|TABLE OF CONTENTS
BOOK 1: THE YOUTH
BOOK 2: THE PROPHET
IN MISHAEL’S LODGING
THE TANNERIES ON THE EUPHRATES
ON FIGS AND NUTS
BETWEEN THE WALLS
THE DELEGATION SETS OUT
THE MAN WITH THE DAGGER
I AM YOUR SERVANT
WITHOUT MAKING A SOUND
WITHOUT ANY CONNECTING THREAD
THE BLAZING FURNACE
IN THE DEAD OF NIGHT
BOOK 3: A MAN MUCH LOVED
AS DEEP AS THE SEA
SERAIAH BEN-NERIAH BEN-MAHSEIAH
THE RETURN OF THE KING
THE SEVEN SEASONS
THE ROYAL COUPLE
THE DEATH OF NASHDERNACH
THE FOUR BEASTS
THE PIT OF LIONS
THE WISE, AND THE TEACHERS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS
This book, based on the Biblical story of Daniel, is not an academic treatise.
The protagonists of the narrative transcend their chronological context, and in them, in the air enveloping them, in their conduct and their speech, there is that which touches on the present and foretells the future.
The solid base, on which the plot is founded and where its developments unfold, is the Spirit. And it is a steadfast source of aesthetic satisfaction, engaged and profound.
The Scriptural extracts, quoted in italics, are not always complete and are in some instances supplemented, as required by the narrative
THE ROAD TO ANATHOTH
He peered, unheeding, through the broad window – the sky high above and a cloud, only the one, as white as snow, drifting across the blue radiance like a thought imbued with a distinctive degree of composure and all of it with but one purpose: to convey pure tranquillity of consciousness, infinite, divine…
“Divine” – is it really so? Perhaps this thought is nothing other than a memory, drawing behind it another memory, and this one, another, and they skim one after the other over the broad surface of consciousness, without touching it, without staining it, without belonging to it and yet, as if acknowledging its sway.
He is sitting in his home in Jerusalem, facing the once opulent gate, so long neglected and not as it was in the past, before the Chaldeans came. Then the opulent gate had been thronged with men and beasts.
A mounted Chaldean patrol passes by in the straight, narrow street. Like most if not all of the Chaldeans, their faces are grim. They are stopping a Jew, grey-haired and with unkempt beard, leaning towards him and asking him something.
The Jew stares up at him, glassily, and their eyes meet. At once it is all clear to him: the Chaldeans are asking about him, looking for him, a Jewish youth who has barely come of age.
A week has passed since the rumour went about that the Chaldeans meant to gather him and his three companions, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, and other “children” in Chaldean parlance, scions of the royal family and sons of courtiers, “skilled in all wisdom and knowledge and understanding science, and fit to stand in the palace of the king.” This was a persistent rumour, which did not fade with the passing of the days but grew ever stronger, constantly arising in the conversations of slaves and servitors, in the house and outside it.
And he and his companions are indeed the sons of courtiers, whose fathers used to serve the king as ministers and advisers. They had a teacher of the Torah in common too, who made every effort to explain to them the mysteries of the Scriptures and interpret them properly. He was a simple and humble man, and devout as well, but he lacked the inspiration to crack the shells of things and penetrate to their heart.
Under his tutelage they learned chapters of the Torah by heart, touched lightly on the books of the Prophets, but stopped short of studying the Writings. And they could expect nothing more than this. They were left as they were – thirsty for knowledge, a thirst that was not to be quenched, and used to oppress them, and after the lessons they used to meet together and go through the chapters they had learned and try to interpret in ways other than those of their teacher, or those of the priests engaged in divine service. And sometimes they succeeded and this brought relief to their minds and aroused that quiet pleasure which could be called the pleasure of understanding. At other times they failed in the attempt to interpret something, to break through the superficial, verbal cover of the holy verses, and the outcome then was dejection and disappointment, which accompanied them for days and sometimes even weeks.
Besides the teacher of Torah, he had another tutor, a man from the islands in the north who bore the strange name of “Theodoros”, a man broad of face and broad of shoulder, fair-haired and fair-skinned, who at first did not understand even a syllable of the Holy Tongue. Theodoros came into their household by chance. One of those days, before the Chaldeans laid siege to the capital city, his father was riding through the bustling market when he saw three Jews manhandling a stranger and trying to overpower him, while he made every effort to free himself from their grasp. His father approached the assailants and asked them what sin the man had committed, and why were they so eager to detain him. They explained to him that the man had the audacity to enter the Sanctuary, thus defiling it since he was not one of the sons of Israel or of Judah, but an uncircumcised gentile, a pagan in every respect and deserving death by stoning. His father reminded them as if by the way, that there is no prohibition on a gentile visiting the Sanctuary, as it is said in the Torah that all nations shall worship the Lord, and the voice of anyone who prays to Him will be heard. The Jews were embarrassed, as their ignorance of the Scriptures was revealed for all to see. And then his father offered them three gold shekels, one for each of the assailants, in exchange for the man’s release. They agreed, let the stranger go and held out shaking hands to accept the promised shekels, grabbed them while they were still in the air and made off in haste.
The stranger expressed his gratitude to his father who had saved him from his attackers with gestures of hands and body. His father tried speaking to him in Aramaic, Egyptian and Chaldee, but in vain – the man’s language was not like any of these. His father took his leave of him and turned to go his way, but the stranger ran after him, clutching at the reins and pleading, with descriptive gestures of the hands and bodily gyrations, to be allowed to accompany his deliverer, if the latter had no objection. And so the fair-haired and fair-skinned one entered their household, first as a guest, then as a servant and finally as a tutor.
With surprising ease Theodoros became fluent in spoken Hebrew and Aramaic and even learned some Egyptian expressions which were common in the patois of the street. He came from a distant state, over the seas, called Athens, and the inhabitants of this Athens are devoted above all else to reason, trying to explain all phenomena by means of reason, and trusting in reason to an extraordinary degree, sometimes even more than they trust in their deity, or rather, deities – a whole pantheon of gods and goddesses, who invariably raised a tolerant smile to his lips, on hearing of their festivities and their rivalries, their liaisons and their escapades.
Theodoros taught him moderation, and clarity of tongue, and some physical exercises too, to strengthen the muscles and hone the body’s systems, and a particular form of calculation, based on the dimensions of areas and shapes of all kinds, called “geometry” in the Greek language, and since there was nothing in these things to undermine his faith in God, they were gladly accepted and he showed himself an accomplished pupil. Finally, Theodoros converted, underwent circumcision and became “Doroz”.
The Chaldean officer climbs the stairs, his footsteps echoing in the empty void of the tall, ornate house, the house of a minister of state and senior adviser to the king. A moment more and he will knock on the heavy door… and here comes the knocking, a sound speaking authority on one side, and striking terror on the other.
