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Yaacov ben Simon
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Yaacov ben Simon
A Short Story
Shawn M. Henderson
Marymount University, Arlington, VA
© October 2, 2008
Somewhere in the Kidron Valley
“Tell us again, tell us again!” they all shouted excitedly.
“Yes, do tell the story again Yaacov. I love hearing about the Temple,” Miriam said as she smiled and sat by the fire with the young ones.
Alright, alright, I’ll tell you again. I grabbed little Hannah and set her in my lap. I saw a twinkle in Miriam’s eye as the flame from the fire danced in the cool, night air. God has blessed me with such a wonderful wife, beautiful children, and now these sweet grandchildren, I thought to myself. Then I closed my eyes. Immediately I was transported back in time sixty years, when my father took my brother and me to the city – Jerusalem. It was Pesach. I began retelling the story as I had many a time before.
Jerusalem was such a wonderful city, especially to us as we were still young and this was to be our first visit as we lived about a month’s journey from the city. My brother had just come of age, and father wanted him to experience the Temple; to be able to read the Torah there, and we would make sacrifice during the festival. My mother, your great- grandmother, could not go because her parents were in their old age and could not make the journey. We packed some delicious food she had prepared for us, along with clothing, and money. We had to hide some of our money just in case we were robbed on our way.
As we walked our home grew smaller and smaller on the horizon. I looked back and saw my mother in the distance, now very tiny in appearance, still waving. I am sure she was worried (what good Jewish mother doesn’t?) and thought she would never see us again. I waved back to her, and yelled, “G-d is with us, do not worry!” Then I turned, and set my sights on the Holy City.
The journey was exhausting, but we finally made it to the city just as the sun began to rise. It was a day before Pesach and we had made the city wall in time for the Feast of the Firstborn, but we had so much to do before sundown. It was going to be a very busy day and people were everywhere! We approached the enormous Huldah Gates; my father explained how they opened the triple arch due to Pesach and that normally only one or two were open. As we waited in line to get through, I heard somebody shout my father’s name. This was not unusual as many people had my father’s name, but this was a familiar voice. I turned just in time to see him.
“Simon! Simon! You made it!” My uncle said as he ran up to us embracing my father. He lived closer to the city and had been in Jerusalem a whole week before us. “Look at you boys! You have gotten so big since we last saw each other”
Uncle, I said, I was only three, of course I have grown!
“Hahaha, you are right little Yaacov. And you have apparently become very intelligent as well. Are you excited to see the Temple?”
Oh yes! I have been trying to imagine what it looks like, but I have nothing to compare it with so I make up the rest.
“Well, tomorrow you will see it and you can go home and tell all your friends what it really looks like! You would not believe what has been happening, Simon! A man … a carpenter’s son … from Bethlehem is here causing trouble.”
My father chuckled. “Is not somebody causing trouble here all the time? Let us go find supplies for Pesach and the seder. Praise G-d it is not Shabbat as well!”
We finally made it to the threshold of the gate and slowly walked through. I was amazed. The sounds, the smells, and all the people shoving and yelling were all so new. As we walked through the gate, I saw a Roman soldier for the first time; he was standing guard on the inner side and was very tall and very ugly!
“Yaccov, that was not nice!” Miriam scolded amidst giggles from the children.
Well, he was. And he stank like cheap wine and manure. Actually, the whole city stank like manure. Animals were running lose; small children chased some of them through the crowd (which made some very angry). One little boy slipped and fell in a pile of dung! Donkey’s brayed, and roosters began to crow as dawn approached. Camels were everywhere, and they seemed to talk to each other as their bleats grew into a chorus of, what sounded like, teenage boys whose voices were changing. Temple vendors were everywhere selling various types of sacrificial animals, fruits, and herbs. How the Pharisees oversaw them all, I’ll never know. I also heard strange tongues as people from various lands and regions gathered for the joyous celebration.
