The sun was setting, once upon a time, in a little village somewhere in Yhudah, where a young man sat under a fig tree. He was watching the Roman soldiers pass by, some in full armour, their spears in array, and others on well-fed, strong-muscled, snorting, and jittery horses. The Jew’s eyes blazed with anger. But then, he felt that the anger was unnecessary and put it aside. It would do no good, he thought. His anger was quite unlike that of his fellow-Jews, who hated the Romans, cursed them and wished them dead for occupying the Holy Land. His anger was reasoned.
The Holy Land, the young man felt, was really no different from other lands. He had travelled with his father to Damascus and other places across the borders of occupied Israel. His father was a merchant, a trader in high-priced goods, especially fine grains and wine, who had amassed not only wealth but also lands in Yhudah and elsewhere. He had enough to pay the high taxes the Romans imposed and yet provide his family with a life of luxury. He also had considerable influence with the Romans, the merchants across the border in Syria and in other nations, the Sanhedrin, and Herod’s palace.
Havel, the young man, had realised early enough under the tutelage of his father and mother that, in every place under the sun, there was trouble enough for human beings, and that those who were wise would have learnt to be content with what they had, while those who were intelligent would learn to reap riches, one way or the other, and remain steadfast in establishing a good life for their families and amass power. And, that was the blessing of El, the Most High G-d.
The precocious young man marvelled that there were wise Jews, who had learnt to be content in all circumstances; but he marvelled even more at those intelligent Jews who flourished and exercised influence at home and abroad, even under the Roman heel. Then there were the malcontents, especially the poor, crushed by both the Jewish religion, the Herodian monarchy, and the Romans, who had little or no hope of becoming rich. They lived miserable and oppressed lives at the bottom of the human dungheap.
More recently, Havel had been hearing rumours about a man crisscrossing K’far-Nachum who had roused the ire of the Temple authorities in Yerushalayim, the rabbis proficient in the Torah and Tanakh, the party of the Purushim, and political Jews affiliated to the palace of King Herod Antipas. This man, according to the rumours, was a bastard, an illegitimate child of a carpenter and his wife. He had not been schooled by any of the leading rabbis, and yet they said that he was a rabbi who was drawing talmidim to himself.
This Rabbi was also said to be a miracle worker who healed the sick, even lepers and lunatics, and performed exorcisms too. The experts of the Jewish religion and the Law of Moses, were thrown into confusion when they confronted him on his doctrine. Many among the rabble of fisherfolk, zealots and sundry other ne’er-do-wells of society who followed him, testified to miracles that had either happened to them personally or that they had witnessed in the presence of this Rabbi. In the young man’s considerations, miracles like the blind receiving sight, cripples being able to walk, the paralysed being made whole, and some folks even being raised from the dead, involved impossibilities. To complicate matters, many were also spreading abroad the dangerous idea that this Rabbi was the Moshiach, the ben-HaShem, the Son of G-d and Son of David, come to redeem the Israelites and be their king. This worried the young man the most, for he knew that the Romans would not tolerate insurrection and their harsh measures would affect all Jews, including his own intelligent, prosperous, wealthy family.
Havel spoke to his father and mother about these matters. They just laughed it away, at first. When he persisted in knowing more and finding out what they thought about all this, they said, “Son, many such madmen have arisen in Israel in the past claiming to be Moshiach. Has any one of them succeeded? Charlatans were all they were and they ended up dead, one way or the other, as did their followers. We are a family that has always bowed our heads low before Elohim Adonai and He has prospered us. We have given much to the Temple, the Sanhedrin and the priests, we have kept the Roman laws and honoured them though they are invaders, we have paid the right bribes to Herod’s henchmen when they threatened us, we have put aside enough for charity and for ourselves, and we have sought never to exploit anyone. Thus have we honoured the injunctions in the Torah and Tanakh and G-d has prospered us. You too have known the Scriptures from childhood that are able to make you wise and, if you continue in its ways, our ways, you will prosper.”
Havel decided to never again bring up the issue of the strange Rabbi with his parents or those in his family circles. He gave himself up to the study and practice of the Torah and Tanakh, while excelling as a businessman. His father allowed him, as he was of age, to keep 60 per cent of all his earnings for himself while putting the rest into the family treasury. This made him a very wealthy young man who did not have to depend on his family or anyone else. He began to invest in lands, gold, silver and precious stones. He was happy and contented, but never forgot the instructions in the Torah and followed them diligently. Young as he was, he kept himself safe from the many women, young and old, who sought to capture his mind or heart. He never took the name of any of the idol gods of the nations upon his lips. He made mandatory pilgrimages to the Temple to offer up sacrifices of bulls and rams. He provided for the upkeep of the Levites. If any poor person accosted him for help, he never refrained from giving them something or the other. He did not need to covet anything others had, or envy anyone, because whatsoever he put his hand to prospered.
