| Family First Serial |

Within My Walls: Chapter 26  

How could she? How could she be so cruel? Then again, what else to expect from a woman who has so much?


IS it anger that is stopping his sleep? Eliyahu throws off the thin sheet. Is it the heat? He washes his hands and face and steps out into the courtyard.

The moon is filtered through the pomegranate tree; the small fruit glow silvery-pink and Eliyahu reaches out and touches one. The smooth coolness calms him and allows him to think.

The great lady. That is what they all call Leonora.

And it is true. She does some great things. Certainly, she has magnificent ideas.

But the sight of those children, wilting in the heat, staggering forward as they beat the wet wool…

How could she? How could she be so cruel?

Then again, what else to expect from a woman who has so much? There must be a harshness to her, for her to have amassed so much wealth, so much power. They say she has people working for her all across Europe, and in Egypt as well.

He closes his eyes. Better to hide in a cave. Better to be alone and clean from ambition, to never live in the company of man than to use others, to wield power over little children in this way. He presses his forefinger against each tip of the pomegranate’s crown.

The children, he believes now, are safe.

It is not on their account that he cannot sleep.

So, what is it? He leaves the courtyard still barefoot, curls his toes slightly over the cobblestones so that he does not slip, for they are moist from the mist of the night, walks up the road and into the hills.

Leonora is not the only woman with ambition in the world. Everyone alive wants something. It is that desire that wakes them up in the morning. They can hide it or hide from it, but it is there and — he clambers over a stone, feels a pebble prick at his ankle but pays it no heed — and if one does not take care, it can lead a person to crush all those around him.

“U’motar ha’adam min habeheimah ayin.”

Apart from the fact that beasts of the field are not cruel to each other. They kill to eat, but when they are satiated, they will sit in peace. They do not seek to rule, they do not seek to shake the pillars of the earth, they do not try to climb up to the heavens and break open its vaults so as to forcibly bring light to the world.

No. Better to be a beast than a man.

He climbs higher, further, glad for the ache in his feet. He does not mind the stones against his bare feet: each jab connects him to the earth, brings him back to himself, lends him calm.  The silence, too, soothes him, and helps him order his thoughts.

Alone, man can become like a plant starved of light, twisted and bent as it grows into a grotesque form.  What hope is there for him, but to shelter in a cave, hiding from shadow?

A loud rustle. Voices. Eliyahu freezes. Someone is here. More than one person. He strains his ears. A group of people. He walks to a gap between the trees. From the distance, he sees a lantern bobbing. Not one, three.

Who are these people? Silently, keeping close to the shadows of the trees, he follows.

The lanterns move steadily across the hillside, then dip, and disappear. They have entered a cave.

Eliyahu climbs up and around, and then settles himself onto a large, flat rock above the mouth of the cave. The night air is chill and he wishes that he had brought a blanket. Around, all is quiet. He settles into the silence, until the sounds begin to reveal themselves.

A rush of some creature running through the long grass. An owl’s hoot and then the brush of wings as it glides through the night. The wind rustles the leaves of the olive trees and a fox — or is it a wolf? — howls in the distance.

All of a sudden, from inside the cave, there is sound. Eliyahu strains to hear.

From inside the cave, voices rise.

Tefillah l’ani…

Is it? Could it be?

He thinks… It must be. It is the voice of Yannai. He has stumbled across this group that he has been putting together, the men praying and pleading for the Redemption. He lies down on the rock so that his head rests upon the entrance to the cave and listens.

Ashamnu. Bagadnu.

Vidui. But this is not like a vidui he has heard before. They repeat each word, again and again, and punctuate it with signs and moans. There is one man who is negotiating with the Almighty: If I own up to this, then I want to change. And if I want to change, and if every soul of Your beautiful, pure, belove nation is connected, then everyone, every one of Your children wants to change, purify, cleanse themselves, become One with you. And…

The words float up to him, he breathes them in and they anchor in his chest, beating with as much power as his heart.

He closes his eyes, and swallows the sudden tears that rise.

Eichah yashvah badad…”

How does it sit alone; that city that teemed with people has become like a widow…

They do not recite the words, they ask them. They are a question, and there is a long pause, as if each of them must compose an answer. How indeed? He has never been to Yerushalayim, but he has heard that it is a sad, afflicted place, without even a wall to lend it dignity. How?

He stops. These are not people who have gathered for the money they will receive.

The voices rise in unison: “Patach Eliyahu… Eliyahu opened and said: ‘Master of the worlds! You are One, but not in number. You are He Who is Highest of the High, Most Hidden of the Hidden; no thought can grasp You at all.’ ”

Eliyahu opened.

It sounds like a call to him. Open. Open, Eliyahu. Open your heart and your mind.

These people have retreated to a cave, not because of fear, but to release the sparks of holiness from inside themselves. For if man can be a monster, he can also be an angel.

As they walk out of the cave, Eliyahu bides his time. In the east, the first rays of dawn are easing the claws of darkness. The men emerge, and the first rays of dawn brush the sky first white, then a pearly, radiant blue, so that the world seems to glow from inside itself. Their faces are still in shadows, but when Eliyahu stares, he does not see smallness, nor does he see money or greed or desire. He sees only something luminous, a peace, a yearning that eclipses the smallness of who we are, the fact that we are old and get hungry, that our backs hurt and our toenails dig into our skin and we can snap at a person we love just because of that.