The sun had risen over the horizon and was just becoming visible over the top of the city walls. Beams of sunlight shot through the city streets. Jewelry on women and on vendor tables reflected the light. Some caused rainbows to twinkle on buildings. I was blinded several times as sunlight bounced off the golden garments some wore and off the armor of the soldiers.
Suddenly, a man with a whip and eyes filled with determination purposefully walked through the crowd. People quickly moved out of his way as he was being followed by dozens of people. As they all rushed past us I heard one of the men ask another, “Why is he so mad?” Then, without warning, the man with the whip started turning over tables as he walked by them. He was yelling something, but I could not quite make out. My Aramaic was not very developed as we typically spoke Greek.
“Let’s get out of here,” uncle said, and he led us down a side street to get away from the crowd. We went to a market and gathered food needed for the rest of the day. I had never seen so many different types of food in one place. Dates, figs, honey, eggs, olive oil, rows and rows of spices – names of some I had never heard before – and bread. There was not fresh bread, of course, and not much was left. Probably only the Romans were buying it.
“Because of Pesach” Aaron, the eldest grandson stated.
“No, because the birds ate it all,” Anna teased.
“You are just jealous because the birds would not touch your bread!”
Now, now let’s not fight. Yes, Aaron because of Pesach; and your bread is delicious Anna – especially with a lot of fresh fig jam.
Where was I? Oh yes, after the market, we went to our cousin’s home where we were staying, and that night we celebrated the Feast of the Firstborn with our extended family – many of who I had never met. I was so excited for the following day I had a difficult time falling asleep, but exhaustion finally took over. I fell asleep to the sounds of drunken soldiers yelling in the streets.
Morning came and my brother and I quickly got dressed. This was the day we had anticipated for so long and we were very excited. Our plan was to have breakfast, do the shopping for the seder, then go to the Temple. So that we would be familiar with the process of Temple worship, we would make a small, daily sacrifice then return with a lamb sacrifice the next day, first day of Pesach.
We quickly ate and rushed the adults as best we could. After what seemed like hours, we finally made our way through the city streets. I had not thought it possible, but it seemed as though even more people had come since we went to sleep the night before. Father held my hand very tightly, but still I was shoved and hit from all sides.
As we made our way through the crowds of worshippers and dancers and vendors we walked through a large arch. As we came through the opening we stopped dead in our tracks. There it was, the Temple. It was glorious and massive! The sun, now high over the city, shined down and bounced off the golden domes; it was as though the sun itself was in the Temple. I had never seen so much gold. Throngs of people made their way up the stairs. Some were singing, some were praying; some played instruments, some just stood in awe and reverence. One elderly woman stood at the bottom of the steps and wept. The sweet smell of incense filled the air and overpowered the smell of blood and burning animal flesh.
We reached the outer court and the Mizbaeach [Outer Altar]. The curtain to the Kodesh Kodashim [Holy of Holies] was enormous. I wondered what it must be like to be in that place, but knew I would never know. We made our sacrifice, listened to the readings, and said prayers. It was such a happy day that I could not even imagine how the next day could be better, even though father said it would.
That night we had the seder meal. I thought of my mother who was at home with her parents doing the same thing; how in every Jewish home throughout the world this scene was being played out. My father told us stories of Moses and Father Abraham, and how Moses led our people out of slavery in Egypt. We sang the traditional songs. As we came to the Nirtzah [closing], we prayed the traditional prayer that Messiah would come within this year, and that next year G-d willing, the whole family would be together in Jerusalem for Pesach. Then my father said, “Tomorrow, we will go and buy a lamb to sacrifice. You boys will have to make sure you watch the lamb closely so it does not run away.”
My father came into our room after everyone had gone to bed. Thinking I was asleep, he went to my brother first and I heard him saying a blessing over him. When he came over to me he noticed I was still awake.
“Yaacov, why are you not sleeping? You have had a big day today and tomorrow will be even bigger.”
Abba, what will we see tomorrow? I still do not understand everything!
