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Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter Thirty-Six: Tevye the Builder

The next chapter of the award-winning novel.
Cover of Tevye in the Promised Land by Tzvi Fishman.

As weeks passed, Tevye felt more and more invincible. An inner transformation was taking place which he himself couldn’t explain, as if a new soul had entered his body. He felt like he was not only Tevye, but someonc much greater, as if the spirits of Goliath and Shmuelik, Bat Sheva and Golda, Tzeitl and Guttmacher, along with the heroes of history, had all become a part of his being. The strength of generations impelled him forward in his tasks. He was tireless in his labor. In addition to draining the swamps, he dug ditches throughout the night. When a wave of hot desert winds made work in the swamps too dangerous, he plowed fields and planted, sawed wooden planks and hammered the foundations of buildings. Unable to sleep more than a few hours a night, he did double shifts of guard duty, chased away snooping Arabs, and greeted the sunrise, wrapped in tallit and teffilin. Instead of mourning, he worked and he built. On the Sabbath, he rested, just as God had commanded. But come Motzei Shabbos, with the appearance of the first three stars in the sky, Tevye rushed back to his labor.

Busy with the endless work on the settlement, Tevye fought off moments of doubt and philosophical reflections. He knew that thinking too much could get a man into trouble. Why the Almighty did what He did was something no human could grasp. Nothing could be gained by complaining. It was God’s world to run things the way He saw fit. It was a mortal man’s duty to accept his fate in contentment and song. As Nachman always reminded them, that was man’s task and trial on earth, to trust in the Lord, in good times and bad, whether we understood God’s mysteries or not.

Which isn’t to say that Tevye turned into a saint. Many times he was angry. And often, there was more fury than joy in his work. And he was still wont to turn a questioning eye up to Heaven, and occasionally, even to sneer. But, for the most part, he kept his lips sealed. If anything, he shared a private battle with God. Like a boxer dizzy with blows, he was determined not to fall down. And if he fell down, he was determined to get back on his feet. He wouldn’t be beaten. His faith wouldn’t die. His body could ache and become food for mosquitoes, but his soul couldn’t be touched by a swamp. Where once he had been cautious, now he didn’t feel any fear. Tevye wasn’t worried about meeting the Angel of Death. “Come and take me!” he roared.

Like the Jewish People, he would live on forever. Tevye’s revenge was his work. He became an example for everyone. Summer arrived, bringing along hot, sandy winds from the desert. There were days a man couldn’t open his eyes without being blinded. While the settlers sought shelter in their tents, Tevye stood in the swamp, his eyes tightly closed, scooping buckets of water out of the swamp. The heat was scorching. There were no cool drinks to quench the nagging thirst, no ice, no shade, no air to breath in the oppressively humid lowlands. Even the ocean was warm. And nights were so still, no relief from the merciless desert sharav could be found, even by sleeping outside of their airless tents.

Still, work in the swamp continued. If not by the settlers, by the fiery rays of the sun. As if the Lord was pitching in some help of His own, the swamps began to evaporate and dry. By late August, the canal to the sea approached completion. Only a pipe-length section remained. When that last piece was set into place, the remaining swamp water would be drained off into the ocean. Only one small obstacle stood in the way. The pipe had to be laid in the most dangerous part of the swamp, where the mosquitoes had built their main encampment. Whoever connected together the last two sections was sure to be eaten alive. Descending into the nest of mosquitoes meant almost certain death. A general meeting was called which everyone had to attend. Lots were to be drawn to determine the unlucky hero.

“Unless someone wants to volunteer,” Shimon, the settlement leader, called out.

Eyes darted back and forth to see if someone would step forward. Without hesitation, Tevye raised up his hand.

“I volunteer,” he said.

“You know what it means?” Shimon asked.

“It means we’ll finally be rid of the cursed mosquitoes.”

“That’s the hope,” Shimon answered. “But it may also mean the end of our fearless worker, Tevye.”

“If the demons haven’t killed me yet, they won’t kill me now,” Tevye asserted. “But I’ll only do it on one condition.”

