Monday, August 4, 2014

I witness, and I wait

Is it really over? Three years in love with the God of heaven and earth, whom once we knew only as ‘the rider of the clouds’ whose thunderbolts pierced the earth, perforating our hearts with fear, who stepped down from His glorious throne to make His flesh supple to my touch, to become a man as I am, to return my gaze through those beauteous eyes, green shot through with gold, to answer my childish wants with a wisdom that ripened my desire to a sweetness beyond all earthly glory. I blush to remember thinking He was merely messiah of Israel, sent only to us, to rule in iron rod magnificence our hereditary oppressors—everyone—and put them under our feet. My hidden desire too ashamed to openly reveal, I spoke my request to Him through my mother’s lips, ‘At your right and left hand, let my sons be seated…’

And yes, He did indeed grant my request after a manner unforeseen and unknowable, and my brother’s too, for I had forced him twenty years my junior, and the most beloved of His disciples—yes, I envied him but held my peace—to press Him in other ways, without success. We should have known that He knew all about us, knew us through and through. Our breed was of a better cloth than the others. Our father Zebedee was not forced to earn his bread by toil, nor we, yet he trained us just the same, working with us among his hired men, fishing the lake, mending nets that often failed from heavy catches. That’s what we were doing, in fact, when the Lord walking along the edge of the lake called us both, and we, seemingly thoughtless, left our father and followed that Man. We didn’t know then what we were in for.

Father’s business had made our family prosper, but that did not make him senseless, his piety well-grounded in Tehillim, if not Torah. We were not scholarly, our family, but we prayed the psalms of David daily, every morning, every evening, ‘Lam’natzeach, al ha-gittit, mizmor l’David. Adonay Adoneynu, mah adir shimkha b’khol ha-aretz! For the choirmaster, on the gittit, psalm of David. Adonay, our Lord, how great Your name throughout the earth!’ I remember father pausing often when we chanted the forty-ninth psalm, his favorite, and deeply intoning the refrain as if to engrave it on our hearts, ‘Man in his prosperity forfeits intelligence. He is one with the cattle doomed to slaughter.’ No, father never let us dwell too long on what we had, just long enough to bless the Lord for it. Then, back to the nets…

My brother John—well, what can I say?—he followed me like a lamb follows its mother, I old enough to be his father, and sometimes resenting it. Something in me—perhaps my angel guarding me—always stopped me from acting on the envy I sometimes felt. John seemed to be everyone’s favorite, and why shouldn’t he have been? Boyish, affable, energetic, sometimes boisterous. I had to admit, he really was like me when I was his age. The two of us were, yes, as they say, cut from the same cloth, that better cloth I just told of, but he unlike me seemed to forget our status. While I tried to use it to gain advantages, he received them unasked and without striving. That too was a sore point. But he was my brother. Along with everyone else, how could I not love him, even when he entered the Master’s love?

Cut from the same cloth, I was saying. Perhaps I should say, cast from the same cloud, rather. For we two were likened to thunderbolts by the Lord. The others—His disciples and their friends—would never let us forget that time we were thrown out of one of those filthy Samaritan villages. Insulted, we rose to our Master’s defense, ‘Lord, shall we call down fire from heaven to incinerate these animals like Elijah did?’ What we really meant was, that the Lord should show His power by annihilating His enemies—though enemies of His they were not, only ours alone, for He rebuked us strongly, ‘And what kind of spirit will they say has possessed you two?’ then grabbed us by our necks with both His hands, gave us a brisk shake and bellowed, ‘Sons of thunder!’ and then fell on us in a long, quiet embrace that pacified us.

Adonay, our Lord, how great Your name throughout the earth! Forgive me, brethren, for my tearful eyes. Let me pause and wipe them for they witness against me. What a fool I was! How I tested the Lord, even though I was unaware. You ask me, how did Jesus of Nazareth grant our request to be seated at His right and His left hand? Well, as I said, it was in a manner unforeseen and unknowable. He told us, ‘to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father,’ yet He granted our request in a way both mysterious and wonderful. Though we didn’t know what was yet to happen to Him and to us, it came to pass in this manner. One evening as the sun was setting, the Lord called to us, to Cephas, and to my brother John and me, ‘Let’s go to pray!’

Somehow we found ourselves alone with Him at the time of prayer. We had all been encamped near a copse at the foot of Mount Tabor. His other disciples were engaged in discussion, as we often were at nightfall, sitting around a fire for warmth. Strangely their attentions elsewhere, they did not notice us as we followed Him up a trail into the woods. I don’t know what the others felt, John and Cephas, but I was apprehensive. Though the overarching night was warm and scented, I shivered, I trembled and couldn’t control it. I felt like a new bride following her husband into the bridal chamber. Me, a ‘son of thunder’ and a mighty man in my own eyes, I felt afraid. My reason rescued me, ‘It’s colder than you think, and you’re getting tired. You’re just going with Him to pray, nothing more. Just keep on the path.’

