancient prophets from the scroll the way her father did, and the terrible time of the plague and how the itinerant homeless fearfully kissed her hand when she offered them food and drink and a place to sleep, and how gentle and understanding her mother was during the first onset of her menses. Everything in sight reminded her of the years that were gone. But now her childhood was at an end and life as a woman was beginning. Both Shemei and Sarah listened to her but of course they could not understand. For Deborah the hours passed slowly. The Sabbath never seemed to end. During the entire day on walks to and from the synagogue she did not see one soldier. But at the time she gave it no significance. That night before she went to sleep she secretly gathered her things together and, making sure to include an extra pair of sandals and a heavy cloak and a dried emptied gourd as well as water, eggs, and fruit, set them out beside her pallet. She awoke before dawn and placed everything in a bag; then, after the morning prayer and the departure of her father for the fields, she told her mother she was going to take the goats out to graze on the hillside, and left instead to meet Aaron. On her way she kept gazing at all the old familiar sights and animals, especially a favorite ass, two pigeons, Abraham 152

and Isaac, whom she had raised, and a pet lamb called Judah, with an intensity she had never known before, as if to etch the memories indelibly in her mind. There were still no soldiers about and she walked quickly, inhaling the cool dry early morning air, and feeling the blood rush happily through her veins. By the time she reached the cave she was almost singing. She entered, called out Aaron’s name expectantly. He didn’t answer. She looked everywhere. On the ground she caught sight of something bright, half-covered by leaves and twigs. She stepped toward it cautiously, picked it up. Stared. His knife. She kept searching inside and outside, waiting, crying out his name again and again. By noon she knew it was hopeless. It was quite clear that he was gone. But still she waited. Another hour went by. There was no sign of him. Crushed, she lay down on the ground and lamented to heaven. Her body shook with sobs. He went away without me, she wailed. He did not wait. He had lied to her. He is a monster, she screamed, spawned by Belial. I am cursed among women. But still she couldn’t believe it. It was impossible. Aaron could not have done such a thing. Where had he gone then? Why? Why? WHY? It was not until several more hours had passed that Deborah 153

finally started back. She seemed in a dazed condition, walking unsteadily, constantly tripping and falling to her knees, like one who has been in the sun too long. She never reached her house, but was found late in the afternoon by Nahum on his way back from the fields lying in the weeds near the enclosure where the sheep were kept. Thus began Deborah’s peculiar condition which no one could understand until the day her father finally took her to the old woman in Magdala. During the return journey Shemei spoke not a word. Not once did he look at his daughter. His head kept rocking back and forth. Soundless cries issued from his throat. Empty tears poured from his eyes. That night he did not sleep. He walked about in the dark muttering strange words and phrases that Sarah had never heard before. The following day, instead of going to the fields as he usually did, he joined the mourners at the synagogue and stood hour after hour before the hard bench fasting and repeating over and over the ancient lament, Ysgidal, Vysgidal, Shema, rabo... Villagers came up to him quietly and asked him who had died, 154

the rabbi and the hazzan needed to have the name, was it a cousin, a distant brother, an uncle, a nephew no one had heard of? He merely shook his head and said nothing. When he returned it was after sundown. A lamp glowed on the table in the courtyard. His two helpers, Nahum and Malchus, had gone home. Deborah and Sarah came out carrying the food. For the first time since Magdala he looked at Deborah. She moved like one in a stupor. Her face had a faraway expression. He said the prayer thanking Yahweh for the wine and the bread, for the cheese and the vegetables, but he did not eat. He told Deborah to sit down and in a low grave tone ordered her to tell him what happened. And Deborah told him. She related everything. She spoke in a monotone without emotion as if in a trance. To hear it that way from her own lips was difficult, even though if he had thought about it, he could have constructed the essentials of the story from the few facts that he knew. But why? he asked himself over and over. Why did she do it? He did not chastise her. He had no strength left to do anything. Instead he blamed Aaron. Surely he was sent from the Devil. In her heart Deborah could hear the beat of a dismal funereal drum. Silently she pleaded with Yahweh to let her die. 155

Sarah however refused to accept the consequences of Deborah’s adultery. -Nothing has changed, she whispered to Shemei later as they lay tossing sleeplessly in their bed. -No one knows anything. -We know, he murmured. -Yahweh knows. -Yes. It is a weight you and I, and Deborah above all, must bear. And we must fast and pray and adhere more closely to the Law of Israel. But still Deborah will marry Jason. The wedding will take place as planned. Nothing will change. In the dark he stared at her, trying to see her face. -Without telling him? -Why must he know? -How could we do such a thing? That would be the same as a falsehood. -But if we do tell him, the insult could prove to be even more grave. The marriage must take place. Shemei, sometimes a falsehood is necessary. Shemei tried to think of a passage in the scriptures supporting his position. Did Abraham or Isaac or Jacob or any of the other patriarchs tell an untruth even for a noble cause? He would ask the rabbi or one of the elders. Surely one of them would know something to support her cause. But then he realized that his question might make someone suspicious. He could not 156