Though Havel respected and burrowed deep into the teachings of several high rabbis, he was never enamoured of any one of them. He was happy and contented and blessed of Adonai. But then the season came when a worm began gnawing into the core of his soul. His countenance changed from glad to sad, so much so that his mother took him aside one day to ask him: “Son, what is it that ails you? Are you pining for a wife? Perhaps, we overlooked this matter, seeing you are supremely happy. But now you are sad, and we must make haste to find you a bride and a wife. Yes, it is the right time.”
Havel did not reply. It made his mother even more unhappy, and determined to do something about it. She spoke to her husband who said simply: “Find him a bride.” Havel’s mother joyously set out to fulfil her task.
Some time after this, Havel decided to go to the Temple in Yerushalayim, to make his offerings before Adonai Elohim. He found the Temple in an uproar. What is it, he asked. The answers he got were both confusing and stoked with passion on all sides.
“The Moshiach has appeared in the Temple,” said some, their eyes full of a mad certainty.
“An impostor who calls himself the Moshiach has been teaching in the Temple and has wreaked havoc. He has turned the people against the priests and the Sanhedrin,” said others.
“Why, only the other day, this man went on a rampage and overturned all the tables of those who traded in the Temple and drove them out with a whip, and the priests and Temple guards could do nothing because the people applauded him,” said another.
At one of the gates to the Temple, he found more than a score of people singing praises to Adonai Elohim around a man who led them in their hymns, his hands lifted high above his head. A spectator told Havel “See that man at their centre? He had a withered right hand. The Moshiach spoke a word to him and his hand was restored whole. It was the Sabbath day and the priests flew into a rage because he had healed on the Sabbath. But they could do nothing. The people are on the side of the Moshiach and he does wondrous miracles. Since the day he healed the man with the withered hand, these people gather daily in the Temple around him, constantly praising Adonai and His Moshiach.”
Havel felt as if in a daze. Coming out from the Temple, he told his servants to go on ahead with his mules. “I will walk by myself behind you and catch up with you soon,” he told them.
The sun was setting and, at first, he was accompanied by many others returning from the Temple, but the crowd soon thinned out. Soon he found himself walking alone. It had become dark. All of a sudden, he heard the voice of an old woman cry out to him from the side of the road.
“This way, this way, young man. Adonai Elohim has something to say to you,” said the voice.
He was wary at first, wondering if it was a bait laid out by robbers. These were days when robbers unashamedly attacked pilgrims to the Temple, especially those whom they considered richer than the regular, poverty-ridden rabble who came to the Temple to plead with G-d to end their sufferings. Havel said a quick prayer of protection to G-d and turned aside. A few yards away from the roadside, he found an old woman huddled under a rock. Her hair was a mixture of grey and white, or so he imagined, but her eyes blazed even in the darkness with an unusual light. Or perhaps, he imagined that too. Without her asking him even, he pulled out several silver coins from his pouch and handed them to her. She laughed, a gentle, rather calming, laugh.
“You’ve already paid the coin you owed Adonai as tithes in the Temple, Havel,” she said. It was as if he had been slapped by her. He recoiled from her. How did she know his name? She chuckled over the coins as she poured them, clinking, jingling, from one hand to another.
“I saw him before any of them ever did,” she told him in a rough, rasping but caring whisper. “His mother brought him here for his Brit Milah. The Ruach HaKodesh woke me from my slumber and took me to see her. And him. Especially him. There he was, the Moschiach, a tiny one snuggled up against her dress. I had waited all my life in the Temple, fasting and praying, to see him, and I did see him. What I told his mother, I will repeat to you. A sword shall pass through your own heart too, for this one is set for the rising and fall of many in Israel.”
Havel felt a deep, ominous shudder go through him when she spoke those words. Was she mad? Who was she referring to? What had it to do with him? Her words seemed to pull him inside a spinning vortex. He sensed the beating of countless wings around him and a great pressure inside his chest, pressing down upon his heart from all sides.
“You have been seeking him too, but beware of what you will find. Everyone who seeks, finds. And when you have found him, you will be killed. You will die and he will live. Yet, because he lives, you will live too. See what he has done to me, see what has happened to me. I found him and I was joyous. I spoke of the great joy of finding him to all in the Temple. I hid nothing. But see what they did to me. In this Temple, I fasted and prayed for decades before Adonai. I asked Adonai not to let me die till after I had seen the Moshiach with my own eyes. Adonai answered me, his handmaiden.
But the priests and Temple guards drove me out because I spoke plainly in the Temple that the Moshiach has come to be with us. ‘What Moshiach?’ they asked me. They mocked me, beat me and expelled me from the Temple. I crept here to live under this rock like a toad. I have kept watch for him every day ever since they threw me out. I have watched him go inside and teach. He has never once looked at me. But he knows I am here. He has brought and cast the fire of Adonai into the Temple. Now, one can enter the fire or flee it. I saw it inside you, this heart of coal, seeking for the tinder of the Moshiach. He is here walking across Israel, feet burnished with fire. FIND HIM. See what he has kept for you.”
The words burned into his mind. And before he could reply, the woman got up and shuffled away into the night.