I couldn’t believe how dark it was. It was ten or twelve days before the full moon, but neither moon nor stars were visible where I could see the sky between the tall pines that rose around us. Yet there was light on the path. I invoked the psalm, ‘By Your Light we see light,’ and wondered at the glory of God, how He guided our footsteps up that mountain trail. Then we were there, we had arrived where the Master wanted to pray. We sat down for a moment to rest, and then He began to intone the psalm of ascents, ‘Come, bless Yahweh, all you who serve Yahweh, serving in the house of Yahweh, in the courts of the house of our God!’ We joined Him but our fear forbade us from uttering the Divine Name. ‘Adonay’ we chanted, while He, fearless for it was His own Name, blessed the Name of the Holy One.

Darkness greater even than the dark of night fell upon me, upon us all, except on Him. We slept. How long we had been awake, offering the psalms with Him, I cannot remember, only the deep darkness and silence of my slumber. Yet we awoke. I think it was Cephas first, and his startled, quick movement as he lunged back, and his hushed, almost whispered, cry woke John and me at the same moment. The contrast between night and day can hardly be compared to what we saw. Light, light, wondrous light, bright, bright, brighter than anything I could have imagined or can even now describe, and colors, such as we have no names for, colors our eyes were never made to see, yet we saw. A whiteness into which all colors fall and from which all arise, that is what seemed to clothe Him.

I heard my heart chanting what my eyes beheld, the psalm ‘Bless Yahweh, my soul, Yahweh my God, how great You are! Clothed in majesty and glory, wrapped in a robe of light!’ as it revealed to me not only the Divine Name but its Owner. For though we call Him now ‘Lord and God,’ we didn’t know then, no, we didn’t know who He really was. Just a few nights before, He had asked us, ‘Who do men say that I am?’ and we told him. Then, He pressed us further, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ and we sheepishly kept silent until Cephas stood and confessed what we all halfway knew, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ All this came to my mind more quickly than a flash of lightning, as again I looked up after lowering my gaze. Yes, I looked up and received my sight, and realized for once what blindness really is.

For there, standing beside the Lord were two more sons of Adam. We three looked up at them in wonder. We heard the Lord speaking to them, and they, turned toward Him, responding, but what they spoke we could not clearly hear. Like the colors our eyes of flesh were not made to see, their words scathed our ears not made to snare their sounds. We watched and listened in awe. Then the two—we learned later from the Master that these were Moses and Elijah—seemed to recede from our sight. I heard Cephas call out, ‘Master, should we set up tents for…’ but his voice died away as we were overpowered by a brilliant cloud that made us invisible to each other. My eyelids snapped shut as if to deflect a dart, as I heard, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’

I was afraid to open my eyes. I felt a hand on my shoulder. I opened my eyes again. It was dark, very dark, and Jesus sat in our midst, His hand touching me. ‘Was I asleep, Master? Did you have to wake me?’ I anxiously asked. I knew that what I had seen was real, but the memory of it seemed like a dream. The Lord didn’t answer me, but beckoning us three closer to Him, said, ‘Come, let us go!’ We arose together and began our descent. ‘Back to the world of men,’ I thought to myself, but where were we? On the mountain? My tired body followed Him down the trail in a warm, dark swoon, not trembling this time, for something in me was consummated. I felt strangely free. ‘Tell no one what you have seen, until the Son of Man is risen from the dead,’ He said, though we were afraid to ask Him what He meant.

How did He grant our request—my brother’s and mine—to be seated at His right and left? Well, yes, that was in a manner unforeseen and unknowable. Little did we know that He would reign from His throne, the Cross. The world sees only shame and defeat where faith beholds glory and victory. My brother and I—blessed be the Name!—were less worthy than two convicted criminals to be ‘seated’ at His right and left hand, that I know. But to us was given to sit at His right and His left as He revealed to Moses and Elijah the strategy of the redemption of Israel and of the nations. That was forty days before He rose from the dead, prophesying the forty days He spent with us before His ascension on that other mountain. Now, I ask myself, what is that cup He drank of, that I shall also drink? I witness, and I wait.

