Within My Walls: Chapter 41| January 31, 2023
“This is not mesirut nefesh at all, but foolishness. And the Almighty does not want us to be fools”
They stand at the mouth of the cave: a great, jagged opening where brown soil and ochre grass disappears into chalk white. It is like an axe has come down and opened the skin of the earth, revealing a hidden world of secrets.
Eliyahu, Yannai, and other men climb into the cave, feel the wind fall away and the sound of the leaves rushing in the wind silence. Inside, the air is close and slightly damp, and filled with the ringing noise of pickaxe on stone.
They see no one, but at times there is the flash of a lantern, in a cavern just beyond the entrance. A cold, damp breeze carries the sound of voices up toward them. Yannai looks around.
“Tzidkiyahu’s cave.” He steps inside and places his hands flat on the walls. “The best stone in all the land comes from here. It is the stone Shlomo Hamelech used for the Beis Hamikdash.”
Eliyahu shivers as he steps inside. Once his eyes adjust to the darkness, he sees that this is unlike any cave he has ever seen. In his cave in the hills, he knew every crevice, every bump on the rocks, the way his voice echoed from each angle. This cave is made up of cavern after cavern, it is long and winding, and the chisel marks on the walls may have come from the times of Shlomo Hamelech.
Yannai reaches up to the ceiling and shows them a drop of water on his finger.
“Tzidkiyahu’s tears,” he says. “He is crying over the destruction.”
He raises his voice. “Sing, Tzidkiyahu. Sing. For we have come to rebuild.”
He begins to chant: “Nekadesh et shimcha b’olam — Let us sanctify Your Name in the world.”
The other men join in, but Eliyahu stands and listens, uncertain of what to think and feel.
They walk through the entrance and into the cavern beyond, and then onward to a cavern beyond this one. Men face the wall of the cavern, some wielding pickaxes and others with chisels. A large pile of stone is being examined by a foreman, and in the corner, a set of donkeys is ready to pull the stone out of the cave. Yannai shakes his head.
“Who would have dreamed that we would end up in this sacred spot?”
Next to him, Chananya murmurs: “They say that deep within this cave, the Aron is buried.”
Yannai holds his hands out in front of him, as if he will be able to sense it. Eliyahu looks at him. His face is troubled. But then he realizes that he must look the same.
They stand in silence. This is their work assignment. The men down there must have been at work since before dawn. They grunt and sweat, and one throws his pickaxe on the ground and sits down at a distance. He takes his leather flask from his waist and gulps down the contents. Water or wine, Eliyahu wonders. The man is young, he must be in his twenties, and his arms are thick with muscle, his back ripples with strength.
Eliyahu looks around. Chananya’s rounded back and thin arms. Yannai, who gets weak and breathless after an hour on the horse.
They will not last half a morning in this place. They will barely be able to lift a pickaxe.
Chananya breaks their silence. “I thought we’d be working on the wall itself. Not at the quarry.”
“Well, this is going to the wall.”
They look at each other, seeing their dread mirrored in each others’ eyes. Eliyahu dips to the floor and picks up a pebble.
“Who made this assignment?”
They look at each other; no one knows. Castro, perhaps? Was this what Leonora wanted from them? All they wanted to do here was pray.
Chananya’s jaw is set. “We must disappear. We can simply turn and pray by the wall and then —well, who needs a horse? We can set off by foot.”
Eliyahu shakes his head. “They will find us within a day.”
Yannai speaks quietly. “Greater are the works of the righteous than the handiwork of Heaven and Earth. When a person disregards himself, his limitations and even his very body, then it is like he has disappeared. Bitul. His actions do not belong to him. They become the Almighty’s deeds.”
Chananya murmurs. “Im Hashem lo yivneh bayit — If the Almighty does not build the house.”
Yannai claps his hands. “Yes. Yes. If we do it as His will, then He has built this. He has mined the stone and hefted it and seen the wall rise. And who can destroy a wall built by the Almighty himself?”
Perhaps it is the Aron hidden here that brings them to talk this way; lifting them so high that they fade; nay, disappear. Something inside him revolts.
