Latest update: March 13th, 2013
What was a man, Tevye thought, that one moment he could be so filled with power and seemingly invincible force, and the next moment a motionless pile of flesh? He knew that the body on the ground wasn’t the real Goliath, but only the oversized suit which his giant soul had worn during his wanderings on earth. The real Goliath was on his way to Heaven and a world where size was measured in good deeds and Torah, not in physical power and strength. That’s what the Rabbis taught, and who was Tevye to disagree? The mysteries and secrets of life were beyond his understanding, but he was certain that the lifeless imposter before him wasn’t Goliath. His faithful companion couldn’t be gone. The Divine energy called life didn’t just disappear. Goliath simply had slipped out of his bulky lumberjack’s costume to journey to a less cumbersome world.
“Blessed be the true Judge,” a voice said.
It was Nachman.
“When will it end?” Tevye asked.
Nachman could only shake his head as he gazed down at his lifelong friend.
“I told him not to sleep in the barn. Like always, he worried about everyone else without thinking about himself.”
Nachman turned away and held on to Tevye.
“He was like a brother and father to me.”
Tevye let his son-in-law silently weep in his arms. He remembered how the giant had watched over Nachman, like a mother hen guarding its chick.
“He’s in a better world now,” Tevye observed.
Nachman nodded, wiping the tears from his eyes. “I know,” he said. “I know. But he was such a good friend.”
Tevye himself felt like crying, but he had to stay strong for the boy. Death had robbed him of his best friends from the past, and he needed someone to remind him that for a Jew, life always had a happier future. That was the steadfast belief which had kept his People going for the last two thousand years, throughout endless persecutions and wanderings.
“Everything God does is always for the best, even if we can’t
understand,” Tevye told him. “Do you remember on the boat to
Israel, when they turned us away from landing, you had to remind me that everything turns out for our good?”
“I remember,” Nachman replied.
“Someday, when we gaze down from Heaven, we will understand these great secrets. But right now, you had better call Guttmacher,” Tevye said.
Nachman nodded. He walked out of the barn to fetch the undertaker, leaving Tevye alone with the toppled Goliath. “Alexander, the son of Rivka,” Tevye said, saying a prayer for the departed man’s soul. Tevye bent down and closed Goliath’s eyes. When he stood up, a rooster leaped onto the dead man’s chest and perched there like a vulture. Tevye shouted and kicked at the bird. Squawking, it flew into the air. Angrily, Tevye raced around the barn, scaring the chickens away. For Nachman’s sake, he had spoken strengthening words of faith. But alone with the very great loss, he succumbed to the more mortal feelings of anger and pain.
“Is this fair?” he called out toward the roof of the barn. “What did Goliath ever do to hurt a flea in his life? Is this the end he deserves – to drop dead amongst the cows and the chickens?!”
The roof didn’t answer. Neither did the animals. They were silent, hushed by Tevye’s outburst.
“You won’t break us!” Tevye shouted, raising a fist. “You won’t break us!”
A few pigeons flew out from the rafters.
“If Your judgment has to fall on someone, then leave the others alone. Let it all fall on me!”
Sighing, Tevye lowered his arm. He bent down and grabbed Goliath’s boots, thinking to drag the corpse out of the disease-ridden barn. As he gave the great hulk a tug, he heard a vertebra pop out of place in his spine. Tevye cried out in pain. Bent over double, he staggered to the door of the barn, shuffling his feet on the ground like a hunchback. Leaning against the barn wall, he looked up at Heaven and groaned.
“Okay,” he said, clutching his aching back. “You win. I shouldn’t have opened my big mouth.”
Some fighter he was. Within seconds of having yelled out in complaint, his spine already felt broken and he hardly could walk.
Goliath was too heavy to be carried out to the cemetery, so his body was wheeled out in a cart. The work of preparing the double-sized grave took more than an hour. The diggers were exhausted by the time the funeral procession arrived. Once again, the somber, all too familiar El Maleh Rachamim prayer, echoed over the hills. Since the deceased had no relatives in Israel, Nachman recited the mourner’s Kaddish. When the ceremony was over, Nachman lingered at the grave. Tevye walked back to the colony, leaning on a cane to east the pain in his lower back. Yankele, the butcher, approached him with a stern look on his face.