Monday, February 17, 2014

He was my brother

Adelphótheos! Brother of God! Ah, what won’t those Hellenists with their illumined intellects name us? What won’t they tell of us? How zealously they’ve exchanged their old poets for new, for isn’t that all they live for, poetry? Yes, their accolade is just poetry I’ve been told, but this epithet, ‘Brother of God,’ this is really too much. It’s come to the ears of the authorities here in the City, and now they’re calling on me to dispel these rumors about my brother Yeshua. They want me to stand up for Torah righteousness when the tribes and the proselytes come to Jerusalem for Pesach. 

They said to me, ‘You, Ya‘akov, we know you are tzaddik, we know you carry out the mitzvot to the least detail. Tell the ignorant rabble the truth. Yeshua is not Mashiach. Yeshua is not Hashem. We will make all the arrangements. You must tell them. You are his brother. We must not defile yet another Pesach with superstitious worship. Shema Yisra’el, Adonay Eloheynu, Adonay Echod!’

Yes, even my old ears burn to hear them, the Gentile believers in Yeshua, making so free with the Divine Name. Yet who can blame them? For he that was brother to me, whom I guarded and guided in Torah righteousness from infancy up to the day he turned, to guard and guide me—yes, I too became his disciple—he himself made bold to speak the Name. Not only did he pronounce the Unutterable with his lips in our hearing, but by his life, his teaching and his miracles, and finally his resurrection from the dead, he spoke the Name that was proven to be his before our eyes.

We not only heard, we beheld, we even touched the Name with our hands. And these others, most of whom never knew him in the flesh, take liberties that we who did know him do not take. But let not the old man in me gripe unfittingly for the sake of all the good that has come to pass through Yeshua, my brother. No matter what they call me, I know who he is. Let the new man in me tell you what I know, for I was there, I heard the first good news myself.

We didn’t know that it was good news when we first heard it. Truth can look strange when one first encounters it, different from what it later appears. It grows in us as we grow. The good news did not start with the preaching of John, whom they call the Baptist, as many think. No, the first words of it were spoken by a bodiless power. She who is now my mother saw no one, only a shaft of light too bright to look at, and then a voice. She was the first hearer, but it started even before that, and in this fashion.

My father Yosef and his youngest brother Chalfi lived in Nazareth of Galilee. Though he was my uncle, Chalfi and I were about the same age. My four brothers were much older than I and, along with my sisters, lived far from us. For many years my father and mother lived happily, and I, the youngest, benefited from the softness of their old age. I could do as I pleased. But my world was shattered when my mother suddenly died. Seeing my father’s great grief made mine seem small. I wanted to help him.

A dream I had dreamt when I was a very small child came back to me, and it felt like an oracle. In the dream I was followed wherever I went by throngs of people. They called out to me, ‘Tzaddik, chaneyni! Righteous one, favor me!’ Much of the dream I have forgotten, but how it ended was frightening. I found myself on a high pinnacle, and then I felt a strong wind blow from behind me, and I fell. I awoke with a shout, and found my mother softly stroking my face, as she smiled, and then told me to go back to sleep.

In the dream I felt lifted up, and as I grew older, remembering that feeling, I knew it could only come from delight in Torah, and I resolved to devote my life to study and fulfillment of the commandments. When my mother was taken from us, I added another condition to my vow. I would never marry, but remain chaste as a Nazir. My life would be korban, dedicated. I would serve my father in her place, until the Lord took him. Having other sons to give him descendants, he was content to have me live with him.

This was my decision, but I never told him why, until the day a kinswoman of ours, Anna, the widow of Yehoyakim, approached my father with a proposal of marriage. At first he thought she was seeking for herself, as a widow, the covering and protection of a husband who was close kin to her. But it was not for herself she asked, but for her only daughter, Miryam! My father was speechless as he listen to Anna tell the reason why, which later he retold to me.

‘From the time she was three years old,’ Anna related, ‘my Miryam had a recurring dream. She says, she was led to the Temple and in the company of maidens handed over to the High Priest, who dedicated her to the Lord. She was made korban and led into the Holy of Holies, where she was to live. Strangely, she tells that there was no ark in the Holy Place, only two creatures who, surrounding her with their wings, sang, “Rejoice, Ark that is gilt by the Spirit! Rejoice, you who are the Throne of the King!”

‘And I did not want to upset her,’ continued Anna, ‘so I just listened when she told me these things, and marveled, and asked myself, what could it all mean? But the time came for my daughter to be betrothed to a young husband, and be married, and I could put it off no longer. I said, “My daughter, it is time to give you in marriage,” but she, who was always gentle and obedient to me her mother, refused, saying she was dedicated to the Lord, and would never know a man.

