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Tevye in the Promised Land, Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Plague

Cover of Tevye in the Promised Land by Tzvi Fishman.

“If we move from here because of disease,” Guttmacher said, “we will have to move from the next place because of Arab marauders, and from the next place because of the Turks, and from the next place because of the mosquitoes, until we will be back on a boat to Russia, and then where will we go?’

Others assented.

“It is better to die here and be a symbol of bravery, than to set an example of cowardice,” Munsho, the rugged blacksmith exclaimed.

“Abandoning an area because of sickness is an action of wisdom and prudence, not cowardice,” the doctor injected.

“Doesn’t it say in the Torah that the commandments were given to live by them, not to die by them?” Hillel added.

Surprisingly, Goliath spoke up.

“I grew up with Shmuelik,’’ he said. “He was like a brother to me. If he were alive, I think he would have decided to stay. But he would have said that everyone should be free to do what he wishes.”

“Goliath is right,” Reb Lazer said. “This is not something to decide by a vote. Everyone should be free to follow his conscience.”

“I second the motion,” Tevye said.

“Agreed,” a chorus of voices called out.

In the morning, the doctor left with a wagon load of toddlers. Chaim Lev and his wife lifted their sick children into their wagon, along with all their belongings, and set off with the doctor. Hillel limped out from the barn, carrying his accordion and a suitcase. With an embarrassed expression, he set them on the fixer’s wagon and climbed on board. His accordion let out a flat note as if it were sighing. Tevye was truly sorry to see his friend leave. Without any hard feelings, he stepped forward to shake Hillel’s hand.

“May the Lord be with you,” he said.

“May the Lord be with you as well,” Hillel answered.

“We will all miss your music.”

Hillel smiled, remembering their many nights together when Tevye was still a bachelor.

“If I were healthy to begin with, maybe I’d stay. But what good is a lame accordion player on a mountain farm anyway?”

Tevye grabbed Hillel’s side locks and kissed him on the face.

“L’hitraot,” Tevye said, waving goodbye to his comrade. “May the Lord bring us together again soon.”

The wagons of Pincus and Lazer joined in the caravan. Friends waved to each other as if saying final good-byes. The settlers of Morasha watched the wagons head down the trail until they were out of sight. Every man’s face seemed to share the same dark concern, the same worry and doubt, as if they were being foolish for staying.

Tevye’s turn in the sick wagon seemed right around the bend.

Exhausted from the back and forth journey to Zichron, and from a shortage of sleep, he went to bed with a headache. Two hours later, he awoke in a sweat. A heaviness weighed down his limbs. His teeth chattered. Extra blankets didn’t help warm him. Thinking his end was at hand, he called for his wife. She knelt down beside him and wiped his face with a towel. His daughters gathered about. Hava, the nurse, knelt beside him. “What an angel,” he thought. He wanted to tell them all how much he loved them, but his head spun in circles, making him too dizzy to speak. Once again, sleep overcame him. A fever broke out on his forehead. While his family crowded around as if keeping guard, Tevye struggled with nightmares. He yelled deliriously out at an enemy. His children stood trembling, certain that their father was wrestling with death.

Abba, be strong,” Hava called out.

Saba, don’t die,” Moishe pleaded.

Then, with a gasp, Tevye woke up. His eyes opened wide. Summoning all of his strength, he raised himself onto his elbows.

“Bury me beside your mother,” he said in a dry, rasping voice.

Then he sank back on his pillow, whispered a final “Shema Yisrael,” and closed his eyes, prepared to meet his Maker. But his head continued to hammer, his thoughts continued to think, and his daughters’ weeping wouldn’t give him rest. After a long, dramatic moment, he reopened one eye. His loved ones hovered above him, holding their breaths. Tevye sighed. Escaping from this world wasn’t to be his good fortune. Apparently, the Almighty had more tests in store for him before granted him respite from his trials on earth.

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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