“What condition is that?” Sharagi asked.

“On the condition that when I go into the swamp, everyone in the settlement will stand on top of the highest sand dune and pray until I come out.”

The condition was unanimously accepted. Everyone stepped forward to shake Tevye’s hand. Tomorrow he might be a dead man, but for now he was everyone’s hero.

That night, before going to bed, Carmel spent more time than usual combing her hair. By the candlelight, her husband was cleaning his shoes.

“Why do you bother?” she asked.

“I really don’t know,’ he confessed, “Every morning they just get filled up with mud once again.”

“Are you sure about tomorrow?’ she asked.

“Somebody has to do it,” he said.

“Why does it have to be my husband?”

Tevye glanced up at his wife. In the darkness of the tent, her beauty was golden. He had noticed the same thing with Golda. Whenever she was pregnant, she seemed to glow with a joyful inner light.

“For one thing, I am older than everyone else.”

“A man is as old as he feels.”

“Then I am twice as old as everyone else.”

She set down her brush and came over to the bed where he was sitting.

“You do so much work already,” she said. “Do you have to do this too?”

He gazed into the fathomless pools of her eyes.

“Ah oh,” he said, as if her coquetish look was as dangerous as the depths of the swamp.

Blushing, she sat down beside him.

“Carmel, I need my strength for tomorrow.”

She put her hands on his shoulders and bent forward to kiss him.

“On top of everything,” he thought.

But what could he do? A man was commanded to make his wife happy. That was a mitzvah too.

 

The very next day, all of the settlers gathered on the summit of the sand dune which overlooked the area’s biggest swamp. Eyes filled with apprehension and suspense as Tevye descended into the marsh, dragging a long pipe behind him. The pipe was the last link in the canal which would carry the swamp water away to the ocean. Tevye had to set it in place and fasten the ring which would connect the last two pieces together. Already, as if sensing a battle, a squadron of mosquitoes rose up to greet him as he waded into the water. He waved at them with an arm, but his swattings were useless. Up on the sand dune, the settlers gasped as a cloud of mosquitoes surrounded Tevye and nearly hid him from view. On the hill where the women had gathered, Carmel turned away. Nachman opened his Psalm book and motioned for the others to follow. Swaying in his prayer shawl at the peak of the sand dune, the pious scholar chanted out a verse of King David’s Psalms.

“Out of the depths I cry to Thee, 0 Lord.

Lord, hear my voice….”

The settlers, men, women, and children, all joined in, echoing his words, raising their voices to Heaven.

“Out of the depths I cry to Thee, 0 Lord.

Lord, hear my voice….”

Once again, Nachman recited a verse and the others repeated his cry for salvation and mercy.

Tevye tried to pray too, but when he opened his mouth, mosquitoes rushed in, biting his gums and his tongue. Spitting them out, he continued the prayer in his heart.

“Though I walk through a valley of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me…”

As he stepped on the main nest of mosquitoes, swarms of insects buzzed furiously around him. They stung him on his hands, on his ears, on his nose, on his eyelids. They bit through his clothes and flew into his pants and his shirt. Growling, he slipped the ring over a pipe and pulled the two pipes together, determined to slay the beast once and for all. Far away, he heard the prayful cries of the settlers, like the shouts of a city under siege. As he twisted the ring over the pipes, he heard the blast of shofars. Elisha, Ariel, and Hillel stood on the hillside, blowing ram’s horns like trumpets with all of their might, to petition God’s aid. Carmel ran down from the sand dune, unable to look at the black cloud engulfing her husband. Only when the settlers cheered did she have the courage to stop and venture a gaze. The mosquitoes were flying away into the air. Tevye had fastened the pipes into place!

Staggering, he flailed his way out of the marsh. Blinded by the mosquitoes and their bites, he flung himself onto shore. Choking and crawling on all fours, he scurried away from the bank. Standing, he ran blindly forward, but the cloud of mosquitoes stayed with him. They bit him ferociously, over every inch of his flesh. Screaming, he flung himself to the ground and rolled over and over in the sand. Settlers ran over and swatted the mosquitoes away. Hands slapped Tevye on the head and the back. Munsho pulled him to his feet. A horse and wagon clattered to his rescue.