risk it. What Deborah had done must remain a secret. -Then we should go on with our plans as though nothing has happened and tell no one? he asked. -Yes. He lay there on his back gazing up into the dark thinking. -Can the secret be kept? -Surely. -Perhaps someone who was at Magdala might tell what happened? -Why? Besides no one knew us... He kept thinking. -Why then have we not heard from Joel? -You will hear. -I hope so. He promised to come and talk to me about the final details of the wedding weeks ago. After a moment, Sarah glanced at him. -You think someone could have told him? Shemei shrugged silently. Sarah rolled on her side, facing him. -Shemei, I think you should see Joel. He nodded. -Yes. The wedding is very soon and there are still important final arrangements to be completed. What Shemei found out when he saw Joel shocked him even more profoundly than his discovery that Deborah was 157

pregnant. Their meeting did not take place until three days after the Sabbath. The harvesting of the barley and the corn was just about completed, the vintage was over, and so he took the opportunity to go by himself to Kafar-Nahum and conclude the final wedding arrangements with the future father-in-law of his daughter. It was a warm bright day with the touch of a breeze to keep down the humidity. The streets were crowded with peasants who had come to town to sell their corn, figs, wine, lambs, woolens, and the linen garments woven by their wives from the excellent flax grown near Magdala. Asses were everywhere loaded down with wares, their hooves tapping on the cobbled walks. Caravans were departing and arriving, waiting camels flicking their tails to chase away flies. Often Shemei had to step aside to avoid Idumaean officers mounted on horses or redcapped soldiers with girls on their arms. Shopkeepers and hawkers screamed their wares and now and then a deformed beggar would grab his sleeve or a streetwalker would sidle up and whisper something in his ear but, oblivious, he kept on wending his way through a maze of rutted alleys until he reached Joel’s warehouse. It was a low white stucco building with small high barred windows. The clerk, a thin brown-faced Greek named Acmon, 158

who was measuring a load of wheat brought in by a peasant from the vicinity of Chorazin under the watchful eye of a customs inspector, told him Joel was not in. He might be at The Happy Lion, his favorite tavern. The Happy Lion was located near a group of buildings recently erected by Herod, a Roman hippodrome, a colosseum copied from the one in Rome, and the public baths. Beside the baths was a temple to Isis, an Egyptian goddess. As usual the sight of these pagan buildings aroused Shemei’s sensibilities. Like every religious Jew they irritated and disquieted him. The statues and other figures were a blasphemy. He tried not to look at the exposed male and female genitals that were displayed everywhere and hurried along as fast as he could. A number of merchants and shopkeepers were sitting at tables shaded from the sun sipping wine. Most were talking business (a recent cargo lost at sea, the high corn prices, the expected arrival of a shipment of cotton from Egypt), but a few were complaining in low voices about Herod’s harsh edicts controlling their freedom to trade, looking around carefully from time to time to make sure they were not being overheard by one of his spies. The owner, a bearded Samarian with a missing eye, told Shemei that Joel had been there earlier, but he had seemed extremely upset about something and had gone to the baths for 159

relaxation. -The baths? Shemei could not believe his ears. -Joel would not go to such a den of iniquity. The tavern owner cocked his head and looked at him impatiently out of his one good eye. -Are you deaf? he growled. -I told you he was upset about something. -Upset? Shemei felt a sudden tightening in his throat. Joel must know then, he told himself. Joel knows about Deborah. He stumbled out of the tavern, blinking his eyes against the harsh sun. He was so nervous he decided to go into the baths himself. He needed to find Joel and talk to him, at once. He had never been in the bath house before and was very agitated as he paid the entrance fee and moved through the crowded courtyard into the apoditerium, a large changing room which seemed to him the height of luxury with its large wall paintings and colorful tiled floor. All around him men were disrobing assisted by slaves. He felt strange and awkward in this pagan environment and was about to turn and leave when a slim black slave wearing nothing but a loose loincloth approached with a wide smile, bowed and reached out to remove his robe. Startled, Shemei drew back and wrapped the garment tightly around his shoulders. The slave gazed at him inquisitively. -Does not the master wish to bathe? He had a 160

soft girlish voice. Shemei shook his head emphatically. -Is there anything the master wishes? -I am looking for the merchant, Joel ben Levias. Do you know where I can find him? The slave rubbed his chin thoughtfully. -I do not know him. -But, he went on, -there is a young man named Jason ben Joel... -Yes, that is the son, Shemei broke in. -But it is the father I want. -If he is here I will find him. The slave’s smile widened, revealing every one of his beautiful white teeth. -My name is Hababbuk. Come closer and follow me. Shemei did not like the black man’s deferential and insinuating manner. He felt increasingly awkward and uncomfortable, like a sinner, as he followed Hababbuk into the frigidarium, the cold room, where naked men were immersing themselves quickly in an icy pool. -Do you see him here? the slave asked. Shemei tried to keep his eyes away from the uncircumcised private parts and look only at the faces. It was not easy. The merchant Joel was not here. The adjoining chamber, the small tepidarium, had no pool and was somewhat warmer. Here several men were being massaged by slaves, and pretty male and female servants 161