‘I tried to reason with her, but to no avail, so we reached a compromise. I offered to approach you, Yosef, my close kinsman and also a respectable widower, to propose a legal marriage that would not be consummated, which would give my daughter the manly covering and protection to continue the life of a perpetual virgin, in accordance with her dream.’

My father at first refused, shocked, not knowing what to think. To listen to such tales was next to telling them oneself and being acknowledged a raving lunatic. Then, he recovered himself, and after a moment put before Anna a different solution to the problem.

‘Why not arrange a marriage between Miryam and my youngest son Ya‘akov. He too has this strange notion to remain unmarried and a virgin. Perhaps the two of them could carry on a life of righteousness together in virginity, or, if they should come to their senses and abandon these ideals, they could consummate their marriage, and have a family.’ Of course, my father made this offer entirely without consulting me. After all, if Abraham could sacrifice Isaac…

Anna remained doubtful but returned to her daughter with the new proposal. She found Miryam to be absolutely inflexible and as unapproachable as the Holy Ark itself. Meanwhile, my beloved father came to me and carefully revealed the dilemma he was in. I blush to tell you, I was furious. For someone who prized fidelity to Torah and followed the fourth mitzvah precisely, I was abashed, and then ashamed. I confessed to my father, finally, the dream that had put me on the path I had chosen. I too was korban.

Wearily, my father Yosef met again with Anna, the two of them bringing each their version of the bad news. Out of pity and fatigue my father agreed to Anna’s original proposal. After all, this has been done before. Well, almost. It’s quite common that an aged widower takes a young bride. No one need know what goes on in their bridal chamber. Still, I was adamantly opposed. ‘Father,’ I protested, ‘this appearance of marriage is a lie! Nothing but evil will come of it! Please reconsider!’ But he didn’t hear me.

I was not my father’s counselor but his servant, according to my own volition. I gave him my opinion, and then accepted his decision, though I was unhappy about it. They were betrothed, and now I had a step-mother who was nearly the same age as myself. I pondered the words of the Tehillim as I prayed, ‘How can a youth remain pure? By behaving as Your Word prescribes. I have sought You with all my heart, do not let me stray from Your commandments.’ And then things went from bad to worse.

Miryam was found with child. I was more adamant than ever that my father send her away, ‘Divorce her, do anything, just get her out of here!’ How could he marry the wench? What had become of her vow of chastity? I fumed and ranted in a way I now regret. How quickly we judge those we want to hate, and for no reason! My father almost yielded, but he dreamt too, and a voice had told him, ‘Do not fear to take Miryam into your house, for the child in her womb has been conceived not by man but by the Most High.’

Though I felt at the time that my life was over, it had only just begun. What I thought at first was nothing but bad news, became in the end the first inklings of the good news, yes, the first gospel, and I am its witness. As his youngest son, I stayed with my father and my step-mother, accepting all that happened as coming from the hand of the Lord. I began to understand that there is a spirit of Torah which transcends the written words. I learned to love without limit, because that is what the Lord does.

I need not recount for you what happened in all those years. To hear it would not tire you, because it’s so wonderful, but these stories already have their tellers. How my brother Yeshua was born in a cave, not in Nazareth of course, but on the outskirts of an obscure village, Bethlehem. How the star appeared the night he was born. How the visitors were sent. And then, how we were sent, scampering for our lives, outside Judaea, into hiding among the brethren in Egypt. I was with them in all our travels.

And when we finally returned to Nazareth to take up our real lives again, as I’ve already told you, I stayed and attended to the needs of my father and his new family. That one Pesach when our whole clan went to Jerusalem, and we somehow lost Yeshua, my father sent me ahead with the rest, while he and Miryam went back to seek their son. I think that father was granted to see him teaching in the Temple as he later would, because he would not live to see his epiphany to the people of Yisra’el.

But here I want to testify to some things that have not come to the attention of the scribes, which I had no cause to reveal in my talks before the brethren, or in my written testimonies. I feel that for me, somehow, the time is close. I am an eyewitness. An eyewitness to what? To the only event in all the world worth seeing, yet which is hidden before the face of all people. It is the resurrection. I must take the witness stand and speak, so that you can tell the brethren, should something happen to me.

When we were all in that upper room, for his last Pesach—yes, I too was there, not just ‘the Twelve’—for that supper which transformed the earthly Passover to the heavenly, my brother, yes, he whom we dare call ‘the Lord’ said concerning the Fourth Cup, ‘I shall not drink any more wine until I drink the new wine in the Kingdom of God.’ Inwardly I uttered in agreement, ‘And I shall not eat any more bread until I eat the new bread in the resurrection!’ but I was astonished at my words, and told no one. Then he said, ‘Come, let us go,’ and we left to pray with him in the garden.