One of the slaves opens the door, and on hearing what the officer has to say, calls the young man’s mother. After a short conversation, he is summoned to his own chamber, where the Chaldean is waiting for him. Sure enough, he is required to accompany him and go down with him to Babylon, where he is to be trained to serve the great king, Nebuchadnezzar.
One request he has, and one alone – that he be given time, half a day, to go to Anathoth, which is not far away. He is eager to obtain blessing for his journey from a man of Anathoth whom he has never met but of whom he has heard well, to prostrate himself before him on the ground and to see with his own eyes the prophet of God, the like of whom appears only once in a generation, or perhaps in many generations.
The officer can accompany him if he so desires, or send men to escort him.
The Chaldean warrior hears him out in silence, his head bowed. Then he raises his gloomy, indignant gaze and studies him from head to foot. There is bitterness in his eyes and it is clear that his posting to desolate Jerusalem is not to his taste.
of his soldiers will escort him, and he must return no later than midday, before the sun reaches its highest point in the sky. The three of them descend into the gloom of the cavernous, almost empty stable. The Chaldeans mount their small, pampered ponies, which are quartered here, while he takes the last horse left to the family after the persistent predations of the Chaldeans. A black mare which only a year ago used to delight all who saw her with her powerful frame, her proud and noble bearing. And now, for want of food, she is just a ghost, a pitiable skeleton.
The road to Anathoth. A steep ascent, which in the past the mare used to devour in one leap, with a whinny of delight, rejoicing in her strength, but now she needs twice and fourfold the time, as she pants heavily and drags herself along on tottering legs. He would not have ridden her at all had he not known that the exercise would be good for her, and his young body not too heavy a burden for her. The Chaldeans, accompanying him on their agile, piebald ponies, often have to pause and wait for him to catch up. They are tight-lipped and taciturn, displaying patience amounting to indifference – an attitude sometimes reminiscent of gravediggers.
The ride reaches its highest point, the ascent over, the tedious climb at an end. At their feet, somewhere, the low, white houses of Anathoth, huddled together like a flock of sheep, are turning gold in the rising sun. A fertile valley, with orchards and fields – but the crops have been harvested prematurely and now the ground is barren and black, a bare expanse in which the eye can find no point to focus on, but would grow weary in the attempt, skimming along the sharp line of the horizon, soaring aloft into the clear, and never-changing sky, as it always has been and ever shall be.
The mare has gained more confidence, treading slowly, cautiously, inspecting every stone that she encounters on her way. The path itself is a dust path, without any more ascents in the offing. It seems the mare has sufficient strength to cope with the descent.
This grove is well known to him and has been precious to him since the dawn of his childhood. There used to be rare birds here, and nightingales sang on fine summer evenings. But it was not the rare birds or the nightingales that drew him here, to this grove. He loved the fresh raspberries that grew there in abundance, the bushes giving of their bounty in the summer. He could fill a whole sack with them and amaze the other members of the household. The fragrant raspberry, young and sweet, its colour the colour of new Jerusalem wine. There were other varieties of woodland berries, and mushrooms in the autumn, and tall nut trees. They had just passed one of them, trunk standing erect and proud as a king. Indeed, its broad foliage was reminiscent of a crown.
This grove is implanted in his memory as a kind of ancient song about the girl, Nejeen, and about himself. Nejeen, daughter of Gamliel. Her father used to serve as an advisor to the king. A tall man, wrapped up in himself, of wise words which he was in no hurry to express, and only on rare occasions did a smile of astonishing brightness pass across his face, radiating over all those in his company a vibrant and delicious sense of fellowship, blended with respect and appreciation.
Often the two families, his and that of the king’s advisor Gamliel, used to be the guests of one another. And he enjoyed listening to the words of his father the minister and of Gamliel, words of importance, each one pronounced precisely, and being surprised, a surprise which made his heart beat faster, by Gamliel’s smile, which broadened his thin lips and lit up his eyes, whenever his youngest daughter Nejeen passed amid the assembled company for some reason or another. Thanks to her father, Nejeen was one of the very few of the daughters of Judah who could read and write, and she delved deep into the Scriptures, and long passages from the anthems of King David, gathered together in the Book of Psalms, she knew by heart. But much as she loved the psalms of David, she was entranced most of all by the Song of Songs of Solomon. Yes, she was truly excited when she quoted a verse or two from the Song of Songs, her rosy lips quivering, the pure gaze of her eyes revealing their depths, eyes a vivid shade of blue.
As if it was something obvious in itself the two of them used to meet here, in this grove, so grim today, perhaps – because of the presence of the Chaldeans, with their stern faces. And just a year ago it was so different – its air enchanted and all of it – like a legend of antiquity, tuneful, mysterious.
Sometimes they met with other members of the family in their home, the house of the minister Naimel. All of a sudden, his father and her father would decide to move from the parlour to one of the spacious rooms in the interior of the house, and it was a sign to all of them that their conversation was no longer public property, and the members of the two families used to disperse, his mother and her mother going to the kitchen, while he and Nejeen made their way down to the courtyard – an extensive courtyard with a fountain in the middle and rare flowers of luscious colours at its fringes.
In their conversation he would refer to the Book of Genesis, and the mysteries yet to be solved by those who take everything that is written at face value. She listened to him in silence, with close attention, her whole being in thrall. She quoted a verse from the Song of Songs which matched perfectly the words spoken by him and was as if summoned by itself. In the limpid air of a blue evening, the words sounded as if they stood in their own right, with images that lived and enchanted the imagination, and it seemed to him in these miraculous moments that he had found what he sought and did not know existed. And then he recited before her, in a voice that had not yet matured, the voice of a ten year child, the lines that came after and she looked up at him and poured into his eyes all the purity stored in the depths of hers, setting the heart a-quiver and infusing him with prodigious strength from an unknown source.
For a long moment they were both silent, a moment that grew longer still, and thousands of years perished in the blinking of an eye, and everything faded and disappeared, never to return.
Then his name was called. Once, twice. This was his tutor, reminding him that the time for study had arrived. Before parting from her he said:
“I’m very fond of the grove on the hill, on the way to Anathoth, there isn’t a day that I don’t visit it. Farewell!” And he ran as if he had sprouted wings to his good-natured tutor, who had been waiting for him a long time and hadn’t dared disturb him.
Thereafter they used to meet in the grove on the hill, on the road leading down to Anathoth, a grove that seemed to them like a dense forest holding a secret, all of it sheer delight, enlivening the soul and cleansing it of all mundane dross.
