True, she may be safe. But if Castro is arrested then they are all in danger. All the Jews of Jerusalem
Each morning, the printer bellows out the news of Jerusalem, two hands cupped around his mouth, so his voice echoes against the stone walls of the prison and penetrates each cell.
With the printer here, there’s no pretending that she’s in a different place, no chance of spiriting herself off to Toledo, to smell the ripening orange trees and the sunbaked streets. Merciless, he brings them back to the present, to the prison, to the guards and the empire.
She supposes he gleans his information from the guard who brings him bread and water. “The city is about to be upended,” he called out this morning. “Abraham Castro is to be arrested.”
Upended. The man thinks he is some kind of Yonah Hanavi, talking about Nineveh.
But although she scoffed, slowly, as the day progresses, worry seeped through the walls of the cell, into the chambers of her heart. She summons up the picture of Abraham Castro in her mind. His long face, made for rulership, given extra presence by the large turban he wears, adorned with gold chains and jewels.
What will happen if the man is arrested? What will happen to the wall of Jerusalem?
What will happen to her?
The morning plods on, and the piece of bread and bowl of soup that usually come for the midday meal do not arrive. Her stomach begins to complain. And without this break in the day, time becomes unbearable: a slow, sinking swamp in which she tries to move forward but does not succeed.
Castro, arrested? For a decade, maybe more, she has been sending him money, easing his way as he climbed up, up, up to become the most prestigious Jew in Jerusalem, right-hand man to the Ottoman governor. She has paid for the best security forces for him: a cadre of soldiers wearing the Castro livery who patrol the streets with swords of the finest steel, engraved with her name.
She drops her head into her hands. If she is imprisoned, then it is only logical that he will be pulled down.
A month ago, it seemed that everything she touched was blessed with success and prosperity, that together they were inching forward toward the day when the Jews will have their own dominion in the land, when they will offer korbanot, when the voices of the Leviim will braid a melody that reaches up to the Heavens.
And now, she sees that all she has done is wreak destruction.
As she quietly opens the door of the sleeping quarters, Bilhah is sure that she will find Elvira sleeping soundly. It is late, after all. An endless day.
She had led Eliyahu to safety, had tried to care for the elderly chacham. As well, she had stepped down the stone stairs of the prison and asked Leonora to attach her signature to her statement of events, her testimony that will be given to the kadi and also sent to Istanbul.
She is more than tired. Every bone in her body aches, and she feels like an old woman.
But Elvira is dressed and looking out the window, seeking her.
“Tonight. The arrest is happening tonight.”
The arrest. Castro is to be taken. It is no surprise, but still. Castro is the figure of authority in Jerusalem, and what’s more, he is a Jew. For him to be arrested… She closes her eyes.
Is this what the onlookers felt when the ground opened up and swallowed Korach and his followers? A trembling beneath their feet? A quaking and shuddering that they did not know if it came from outside or within?
She swallows, reaching out to touch the stone wall with her fingertips. The coolness calms her.
“How do you know?”
“Because when you come to a place to count the inventory, you do not exist. People do not notice you, and they talk in front of you, all of their urgent matters, they do not bother with secrets.”
“And us? What do we do?”
“We close the door and bolt it. Then we lock the door of the bedroom, curl up under the blankets, and hope and pray that we are safe.”
Afraid that a lamp may attract attention, they walk in darkness. Yannai lies on a thick blanket, and six of them carry him, Chananya and Pinchas following behind them. The last few weeks have strengthened their arms, and they barely feel the weight, only a supreme consciousness of the night, and of movement, and of the rise and fall of the earth beneath their feet. Here and there they stumble, but mostly they move through the night, swift and silent. The darkness is barely an obstacle; instead it feels smooth and natural.
Without Yannai even saying as much, they know where to lead him. Tzidkiyahu’s cave. The gleaming white, underground palace from whence was hewn the great bricks used by Shlomo Hamelech for the Mikdash, and the place where Tzidkiyahu was captured, a final hammer blow in the Sanctuary’s destruction. It is just past the place he hid this evening, that crevice in the rock where Bilhah thought he would be safe.
The place where they have worked, the place where Yannai has been weakened. The place where they wondered at the workings of the Almighty that led them here, to Jerusalem, to an underground cavern where they lifted their arms again and again and let the great pickaxes fall, clearing away the years, decades, centuries that hardened them to disappointment and sorrow, leaving calcified dreams and granite prayers. They’d uncovered a place tender and tremulous and filled with the frail buds of hope.
They walk through the mouth of the cave, down the slope, and into the first chamber. Though outside the air is hot and close, here the air is cool and carries a slight smell of damp. Around them are piles of rocks waiting to be transported to the wall. They set Yannai down on a large stone, and Eliyahu supports his back until he can sit alone.
Now, they can light candles. Eliyahu finds his hands shaking; when Chananya hands him a flame, he struggles to hold the wick steady and light his own candle. Eventually, ten flames flicker in the deep darkness of the cave; shadows bend and twist, loom over their heads, and then all but disappear.