Once again, what appeared as bad news, terrible news, at the time, the arrest of my brother, with the rest of us fleeing for our lives, after a night of unspeakable loneliness and horror, only became worse. A mock trial, and foregone conviction. Then, flaying, stripping, spitting, beating, and finally torturing on a scaffold outside the City gates, the innocent between the guilty, all sharing the same fate, death. And we, crazed and shattered, the guilty among the innocent, we who knew who he was, and still gave him up to those whom he excused by almost his last words, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’

My refuge after the catastrophe was in the house of my uncle, Chalfi. My aunt, his wife Miryam, along with my step-mother Miryam, and some other women—the only one among us who was man enough to do what only women were brave enough to do, watch his crucifixion, was my brother’s youngest disciple Yochanan—stayed at the place of the skull until a rich Jew who had begged his remains came to collect them. Again I am so very ashamed to remember, but the shame I felt at the time was greater.

I hid in the house of my uncle, until his wife returned, bringing with her the good news that Yeshua was alive. I didn’t know what to believe, but my heart was already pounding in expectation. Could this be true? This is what he said would happen. Obscurely, to save our sanity, he had intimated, ‘the Son of Man will be put to death, but after three days, he will rise again.’ I remembered my strange inner oracle at the supper, ‘And I shall not eat any more bread until I eat the new bread in the resurrection!’

To ease our minds a little, we took the road to visit the brethren in the village of Emmaus, Chalfi and I. We were nearly there when we overtook a stranger, and he fell in with us. It was a young man—he couldn’t have been older than twenty—and he began to talk to us. Noticing our downcast look, he asked us what was the matter. ‘Are you the only one who doesn’t know what has just happened in Jerusalem?’ we asked. He looked puzzled, so we told him what we knew about it, how all our hope was nailed with Yeshua to a cross.

‘Well, if this Yeshua were the Mashiach of Yisra’el, this is what would happen.’ And step by step, the stranger told us how the words of the prophets would be fulfilled when Mashiach appeared. We were dumbfounded. He seemed to know the whole story, even parts that we didn’t know or hadn’t thought of. The walk didn’t seem long enough. We wanted to hear more but had reached our destination. The stranger made to move on. We pressed him, ‘Brother, stay with us, for evening is at hand.’

How true the words we spoke, calling him ‘Brother,’ more than we realized. We were hungry, so we entered a well-known inn for the evening bread. We sat down, and food and drink were brought to the table. Our unknown companion took one of the hot loaves and broke it up three ways with his hands, and offered it to us. As he handed me a piece he asked, ‘Ya‘akov, will you now eat the new bread of the resurrection?’

Involuntarily I closed my eyes, feeling a faint coming on, and grasped the edge of the table to keep from falling. I heard someone suddenly stand up, and then the crash of a wooden bench as it hit the floor. I heard my uncle gasp, and then shout, ‘No! Wait! Stay with… us.’ His voice sank as quickly as one who feels that all is lost. I opened my eyes, expecting to see Chalfi and the stranger standing at the table, and a bench knocked over, but we were two at that table, with no sign of the third. After picking up the bench and sitting down, Chalfi was quiet for a moment. Then he looked at me and softly said, ‘It was him.’

So there it is. Yes, I know you’ve heard about Chalfi—he is called Klopas by the Greeks, but he was my father’s youngest brother Chalfi, and his wife is still with us, a widow now, older than we can guess—but I wanted you to know that it was I who walked that way with him, and I witness that it was the Lord that met us on the road. No, I didn’t see him. I mean, yes, I saw him but didn’t recognize him, at least not at first, not until it was too late. Eyes that should see sometimes close at the wrong moment.

Ah, but I see they’re coming for me. They call me ‘tzaddik’ and try to pay me by their flattery to say that white is black and black white. That is permissible by their reading of Torah, but not by mine. I don’t know everything yet about my brother except what I heard him say and saw him do. He was not an ordinary man. He was more than Torah righteous, that I do know. No one has ever spoken as he spoke. It is as though he were the Torah in the form of a man, not only saying but doing all that the Father does.

Yes, they will hear my testimony. Yes, I shall tell them all I can, all I know. I heard Yeshua say, ‘What I tell you in the dark, speak in the light; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim on the housetops.’ This is what I shall do. Come, brethren, walk with me to the Holy Temple, where his Mother in a vision entered where no man could enter, to become the Ark of a New Covenant and the Throne of a King. Come, help me mount the final scaffold that I may join my brother and Lord in his kingdom, where he reigns, as King of Glory, who says ‘I am the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End,’ and who makes all things new.

‘Come, Tzaddik, we are waiting.’