And there were days of harvest too, and both the families had fields to the south of the wall, on the road to Jericho, and he and Nejeen were there with the reapers, listening to the sounds of their song soaring to the heavens, in harmony, making the hot air quiver, responding to their call and bringing them pitchers of water from the well by the wayside, whose waters are always cool, always refreshing, and earning hearty thanks and fulsome benedictions. And fine evenings, when the skies draw close to the earth in tenderness, as a lover is close to his beloved, and kiss her rosy fringes, they used to lie supine at the feet of the giant haystacks, staring up in silence at the plethora of great stars, sparkling above them and so close it seemed you could stretch out your hand, and a star would slide into your palm, living and lustrous, and bringing with it its other world, serene and pure.
The skies were like the song of angels, telling in measured rhymes, in a melody matching all the aspirations of the heart, legends of long ago.
And he asked her then if she knew the constellations of the sky, if she was aware of the conjunctions of stars that astrologers study and teach, as a means of foretelling the future of a person or of whole nations of the world. And she said she knew only a very little of all this but would be so glad to hear…
And she heard his voice, a voice clear and resonant, with pleasantly modulated words, telling legends of the heroes of old, who fought in the heavens and on the earth, and astrologers predicted their victory or their downfall by means of those gleaming stars. There they are – he pointed out the constellations one after another, and she following him with wide open eyes, her look expressing nothing other than submission to the infinite, and above all, something resembling admiration, frank and proud admiration, bringing a moist veil to her eyes. He absorbed all of this and recalled the verses of Solomon, son of David: Turn away your eyes from me, for they overwhelm me. He saw in his mind’s eye the young Solomon and the young Shulamite, lying on their backs at the edge of a great hayrick, breathing the balmy air of the cropped field, looking up at the sea of stars gleaming above their heads, and Solomon, the future king, revealing to his beloved and cherished Shulamite the secrets of the firmament and she gazing at him with her deep, wide-open eyes, more beautiful than anything that bears the name of beauty, and at this very moment they are sparkling with a moisture that is nothing other than sublime, surpassing all else that is known as sublime.
Love is strong as death… if a man were to offer for love all his worldly wealth, it would be utterly scorned.
For some time thereafter they did not meet again. Indeed – their bodies did not meet, but beyond such limitations, he used to meet her and talk with her at all hours, by day and by night. She was in his heart, as a manifestation of what is “strong as death”, clear, sharp and limpid and above all – uplifting the soul and laying bare the spirit, and opening the doors of the heart to that which never perishes.
There were moments when it seemed to him that meeting in the corporeal sense would spoil and impair those other encounters of theirs, continuing in constant succession, vibrant with the life of truth, in other words – life flowing without check.
And what a surprise it was to him, when after a whole month he went back to walking in the forest of Anathoth and met her near the rosy spring, so called on account of the pink marble rock from which it flowed, and the raspberry bush reflected in its clear waters.
This was the place where they met for the first time and where they had often met in the not so distant past. Her face was pale, but the moment she saw him it changed at once: a red flush spread across it, bespeaking tenderness and gratification, and she skipped gracefully towards him, and dipped the radiant purity of her eyes in his, which could not disguise his astonishment and were replete with overwhelming delight.
“How is this?” he asked awkwardly.
“Simple!” – she answered the question, and he accepted it, and she understood.
“Have you been here long?” – he almost stammered, disconcerted by the dark, bold blue of her eyes, enfolding him on all sides like a gleaming halo, like a mighty ocean bearing him on its pure waves towards a destination of its own choosing.
“And how did you know the time and the place?” – he went on to ask in his bemusement, without pausing for her reply, and beneath the many layers of his confusion seeing the truth and dreading it, unwilling to delve into its depths, fearing lest its joy upset his peace of mind forever.
But she left no room for doubt:
“I didn’t know and I didn’t guess,” she replied.
“What then?” – his voice shook.
“I have been here,” she answered him simply – “from daybreak till sunset.”
“But Nejeen!” – he spoke her name and felt the tingling of his flesh and of hers with it.
“It’s the truth,” she guessed what his next question would be and answered it first.
And then she held out her hand and he took it, a white, slender, firm hand. And all at once, as if a sign had been given and without a word spoken between them, they gambolled hand in hand down the slope that was all fields strewn with flowers of every hue and of strong and pungent scent, the scent of endless spring.
Here is the slope. They are approaching the first houses of Anathoth, low houses, huddled together like a flock of sheep, waiting for the storm to break or the wolf to pounce.
This is the kind of dejection which has descended upon so many members of his race, those accustomed to seeing themselves as the elect of God. The envoy of God came into the midst of this people, took his stand in its market-places and attended its gatherings, delivered his speeches in the bustling squares and in the hearing of the gentry, he even made his message known in the palace of the king. His words were clear and grave – and no one listened to them. Instead of this the nobles and the commoners, the ministers and the counsellors and the viziers, and the king himself and in person – they persecuted the envoy of God. Even men of the clergy joined in the chorus of abuse and rejection. The priests charged with the practice of divine service in the Sanctuary, their sons and their pupils, and the Levites, and the officially approved prophets, and the sages speaking out in support of the regime – all of them, as one man, persecuted the envoy of God, scorned him, and slapped his cheeks, and spat in his face.
This is the man he is going to see, the envoy of God who lives the life of a recluse in these dreadful times, in fear and in anguish, unable to leave his home.
His black mare has guided him directly to the house at the southernmost end of the silent, forbidding settlement, its inhabitants peering out through the cracks and crannies in shuttered windows, and half-opened doors, at this strange group, consisting of a Jewish youth and two Chaldean soldiers. They peer, and then slink back into their holes.
No living being has met them on their way, until it seems the settlement is neglected and abandoned, a habitation of ghosts. There is the southernmost house, standing a little apart from the others. Behind it – a broad meadow growing wild.
His heart is beating fast. Already he is prepared to climb down from his mount, to approach the house on foot, ascend the two flights of stone steps – untrimmed Jerusalem stone, coarse but lustrous – push open the light wicket, walk along the narrow path and knock on the massive, grim-looking gate, so heavy it seems no man alone could shift it on its hinges. But he is spared all this effort. Suddenly, without a sound, as if at the touch of a magic wand, the heavy gate swings open and in the dark void beyond stands a man of medium height, thin-fleshed, wearing a striped robe, like those worn by priests when not engaged in divine service. The man’s hair, shoulder-length and longer, and his dangling, straggly beard are streaked with grey, his forehead high and beneath it, set deep in their blue-tinged sockets, those strange eyes are flashing brightly, eyes that are worlds in their own right, unexplored worlds, shafts of light that pierce the void of the universe – nothing can resist them, nothing stand against them, for their source is beyond the control of any mortal.
