“Meshuggeners” Tevye called the crazy bunch.
He believed in God as strongly as anyone. But to walk knee deep into a malaria-infested swamp, that was sheer madness. He had come to the Land of Israel to be reunited with his daughter, not to build Heavenly Kingdoms. Certainly, at the Anatevka crossroads, the dream of stepping foot in Jerusalem had given him an extra push. But to grab hold of a bucket and stick his hands into a hellish Gehenna of mosquitoes, that was out of the question.
“Didn’t Abraham survive a fiery furnace?” Shimon asked.
“I am not Abraham,” Tevye answered.
“Didn’t Joseph survive a pit filled with spiders and scorpions?”
“I am not Joseph.”
“Didn’t Daniel survive being thrown into a den of lions?”
“I am not Daniel either. I am Tevye, the milkman. And I want to stay Tevye, the milkman.”
“God has decreed otherwise,” Shimon said, as if he had some inside information that Tevye lacked. “Tevye, the milkman, is no longer to be Tevye, the milkman. He is to be Tevye, the pioneer. Tevye, the builder. Tevye, the drainer of swamps. One day, legends will be written about you.”
“You’ve got the wrong man, I’m afraid.”
“You will go down in history,” Shimon declared.
“I don’t want to go down in history. On the contrary. For the moment, I would like to stay on my feet as long as I can so I can watch my new child be born, grow up, and get married.”
“If our forefather Abraham had thought only of himself and his family when God commanded him to sacrifice Issac, where would the Jews be today?”
“Here we go again with Abraham,” Tevye groaned.
“My respected elder and friend,” Shimon said with a patient smile. “You should know – men don’t make history; history makes men. Each one of us has to be like a thousand. We have been chosen to resurrect our nation from the graveyards of Russia and Europe, and with God’s help, we shall succeed.”
Rabbi Kook’s words again, Tevye thought with dismay. He felt like the girl in the story which Perchik had told to his daughters – “Alice in Wonderland” – surrounded by a bunch of Mad Hatters. By chance, he had followed the path of the Zionists at the Anatevka crossroad, and, suddenly had fallen into a drama of unfolding Biblical history!
As if he were dreaming, Tevye found himself standing in a line with the other Morasha settlers. Shimon passed a hat filled with pieces of paper from one pioneer to the next. On each piece of paper a number was written. Each settler drew a number out of the hat to determine the order that he or she would work in the swamps. Teams of three worked together. Taking a deep breath, Tevye pulled out a slip of paper. Like a revolver about to explode, the hat passed from hand to hand. When the lots had been drawn, Tevye unfolded his slip. He had drawn number five. Yankele was number one. Ari was number two. Bat Sheva had drawn number three. They would be the first new team into the swamp. Their job was to fill up buckets of murky water and pass them to Guttmacher, who would be stationed up on the bank. He, in turn, would pass the buckets to Tevye, and he on to number six, Reb Shilo’s oldest daughter, and on down the line until the deadly swamp water was dumped into a pit in the sand. There, in the hot sun, the water would evaporate, and the larvae of the mosquitoes would be buried in the earth. Other settlers were put to work as diggers, working on the canal-like ditch which was to drain the swamp water into the sea, nearly a kilometer away.
“Give me your number, and you take mine,” Tevye told his youngest daughter when the nerve-wracking drawing was finished.
“I can’t,” she said. “You heard the rules. We are not allowed to switch places with anyone else.”
Tevye was taken aback. When had his little one become such a saint? The answer was clear. From the time she had married Ariel. The Yemenite youth was as righteous and brave as they came, always volunteering to do whatever had to be done, without any thought or concern for himself. Since her wedding, Tevye’s wild, unpredictable daughter had become a model, obedient wife. As if overnight, Ariel’s idealism and faith had become a part of her being. Just as her husband would walk unflinchingly into the swamp, she would unflinchingly follow.