By Rabbi David Hartley Mark
“And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘Whosoever be of your seed…who has a blemish, let him not approach to offer the bread of his God. For the man who has a blemish, he shall not approach: a blind man, or a lame, or one who is maimed, or anything too long. Or a man who is broken-footed, or broken-handed, or hunchbacked, or a dwarf, or with a bad eye….” (Lev. 21:16-20)
I am Mephibaal, of the Tribe of Levi. You may not find my name among the long lists of Levites who served the Lord our God in the Mishkan, the Sanctuary which we built in the Wilderness; no, nor that of my parents, Ashur ben Chananel ha-Levi, and Mari bat Sodiel.
I was born blind. My father refused, at first, to believe this; he tried for hours to get me to follow a burning twig as he passed it back-and-forth, back-and-forth, before my eyes, but I was unable to follow it; my world was utter blackness. Though he screamed in my face, “Can’t you see it? Don’t you feel its heat, you little fool, you dolt?” and made me cry, and then he himself, my great, sweat-smelling, charcoal-burning father, a worker in the Shrine, burst into tears to think his only child and son a blind man—and stalked about our tent screaming, tearing his hair and beating his breast—while I, petrified of him, crawled across the tent-floor into my mother’s arms—my world was dark, thick, and impenetrable.
All cried out, but still pitying himself for having me for a son, Papa would then wipe his cheeks, blow his nose in a sacred scarf of the priests’, and storm out, muttering about how I was a disgrace to his tribe and clan, and go to the tavern-tent of Rachum the brewer, to drown his disappointment in barley beer, leaving Mama and me crying together, until she rocked me to sleep, and she drowsed off. We prayed that Papa would not come home, and he often did not….
When I grew older, my mother came up with the idea that I might, being blind, become a musician, and she paid one of the Levite orchestra, an indifferent harpist named Navelya ben Klezmer, to come to our home after rehearsals, and give me lessons on his kinor, his harp. Folks believed that we blind people were gifted musicians by nature, having more developed powers of hearing. This was a lie, as Mother and I discovered after my few lessons with Navelya, who was impatient and gruff, had no great secrets of technique to impart, and was a heavy drinker, besides.
I never became a great harpist, but, after my father died of too much drink, leaving us penniless, my mother—who went mad, really—decided that I was a far more skillful musician than I was. She took me by the hand, with my blind-man’s stick in the other, and dragged me down to the Shrine to play a few strings for one of the priests—I believe it was Itamar, Aaron’s youngest—Aaron himself was far too old to come to the Tent of Meeting, back in those days.
When I was done, Itamar sighed—I could hear it—and I could tell that my little musician’s interview was not going well.
“My Lord Priest, what do you think of my Mephibaal’s skills?” asked—pleaded—my mother, “Does he deserve a position serving the Lord in your Levite Orchestra?”
“It is hard to say after one performance, Dear Mistress Mariel,” said Itamar, gently, “but I will have to say no.”
“Then we will starve,” my mother cried out, and she began to weep.
Itamar, soft-hearted fellow that he was—everyone said he resembled his old father, Aaron, for mercy—assured her that there was a welfare fund for all Levites—but she was inconsolable.
In the end, she refused to take me home—she had deluded herself into thinking that, if she left me there, Itamar would have to find me some sort of job. She kissed me, left me sitting there, and fled. Two sturdy Levites took me by the arm, lifted me up like a rag doll, and put me into this dormitory where I live now, with other Levitical basket cases—cripples, blind, deaf, dwarves—the lot.
We sit here, all day, for the most part, except for a couple of hours, morning and afternoon, when some Levitical nurses take us into the courtyard, and we walk around for exercise.We are right next door to the corral where the sacrificial animals are kept, and we smell and hear the lowings and mooings of all the beasts who are soon to be slaughtered, prayed over, burnt, and sent up in smoke to our mysterious God above the clouds.
As for us, we will live and die here, rejects from God’s holy service.
And I wonder: is this right? I had wished to play harp, or to serve God in some way, or other. I cannot see, but my brain functions. My best friend here, Kitzur, is a dwarf, but smart; he and I often have long discussions about God, the World, and the nations that live in it.
“By the beard of Jah, Kitzur, I believe you could be Chief Magistrate of the Levitical Court!” I told him, one day.
He pressed my hand, and patted my cheek—he is a good fellow.
“Dear Mephibaal!” he said, “But since our God has cursed me with a short stature, I cannot serve Him; I can only sit in this courtyard, and talk endlessly with you. Is that fair? Is that right?”
And I could not answer him. Can You, O’ God?