And the man was drawing closer, crossing the path and descending the two flights of the short stairway. And only then did the youth muster his courage and leap nimbly from the back of his black mare, quaking beneath him, and take two steps forward, to bend the knee and prostrate himself on the ground at the bare feet of the envoy of God, the vessel of the word of God.
The Chaldean soldiers also dismounted, and they too knelt and bowed, prompted by some sudden impulse, before this strange man, doing just as he was doing, the youth whom they were escorting, whether as a prisoner or as a future guest of their king.
“Rabbi, my master and my teacher!” cried the youth in a choking voice: “How many are my sins against him and against He who sent him! My sins, and the sins of my masters and my parents and my fellow-countrymen in all their teeming hordes!”
“You are not the sinner, Daniel sweet youth!” – the man interrupted him in his wondrously clear, courageous voice, with not a single note out of place: “You are blessed by the Almighty God whom I serve. It is He who has called me to come out and meet you, and told me your name, and commanded me to inform you that great mysteries will be revealed to you, and the most arcane of secrets you shall know, and His name you are to uphold in a distant land, and lords of the land and kings shall listen to the word of the Lord issuing from your lips, and great and mysterious things you shall accomplish for the sake of His glory and the holiness of His name, and many shall hate you and very few will understand you, and they are the ones who will be saved at the end of time.
“And now arise, young Daniel, and set out on the way that has been ordained for you!”
“Not until you have blessed me, father Jeremiah, prophet of God the most high!”
“May God be with you whatsoever you do and wheresoever you go!” – Jeremiah blessed the youth, and added with a faint smile: “Although that is not so much a benediction as a simple observation, for even before you were in the womb God was with you and to the end of your days on this earth He will not forsake you, for you are very dear to Him and are numbered among His children! He shall show the way that you must walk until you are gathered to Him, forever and ever, amen!” – and so saying the man leaned forward and lightly touched the head of the youth, then turned and with vigorous, measured tread, returned the way he had come.
When Daniel rose to his feet the void was empty again and the house silent and closed, as he had seen it just a short while before. The gate was locked, locked and bolted, heavy and forbidding.
He mounted his mare and realised he had done this with unwonted lightness, with agility, in high spirits even. The Chaldean soldiers followed his example and they too seemed more cheerful, as a sort of distant flush tinged the edges of their cheeks, areas untouched by their neatly trimmed beards. His brown eyes gleamed. He urged on his mare without giving a moment’s thought to her debilitated condition but – and here was a positive miracle – she responded to his commands and settled into a steady gait, treading lightly as she climbed the incline of the road from Anathoth.
The words of the prophet reverberated in the turbulent soul of the young man. The lines of his face, delicately crafted yet bold, were enlivened by remarkable vigour, without revealing the merest hint of his innermost thoughts. Thus he had been taught by his tutors who constantly repeated to him one of the sayings of the wisest of men: Better be slow to anger than be a mighty warrior, better control your temper than conquer a city.
The young features were handsome, although expressing a composure at odds with his age. His hair was black, raven-black, silky-smooth and clean, combed back and falling to his shoulders, his forehead a startling white, high and smooth. The expression of his face spoke of absence of fear, as if cleansed of the last vestige of worldliness.
He called to mind once again the encounter that he had longed for so much, the words he had just heard, the words he had uttered. Everything so different from what he had envisaged, surprising and embarrassing, and continuing to perturb his spirit. Had the die really been cast, had he been assigned the far from easy task of preaching the word of God before the rulers of foreign lands? Would they believe him? He saw no purpose in attempting to answer his own questions, and they remained suspended in the void, a source of anxiety and stress – and of untempered delight.
He revealed to no one his wishes and his latent longings, and indeed there was no need for this, since He, his father in Heaven, his God, always listened to the meditations of his heart, and guided him on the way that led to Him.
He had heard tell of Jeremiah and knew he was the true emissary of the living God, and he took his side, sometimes in silence, sometimes with a sentence or two, inside his house and outside it. In time it became known to him that his father too was on the side of Jeremiah, but because of his exalted status and his respect for the king he could not express this publicly, only in the presence of the king and his inner circle of advisers. The king and his entourage, with the exception of his father and possibly his uncle too, his mother’s brother, did not accept the yoke of the Chaldeans and refused to believe that they had brought it upon their own necks, with their departure from the Holy Torah and their rejection of God, speaking through His prophet and saying: Not by might and not by power but through my spirit, meaning – cleave to me, keep my commandments, and you have no one to fear and nothing to dread, for I am your defender, your redeemer and deliverer and no power on the earth, however great it may be, can do you harm.
They did not understand anything, or it would be more true to say – they refused to understand. Their pride was hurt, and instead of seeking out the source of their downfall in themselves, they accused God of abandoning them and forsaking them, and selling them to their enemies.
It was painful, looking into the faces of his father’s friends, the ministers and advisers and leaders of armies, and seeing how their eyes flashed with resentment at the cruel fate allotted them. And when the Prophet appeared, the true emissary of the living God, and called on them to repent, and foretold the future, they vented their anger on him, blaming and abusing him, threatening him with torture, exile, imprisonment… and the man of God endured it all and was not deterred. Threats were of no avail, and yet those who threatened were unabashed and unrepentant.
That was when he began praying for the soul of his father, and the soul of the misguided king, and of the people, led astray through no malice of their own. And his prayers were heard and the way to salvation was revealed for all to see, but it was not as those destined for salvation had envisaged it; it seemed to them this was not the way of salvation but the way of suffering, of destruction and of ruin.
Before they knew it, they had reached the ravaged wall of the Holy City, the capital city of the people of God. This is the site of the Humble Gate, lowest of all the gates, with just enough space for a horse and rider to pass through it, and it used to be the pedlars’ gate. Only a few years ago the place had been thronged with pedlars, hawking their various wares and blocking the path of anyone trying to pass by.
Today it is just an aperture with no breath of life about it. An aperture leading to a cemetery. Has the city of the faithful turned into a cemetery? Judging by the wraiths presiding over it, there is little to choose between city and cemetery. Graves – is that not what these houses are, houses where only the sounds of grief and bitter weeping interrupt their mournful stillness? Has this city breathed its last? Not yet. The Prophet Jeremiah predicted the renewal of its youth seventy years from now, when its inhabitants are cleansed of all their defilement and a new generation comes, the generation of great hope, and build upon its ruins, laying firm foundations of righteousness, truth and justice, and God dwells in it once again, as in the first days and as He promised to His people, the God who is love.