“Do you still think we can hold down the fort?” he asked the bent-over milkman.
“Am I a prophet that you ask me such questions?” Tevye responded.
“With your cane, you do look a little like Moses.”
“I feel more like Methusalah,” Tevye said.
“Goliath did the work of five men together. How can we manage without him?”
Tevye didn’t know. Either his once indefatigable faith was running low, or he was simply exhausted. He spent the rest of the day on his back like a dead man. By late afternoon, thanks to God’s never-ending kindness, his vertebra had moved back into place, and he could stand up on his own without the help of his cane. A contingent of soldiers arrived from the Central Turkish Military Authority in Caesaria. They carried a letter signed by Jamal Pasha saying that all Morasha building permits were all in order, and that the settlers were allowed to construct permanent roofs. After reading the letter, Tevye threw it on the ground.
“If I ever see that devil Pasha again, as the Almighty is my witness, I will I kill him with these very hands,” he vowed.
“Abba,” Hava said, “Didn’t you teach us that it is forbidden to make a vow in God’s Name.”
“He caused the deaths of Goliath and Shmuelik, not to mention the others. Jamal Pasha is the murderer, not the plague.”
“The Pashas of the world have bossed us around long enough. This is our land, and I’m not taking anymore of their orders.”
Tevye stalked off to his house, but like a soldier in battle, he wasn’t given a long time to rest. In the middle of the night, Nachman came with the news that Moishe, Tzeitl’s little Moishe, had fallen ill. The boy had woken up, screaming from a nightmare. Tevye rushed to the house and felt the boy’s burning forehead. When the energetic tot said he felt too weak to stand, Tevye decided not to wait for sunrise to set off for Zichron Yaacov. He hitched up a wagon and lifted the sweating and listless child inside. Hava and Bat Sheva went with him. They sat in the back of the wagon, holding the boy in their laps.
When they reached the stream rushing down from the mountains, they had to make a detour. In the breaking dawn light, Tevye could make out a group of wagon tracks heading north along the path of the stream. Understanding that they were the tracks left in the mud by the wagons which had left the Morasha, Tevye decided to follow them. Sure enough, after a half-hour’s ride, they came to a natural crossing where the raging stream ran underground. Two hours later, they reached Zichron Yaacov. When they finally arrived at the infirmary, the boy’s body was still burning with fever. Tevye carried him inside in his arms. Hava rushed forward and spoke with a nurse.
“Where should I put him?” Tevye asked.
Quickly, Hava led him down the corridor and out a back door. In the field behind the hospital, a good distance away, a large tent had been erected. All of the sick Morasha settlers were quarantined inside. Guttmacher’s daughter had died, along with another one of Chaim Lev’s children.
Tevye carried Moishe into the tent and set him down on an empty cot. The sick people in the other beds all appeared gaunt, as if they were wasting away. Chaim Lev was curled into a ball, grasping his stomach.
“Isn’t there something that can help them?” Bat Sheva asked.
“Prayer,” the nurse said. “We try to make them comfortable, but there is really nothing we can do. All of the medicines we have tried haven’t had any effect.”
“That’s impossible,” Tevye said. “There must be some way to cure them.”
Neither Hava nor the nurse had an answer. Tevye stepped over to Chaim Lev, the fixer, and put a hand on his feverish head. In his delirium, he didn’t even notice that Tevye was there.
A young doctor arrived and asked Tevye to wait outside the tent.
“He’s my father,” Hava said. “The grandfather of the boy.”
“I’m sorry,” the doctor replied. “He’ll have to wait outside. You also,” he said to Bat Sheva.
“I held him all of the way here in the wagon,” she protested. “If the boy has the plague, then I have it too.”
“Not necessarily,” the doctor answered. “Some people seem to have natural immunities.”
Tevye didn’t want to waste time by arguing, so he left the doctor alone to examine the boy. He stood outside the tent with his eyes closed, praying. Over and over again, he asked the Almighty to heal the boy. He prayed for the health of all of the settlers. A few minutes later, the doctor appeared. Tevye stared at him anxiously.
