Friday, December 2, 2011

When By His Mercy

They said that men fell in love with him as readily and gladly as women fall in love with Tammuz or Adonis. I thought to myself, ‘Well, this I have to see! What kind of rabbi is this? The kind whose perverse piety considers us outsiders, even dogs, because we don’t follow their every meticulous commandment?’ We are people too. We share the same land, bless the same ancestors, fish the same waters, plant the same fields, are born the same, and die the same, as those zealots, calling themselves ‘God’s people Israel’ as if the Glorious Ones had favorites! Our people may not have wandered rocky deserts, but what raging wilderness of the seas have our ancestors not traversed, what barren islands and distant shores have we not settled with the sons of men?

This is how I used to think. Like my neighbors on the slopes of Lebanon, we’d been subjected to the missions of itinerant rabbis—some Jews, but mostly Galileans who would have liked to be considered Jews, though even their own kind shamed them to a lower place—looking for the worthy of the nations whom they might cleanse of filth and make servants of the God of Israel, giving us the honor of obeying the commandments of Noah. The commandments of Noah! Yes, work hard at them, you not-quite-Jews, and they will make you worthy to eat the crumbs that fall from our table, to drink the water we wash our feet in. I had seen and heard enough of rabbis the likes of these to last me till the end of my days. And who says we don’t believe in the gods, or the God, whatever the difference might be?

Now I am old, and some of those who followed that man, the one who saved my little girl—yes, saved—are living among us, here in our mountains. The words that were told of him, news cascading over the rocky trails before his shadow ever fell upon us, were more than true. Yes, men, but women too—I am one of them—fell in love with this strange rabbi. Other rabbis drew crowds of admiring men—never women! we are too unclean—and those adorers hanging on their fetished tassels learned from them how to be even harsher to their women than they were to begin with. But not this rabbi. Despite his covered head and unshorn sidelocks and beard, he bore no resemblance to those teachers of the Law. Men who loved him went back and loved their women more, not less, than they did before.

He seemed not to notice, sometimes, who it was that approached him, or who sat before him as he preached. Wherever he went, rather than noticing and condemning the unclean, he seemed to purify whatever and whomever he laid his eyes on. ‘It’s not what goes into a man that makes him unclean, but what comes out of him,’ I heard him say. It wasn’t as though he and his disciples didn’t wash themselves, but he rendered unto each what belonged to each one. Glory, honor and blessing, he taught, belong to God on high—the one he called ‘Father’—and not by us, he said, is glory deserved, but only love and faithfulness. ‘Love and faithfulness,’ I pondered for days after I first heard him, as he spoke in my village. Love and faithfulness! And how would this Galilean rabbi make good his words? I dared to hope.

My little Anatolé, my beloved dawn-born child, to whom I gave birth that chill autumn morning as the sun passed over the ridge and bathed the valley in golden blessing—may the gods be praised! she was such a lovely child—my little Ana, the delight of her father’s eyes and mine—may he rest in the garden of the just!—our little daughter, what suffering did she not endure as payment to the gods for being born so beautiful. The divine envy—for that is what I believed at the time—the divine jealousy took out its ire upon her, flesh and soul. Not even the little matya that I sewed to her infant dress could avert their evil eyes. For of a day, when we all were happy, something terrible came over her, even entered her, a darkness that flowed out of gods whom we once thought were powers of light, and crushed my hope.

One morning just after the sunrise, I heard the sound of people coming up the road that passes my house: voices conversing, men posing questions and one replying in tones deep and full of joy. My heart could not help dancing inside me, hearing that voice, and my memory hears the sound of flutes and finger cymbals and lightly plucked strings, the ripened sound of the silence that preceded and followed the arrival of the Son of Man. For that’s who it was, treading that steep road, as if he were himself coming to meet me, only me. ‘Is it that rabbi whom men love more than women love Adonis?’ quickly pierced through my defenses, as I hurried to veil myself so I could come out and see. My Anatolé was asleep, finally, in her tiny dugout, after unsleeping the night through, tormented by her terrors.

Not soon enough! ‘O Adonis! O Tammuz! Dying you have revived, but where you lived and died and lived again no man living knows! Help me!’ I weeping cried in a frenzied whisper, seeing the rabbi and his closest followers had already passed my door. I went back inside and took a last look at my little girl. Yes, she was sleeping still, but how hot and troubled she lay, her blanket wet and night-soiled, in her cave inside the wall. Would the demon leave her alone long enough for me to run after the rabbi and ask, only ask, if he would help her? Would he even talk to me, a woman, and an idolater? ‘I can’t help it I am not a daughter of Israel!’ I excused myself in rehearsal for meeting him. ‘I know we’re not worthy of you or your God, but can’t we deserve at least to eat the crumbs that fall from your children’s table?’