were scurrying around, carrying food and drink to the clients. Shemei saw no sign of Joel. -He must be in the caldarium then, the slave said opening a heavy stone door and leading him through a small passageway. Clouds of steam coming out of the walls and ceilings of this hot room, covering everything like a white blanket, almost overpowered Shemei as he entered. He hesitated a moment. It was difficult to breathe. He noticed many shadowy figures sitting and lying about. He could hear voices and see vague movement but it was impossible at first to distinguish individuals. Hababbuk was persistent however. Dripping with perspiration he moved from person to person, questioning each one softly. Shemei followed blindly. Suddenly he spied Joel just ahead seated on a stone slab with a towel over his shoulders. His head was bent forward and there was an expression of utter dejection on his red overheated face. Shemei dismissed the slave, quickly approached, and gently touched the merchant’s shoulder. -Shalom. With much effort Joel looked at him for several long moments in silence, then let his head fall forward once more as if it was too heavy to hold up. -What are you doing in a place 162

like this? he asked. -I came looking for you. He hesitated. -I do not mean to disturb you... The merchant did not say anything. -You know there are still one or two details we have not settled. -What details? Shemei hesitated. -Well, in the...mohar. The wedding comes soon now and I... -There will be no wedding. Shemei wiped his face. In front of him were five or six Joels. He blinked his eyes. -Please, I am not sure I heard. What did you say please? -I said there will be no wedding. Shemei’s knees began to buckle. The sweat was pouring from his body as if the fiery tongues of fifty serpents were licking his flesh. -Why? he gasped. -Why? What happened? -Because Jason does not want it. And also because I do not want it. Joel did not lift his eyes but nevertheless he was speaking in a loud angry voice. In the thick steam shadowy figures began to turn and stare in their direction. Shemei bowed his head. Hot tears mixed with the sweat running down his cheeks. -Try to forgive her, Joel ben Levias. His 163

voice choked. -For my sake...and for the sake of Yahweh... He turned and stumbled away, pushing blindly through groups of muscular young men in the tepidarium. He half-noticed, even in his present emotional turmoil, that several were standing and sitting very close together, whispering and laughing intimately, and that a few were fondling each other in a sinful manner and were even kissing, and he cried out in his soul for the Almighty to deliver him from this evil. But it was not until he emerged outside on the cobbled street that he realized that one of the young men he had just seen was Joel’s son, Jason. When Shemei returned home he told Sarah not without difficulty what had taken place and informed her that a new husband would have to be found for their daughter immediately. He understood from bitter experience that it would be difficult. Moreover she had previously been betrothed which did not help matters; and there was no doubt that all kinds of questions would be raised by the prospective bridegroom’s family. But on the other hand this time he would not be so particular. He was desperate and would accept practically anyone, so long as the bridegroom was male and Jewish. Within several days Zebulon, the brother of Chayym the scribe, presented himself. Zebulon was tall rawboned with hair the color of sand and a sparse beard. He came from a family 164

of peasants that had been landless for generations. It was a disreputable family that did not always attend synagogue and was known in the countryside as the pagans or the gentiles because of its immoralities. Zebulon’s father often associated with street women and was seen drunk at all hours of the day and night. He often beat his wife and finally abandoned her when Zebulon was a boy. Zebulon’s mother was constantly ill from too many births and miscarriages and the effects of watching her babies die. Her home was like a pile of rubbish. She did no work, railed at her family, and died from the unknown disease on the Yom Kippur after her husband disappeared. Zebulon himself however had no time for such goings on. He had few friends, was shrewd, ambitious, could work like an ox, and was voracious to own his own parcel of land and have a proper family. He had set his eye on Deborah a long time ago when she was only ten and he was twenty-two. Her education both awed him and attracted him. Besides she was already a bright beautiful child. And even more important her husband someday would inherit her father’s property. Of course he had made no headway. Neither Deborah nor her father noticed him. On the day of her betrothal his world shattered like glass. But now, Yahweh be praised, out of the ashes hope once 165

more flamed up into joyful reality. Shemei accepted him. The betrothal was quick and perfunctory. Two weeks after Zebulon’s proposal (he was the first and only one who came forward, for every other eligible young man the stain of her failed betrothal was an overwhelming barrier) the marriage took place. Deborah wore her mother’s wedding gown and was a lovely bride, but she was present in body only. To the guests in attendance she seemed listless as she sat in the bridal chair, almost in a stupor, and Shemei looked pale. He had suddenly become an old man, witnesses remarked in whispers, and it was clear that his days were numbered. About seven months later a male child was born to Deborah. He was named Simon and on the eighth day of his life, as set down in the Holy Law, he was duly circumcized as a Jew. He would later become known as Simon the Zealot, one of the twelve leading apostles of Yeshua ben Yosef of Nazareth, known to many as the Messiah of Israel.

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