Yannai walks past, and Eliyahu sees that the man’s back is straight and he has been brushed by something precious. And that precious thing may be hope or it may be faith, or it may truly be an anticipation of the day when the Jewish People will arise from the dust and adorned with the 24 pieces of jewelry, with all of Tanach, garbed with all of the holy words, and will step, both timid and flowering, to greet our Groom.

Eliyahu reaches out and grasps Yannai’s arm. Yannai startles; his whole body twitching in surprise.

He blinks and looks at Eliyahu. “Ah,” he says. “You came.”

“I came.”

“I knew that you would. You belong here, with us.”


That night, instead of sleeping, Bilhah lights a candle and returns to the Room of Words. She sets the candle into a glass holder and walks to the front of the room, where the wooden crate is still full of letters and documents awaiting translation. She picks up a parchment, seemingly at random, but her fingers recognize the great. It is goat-hide, and surely from that woman in Tzefat.

Bilhah unrolls it on a table. The woman’s writing has changed. The letters have become larger and more careless, unwise when corresponding with Hurrem Sultan, one of the most powerful women in the world. Still, she is curious enough to angle the parchment toward the flickering candle and to strain her eyes against the shadows and try to make something of it. It is the only thing that will keep her thoughts away from Kamran and the predicament that she is now in.

I am gratified with the privilege and honor of serving you and trust that you will find full satisfaction in the services rendered, namely the delivery of 1,500 woolen blankets.

First delivery will be dispatched within two months, and the second at the turn of the year. And as we discussed, in return you will lend the full weight of your power and influence in promoting the building of the Wall around Jerusalem. You will smooth over any protestation and emphasize to His Magnificence that although many projects demand his attention, this will bring him honor.

For to provide a wall for one of the holiest cities in the world is to ensure oneself a place in immortal life and it shall be an eternal legacy. He will be known all over the world and praised as the Most Magnificent Sultan and I personally will ensure that all opposition will be stamped out, both from within my community and from without.

For this reason, I have already allotted a large sum of money as compensation for all those whose homes abut the wall, so that they will not resent the building work, but will rejoice in the opportunity to renovate and renew their homes at no expense to themselves.

Bilhah’s eyes begin to cloud and blur. This woman, with her blankets again. Walls and blankets. Hard and soft. Power and persuasion. Hope and desperation.

Ambition and…

Ambition. Here it is.

The knowledge hits her in the chest. This marriage that Hurrem Sultan is promoting. This Kamram.

Hurrem Sultan is not interested in love stories or building homes. She wants to keep an eye on all the most talented and ambitious servants. She marries them off to her girls, whom she plies with gifts of jewelry and fabric so that they feel obligated to her — and when she summons them and asks them to go through their husband’s correspondence or make them talk of what is closest to their hearts, they will do so. And in this way, she will learn the machinations of the palace, identify those who may threaten her. Or, as Aisha would explain, protect her life and that of her children.

She arranges marriages to spy on all those with any power.

Her gaze returns to the letter. All these months, they had thought the woman ridiculous. But in the meantime, plans have been made and the Sultan’s architect has been consulted. The stones left from the ruins of the old wall have been inventoried and a group of builders is preparing to travel to Jerusalem, where they will be joined by others.

This woman.  This woman… if she controls this empire, if she has these funds and this influence… she must be a widow. Antes biuda que casada, the Spanish saying went. Better a widow than a married woman. A married woman surrendered her wealth to her husband and had to bow to his husband’s wishes, but a widow could do as she pleased with her wealth — and with her day.

What if…

What if in place of marrying Kamran, she offers her services with regard to this Leonora? Surely a woman with wealth and power should be under the surveillance of Hurrem Sultan?

The idea is so ludicrous that Bilhah laughs out loud.

What would it mean? Traveling to the Holy Land, for one.

Well, it would not be the first time that she has traveled. She would have none of the luxuries of the palace. Although, why not? If she is there on the behest of the Sultana, then surely, she will be furnished not only with parchment and ink, but garments and food.

And then she will be among her own people again.

And most important, she will be safe from any suggestions of marriage.


There is trouble in Jerusalem.

Leonora looks up. “Yes?”

“Our sources tell us that the people are in foment.”

She sighs. She likes Vidal because he gives her fulsome accounts of each event, and will analyze the implications and consequences too. But he does like to add drama and it takes patience to listen to him as he spins his tale.

As well, he seems to have a theme: He likes to pit choice against destiny, so every account becomes a showdown in the theological debate of man’s place in the grand scheme of things. She forces herself to listen.

He bows his head. “The Ottomans have been walking around the perimeter of Yerushalayim like Yehoshua in the time of Yericho.”

“Seven times?”

“Seven times. Or, many times. I do not know how many, but they do it with their scribes in tow, and their measuring instruments, and their plans.”

“But in Yericho, the walls tumbled down. And these people want to put the wall back up.”

His eyes grow round with surprise. She throws her pen down impatiently. Does he think she knows nothing? “What is the problem?”

“The Jews are saying that they will not have Muslims or pagans or Christians or whichever builders they employ touching the holy city of Jerusalem. If the wall is to be rebuilt, it must be done so in purity. It must be done so by our own brethren.” His face suddenly crumples in pain. “How can we have them touch our beautiful, holy city of G-d?”

to be continued…


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 814)

Oops! We could not locate your form.