It is a night that feels like it will never end. The moon barely moves on its path, the stars appear, but all feels static, as if time has ceased flowing like a river and become, instead, a rock. Bilhah looks out of the window. She cannot stay here.
True, she may be safe. But if Castro is arrested then they are all in danger. All the Jews of Jerusalem. There may be riots, rocks thrown, drawn swords, and the crackle of fire. The Muslims will celebrate the man’s downfall, and they will find some pretext to enact a bloody revenge.
She pulls the blanket from her bed and wraps it around her. She must run and warn Eliyahu. She must run and warn him that his hiding place is insufficient, that he should flee the city, take to the hills, and return to Tzfat. She opens the door of their lodgings and heads out into the night, following the road outside the city and toward the crop of rocks.
She runs on light feet, and her ears strain from listening to the night sounds. And she finds herself with a prayer on her lips. “Rock of the ages, be for me a wall, a tower, a bastion of strength. A wall that surrounds my soul, defending it against sadness or violence or evil, like a wall, give me surety, certainty of faith, even as I step into danger.”
The chaburah arrange themselves in a circle around him and clasp hands. Yannai closes his eyes, rocks back and forth, and then begins to quietly chant.
Said Rabba bar bar Chana….
He squeezes his eyes, then opens them; in the light of the candles, their blue looks fathomless.
His voice continues in a faint singsong. “Oh, he was traveling. Oh, the journeys he made.”
Eliyahu stares. From where does the man find the strength? He is a mystery, he will always be a mystery, but his heart leaps in sudden hope. On the way here, Eliyahu had thought that Yannai was soon going to breathe his last, but he has rallied once more.
A laugh bubbles up from inside him, but something holds it down, a sudden shiver that comes through him as he watches Yannai’s face, the skin almost translucent, as if he is halfway into a different world.
“He was traveling in the desert and an Arab said to him, come I will show you Har Sinai. I went there and saw that it was surrounded by scorpions that were as large as white donkeys.”
Yannai closes his eyes again, retreating to a world Eliyahu will never understand. He does not understand now what they are doing, for they are supposed to be praying for the Final Redemption, and instead, Yannai is telling them stories of scorpions the size of donkeys.
“As he stood there, he heard a bat kol, a voice coming down from the Heavens. The voice said…” Yannai takes a deep breath and pauses for a long moment. “It said, ‘Oy li — woe is to Me.’ ”
Yannai looks around, his eyes alight with an inner flame. “Woe is to me. Oy. Oy li, oy li, oy li.”
He falls silent, and the chaburah repeats after him: “Oy li, oy li, oy li.”
“Woe is to me that I took an oath.”
They repeat: “Woe is to me that I took an oath.”
Yannai’s voice is a whisper and a scream: “And now that I have taken that oath, who will nullify it for me?
“The Almighty took an oath that He would send the Jewish people into exile. But since that day, He has been waiting for someone to nullify it for Him. And here we are, a minyan, and we are gathered in Jerusalem, and we shall nullify the oath.”
He suddenly slumps back. Eliyahu runs to his side, cradles him in his arms. He opens a water flask and holds it to Yannai’s lips. Yannai drinks, but a trickle of water leaks from the side of his mouth. Eliyahu gently wipes it away. For a long time, the man lies back, breathing quietly, and the men watch him, willing him to have the strength to make this final prayer.
After a while, Yannai opens his eyes and motions that they lift him to his feet. He stands, supported by Eliyahu, and begins to chant, quietly at first but then louder:
“Nullified, nullified, nullified. Mufar lach, mufar lach, mufar lach.”
The sound echoes around the stone cavern, so they hear the declaration again and again, “Mufar lach, mufar lach, mufar lach.”
He is not there. She steps into the crevice and calls his name, softly at first, but then louder and louder still. Eliyahu. Eliyahu.
Where could he be? She warned him. She warned him of the danger.
Where could he be?
She steps outside, walking blindly on, unable to think or understand. He has gone.
Gone. She begins to sob, quietly, swallowing down the noise, but feeling an ache in her chest that presses down, down, until there is no air left at all.
She stops, takes a breath, and swallows. And then she hears a noise. She walks toward it: It seems to come from the quarry, the cave of Tzidkiyahu. Isn’t that where they were put to work, the chaburah from Tzfat?
What is that sound? It is not a cry of help. But it…
She runs toward it, runs down the slope so she is at the entrance of the large cavern. Candlelight. And a group of men. The chaburah.
Eliyahu. Eliyahu is there in the center, supporting Yannai. But what are they doing?
Silence falls, blanketing all of them in fear and trembling.
Tears fall on Eliyahu’s cheeks but he does not wipe them away. As one, the men raise their voices and call through the cavern: “Nullified, nullified, nullified. Mufar lach, mufar lach, mufar lach.”
“Your oath is nullified. Let this long and bitter exile end.”
Bilhah closes her eyes and whispers. “Amen. So may it be.”
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 839)
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