Eliyahu lifts his voice in protest. “But we are not tzaddikim. Certainly, we bend our hearts to His will, but our bodies — He has given them to us to protect, for they are our own house, the bayit for our souls.”
He looks around, desperate. “None of us are capable of this. We will collapse under that weight. Our bodies will crumple.”
Yannai crouches down on the ground and puts his head in his hands. They all stand and watch him.
“The first two Batei Hamikdash, we still knew what it was to love Him. To fear Him. But now… after all that has come to pass—”
All that has come to pass.
All of it.
The stories, that spread through Tzfat. Groups of Jews walking, hefting little ones, pots and candlesticks strapped to their backs, walking out of Spain and Portugal, walking out of France, hiding from attacks and fire, ships intercepted by slave traders, one foot after another, one prayer after another, hoping and hoping and hoping and facing only hunger and sword and loss.
“All we know now is how hidden He can be.”
The waxy whiteness of his dead son’s skin.
His heart twists and burns. Is this how to build the house of Hashem? Not with joy and longing and hope? With an ache in their hearts and the fog of confusion clouding their minds?
He raises his voice and cries out. “This is not mesirut nefesh at all, but foolishness. And the Almighty does not want us to be fools.”
Any moment now, the foreman will come and hand each of them a chisel and pickaxe and command them to get to work. Eliyahu takes Chananya’s arm in one hand and puts his arm around Yannai’s shoulders and steps forward.
“Out! We must leave this place, now. Before we are put to work and we die.”
Another step, and they follow him, suddenly docile, and as they step out of the cave into the sunlight, Eliyahu feels as if he is leading his flock to safety.
Eliyahu stumbles into the administrative office and looks around. There she is, the young woman who gives them the instruction. He ignores the stares of the other workers and strides over to her desk.
“I must speak to you.”
She looks at him, not understanding, and then looks back down at her desk. It is covered in letters and there is a large scroll that she is in the middle of writing on. She looks back up at him.
“Please,” he says, quietly, firmly.
She nods her assent and they walk outside. She sits down on a large rock and nods. He looks down at the ground, unsure, suddenly, of what to say and ask for. He paces up and down, up and down, trying to find the words.
“Please. I have work to do,” she says.
He stops. “Yes. Of course.”
“I… We cannot do it.”
He looks around. In the distance, a team of workers is making their way toward the dining room, and although the air is filled with noise — birds and bangs and yelled instructions — there is no one in the immediate vicinity. No one to hear him.
“I know that we were supposed to work here. But it is too hard. There are old men in our group. Release us to leave.”
“That is not within my remit. There was an agreement, I understand.”
He looks down, toes the ground. How can he explain? What can he do?
“There was an agreement, indeed.” His anger rises against Leonora. Who is she sacrificing now? “But agreements can be undone.”
“They can,” she agrees. She says nothing more and he looks up at her. Her face is puzzled. “But I heard that you wanted to come to work. There was”—she glances back and forth—“some idea that in doing so you would be paving the road for the Final Redemption.”
She looks him straight in the eyes. Her eyes are brown, flecked with orange, and looking into them feels like he is entering a place he does not belong. He looks down.
“Or am I wrong?”
He takes a deep breath. How to explain? What to explain? That she is right and she is wrong, so wrong. That all of them are wrong. That the only One Who can bring the Redemption is the Almighty, but that desperation has caused him, them, all of them….
He thinks for a minute. “The only way I can explain is… well….”
He closes his eyes, wishes he could disappear into the darkness, but knows that he has to continue, find the words. His voice is halting, heavy, when he speaks.
“Even Mashiach himself will not come on a steed from Leonora — that is the great woman we serve. No. Just a donkey. A plain donkey. No black stallions or golden chariots.” He looks up at her. “How do you understand this?”
She cups her chin with her hand. “I do not know.”
He hesitates. He does not know who she is or why he is trying to explain this to her, or even what he is trying to say.
“A donkey is sure-footed and sees everything in its path. While a chariot — or even a great horse, galloping at speed, well, it can trample what is underneath it.”