“I’m afraid the boy has the cholera too. We will try to bleed him, but it hasn’t helped the others. I’ll ask Dr. Schwartz to look at him just to be sure.”
“Bleed him?” Tevye asked. The idea sounded awful. Didn’t the Torah teach that a person’s lifeforce was contained in his blood?
“That’s the standard procedure,” the doctor said.
“Won’t that just weaken him?”
The young doctor shrugged.
“I won’t allow it!” Tevye emphatically shouted. “I won’t allow it. Do you hear?”
“Very well,” the doctor said. “We really only do it when we
don’t know what other action to take.”
A great weariness overtook Tevye. Hava came out of the tent and told them to go to the workers’ dining hall where they could get some food. In the meantime, she would watch over Moishe.
Tevye and Bat Sheva were riding back to the center of the moshav when a bearded Jew ran up to the wagon.
“Are you Tevye?” he called.
“That’s right,” the milkman answered. “And who are you?”
“Just a simple Jew,” the man said.
“Just a simple Jew?” Tevye answered. “Can there be such a thing? Every Jew is a son of the King.”
The man held up a finger to his lips. “Shhh,” he whispered. “I prefer to keep that a secret. I like a quiet life. If people were to find out that I have a special connection to the King, they’d pester me day and night with all kinds of requests.”
“Isn’t it our duty to help others in need?”
“The King has many sons. Let them worry about the problems of the world.”
“Tell me, how did you know my name?” Tevye asked.
“I had a dream last night that you would be coming, and so far you are the only stranger I’ve seen.”
“May your dream be a good omen.”
“I have a message for you.”
“My ears are ringing,” Tevye said.
“You are to immerse the sick boy in the holy mikvah in Safed. There, God will answer your prayers.”
Safed was the name of the renowned holy city where great Jewish mystics had lived. The “Ari,” Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, was the most famous of all. Much of the Kabbalah had been based on his teachings. There was a legend that anyone who immersed himself in the running, mountain-spring water of his legendary mikvah would be miraculously blessed in the waters which flowed from the Garden of Eden.
“Oh, father, you don’t really believe in such nonsense?” Bat Sheva chided.
“Quiet,” he ordered, turning back to man in the road. “What else did you see in your dream?” Tevye asked.
“Not a thing,” the Jew confessed. “The young fellow who appeared in the dream took off in a very big hurry.”
“What was his name?”
“That’s right,” said the stranger. “He told me to tell you his name.”
He paused theatrically, as if to heighten Tevye’s suspense. “Nu?” Tevye asked.
“He called himself Shmuelik.”
Tevye felt chills run up and down his body.
The man waved a hand and continued on his way, wishing the boy a complete recovery. Tevye watched him disappear behind one of the nearby houses.
“It’s nothing but superstition,” Bat Sheva said. “Shmuelik is
“The righteous don’t die,” Tevye told her. “Their souls go on living.”
With an urgent command to the horse, Tevye turned the wagon around in the road. Within minutes, they were back at the infirmary.
“You are not really thinking of taking Moishe to Safed?” Hava asked in disbelief when her father related the story.
“I certainly am,” Tevye said.
“He doesn’t have the strength for the journey.”
“You heard the doctor. There is nothing that medical treatments can do for him here, except maybe bleed him to death, God forbid.”
Nothing that Hava could say could dissuade him. She knew that arguing with her father was useless. Tevye was convinced that the dream had been a message from Heaven, and that the mysterious Jew was no other than the famed prophet of Biblical times, Eliahu HaNavi, who traveled from city to city, helping Jews the world over.
“Maybe father has the fever,” Bat Sheva whispered to Hava as Tevye carried Moishe out of the quarantine tent to the wagon.
“Guard your tongue,” Hava told her. “Who knows? Maybe the dream will come true. Anyway, father is right. There is nothing we can do here. Maybe fresh air will do Moishe more good than lying in a tent filled with germs.”
It seemed like craziness to Bat Sheva, but she couldn’t let her father travel alone with no one to look after the boy. Hava had to stay at the hospital. So she decided to go along on the journey to Safed.
