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September 22, 2014 / 27 Elul, 5774
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Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter Eight: The Holy Land

Tevye in the Promised Land

Tevye stood alone on the rain and windswept deck and stared at the merciless sea long after everyone else had retreated to whatever shelter they could find. His head hung down in surrender, and he clutched at the railing as the ship rose and fell. Stricken with pain, he raised a fist to the sky and cried out to the heavens, “I’ll show you what Tevye is made of!” But the howl of the wind muted his shout of defiance, breaking his last vestige of pride.

He knew he was being tested, yet he didn’t know why. He had sins like any man, but this final punishment was more than a creature of flesh and blood could endure. True, the Rabbis taught that the Lord does not test a man’s powers, but without his wife, Golda, Tevye felt crushed. Let God choose some other poor fool to suffer for all of the world. Tevye had already borne enough of the burden.

Not that he was complaining. The Almighty had created him, and He was free to do with him as He wished. But if it were all a part of some Divine, cosmic purpose, then Tevye wanted to be informed. What was the plan? Why did the simple Jew suffer, while the wicked lived like kings? Nachman said that God punished the righteous for their sins in this world so that He could give them everlasting life in the World to Come. And the wicked were rewarded in this world for whatever good deeds they performed, so that God could cut them off from Heaven forever. In theory, it sounded fine. Like everything else in the Bible, Tevye readily believed it. But what good did it do him as he stood soaking wet in the rain? And what good had it done Golda? Once again, when he was on the verge of despair, Tevye heard the sound of her voice in his brain, “Be strong, my Tevye, be strong.”

The rocking of the ship put Tevye into a trance. His eyes stared tearfully out at the sea, as if searching for Golda’s coffin. He didn’t respond when Hava tugged at his arm and urged him to abandon his watch. He didn’t budge when Bat Sheva begged him. He didn’t listen to Ruchel and Nachman. At some point, the afternoon slipped into night. Finally, the storm abated. The ocean calmed as if it had been appeased by the treasure it had stolen from Tevye. Exhausted, Tevye fell asleep on his feet. All through the night, Goliath sat on the deck beside him, holding Tevye’s legs so that he wouldn’t fall into the deep alongside his Golda. With the first morning light, the giant stood up and peered out at the horizon. A shimmer of gold, like a faraway outline, appeared between the sky and the ocean.

“Tevye,” Goliath whispered. “Tevye, wake up. Look! The Land of Israel!”

The milkman opened his eyes. Was it a vision? Was it a dream? A shudder swept through his body. His flesh tingled. He squinted to get a better glimpse of the Land, of the legend, of the longing of Jews for thousands of years. As if by itself, the words of a blessing rose up from his soul, a blessing for himself, for all of his family, and for all of the Jews who would come after him to these sacred shores:

“Blessed art Thou, Lord my God, King of the universe, Who has granted us life, and sustained us, and enabled us to reach this moment!”

The good news spread quickly. Soon, all of the Jews were crowded on deck, waving, cheering, hugging each other and singing. Men grabbed hands and danced, whirling around faster and faster until their feet seemed to hover over the deck. The women formed their own festive circle a modest distance away from the men. When the boys and girls of a Zionist group grabbed hands and started dancing together, a group of Hasidim rushed over, yelling, “Shanda! The scandal! The shame! This is the Holy Land!”

By the time morning prayers were completed, the ship had narrowed the distance to shore. A golden tiara of sunbeams shone down on the Promised Land. The sun-baked buildings of Jaffa stood on a hillside ringing the harbor. Here and there, a minaret protruded over the sun-bleached roofs. Beyond a cove of rocks guarding the bay, rays of sunlight sparkled over tranquil green water. Masted schooners rested alongside the dock. Long, flat rowboats were anchored in colorful bunches. The new immigrants stood gazing at the land of their forefathers. As they neared the harbor, an official-looking launch pulled up to the side of the steamship, and a Turkish officer climbed up the ladder, followed by several soldiers. Out of earshot of the passengers, the red-turbanned officer and the boat’s captain conferred.

As a Jew says in his prayers every morning, “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the counsel of God which prevails.” The captain turned to the excited crowd of passengers on deck and told them that everyone could prepare to disembark except for the Jews. The Turkish authorities were refusing to issue the Jews permits to land. They would have to travel on with the boat to the port of Alexandria, in Egypt.

Tevye was stunned. After all they had gone through! To be turned away when they could almost reach out and touch a dream of ages. Who were these heathen scoundrels to deny the children of Abraham the right to step foot on their very own soil?