“You will see much son, and you must always keep what you see close in your heart. It will be a very special time, especially when we reach the Temple. G-d will reveal all things to you when the time is right. You will only have on responsibility tomorrow. You must keep your eyes on the lamb.”
I will abba, I will.
As he put his hand on my head, he quietly said the blessing, “Ye'simcha Elohim ke-Ephraim ve'chi-Menashe [May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe]. Now, go to sleep my son.”
The next morning we rose early and made preparations for going to the Temple. We packed some food, and enough money to buy a few souvenirs to take home to our mother as well as money for the sacrificial lamb. Father and uncle were talking in hushed voices and looked very serious. I heard them saying something about a late night arrest of some men. I remember I had been woken up in the middle of the night by the sounds of soldiers marching and women crying, but I did not know what was happening.
As we walked through the streets of the city, the feeling in the air was very odd. It was not at all like it had been the day before. The sun was in the sky, but covered by clouds. I did not hear any singing, or tambourines, or any kind of instruments being played. All I heard was shouting. We made our way to the vendor area to purchase the lamb – snowy-white, soft skin, and spotless. Father handed me the rope and looked me sternly, but lovingly, in the eye. I remembered what he had said to me the night before and pulled the lamb close to me as we began navigating the crowd and the streets.
The angry voices grew louder and louder. “Why are they crucifying men today of all days?” father asked uncle. “Simon, I think it is the men they arrested last night. Who knows why the Romans do what they do anyway, they do not care about our laws and traditions.”
Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him! I heard shouted over and over. Father grabbed my hand and said, “Come, let us leave this. We can come later to make sacrifice.” The three of us started to make our way back home. I was sad, but I could tell father was very nervous and scared, and I did not particularly want to see anyone being put to death.
Just then, a large angry crowd blocked off the passageway we were trying to go through. We were pushed into a very narrow street. Roman soldiers marched through clearing a path – for what I did not know – and we ended up in a larger opening of the street with no way to go around the people. But then I saw him, a man carrying a cross. Then another, and then another. “Look papa!” my brother shouted.
As each man struggled with the large piece of wood they were being forced to carry, people spat on them. They slowly walked past us. The first one cried out for mercy, and it was obvious the people were not going to give him any. The second one was loud, arrogant, and cursed the people. Father pulled me close to him and held me tight.
You filthy scum! This is what you deserve! I heard some people say. The soldiers would whip the men if they stopped. I heard a loud crack of a whip and saw blood from one man fly through the air. Then I heard one woman yell, “There is the master!” Another yelled, “Yes, it is Yeshua!”
Suddenly, the crowd grew silent as the third man came into view. This must be Yeshua they were talking about I thought to myself. He was walking very slowly and I could tell he had been beaten badly. I had never seen anyone covered in so much blood. Then, he stopped in front of a beautiful woman. She was standing away from the crowd but was surrounded by a man and two other women who were standing just slightly behind her on the side of the road. Yeshua looked at her. She was crying, but she had a peaceful look on her face. She nodded to him slowly and as he passed, she fell to her knees and threw her hands over her face and sobbed; the three people behind her immediately grabbed her and helped her to her feet.
Yeshua slowly came closer to us. Some people were spitting on him and throwing things. I did not know what he did, but it must have been horrible for them to treat him this way. Just then, right in front of us, he fell. His face hit the ground hard and the cross fell down on top of him. The soldier started to whip him. As the whip made contact with his bare flesh, blood flew from his body and hit me in the face and splattered onto my clothes. Father saw this, grabbed my shoulders, and moved me behind him.
“You!” a soldier grabbed my father and threw him to the ground, “Carry his cross!”
I watched in horror as my father tried to get away. The solder reached for his sword. My father looked down at Yeshua. Their eyes met. Suddenly, the look on my father’s face changed. It was no longer a look of fear, but reminded me of the beautiful woman’s face, filled with peace.
My father helped the man to his feet, picked up the blood soaked piece of wood, and began to carry it. Yeshua’s blood ran down my father’s arms and face, and stained his clothes. The soldier gave Yeshua one more lash with the whip, and they continued up the road.