Hava supplied them with enough water, cheeses, black bread, and fruits to last for a week. She even packed along a bottle of vodka which she found in one of the infirmary’s cabinets.
“Now that’s a good daughter,” Tevye said.
To reach Safed, they first had to travel north to Haifa, and then follow a long winding road high up into the Galilee mountains. The journey took them three days. Moishe slept most of way. Occasionally, he opened his eyes, but he had nothing to say. He lived off sips of water and tiny nibbles of cheese. Bat Sheva sang to him and told him stories, but much of the time, she wasn’t sure that he heard.
While Tevye had never studied Kabbalah, he had learned a few things here and there about the secrets of Torah. The influence of the Hasidic movement had spread throughout Russia, and mystics passing through Anatevka had often dined at his house, sharing with Tevye secrets revealed in the Tanya and Zohar. For a simple Jew like Tevye, the concepts had made his head spin. What good did it do knowing the secrets of Creation when you had to go back to milking your cows? The Kabbalists described the immersion in a mikvah as a mystical return to the womb. The person emerging from the ritual pool was like someone reborn. If he had sinned and repented, he could now be forgiven because he was like a new being. Though Tevye decided that the esoteric teachings weren’t for him, he had a steadfast belief in everything which the Sages had written. And among the great Kabbalists, the Ari, may his memory be for a blessing, was the top of the line. If he had left a special healing blessing in his mikvah, then Tevye was convinced that the boy would be healed.
The city of Safed was literally up in the clouds. As they ascended the mountain, gusts of wind swirled around them, blowing flakes of snow in their faces. The entrance to the city was guarded by a wall of fog and mist, as if only the privileged could enter. For several long moments, their horse disappeared in the vapor in front of them. Then the curtain of fog seemed to part, revealing a mystical enclave which seemed to hover in the sky on a platform of clouds high above the earth.
Reaching the city was like entering another world. For one thing, Tevye did not see anyone who wasn’t Jewish. Ever since the time of the Second Temple, for nearly two-thousand years, Jews had lived in the ancient, mountain refuge. The roadway had never been smoothed, as if no one cared about physical comfort. Buildings were interspersed with crumbling ruins. A series of devastating earthquakes had left rubble everywhere. A legend claimed that the disasters had happened because of the awesome power of the Kabbalists’ prayers. The houses still standing were built out of large blocks of stone. The Jews who passed by on the roadside had long, untrimmed beards and burning mystical eyes. They darted swiftly down narrow alleyways, their eyes on the ground, their thoughts up in Heaven. Most of them lived on charity sent by Jews overseas. They spent their days fasting, engrossed in study and fervent prayer. When Tevye asked the way to the famous mikvah, they all pointed in a direction away from the town, down the sloping hillside.
The steepness of the descent was frightening. Tevye’s horse balked. At the outskirts of the old, picturesque village, the road ended and the wagon ride came to a halt. Tevye took the towels which Hava had packed with the food, and an extra blanket to make sure that Moishe didnt catch cold. A narrow dirt path led down to the ancient mountainside cemetery of Safed. Many of the tombstones were cracked. Though the earthquakes had made ruins of the city, the cemetery itself has been spared. A group of Hasidim stood reading Psalms around the gravesite where the Ari was buried. Day and night, supplicants prayed at the grave of the famous Kabbalist. Candles burned on the monument. A short distance away was the grave of Rabbi Yosef Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch, the codified volumes of Jewish Law. Further down the hill was the tomb of the Prophet Hosea, and the cave where the martyred Hannah was buried with her eight slaughtered sons.
A serene, holy stillness hung over the hillside. Even Bat Sheva, who was normally skeptic, could sense the mystical pull of the site. She walked beside her father, not saying a word. Moishe opened his eyes and stared at the cemetery. Only God knew what the small boy was thinking.
“That must be the mikvah,” Tevye said, pointing to the mouth of a cave, where a Hasid was standing.
“I’ll wait for you here,” Bat Sheva said.
“There’s a woman in the cemetery,” her father said, “Go pray by her side.”