It was one of the Zionists who cried out, “This is our land! The land of the Jews!”

He rushed forward as if to charge the captain and the Turkish official. Without waiting for an order, a soldier raised his rifle and fired. The bullet struck the Jew in his chest. Clutching his heart, he fell to the deck. Goliath took a step forward but Tevye held him back. Rifles remained poised in alert. Instantly, the rebellion was quelled. The Jews lifted their dead and retreated to the aft of the ship.

“Who are they?” Ruchel asked. “Why do they act like Palestine belongs to them?”

“They’re Turks,” her father answered. “They rule here. We’ve escaped one Czar and found ourselves another.”

“We outnumber them,” Goliath said. “We all should have charged.”

“And what would we have done when we finally reached shore?” Tevye asked. “Gone to war with the entire Turkish army?”

The big lumberjack looked confused. No one had ever bothered to explain to him the political situation in Palestine. In truth, he had never thought to ask. In his mind, the Land of Israel belonged to the Jews. God had given it to them. He had promised it to Abraham as an everlasting gift. The oversized Jew wasn’t a rabbi, but he had heard the Torah read aloud on the Sabbath every week of his life, and he knew almost all of the Five Books of Moses by heart. The land of Canaan was the inheritance of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In Russia, a Jew could expect to be thrown out of his village – he was a stranger in someone else’s country. But in Eretz Yisrael – forbidding a Jew to land on its shores was like trying to keep a man out of his very own home!

The Jews fell into a restless depression. They stood whispering in groups as rowboat after rowboat arrived to carry the other passengers ashore. Zionists and Hasidim alike paced nervously back and forth like caged lions. Tevye’s daughters were heartbroken. Tzeitl’s coughing shook her whole body. Her eyes had lost their light, and her face was drained of color.

“Where are they going to take us?” Hannie wanted to know.

“To Egypt,” Tevye answered. “To see the pyramids our grandfathers built.”

Once again, it was Nachman who offered a glimmer of hope.

“Remember, Reb Tevye, I have heard you say it yourself, `Everything that God does is for the best.’ Maybe He wants to give us reward for walking from Egypt to Israel, just like our forefathers did long ago.”

“I can hardly wait,” Bat Sheva said cynically.

“What about the poor soul who was shot?” Hava asked. “Did things work out good for him too?”

As the last passengers were leaving the ship. Hevedke made a point of walking over to be with the Jews. He took a place toward the back of the ship-bound ghetto and stood tall and determined as if he were making a statement. When the soldiers climbed down the ship’s ladder and returned to their launch, Tevye strode up to the captain. Goliath stuck to his side like a shield.

“We bought passage to Palestine and we expect to be set ashore here,” Tevye said.

“You heard what the Turkish lieutenant ordered,” the captain responded.

“If not in this port than in some other,” Tevye demanded.

“There is no other port in the direction we’re heading.”

“Then you’ll just have to set us ashore on a beach.”

The captain laughed. “You think it’s so easy? Plenty of vessels have gone aground in these waters.”

“We will make it worth your while,” Tevye said.

The captain paused. He looked at the Jew. “And just how do you propose to make it worth my while?” he asked.

“With a gift to the captain of two hundred rubles.”

The captain smiled. “Five hundred,” he said. “I have to share it with my crew.”

Tevye nodded. “You’ll get it when the last one of us is safely ashore.”

“Half before the landing. Half afterward,” the captain said.

Tevye reached into his pocket and pulled out all the money he had. It came to a little less than two hundred rubles. Goliath handed him a pile of notes, and Tevye counted out the difference. Greedily, the captain took it from his hand.

“Throwing your wife overboard was nothing personal, you understand. I did it for the welfare of the ship.”

Tevye wanted to spit in his face. A pool of saliva welled up in his mouth. But once again, like he had done all of his life, he swallowed his pride and his anger.

The ship pulled up anchor and continued its way south along the sandy coastline. Tevye related the agreement to the other Jews on board and collected the remainder of the bribe money in a hat which Goliath held out in his hand. Within a short time, Jaffa could no longer be seen. Jews lined the railing to view the desolate shoreline. Undulating sand dunes extended inland as far as the eye could see. Only an occasional palm tree interrupted the desert-like landscape. Nachman said they were date trees. The honey of the Land of Israel wasn’t the honey of bees, but the honey of dates, a fruit which none of the Russian Jews had ever tasted. For an hour they saw nothing but desert, rolling dunes, and endless mountains of sand. Up on the bridge of the ship, the captain held up a hand. The crew once again lowered the anchor, and the captain waved Tevye over.

“Get your people ready,” he said.