Elisha yelled out, “To the ocean!”

Hands lifted Tevye up into the wagon. Carmel raced over. Seeing her husband, she gasped.

“My God,” someone said. “He’s all swollen!”

“He looks like he’s been eaten alive!”

Carmel climbed up into the wagon. She reached out to take Tevye’s hand. But it wasn’t a hand anymore. It looked like a chunk of red meat. His face was puffed-up, two times its normal size. His eyelids bulged like a frogs. His nose was incredibly swollen.

Ariel whipped the horse, and the wagon bounced off toward the ocean. Tevye still couldn’t see. He couldn’t open his eyes. He opened his mouth, but his tongue couldn’t speak. It had enlarged to the size of a cow’s.

“You will be all right, my darling,” Carmel said. “You did it! You succeeded! You’re a hero!”

Tevye didn’t feel like a hero. On the contrary, he felt like a shmuck. All he could say was “Ahhhh,” as if a doctor had put an examining stick in his mouth.

The settlers ran after the wagon. Other raced forward on horseback. It was only a kilometer and a half to the ocean, and everyone was in jubilant spirits. Their work on the canal was completed! They had triumphed over the monster! They had battled nature and won. Mosquitoes would no longer make a nightmare of life, and the dreaded fever would no longer visit their tents.

Reaching the sea, Ariel and Yigal lifted Tevye and carried him to the water. Stumbling under his weight, all three of them fell into the ocean at once. The water revived Tevye immediately, but his arms and his legs couldn’t move. He managed to unglue his eyelids and squint. Ariel held onto his head, and Yigal had hold of his shoes. His body floated on the waves like a goatskin inflated with water. Elisha pulled off Tevye’s clothes so that the salt water could bathe him completely. Out of modesty, he left on his undershorts, in consideration for the women who were arriving on the beach. Slowly, the tormenting itching was soothed. A sensation returned to Tevye’s fingers and toes. He opened his mouth and whispered, “Water.”

Quickly, a canteen was fetched. Elisha poured a few drops onto Tevye’s tongue.

“Do you want quinine?” he asked.

Tevye shook his head no. Ariel guided him back to the shallows. His body floated on the incoming waves like a whale washed onto shore. Other settlers splashed happily into the ocean. Suddenly, cries of joy and celebration came from the beach.

“Water!” Shimon screamed. “Swamp water! It’s coming out of the pipe!”

Everyone ran over. Sure enough, up the beach, a trickle of black water was dripping out of a pipe onto the sand. Settlers cheered and started to dance. Men embraced and swung each other around. Woman danced in a circle, a modest distance away. Children happily ran into the ocean to bob up and down in the waves.

“Let’s let him see what he’s done,” Elisha said to his son.

They lifted Tevye and set him on his feet in the ocean so that he too could have a glimpse of the miracle. Pushing them away, he staggered up the beach. The sight of Tevye in his underwear brought shouts and giggles from the women. Embarrassed, they scurried away down the beach.

Tevye staggered up to the pipe which jutted out from the beach embankment. Already, a small pool of swamp water had formed at its mouth. A trickle began to run in a riverlet through the sand toward the ocean. Before long, the swamp would be drained. In its place, a field would be plowed. Seeds would be planted. In time, the land would give forth its fruits. Because of the sacrifice of the pioneer settlers.

“Congratulations, Tevye,” Shimon said. “You’ve dried up the swamp. Your bravery has saved many lives. On behalf of the whole settlement, I thank you.”

Smiling, Shimon extended his hand, but Tevye’s was like a swollen red ball. It was only then that Tevye realized that he was practically naked.

“Where are my clothes?” he asked.

Quickly, hearing the laughter of the women and children, he ran back down the beach to hide in the waves of the ocean.

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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