At home a surprise awaited him. His friends, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, were sitting in his room waiting for him patiently, their belongings packed at their feet, and faint smiles on their young faces, while beside them Ashpenaz, the chief eunuch and envoy of Nebuchadnezzar, who had come to collect “children” as he called them, children of outstanding talents, was incandescent with rage. He hurled all kinds of senseless accusations at his soldiers, denouncing them as wastrels and halfwits, deserving only the executioner’s sword. And all this because they did not spur on their horses and arrive early. And there was no point in making excuses here, since Ashpenaz was clearly in no mood to listen to excuses. Especially as the officer who sent them had been transferred elsewhere and there was no one who would dare to remind the furious Ashpenaz that the riders were required to return not later than midday, and as it was not yet midday, they were in fact ahead of schedule.
When Ashpenaz the chief eunuch had expended his anger on his soldiers, he turned to them and commanded them to make haste to the square by the elegant gate, where the convoy about to leave for Babylon had been delayed by the irresponsible behaviour of two of his soldiers, who would yet pay the penalty, as would the officer who had authorised their absence.
The youth regretted the punishment that was in store for the Chaldean officer, but in his heart he rejoiced at the opportunity that he had been given, looking into the face of the true man of God, the dauntless prophet of his father in Heaven, hearing his blessing and parting from him in peace.
He bade hasty farewells to his mother and his two sisters and his brother in the cradle, his nurse and his grandmother and all the slaves and family retainers. His mother held back her tears, as did his nurse. His sisters were too young to realise what was happening, the slaves wept softly, as did the maidservants. He took his bundle and set out with vigorous tread for the main entrance of the house. An old slave trailed along behind him, and accompanied him as far as the outer door. From here he carried on with his three companions.
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The commander of the convoy, a Chaldean officer, grim-faced like most of the all-conquering Chaldeans, put them, the four of them, on one of the wagons that were covered with canopies of cattle-hide for shade, and crammed with youths like themselves, the scions of noble families, summoned by the king of Babylon to serve in his palace.
The officer spurred his thoroughbred horse along the line of the convoy, composed of wagons, men and beasts, inspected whatever it was that required his inspection, retraced his steps and ordered his equerry to shoot off three burning arrows into the bright blue sky, the pre-arranged signal for the convoy leaders to move. And sure enough, as soon as the arrows had fallen to the ground and been extinguished in the whitish-grey dust of the roadside, a kind of stirring was sensed among men and beasts alike. Most of the people carried knapsacks on their hunched shoulders and walked, barefoot as a rule, close to the long wagons and leaning on them for support. The majority of the wagons were open to the blazing sun and carried all kinds of cargo and a few passengers. Besides the pairs of horses harnessed to the wagons, the pampered little ponies of the Chaldean cavalry, escorting the convoy of exiles, many of them artisans – were everywhere to be seen. About a dozen oxen, a source of fresh meat for the Chaldean army, and some half dozen milch-cows, for the provision of fresh milk, trailed along ponderously in the rear.
Their covered wagon occupied, so it seemed, prime position in the middle of the convoy, with six Chaldean horsemen, three on either side, escorting them. It soon became clear to them that this was the royal wagon, reserved for those destined to look upon the face of the great king, the conqueror of the world, Nebuchadnezzar the Chaldean, himself and in person.
Some residents of the city came out to accompany the convoy with their silent looks, while well-armed Chaldean troops kept them away from the travellers.
His eyes lingered on the faces of those looking on; sad, scared faces with bitter, veiled looks, the faces of his compatriots, the people of God who did not keep faith with Him, but strayed and led astray… and again his heart was filled with such a weight of grief that it almost stopped beating.
And then, somewhere, among the silent watchers, those remaining behind in the city that was doomed to destruction, he caught her eye. He knew it was her, and her gaze that was following him, the deep gaze of her eyes, blue tending towards violet, even before their eyes met.
Relief from an unknown source swelled his chest. His heart resumed its joyful beating, the vibrant joy that he knew so well.
Their glances locked together. This was a long moment which detached the two of them from their surroundings, erased all other faces and transported them to the limpid heights of another world, a world of their own, where no stranger could set foot.
His head was turned back, and his eyes still fixed on hers, eyes radiating comfort and confidence and peace. Could it be that the purity of the world, all that divine purity, bestowed upon man in abundance but rejected and trampled rudely underfoot, has found in these eyes its inexhaustible spring? – so he pondered, unable, and unwilling, to detach his gaze from hers.
The Chaldean horseman leaned across, trying, with a clumsy movement, to move him back into the interior of the wagon, while making every effort to avoid injuring the king’s prisoner. His instructions were to show leniency and fairness towards the youths destined to look upon the face of King Nebuchadnezzar the conqueror of the world, and to serve him. And all the while the wheels of the wagon went on turning, moving slowly on the road with its coarse, unmatched paving stones.
Nejeen had to run behind the ranks of soldiers and a number of Jews standing at the roadside, and when she realised she could not catch up with him, she stopped and stood still and waved her hand to him, a familiar, white hand, that suddenly glowed in the stifling heat of the air like a source of tender light, a blast of invigorating chill.
He waved back to her energetically, then yielded to the pressure exerted on him by the Chaldean horseman and withdrew to the depths of the wagon, his eyes sparkling and his face burning. His companions stared at him, bemused.
The wagon was long, more so than any of the other wagons, and yet still the youths sitting in it were cramped together. There were eight of them, apparently all of an age. He sat between Mishael and Azariah. Hananiah tried to peer through the seam of the stitching at the rear of the canopy and observe, for perhaps the last time in his life, the ruined northern wall of the city, the wall which the Chaldeans had taken the trouble to reduce to its foundations, setting to work those inhabitants of the city who had not been slain nor exiled to Babylon, alongside such slaves as had survived.
Azariah asked him in a whisper:
He confirmed this with a nod of the head, and spoke the name with a blend of reverence and exaltation of spirit:
And perhaps he will never see her again, never meet again. This thought seems to him strange and at odds with reality. He will meet her again. How and when – only God knows. Jerusalem the holy city, the land that he knows, his mother, his sisters and his baby brother – he may never see again. So his doleful heart tells him. But Nejeen… a current of warmth bearing with it a gentle beam of light, sweeps through his whole being and drives the dolour from his heart.
And what will become of Jerusalem? Will it be utterly destroyed, and never rebuilt? The Prophet of God decreed for it seventy years of desolation, after which it shall be built again. And great is the hope and bold is the dream, that the one that is to be built will never again be destroyed and it will be the city of God, the habitation of the faithful, inside and out. The city of God in which the people of God live and praise their Father who is in Heaven with psalm and anthem, with harp and viol, with cymbals, drum, lyre and pipe, extolling and glorifying Him all the days of their lives upon the earth, a people that will serve as a model to all races and principalities and nations and tongues, who will come from faraway to bow down to the one God and see His people with their own eyes, to learn from them and to be like them.