“Can’t you bring the ship closer to shore?” Tevye asked.

“Not without endangering the vessel,” the captain responded. “If I get too close to the beach, the current could sweep me aground.”

They were still at least two-hundred meters from land. Foam-capped waves raced toward the coastline. The small rowboats that were lowered from the ship rocked forebodingly in the ocean between the powerful swells.

“You agreed to take us to shore,” Tevye said.

“The rowboats will take your people as close to the beach as possible.”

“But most of these people can’t swim!”

“Take it or leave it,” the captain replied.

Once again, Tevye had no choice. But when the captain demanded the rest of the money, Tevye insisted that he would pay only when all of the Jews had reached the beach safely. Tevye wasn’t a seaman, but he realized the undertaking would be no easy matter. The waves crashing onto the beach, and the powerful undertow they caused, prevented the rowboats from reaching the shore. The small crafts had to stop a considerable swim from the beach. A crew member swam into shore with the end of a rope which he fastened to a trunk of a palm tree. From the rowboats, the Jews would have to hang onto the rope and battle the waves and the undertow the rest of the way to the Holy Land.

“What about everyone’s belongings?” Tevye asked. “How will people manage if they have to hold on to a rope?”

The captain shrugged. “You can always change your mind and sail the rest of the way to Alexandria,” he said.

Who knew what new disasters would arise on the way to Alexandria, Tevye thought? Eretz Yisrael was so close, they could almost reach out and touch it. Jews were already pushing and shoving to climb down the ladder of the ship. They jumped into the small rowboats as if the chance might never come again.

“At least take the belongings ashore,” Tevye pleaded. “It’s everything these people have in the world.”

“I can try,” the captain said. “But it has to be worth risking a boat and its crew.”

Reluctantly, Tevye agreed on another one-hundred rubles.

If God were testing the resolve of the Jews, He tested them to the very end of their journey. With one hand clutching the lifeline which stretched to the beach, and their other hand clutching their children close to their breasts, Jews fought their way through the pounding waves to collapse on the cherished shore. Goliath and Hevedke carried Moishe and Hannie to safety, then splashed back into the undertow to help others make the punishing journey from the rowboats to the white, pristine sand. A mother cried out in anguish when a wave swept her child out of her arms. Goliath dove underwater. Waves crashed over his head. Finally, the whale of a man emerged clutching the terrified girl.

Tevye waited with Tzeitl on the deck of the ship until all of the others had disembarked for the shore. When a rowboat filled with suitcases and boxes coasted on a wave to the beach, Tevye handed the captain the rest of the money. Then he and Tzeitl climbed down the ship’s ladder into the tiny rowboat which was to ferry them toward shore. Tevye sat holding his shivering daughter as the crew battled the waves with their oars. Seawater splashed over their heads. The spray of the sea filled their nostrils and eyes. Finally, it was their turn to grab onto the rope which stretched the last thirty meters to shore. Tzeitl set out ahead of her father. Weakened by her sickness, the exertion demanded all of her strength. A wave crashed over their heads, drowning them with water. Tevye latched onto his daughter. But when the next wave hit them, Tevye’s grip slackened. When he emerged and glanced around him, Tzeitl was nowhere to be seen.

“Tzeitl!” he screamed.

A wave swept him up in the air, and he glimpsed what looked like her dress.

“Tzeitl!” he roared, letting go off the rope to dive into the sea. A wave splattered him. His mouth filled with water. Choking, he flailed wildly out with his hands, hoping to rescue his daughter. But another wave swept over him, rolling him head over heels underwater. Everything turned into darkness. Suddenly, a hand grabbed him and raised his head back into the light. It was Hevedke. He dragged Tevye back to the rope and half pushed him, half carried him to shore.

“Tzeitl,” Tevye moaned, collapsing onto the sand.

“She’s all right,” Hevedke answered. “Goliath pulled her out of the water.”

“Thank God,” Tevye said in exhaustion.

The milkman turned his head to the side and pressed his cheek into the warm, soothing sand. His hands clutched at the soil. The realization that he was in the Holy Land swept over him like another huge wave. He rose up on his knees, glanced at the water-soaked Jews on the beach, and let out an exuberant scream. Cheering, he raised his hands up to Heaven. Ruchela rushed into his arms.

“We’re in Israel!” he shouted. “The good Lord has brought us to Israel!”