She nods slowly. He sees that the hints he noticed before of impatience and maybe mockery have vanished.
His voice cracks. “Mashiach will not come through trampling on the bodies of frail, old men.”
She nods. He looks down at his fingers, and twists them as if he is a Kohein, as if he can bestow some kind of blessing.
“So this is how I can understand you all. I wondered to myself, if you have come to bring the redemption, where is your air of triumph? When I saw you yesterday, there was dread in the air.”
He turns and looks up at the sky, at the clouds covering the sun. “It is this fear, of course. But maybe there is more. They are all… we are all… we are afraid to hope.”
What was it that Yannai said to him? Just as you are afraid to open your heart to the thought of a new wife, a new family, so you are afraid of this homecoming, of being embraced by the Almighty. Maybe all of the Jewish people are afraid.
For a thousand years the our antagonists have preached that we are no longer the chosen people. That the Jews are no longer loved, no longer chosen. We have not allowed for this belief to shape us, inhibit us, stop us from hoping. Stop us from feeling that we can ever come home.
The young woman interrupts his thoughts. “Hope can be dangerous.”
He thinks of Tzipora. How the angel of death had crouched there all the time, and she had propped herself up in bed and his heart had lifted — she will recover, see, her strength is returning.
“It is true,” he says. “Hope is dangerous. But despair is worse.”
Bilhah returns to the tent and rubs her eyes. Elvira looks up. She dangles a new report from her hand, but Bilhah shakes her head.
Elvira nods. “What? Complaints?”
“They have been put to work in the quarry. It is the wrong place for a group of old scholars.”
Elvira cups her chin in her hand. Her skin is pale and there are dark rings under her eyes. I probably look like that, too, Bilhah thinks.
“Go on,” Elvira says.
“It is just, his words make me…” She closes her eyes for a second, “Unsure of where I am and what I am doing. I think we are talking about safety and where we work. And then all of a sudden we are talking of the Final Redemption.”
She wants to add, and the idea of hope. But it feels sacred.
Elvira nods. “All types. There are people here from all of humanity, it seems.” She lifts the dispatch and waves it.
“What is that?”
“Another job for you to do.”
“Can it wait until tomorrow?”
Elvira shrugs. “Here, everything can wait until tomorrow. Apart from the Final Redemption, of course.” She sniggers, and Bilhah feels a prickle of uncertainty. “It is just that tomorrow there will be another mountain that lands on your desk.”
“And you cannot—”
“It is a words thing, not numbers.”
Bilhah takes a deep breath and straightens her shoulders. “Did you imagine, when you left the palace, that you would work so hard?”
Elvira drops her head down onto her desk. “Oh, that an eagle would come and lift us on the wind and take us back to Istanbul.”
Bilhah laughs. “So what is this words assignation? Let me have it and be done with it.”
“It is in the jailhouse.”
Bilhah holds out her hand for the instructions. “I have been there before. It is where they take the petty thieves. I ask them for their testimony and they point to their bellies and say that they will only talk when they have had a loaf of bread.”
“There are few thieves left now that Castro’s soldiers patrol the streets.”
“Good. Less work for me. Coaxing accounts from each of those men, who had nothing to tell me at all, was tedious.”
“Well, this one may be able to open up. A man was searched on his travels to Jerusalem. He was found in possession of incendiary material.”
“Of what nature?”
“Oh, I do not know. I have spent all day on the kitchen accounts. But word has it that it was about the connection between the building of the wall and the coming of Mashiach.”
Cold suddenly prickles down her arms. The man at the quarry from Tzfat. This is what he had just spoken about.
“Who is he? From Tzfat?”
“Yes. He was on the Tzfat road. But I do not think he is a native. Word has it that the man is from Salonika.”
Her head jerks up. “Salonika?”
Elvira nods. “Oh. You are also from Salonika, are you not?”
“Yes. But there are many Jews in Salonika.”
Elvira looks back down at her notes. “This man is a printer. A printer from Salonika.” She looks up. “And you must go and collect his testimony.”
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 829)
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