This people will beat its swords into ploughshares and its spears into pruning-hooks, and its best young men, God-fearers and God-lovers all, will no longer take up weapons, and among them there will be no commoners, no men of power and authority, no kings or nobles or dignitaries, no servants and no masters, no slaves and no free men, For all shall know me, from the least to the greatest, as God has declared through the lips of His prophet. And they will all be His children, in the words of King David: I said, you are God, and all of you are children of the Most High. There will be no more need of judges and constables and kings, and He will be their one and only unrivalled king.
The convoy was moving now at a faster pace. The big wheels of the wagon creaked beneath them, dust rose in spirals from the road, thick and cloying, hanging in clouds above their heads, in the void of the air, veiling the face of the bright sky. This dust made breathing heavy, seared the throat.
“What were you thinking about?” asked Mishael.
He glanced at him. His contemporary, swarthy of face and bright of eye, his hair black and curly, falling on both sides of his head and behind, like a flock of goats coming down from Gilead – the line from the Song of King Solomon flashes into his mind. The face of Azariah, on the other hand, was not at all swarthy, but very pale, a face not testifying to the best of health, eyes black, soft and deep-set, his hair almost smooth and tending towards ruddiness. It was said of him he was descended from King David. His family was one of the most distinguished in Jerusalem, but he for his part had little to say, being wrapped up in himself.
On his father’s advice the former Theodoros, now known as Doroz, came to drill him with physical exercises.
Azariah detested such exercises, and was not outstanding in horsemanship either, but after their fathers had spoken together, Azariah’s father approached his son and urged him to do these exercises. Azariah complied, thus upholding the commandment to honour father and mother, and listened to Doroz, who invested a great deal of effort in him and tried to persuade him to continue with these exercises, even when the trainer was not there. The results were visible – and for a few days a light reddish tinge spread over Azariah’s cheeks, but only for a few days. Then the pallor returned and reclaimed its place.
Above all else, Azariah chose to sit in the Sanctuary, to spend as much time as he could under its high, domed roof, radiating the solemnity of holiness, his eyes staring in the shadowy void, and his lips murmuring the verses most dear to him: Even though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no evil, for you are with me… I trust in the Lord, I shall not fear what mankind may do to me… From the straits I called upon the Lord, He answered me in the open spaces.
Sometimes he joined Azariah in the Sanctuary, to sit beside him on one of the seats reserved for the royal household, and be as silent as he. Sometimes they sat like this, in silence, from daybreak to sunset.
The Shekhinah prevails between the high walls of the Sanctuary and they are both of them imbued with it, in their detachment from the outside, from what grieves them or gladdens them, in their loss of all awareness of time. In the end they rise from their seats and part in silent amity, each turning to go his own way.
It is not only within the Sanctuary that the Shekhinah prevails. It prevails outside it too, in the flickering expanse above the City of David and in its winding alleyways and in the hills and the fields surrounding it all around, in the dewy meadow of a spring morning, in the greening forests, in every single place where man serves his Father in Heaven with love and tells His praises.
“What were you thinking about?” – Mishael repeated his question, his voice distant.
“About all the sins that we have committed against our Father in Heaven. We dream of what could be good and beautiful, and we do what is wicked and ugly.”
“But Daniel, we are not like that!” – Azariah turned to him, and his voice more quiet than usual, restrained to a degree, a restraint that was conscious and not natural.
In the tone of his voice there was pain and longing. Pain over what had happened in Jerusalem and what his eyes had witnessed, and this exile that had been forced on them, and the separation from parents, from brothers and sisters, and from uncles, from fields and vineyards, from enchanted mornings of spring and summer, autumn and winter… and longing to cling to God with all his might, with redoubled love, to trust in Him to the end and above all – to do His will without a moment’s thought, and if it is possible, to sanctify His name, to sacrifice everything, to the end. Are this pain and this longing not the pain and the longing of all of them, of the four of them at least?
Hananiah returns from the crack through which he had been looking at the ruined buildings of his home town. The dust has already covered them, and there is no longer anything to look at. Hananiah tries to hide the tears welling in his reddened eyes.
“This dust!” he exclaims, when he realises that his three friends have discovered his weakness.
“It scalds the eyes” Hananiah insists, studying the faces of his three friends as if saying: “Try to believe me, make it easier for me! It’s the truth that I’m telling – it scalds the eyes and damages them!”
“You have to beware of dust!” Mishael declares with dignity, and Azariah joins in, in the same tone of voice, as he explains:
“A few years ago Esther, our housemaid, was in floods of tears because she happened to be walking on a dusty road when a troop of the royal guard came riding along and kicked up clouds of dust. It took her a long time to recover. She needed cold compresses on her eyes for a whole month!”
“That’s what dust can do, and there’s no doubting it’s as dangerous to the eyes as vinegar is to the teeth,” he asserted solemnly – “and we’ll have to be careful of it, especially seeing that we have a lengthy journey ahead of us, and it’s not a matter of a day or two, or even a week or two. It’s a long way, and it’s all obstacles, dust and sand!”
“How long is it supposed to take?” asked Azariah eagerly, clearly intending to change the subject and give Hananiah the chance to attend to his tears. And Hananiah took his friend’s hint, pulling out from under his sheepskin tunic a scrap of cloth and wiping his face and his nose with great deliberation. When he turned to face them again, his eyes were dry.
“About three weeks,” he answered the one who had asked, and went on to explain: “So I have heard from those who have done the journey there and back – twenty-one days from here to there, from there to here, a little less.”
“And perhaps they were horsemen in a hurry and not a caravan like this one of ours, which is mostly people on foot and a few wagons and horses, not to mention oxen and cattle trundling along at their own pace.”
“A caravan just like this one,” he insisted. “Since the Chaldeans came, several such have gone down to Babylon, and some of those escorting them have returned, and that journey was indeed a shorter one – no caravan, just horsemen.”
“Chaldean horsemen?” asked Mishael.
“Correct,” he answered him.
“Have you been fraternising with Chaldeans?” asked Hananiah, in a tone that suggested he had not the slightest interest in hearing an answer to his question.
“They were billeted on us,” he replied – “in our house on the plain. They seemed to like the place, and we refused them nothing. Secretly, my mother was hoping the house would be spared, but in the end it was destroyed, like the houses of all those who opposed the Chaldeans and fought against them, and those who were close to the king.”
“But the minister Naimel, your father, died in battle!” Hananiah pointed out.
“All the more reason,” he replied with dignity.
“Our house is still standing,” – one of the ‘strangers’ approached the group of four. “My father was killed fighting them too, but my mother convinced the Chaldeans that our house was not his but belonged to my grandfather, who had nothing at all to do with the king’s ministers or advisers, but on the contrary – was among the supporters of Jeremiah.”
“Did he really support Jeremiah?” he asked curiously.
