Tevye stiffened. His eyes flashed with anger. He straightened his shoulders and took a deep breath.
“Is this why You spared me from sinking in the swamp?” he thought. “To witness the death of my daughter?”
Wildly, he stared at his wife.
“Is it?!” he said. “IS IT?!” he asked even louder.
Not understanding what he was saying, Carmel reached out for his hand, but he brushed it away. Eyes burning with pain, he charged out of the tent.
“IS THIS WHY YOU SPARED ME?!” he yelled up to the sky. “SO I COULD WITNESS THE DEATH OF MY DAUGHTER?!”
The star-studded heavens sparkled in all of their unfathomable wonder. Who was he, Tevye, the milkman, that the Almighty Creator of heaven and earth should single him out from all of the universe? What did God want from him? Was he Job that he could suffer such torture? What was the use of complaining? The Master of the World filled the universe, and he was just a speck down on earth. The Lord gives, he remembered. And the Lord takes away.
“Please God,” he said quietly. “Take me, but don’t take my daughter.’’
He felt a hand on his shoulder. Elisha stood beside him.
“Let’s go for a walk,” his good friend said.
“My daughter,” Tevye answered.
“There’s nothing to do now but pray.”
He gave Tevye a tug and led him away from the tent.
“You have to be strong, Tevye,” he said. “Everyone here looks up to you as a leader. We need you to set an example.”
“My daughter,” Tevye said again in a whisper.
“I know,” Elisha answered. “Today is your turn. Tomorrow, God forbid, someone else’s. We have to be strong for our children.’
He led him to the tent that served as their synagogue. Nachman sat inside, in front of the holy ark, reading from a book of Psalms. He stood up when Tevye entered. There was nothing to say. Tevye looked at him blankly, then sat down on a bench. Absently, he opened the prayer book before him. He stared down at its pages through the tears in his eyes. Elisha set a hand on his shoulder. Tevye looked up at his face, at the face of a people who had survived oppression and plague for thousands of years with an unbreakable faith. Quietly, Tevye looked down at the prayer book and began reading the comforting words of King David.
Bat Sheva died before sunrise. For the first time in his life, Tevye refused to do what the laws of the Torah commanded. After the funeral, he refused to sit shiva for his daughter. He refused to sit and mourn. What good would mourning do for a week? Grabbing a bucket, he strode off to the swamp. His work would be his memorial to his daughter. Enough people had died. The insatiable swamp had to he drained.
The other settlers watched him in silence. Feeling his friend’s anguish, Elisha grabbed a bucket and walked off after Tevye toward the swamp. Without saying a word, Shimon, Yigal, Hillel, and Munsho grabbed buckets. Even people who didn’t have to work in the swamps set off to join Tevye, who set to work with an incredible fierceness. Like a man driven with rage, he attacked the swamp with his bucket, as if beating a foe with a club. Buckets after buckets of water flew through the air onto the bank of the swamp. Elisha organized the settlers into a chain and buckets were passed hand to hand at a furious pace. Tevye stood knee-deep in the muck, working like a machine, putting all of his pain into the task of destroying the monster moloch which had claimed Bat Sheva’s life. For hours, he worked without rest.
“Don’t give up! Don’t despair!” he told himself over and over.
Settlers far younger than Tevye found it impossible to keep up with his pace. When his muscles ached with exhaustion, he growled and continued to fill up his bucket. He worked with the might of one thousand men, ready to drain the swamp single-handed. When it came time for lunch, Tevye rolled up his sleeves and kept working. Alone, he carried his splashing bucket to the bank of the swamp and went back for more.