I quietly shut my door and bolted it from the outside. I always did that when I had to leave her unattended. There was no one to help me. I looked up the road and saw the disciples of that man clustered around him, but him I did not see. As I had heard, he was not even as tall as most of the men in my village. I lost no time thinking any more about anything. Only Anatolé, only my precious one, whom the gods tormented, only she was what was driving me up the mountain after him. ‘Kyrie! Rabbi! Eleison imas! Chaneynu!’ I cried out as I pursued them, but they were too far ahead. Not watching my path but only his, my foot fell into a pit and, turning onto my side, I fell into the ditch. Now my veil was torn and my dress dirtied. ‘He will not see me like this! He will not let me near him! O, have mercy!’

The rabbi turned in at a house up ahead that I knew well. It was an inn that served merchants, and the owner was a kindly Galilean whose wife was, like me, only a daughter of Tyre. He had, of anyone in the village, offered me the most help in my tragic loss. Agathon, my poor dead husband, had made him welcome in this our village when he first arrived many years ago, and they became fast friends. That’s how I met Mariamne, his wife. Childless, yet they sorrowed with me for my daughter’s affliction. It was Mariamne who first told me the good news about the rabbi from Nazareth. ‘Y’shua,’ she said, ‘is his name, and it means salvation in my husband’s tongue. If only he would come up here in these hinterlands to teach us—what a blessing it would be! especially for my dear husband. He too is from Nazareth.’

The long years since that day have vanished without a trace, and though I am now the oldest woman in the village, I seem to still be standing in the doorway asking the strange rabbi, ‘Please, sir! Please, come, and heal my daughter!’ and then, hearing nothing, falling face downwards at his feet and covering myself completely with my wretched veil. I only remember hearing Mariamne’s words pulsing in my ears, ‘He is a healer. He knows souls. He drives out demons. Our olden gods are afraid of him, or maybe, they just don’t even exist. Ask him. Ask him to heal Anatolé. Ask him. He can do anything. At least, that’s what I’ve heard. If he comes to our village, just ask him. He won’t refuse.’ The room was suddenly charged with emotion. ‘What’s she doing? Who is she? She can’t do that! Only to the house of Israel…’

I did not move. I lay there not as one dead, but as one upon whom the weight of the whole world pressed, a weight that would crush me. I knew what he was likely to say. Like all the other preachers of the Law, he would probably tell me to get back on my feet and go out the same way I came in, unclean, unworthy, unforgiven for not being a daughter of Israel, unsaved. But how little I knew the man. How could I have known? All that I had heard was hearsay. How did I know if it were true or not? Mariamne was insistent, I know, but she was ‘one of us,’ not one of the chosen, unclean, uninstructed. I’d even heard that this rabbi was considered unclean by his own kind. Yet, my grief planted hope in me, and my hope bore the fruit of faith. It was nothing I did, nothing I chose. Someone else had planted it in me.

‘The children should be fed first, because it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the house dogs,’ I heard someone say. Without looking up, the words I felt I had been rehearsing all my life poured out of me moist with a grace that I did not own, ‘Ah yes, sir, but the house dogs under the table can eat the children’s scraps.’ I cringed like a sinner thinking she is about to be struck by a righteous hand. What rained down on me instead of blows was a scattering of mercy cool and fragrant as the myrrh they asperge on the funeral bier of Tammuz: ‘For saying this, you may go home happy: the devil has gone out of your daughter.’ Without looking up, I gathered my wrap around me, slowly arose and bent down again in front of the man, snatching up the dust at his feet, and throwing it on my head.

An expectant silence crowded the room, so I could hardly breathe. I turned around, and without looking up, ran all the way home, afraid to be seen by any eyes, human or divine. As I approached my house, I heard a child singing. My fingers clumsily undid the knotted cord that secured the bolt from being turned from inside. I could hear singing. My little girl, Anatolé, my sweet child, singing! It was a voice I had never heard before but instantly recognized. It was the singing I heard sometimes in dreams when by the gods’ mercy—I mean, when by His mercy—I was able to sleep a little after soothing my troubled child. She has grown up now, and married, and her daughters sing the same song to me, their old Laylah, for that is my name now, no longer Astarte. By His mercy, I am a daughter of true Israel, and of night.