We followed as close as possible. I could not believe this was happening to my father. My brother and uncle tried to keep me with them, but being small I lost them in the crowd and was able to remain close to my father. I was on the right side of him just behind the stumbling Yeshua. I had to push people out of my way as I scurried along behind trying to stay out of sight of the soldier.
Yeshua fell again. When he did, a woman sprang from the crowd. She was not very good looking, but was dressed very nicely. She carried with her an aura of royalty and wealth. Everyone fell silent. They could not believe a woman such as this would touch a criminal. Yeshua slowly stood and looked into her tear stained face. She gently wiped the blood from his face with her veil all the while looking directly into his eyes. Tears streaked his face helping to wash away the blood as she wiped. She opened her mouth as though about to say something when suddenly, the guard (who had been distracted by a commotion and now realizing what was happening) grabbed her and shoved her back into the crowd. Thwack – another crack of the whip across Yeshua’s back. The procession continued up the road.
As we reached the top of a hill, I noticed the other two men had already been hung on their crosses. As my father laid the cross down, the soldiers shoved him to the ground and laughed. “Thanks Jew” they said, “Now get out of here before we find another cross for you!” I ran to my father. He picked me up and ran to the edge of the crowd that had gathered, until we could not move any more. He set me down, and turned me around so my back was to the scene. I was crying so hard. Father kneeled down and began to wipe my face with his shirt. But the blood on his clothes from the cross mixed with my tears and covered my face.
I heard the loud sound of the hammer hitting a nail, then another, and another. Each time followed by the most pain filled scream I had ever heard. All around me men and women were crying while others cheered. Then a loud thud followed by an agonizing scream. I closed my eyes.
My father, now on his knees in front of me, wrapped his bloodied arms around me and held me tight, I heard one of the men on the cross praying. Is that him father?
“Yes, Yeshua is praying.”
The soldier yelled back at him; they were mocking him. Then in a loud voice I heard him cry out, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” [My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?]. Those around us said he must be calling on Elijah. Father hugged me tighter and sobbed uncontrollably.
Then a thought hit me as though it were sheaves of wet hay. I pulled back from him. “Father, father, oh I am so sorry.”
“What is it my son? What could you possibly have done to make you sorry? And why are you thinking of it now?” Before I could answer, my uncle and brother had pushed their way through the crowed. “I thought we had lost you! I am so glad you are safe Papa!” my brother cried out as he hugged father. Then, shockingly, my brother hugged me also – he had never hugged me – and told me that he loved me too and was scared I had gotten lost too. “Who would I beat up if you are not around?” he jokingly said. As my uncle and father were talking, I grabbed my father’s hand and pulled him down to me.
“Yes, son yes, I am sorry, what did you have to tell me?”
The lamb father, the lamb – he ran away! My father looked into my eyes as tears once again welled in his. I am so sorry, I cried. He was looking at me and my brother as tears ran down his face, but it seemed as though he was looking through us or past us. Abba what is all this? I do not understand what we have seen today!
He picked me up in his arms and I wrapped mine around his neck. We turned and faced the cross of Yeshua in silence.
We stood for what seemed like an eternity just staring at Yeshua as he hung on the cross; blood flowed from his hands and feet staining the entire cross and dripping onto the ground.
Miriam was crying as were the older children. “Do you think we will ever be able to see the Temple one day Zadie?” asked little Hannah.
As I looked down at her in my lap, she looked up at me; her eyes full of hope. Such an innocent and pure question she asks. I pray she will never lose that.
One day, little one. One day there will be a new Temple and everyone will worship and celebrate there.
“Did you ever get another lamb and make the sacrifice?” I smiled and winked at Miriam. The older children smiled too. G-d will reveal all things to you in time.
No child, we did not. But that is a story for another night.
(Inspired by lyrics from the song Watch the Lamb
by Ray Boltz)
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