The young man replied with a sly wink:
“My grandfather’s eyes are failing and his ears stopped hearing anything a long time ago. To this very day, he doesn’t even know that the Chaldeans are in Jerusalem.”
“So your mother broke the commandment against giving false witness,” Mishael commented.
“We had to choose between our home and this commandment…. and I don’t know anyone who obeys it to the letter!”
The four of them looked down and were silent for a long moment.
“Don’t pretend to be so righteous,” another youth interjected from the depths of the wagon. “You people haven’t been keeping this commandment either, you’re just like the rest of us! No one is capable of keeping this commandment – and all the others!” he insisted.
“It’s because of that kind of thinking that Jerusalem fell and the kingdom of David came to an end,” Hananiah commented.
“Jerusalem will yet be rebuilt and there will be no end to the kingdom of David!” – he intervened hastily, before one of the others could reply to Hananiah. “You’ll find it in the Scriptures, and it was Jeremiah’s prophecy too,” he concluded.
“What I mean to say,” – added the youth who had spoken previously – “is that it’s not in the nature of a man of flesh and blood to keep the commandments, and abiding by them is beyond his capabilities!”
“He who keeps these commandments – will be saved!” he insisted.
“Anyway, the whole world, with all its inhabitants and creatures, is surely doomed to destruction and will perish!” interposed a third youth, not one of his companions.
“The whole world will not be destroyed, nor will all creatures perish!” he answered him.
“Who are those who will be spared?” asked Hananiah curiously.
“Those who love the Lord,” he said and added: “As it is written – You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your might and with all your soul. He who loves the Lord will be saved and the world will be saved for his sake.”
One of the wheels of the wagon struck a hillock, and all eight youths were flung to one side. A cloud of hot, sticky dust drifted in, settling and drawing a chorus of hoarse coughing from the throats of the young men. The debate was suspended, as eyes were closed for a long moment. Outside, someone could be heard cursing the wagon-driver in a coarse tone of voice. One of the Chaldean riders, evidently. Another Chaldean arrived and restrained him from laying a whip on the back of the hapless Jewish wagoner.
He peered through a chink in the canopy: a long straggling line of wagons, and beside them creatures who seemed to be from another world, walking blindly with heads bowed, a grey, winding column, slow-moving, ponderous and it seemed – without purpose. Dust is still spiralling upwards and the lines are blurred. The molten gold of the horizon is dulled, and the head of the column seems to blending into it and disappearing from view.
The wheels of the wagons creak, the horses whinny, the oxen behind utter their prolonged, guttural bellows, in which there is no defiance, only despair and a plea for mercy. The cows add their voices to the chorus, but their lowing is less discordant and less submissive. The hot, dust-laden air is impeding the progress of the convoy. The mounted Chaldeans shield their eyes, scanning the wide expanse. They can’t tell anyone, not even themselves, where they are. Hands droop in resignation, and the caravan moves on. The Chaldeans try to calculate their position on the basis of the time that has elapsed: some four hours since they left Jerusalem, and the way still to be travelled seems longer than ever. Their reckoning is faulty. They wish one of the exiles would ask them how far they have travelled from Jerusalem and when they will arrive in Babylon, to which they will reply in true soldierly style, that this is no concern of his, and he should be so good as to continue to walk this narrow path and not impede the journey in any way, and mind his own business. Some day, and somehow, he will reach his destination, see the towering walls of the mighty metropolis of Babylon, draw near to them and enter by the tall gates. And there work awaits him, all kinds of tasks in the service of the great king, conqueror of the world, Nebuchadnezzar his name, and woe betide him if he is idle or fails to deliver or asks too many foolish questions! In the court of the king of Babylon such things are not tolerated. And he should take great care, and heed this friendly warning: for infringing these prohibitions there is only one penalty – the sharp sword of His Majesty’s headsman.
But no one addresses a question to the soldiers of the king of Babylon, possibly because no one is in the mood for a lecture. They all know better than to ask unnecessary questions – questions with all too predictable answers. The swathed head of the Jewish exile, bowed against the hot wind, is laden with crude and corrosive particles of dust, and all his face, except a narrow slit for the eyes, is shielded with cloth against this treacherous dust, which settles everywhere and penetrates everything, only adding to the burden of gloom of the exiles.
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His father was of priestly lineage on his mother’s side, and a man of Judah through his father. A family with roots stretching back to the son of Jesse on the one hand and the sons of Aaron on the other. His grandfather and his grandfather’s father were counted among the senior advisers of the kings of Judah, as was his father too. A skilled archer was his father, and an accomplished swordsman, and a javelin thrown by his hand never missed its mark. Moreover he was a scholar and played on the lyre, and the anthems of King David were forever on his lips. No man dared compete with his father in horsemanship; while mounted on his horse he could shoot five arrows one after the other, and with each of them strike a target marked out for him on the trunk of a tree.
Before the coming of the Chaldeans, the king summoned his courtiers and urged them to compete among themselves in the arts of archery and horsemanship; shooting arrows and bringing down doves in flight, while riding a charger. The minister Naimel refused to take part in the contest, with the polite determination that was so typical of him. He saw no point in shooting arrows at blameless doves, he declared.
This was a reasonable argument to which the king had no answer, but there could be no doubt he was enraged by the refusal of his senior minister and adviser. Because he was not yet ready to dispense with his services, he allowed him to remain in his post. However, the king bore a grudge against him, and this grudge turned to open hatred when his father, the minister Naimel, supported Jeremiah, declaring him a true prophet through whom God was speaking, and saying it was a sacred duty to heed the voice of God and do His will, and not, Heaven forfend, be numbered among His enemies. Nevertheless, the minister Naimel allowed no one to speak ill of the king or revile him in his presence.
In a bitter moment during the siege, the king issued a stern edict according to which his senior minister and adviser Naimel was to be arrested, chained and imprisoned. And if the Chaldeans breached the wall – he was to be hanged on the nearest available tree. But all the ministers and advisers, and seasoned warriors, rose as one man in opposition to the king, even those who were the king’s most avid supporters and the most implacable foes of Jeremiah the Prophet, spurning his prophecies out of hand. The edict was cancelled and never put into effect.
Thus, his father was reprieved, and not put in shackles, or thrown into a dungeon. And the king did not regret his clemency, for when the time came and the wall was breached, and the king fled for his life, Naimel stayed behind at his command in the abandoned palace, to defend its empty chambers and delay the Chaldeans for as long as possible in their pursuit of the fugitive king. Alongside the minister were a handful of the king’s slaves and eunuchs, who had no training in warfare, and barely knew one end of a spear from the other. They quickly dispersed and left him to his fate, when the mighty Chaldean army smashed down the gates of the royal palace.