Nachman shouted the Shehecheyanu blessing out loud for everyone to hear. He and Tevye embraced. Then Tevye hugged all of his daughters. Even the shivering Tzeitl managed a broad, happy smile. All of the Jews on the beach felt the same sense of joy and relief. Everyone hugged one another. Goliath embraced Tevye, lifted him in the air, and spun him around in a circle. When Tevye landed, ready for the next hug, he stood face to face with Hevedke. For a moment, he froze. When he moved away to the right, Hevedke moved with him. When he moved to the left, Hevedke followed. Once again, they moved back and forth like two Russian dancers. Then Tevye held up his arms and snapped his fingers. Hevedke smiled and mimicked the gesture. Then to a silent tune, the two danced a traditional Hasidic dance on the beach. People watched them and clapped. Hava shed tears of joy. Other Jews joined in the dance. It no longer bothered anyone that they were all tired and wet, nor that they didn’t have any food or fresh water. They were in the Promised Land! Their long journey was over. God would take care of the rest.

A call echoed over the beach. High on a towering sand dune, one of the young Zionists stood waving his cap and calling people to follow. The men stopped their dancing and made a charge for the mountain. Shoes sank into the soft, sandy slope as they scrambled hands and feet up the hill. Tevye joined them, crawling on his knees when the trek proved too steep. A young pioneer let out a scream and jumped off the summit. The meshugenneh toppled into the sand and rolled over and over down the long slope of the mountain. Like children, the other Jews followed. Tevye panted as he stood at the summit. To the north, he could see the long coastline. To the east lay endless stretches of swampland and desert. To the south, sand dunes filled the landscape as far as the eye could see.

“Are you coming?” Nachman asked.

The young rabbi jumped off the hill like a boy in summer camp. With a prayer in his heart, Tevye followed. Laughing, he rolled down the sand dune. He rolled and rolled, covered with sand, blanketed in the holy soil. When he stood up, his face was a mask. Sand filled his beard, his hair, his mouth and his eyes.

“Isn’t is written, `Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth,’” Nachman exclaimed, reciting God’s promise to Jacob.

Once again, the young Zionists set off in a race up the mountain. Nachman grabbed Tevye’s hand.

Gevalt,” Tevye said. “Not again.”

Reb Tevye, my father to be, I love you,” the ecstatic youth said.

Nachman theatrically raised up a hand and called out as if he were making a speech. “Go up the mountain, the Lord said to Abraham, and every place that you see, I will give to you and to your offspring forever.”

Nachman’s happiness and spirit gave Tevye the strength to brave the ascent once again. Struggling and gasping for breath, Tevye was the last climber to reach the summit. Down below, sand-covered Jews were jumping into the sparkling blue water. Tevye turned around in a small circle, feasting his eyes once again on his Land, the Land God had promised to give to the Jews, and here Tevye, the milkman from Anatevka was standing like Abraham on the top of the towering sand dune, surveying God’s priceless gift.

Down below, he watched Goliath playfully pick up Hevedke and hurl him into the water. Beyond them, out to sea, he glimpsed something floating on the top of a wave. In the glare of the sunlight, it looked like an oar from a rowboat, or the plank of a ship. But as it bobbed into view on the very next crest, Tevye could make out its sides. It was a crate of some sort, long and shallow in depth, like the shape of a . . . coffin.

Like the shape of a coffin!

Goose-pimples broke out all over Tevye’s flesh.

“Golda,” he whispered. “Golda!”

“GOLDA!” he screamed, hurling himself down the descent, running as fast as he could until he tripped in the sand and rolled the rest of the way down the mountain. Covered with sand, and white as a ghost, he staggered to his feet and ran along the beach yelling, “GOLDA!”

Tevye ran and he ran to catch up with his wife as the tide swept her coffin further south. His heart pounded so loudly, he felt it was sure to explode. Then, like a hand returning a precious jewel to its owner, a wave lifted the coffin and whisked it onto the beach. Like a lost treasure chest, it slid up to Tevye’s feet. Tevye collapsed to his knees. Seaweed stuck to the wood like a wreath. Tevye fell over the coffin and cried. He sobbed like a baby until the others arrived. His daughters huddled around him. Everyone stood in stunned silence.

Hevedke was the first one to speak. “It’s a miracle,” he said, expressing the word on everyone’s lips.

Tevye gazed up to Heaven as if to say thanks. It truly was the Holy Land. Bending down, he put his head on the coffin and spoke to his beloved wife.

“Forgive me, Golda, for all that I’ve put you through. But you can rest now, my princess, we’re home.”

About the Author: Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Creativity and Jewish Culture for his novel "Tevye in the Promised Land." For the past several years, he has written a popular and controversial blog at Arutz 7. A wide selection of his books are available at Amazon. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of The Jewish Press


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