Sunday, July 31, 2016

Mattot-Massay: Report from a City of Refuge (Hebrew, Ir Miklat)

Mattot-Massay

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

My name is Issachar; I am a Hebrew, from the Tribe of Naphtali. My father died before I was born, and my mother was left a widow, with myself, two older brothers, and a younger sister. As soon as I was old enough to help put bread on the table, I went out to work. I became a woodcutter.

It was not hard work, but neither was it easy. It was one thing to gather twigs, even stout branches, but to cut down an old tree which a farmer found in his way—that required a friend’s help. I asked my old friend, Chaim ben Mavet, to help me. He himself was from a large family, in the olive-oil business, but he had no interest in that; he preferred the outdoors. And so, we began to cut down, saw, and sell our lumber—just wooden branches and scraps, really—together.

Still, I had dreams of becoming a builder, like those I saw in our village, making frames for people’s houses. Chaim and I even helped out on those projects when our own business was slow. It was pleasant, most of the year, working in the out-of-doors, and the years passed easily.

“Soon,” my mother told me, “you may begin to start thinking of taking a wife.”

This made me happy. I even cast my eye about, on one or two maidens. And so, the days went on….

It was a spring day, with birds singing and a soft breeze in the air, the best kind of day for felling a birch or two and drying them out for firewood, to sell in the marketplace. Chaim and I went to a nearby copse where we often found our lumber. Neither of us thought to check whether the ax-head was securely bound to the handle; we both assumed the other had done it. We found a thin poplar tree, dead for being between two mighty oaks, and we drew lots to see who would be “first chopper.” I swung the ax a few times, smiling as the sharp brazen blade cut into the wood, more and more deeply. Chaim moved off a short distance, wearing his leathern sling, and gathered bits and twigs for kindling; we sold that, a perutah-penny a bundle. It was a good day for our business.

The morning sun rose higher. I took a minute to sip water from our goatskin and wipe my brow. Looking around, I could not help but admire the beauty of the day! If the earth and sky and air were so wondrous, how much more beautiful was the Maker of them all? I put down the ‘skin and picked up my ax—I looked around for safety, to spy where Chaim was, but could not see him. As I swung back, I called out his name, for safety: “Chaim!”

“What, Friend Issachar?” I heard him running toward me.

Believing he was safe, but not seeing him, I swung my ax back, aiming to cut the tree down and finally, clean. But then—I felt the ax-blade fly off the handle—the sound of metal hitting flesh, a short cry, and then, silence. O my God! My best friend, Chaim ben Mavet, lay dead, the blade lodged deep in his chest. All alone now, in the woods, I did not know what to do, or where to go. I thought of the “blood revenge law,” older than the Torah of Moses, by which Chaim’s family would hunt me down in a “revenge killing,” a vendetta, and, by that same cruel law, my family would kill a member of his family in retaliation.

The killing would never end, forever and ever.

I dug a shallow grave by hand, and gently placed therein my friend’s  bloodstained body, crying bitter tears—of loss for him, fear for me. I hid that day and fled by night to a nearby Ir Miklat, a walled-and-protected City of Refuge, throwing myself on the mercy of the Kohanim, the Priests, who administered there, and ran the City to protect hundreds of others like me. The Bet Din, or Court of Law, in the City tried me and found me, indeed, guilty of manslaughter, only not premeditated murder. I was sentenced to remain in the City until the death of the High Priest, not as punishment, but in atonement for my inadvertent sin.

“It is clear that you must have done something wrong, for this terrible sin to have happened, even accidentally,” my Defender-Levite explained to me, “and so, you must remain here. There is work for you to do, Torah to study. And time to reflect and think. Here, you are safe.”

“How long must I remain here?” I asked, “I am a young man, and my life is just beginning.”

“Who knows the ways of God?” answered the Levite, “You must stay until Nadivel ben Yoreh, our current High Priest, dies.”

“Then I await his death daily; let him die soon! Now!” I thought, grinding my teeth at my sudden death-in-life imprisonment, and left the court, under escort by Israelite guardsmen. A middle-aged woman with a sad, but beautiful face, wearing cloth-of-gold and precious jewelry like a queen, came up to me.

“Are you Issachar ben Asir?” she asked, “They told me to meet you here, outside the Hall of Justice. My name is Nechama bat Chesed v’Chana.”

“What can I do for you, Madame?” I asked, wondering why such a highborn woman would have dealings with me, a peasant woodcutter. The guardsman took off my manacles as we spoke.

“No: it is what can I do for you,” she said, “for I am the wife of the High Priest, Nadivel. You are to come home with me, for the night. Here is my palanquin….”

I followed her to the environs of the City—still within the Walls, of course; all in the City went on within its walls, like a fortress—how I longed for the forests and open fields, where I had grown up, running barefoot! But we often cannot make the choices in our life; God and Fate are often intermixed….We entered under a huge, shadowed archway, and I heard the echo of children’s voices, laughing: “Who is this, whom have you brought among us, Mama?”

We were in the House of Nadivel and Nechama, a mansion, with servants bowing and children running amid the columns. A lovely fountain plashed in a central courtyard. A footman showed me to my bedroom, and I was able to have a bath, with perfumed oil-soaps. After I toweled off, there was a knock at the door. A teenaged manservant stood there.

“Mistress Nechama and Lord Priest Nadivel’s compliments, Sir Issachar, but dinner will be served when the bell rings.” He turned on his heel and strutted away, the little fop. Then, I heard Nechama’s voice, calling my name. I bent over the huge stairway, and saw her below, helping her maidservants set the table. She was no longer wearing her golden skirts, but rather a simple at-home dress, with an apron over it—she waved and smiled, looking almost like my mother (Lord, how I missed my mother!):

“Don’t forget, Issachar,” Nechama called, with a little boy peeping from beneath her skirts, “when the bell rings, come to dinner in the main dining room. Don’t be late—there are many in our family, and the food may not last!” And she laughed.

There was plenty. I had never eaten so much in my life. The High Priest’s family was huge—children from three to thirteen sat in their seats, laughing and eating, but grew hushed when either their mother or father raised a hand to speak, or to ask them a question.

(I found out later that nearly all were adopted, either orphaned from Israelite tribes, or were refugees of war.)

In the end, I spent a week, as their guest. I ate at their table, lived with their children, and all called me by name, as if I were son, brother, or uncle.  

Why, I wondered, why?

At week’s end, Nadivel called me into his study, a smiling, fiftyish public man, bearded, kindly, but businesslike and efficient. He told me that he had found me a job as a woodcutter, supplying firewood for the sacrificial fires, and lumber for extra homes in the City—sadly, the need was growing daily, but all were happy that the refugees from vendetta had a place to live.

A year passed, and I pray for Nadivel’s and Nechama’s health daily. My life is limited, but I am glad to be alive.

O Reader from the Future! Are we Denizens of the Past so primitive, that we are not worth imitating? Read the news today, of innocents dying, and political bullies, both secular and “religious,” fulminating and making war, both verbal and actual.

Is it then so outlandish to conceive of building a City of Refuge?