Melancholic memories come to mind: here is his father, teaching him to ride. In a few, short sentences, he explains what requires explanation, and demands, without a flicker of an eyebrow, that he perform for himself what has just been explained to him and demonstrated to him.
His father followed with an attentive eye every one of his movements, and every slightest twitch on the part of the horse, at that time a pampered mare, the best in their stable, and the most intelligent. His father had a thin and tranquil smile, a smile of composure blended with sincerity. His forehead was fair, gleaming, pure, testifying to wisdom and to a personality ignorant of the meaning of fear. The lines of his face symmetrical, carefully crafted, such as are found in those born to be kings, whose beauty bears the supreme stamp of the spiritual.
His father spoke little, and only of urgent matters. He met him but rarely, and every such meeting left a deep impression on his soul.
He loved his father, admired him painfully, revered him secretly, and did everything in his power to gain his approval and to be like him. And when he succeeded in this, as for instance in those riding lessons, and later when he was instructed in the arts of archery and of sword-play, and knew that his father was pleased with his progress, he was filled with elation such as he did not know existed.
His father never expressed his satisfaction or his dissatisfaction in words. Even the lines of his face showed no hint of what was happening inside him. But he knew for sure, without needing any hint, when his father was satisfied with him and when not. Instances of dissatisfaction he could hardly remember. And all this against the background of their rare meetings, in which they barely needed the spoken word in order to communicate with one another.
“Speech is superfluous,” his father answered him once with that typical smile of his, redolent of charm and assurance together, and in spite of this, saying everything that needed saying.
“The more words are needed,” his father explained, “the more foolish men are. The less they are needed – the wiser.”
“And what about the Scriptures?” he asked.
“They are concise. Every word, every syllable, every letter, every dot – is in its place!”
His father never went out hunting, despite being a marksman. Nor did he eat meat, and in their family they never slaughtered a lamb or an ox or a goat. His father insisted on this, and so it was. And it aroused his curiosity to the point where, seizing one of those rare opportunities afforded by riding lessons, he asked what was the reason for this. In his typically succinct yet persuasive manner, which never failed to captivate and warm his heart, his father answered him:
“Read the Genesis Scroll, first chapter, verses twenty-nine and thirty.”
As soon as the lesson was finished he ran home, found the Genesis Scroll and read: And God said, Behold I have given you every herb bearing seed which is upon the face of all the earth and every tree in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed and they shall be yours for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every fowl of the air and to everything that creeps upon the earth, in which is life, I give all herbs for food, and it was so.
And the reading of this passage left him deeply confused. Did the Blessed and the Holy One really command man and beast to eat only vegetables and fruit? And yet, in the Scriptures there is also talk of sacrifices, and feasts, and the ritual of Passover… He had to muster all his patience and wait for the next riding lesson, which was, as it transpired, also the last, to put his questions to his father and mentor, making prodigious efforts not to reveal his inner turmoil.
And he obtained his answer:
“This is the law that is prior to sin. A true law. Man does not prey on beast, and beast does not prey on any living creature, and there is no sin.”
“This could hardly be described as a law!” – he commented, tentatively.
“Without sin there is no need for law. The man who has not sinned is law personified.”
“And at the end of days?” he asked.
“He will again be as he was before he sinned. Remember what the Prophet said: The wolf and the lamb shall graze together, and the lion shall eat hay like the ox.”
And then, and this is a moment he will never forget, his father turned to him and gave him a long look, different from any look he had experienced until that day and declared:
“I do not delight in the blood of bullocks or of sheep ” – and these words too were unfamiliar to him, and in his efforts to grasp what it was that made this occasion special, something about his father’s look and his voice, one word sprang into his mind and embedded itself there: warmth.
“And yet in spite of all this – there were feasts and sacrifices and the Passover ritual!” he exclaimed reluctantly, for he would have preferred not to have spoken at all, preserving at all costs the wonder of that moment. Nor was he expecting a response, but there was one.
“Grace I desire rather than a feast, and knowledge of God rather than sacrifice” – again his father quoted a verse from the Scriptures, this time from the Prophet Hosea.
“So what does it mean, when people still need meat?”
“It testifies to the sin that still prevails over them.”
He remembered seeing his father one more time, the day before the wall was breached and the Chaldeans took Jerusalem.
At a late hour of the night his father came into his chamber, a little oil-lamp in his hand, and finding him awake, asked him if he understood that the soul is immortal, and death cannot come between those whose hearts are pure, who cleave to God and love Him with all their heart and might.
He nodded, assenting.
And without saying another word his father withdrew to the corridor and for some time he could make out the flashes of his lamp, until the light faded and was utterly absorbed by the darkness.
The following day the wall was breached, and the king commanded his father to stay in the palace, to repel the attacks of the Chaldeans and delay them for as long as was possible, to cover his own escape.
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THREE BURNING ARROWS
The convoy climbed up to a broad plateau, the dusty road stretching across it straight as a ruler and with no obstacles to impede progress. Men and beasts quickened their pace and breathed more easily as less effort was required of them, and the jolting of the wagons subsided.
The young men were assailed by hunger...
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WHEN THE MIST CLEARS
THE GATE OPENS
THE HOUSE OF OR-NEGO
THE ROYAL PALACE
LET ALL LIVING THINGS PRAISE THE LORD
THE SHRINE OF BEL
Working in the office of Nashdernach, the man appointed by the King to supervise his senior counsellors and reputedly an authority on the holy writings of the Jews, was fraught with tension. Runners came and went from early morning till late in the evening, even at times when Nashdernach was absent from the office, leaving their messages either orally, in which case the duty clerk made a written record with a stylus on finely crafted scrolls, or in the form of inscriptions on clay tablets, parchment or those thin, flimsy sheets of paper imported from Egypt, made from reeds and known as “papyrus”.
For his part, the chief minister of the King’s council made every effort to be present and to receive in person the dispatches arriving from all far-flung corners of the great kingdom, especially the oral reports, which were sometimes corrupted in transmission from one runner to another and from one clerk to another. If he suspected any such inaccuracy, the minister would personally interrogate the runner and force him to repeat the message over and over again, while a harassed clerk took dictation. If the several versions of the same material were inconsistent, as frequently happened, or even contradicted one another, a less common occurrence, Nashdernach would fume, abusing and berating the unfortunate runner and the fool who had entrusted him with the message, and sending him back the way he had come, accompanied by a runner of his own, who was instructed to report the minister’s displeasure, demand an enquiry and return post haste with a clear and authenticated version of the original message.
At such times as this, the minister’s extensive office was in a ferment: scribes and calligraphers running back …........
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Form the book: THE CHOSEN by Shlomo Kalo.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED TO D.A.T. PUBLICATIONS, POBOX 27019, JAFFA 61270, ISRAEL