Embarrassed, Bat Sheva hesitated. She stood awed, feeling that all of the holy Rabbis were gazing at her from their graves. She was filled with shame, as if her lapses in keeping the Torah made her unworthy to pray in so sacred a place.
Carrying the boy in his arms, Tevye descended toward the cave. Its entrance was a narrow archway of rock. Inside, candles burning on a ledge lit the darkness. The walls were all solid stone, as if the cave had been carved out of a gigantic boulder. Deeper into the cave, an underground stream flowed into a small natural pool. The shadowy figure of the Hasid appeared behind them. Without questioning Tevye, he wished the boy a speedy recovery and asked if he could help. Tevye let him hold Moishe as he quickly undressed. The cold rocky floor sent chills through his body. In the flicker of the candlelight, the boy’s big eyes stared questioningly up at his grandfather.
“Don’t worry, my tateleh,” ‘Tevye said. “You are going to get better, I promise.”
He stripped the boy bare and scooped him up in his arms. Careful not to slip on the wet, rocky slate, Tevye inched toward the mikvah. He knew the mountain water was bound to be cold, but when his foot descended the first stone step into the pool, he felt as if he had submerged it into an ice-covered pond. Why prolong the agony, he thought? With a gasp, he rushed forward and leaped into the freezing pool. He carried Moishe down with him under the water, then let him go for the briefest of moments so that the boy would be completely immersed in the pool. Then with a shivering roar, he burst out of the water and lunged for the steps. The Hasid reached down and swept the boy into a towel. Tevye’s teeth chattered as he hoisted himself back up to the floor of the cave. They dried and dressed the boy quickly, then bundled him up in the blanket which his grandfather had brought. The Hasid said that Tevye could bring the boy to the yeshiva up the hill, to warm him by the stove. Tevye readily accepted the offer. Quickly, so that Moishe wouldn’t catch a cold, he followed the black-garbed Jew up the steep path. Outside the yeshiva, the Hasid stopped in a narrow alley and knocked on a door. An old, kerchiefed woman appeared. After a moment’s explanation, Bat Sheva was invited inside while her father took Moishe into the wooden building which housed the yeshiva.
The study hall was filled with Hasidim dressed in the long black frocks and fur hats common to the pious Jews of Anatevka. Many wore prayer shawls and tefillin. For a moment, Tevye felt like he had stepped into a yeshiva in Russia. Talmudic volumes, their covers torn from use, filled the shelves along the walls. An elaborately carved ark, the aron hakodesh, holding the Torah, stood in the south of the study hall so that prayers would be directed toward Jerusalem. The Hasid sat Tevye and Moishe in chairs by a large metal stove. The heat from its fire rose around them, removing the chill from their bones. Within a minute, cups of hot tea were brought to the visitors.
Tevye watched in happy wonder as Moishe took the cup in his
hands. The youth sipped at the warm, fragrant brew and smiled.
“Drink my child,” Tevye told him, amazed at the improvement he saw.
Every second, the boy seemed to get stronger. For the first time in days, color returned to his cheeks. A plate of biscuits and small pastries was set before them.
“Es,” Tevye said, handing the boy a sweet-smelling cake. “Eat some cake.
Moishe ate the tasty morsel with relish. Joyfully, his grandfather held out another.
“I want to go pray,” Moishe said.
They were the first words the child had spoken in days.
“Eat another piece of cake.”
“Later,” Moishe said, standing up.
“Are you sure you have the strength?” his grandfather asked.
“Hashem will give me the strength,” the boy said.
To Tevye’s surprise, the boy didn’t stand up to pray in the yeshiva. He walked to the door and hurried outside. Like a deer, Moishe ran down the hillside path which led to the cemetery. Tevye watched in amazement. Chills shook his body, not from the cold, but from the miracle he was witnessing. As if the boy had lived in the city of Safed for a lifetime, he ran straight to the grave of the holy Ari. Praying, his little body swayed back and forth like the Hasidic Jews beside him. Tevye looked up to the sky and said thank you. With joy in his heart, he walked down the dirt path to join his grandson in prayer at the grave of the holy Tzaddik. To the beleaguered milkman, it was a sign that God was still with him.
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
You might also be interested in:
You must log in to post a comment.