It was as if a sun had burst into splendrous flames within Havel’s heart as he hurried into the dark to locate his servants and return to his home in Yhudah. Havel was a man of passion, but he rarely or never abandoned reason. Returning home, he sent out his spies quietly, paying them handsomely, to bring back news to him about the controversial Rabbi, the so-called Moshiach. He diligently recorded the stories each spy brought back. What he heard sometimes made sense, but often seemed unreasonable, even insane. A spy reported that the Rabbi has said that the temple in Jerusalem would be burnt down. Another returned to say that he had with his own ears heard the Rabbi declare several woes over the religious leaders in Jerusalem, the Purushim. On the other hand, the teachings of the Rabbi and his interpretations of Torah and Tanakh seemed unique and had an authority that drew the people to him. His miracles could not be easily denied. He did not seem to be fearful. On one occasion, he even called the Jews the children of the devil. As for the Rabbi’s motives and intentions, he had no clue. People claimed that he had come to declare and inaugurate the Kingdom of G-d. Havel saw that wherever the Rabbi went, he made both enemies and followers, too many of them. Also, some deadly lines were being drawn by those who swore by him and those sworn to destroy him. The more information he gathered about the Rabbi, the more his heart burned within him. Worse, the old woman’s command echoed in his mind all the time. He was haunted by her words: “FIND HIM.”
One day, his informants had good news. The Rabbi was on the road again and would be very close to his house in a day’s time. Would he come to his home if he invited him? he wondered. But then, one would have to allow the rabble that followed the Rabbi into his land and home. Would his parents condone that? He doubted it. He decided to meet the Rabbi by himself, somehow. What time would he be closest to his home? Around eventide, the next day, his men said. You may have to wait till he appears because he often stops to speak to those who follow him or greet him, and he always spends time healing those with sicknesses or infirmities who are brought to him, they added. You may have to wait an hour or maybe three, they warned. We’ll find a vantage point for you, they said. Go, do it, he ordered them.
So now, here he was. Havel. Waiting around a bend in the road, waiting to catch his first glimpse of the one they called the Moshiach, the miracle worker, the untaught Rabbi taking an enslaved Israel by storm and gathering around him the outcasts of society, the tax collectors, pimps and prostitutes, lepers whom he had healed, and sundry other malcontents. He was going to create the Kingdom of G-d by filling it with these decrepit souls from the alleys and bylanes while the Purushim and politicians waited and watched like vultures to see what would become of his movement. Havel’s head pounded and his heart kept missing beats as the sun traced its arc down over the hills. There was no breeze and it was hot. Havel sweated. Then he heard the sound, as of ten thousand buzzing bees. Or rushing winds. Round the bend poured like a river the hubbub of a huge crowd and slow whirling puffs of dusts filled the sultry evening air.
He was there. Around the bend. Havel held his breath. His men held theirs too, alert, their hands on their daggers. He did not remember exactly how it happened. Suddenly, the crowd was upon him. Amidst their jostling, he nervously scanned every one of them. Who was the Rabbi? They all looked similar. Dust bedevilled, shabbily clothed, bearded, smelly, the air a-shimmering with some sort of waspish wuzz. Or the buzz of bees. In his head or without? He plunged into the crowd, a wild exhilaration in his being. And all the while, a voice within counselled reason. It slowed him down. He found a band of men, about a dozen of them, their hands locked together to protect the Rabbi. Occasionally, the circle of hands parted as the crowd inched along. Someone or the other would enter the circle, speak to the Rabbi and be spoken to and then exit the circle but continue following the Rabbi in the crowd. Laughter, shouts, weeping, songs, prayers, chants. Here was a woman with a child in her hands. He saw the Rabbi touch the child’s head as he inched forward through the throng towards him. Many in the crowd were screaming. “Rabbi, heal me.” “Master, heal my son.” “Adonai, save us!” And suddenly, he was there, those locked hands barring him from access to the Master. He looked up and saw swarthy, sweating faces look brazenly at him. “Let me through,” he cried, trying to break through the ring. Not so easy. These men had forged this ring many times before and knew how to keep it tight and open it only for one or two at a time. And there were so many pushing to get in while others prodded him from behind. “Let me through,” he cried out loudly. Suddenly, the man in the centre of the ring turned around and looked at him. The hands parted and he found himself on his knees before the Rabbi.
It was as if all the storms within him and without him had ceased. There was just a face looking down at him, a brown face full of the deepest curiosity and concern. A face with an inscrutable smile playing around the corners of the lips. And those lips seemed to him as roses about to open in laughter. He felt that he was in the presence of a joyousness he had never experienced in his life. Looking into that face, he saw myriads of bright-plumed birds fly out of those eyes, the air was full of singing and the trees were clapping their hands. The flood of humanity disappeared from around him. And he was waiting, this being of bliss, to listen to him.
“Adonai,” he heard himself say,” what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
It seemed to him the most foolish question he had ever asked aloud. The bees were still buzzing. The birds kept flying out of the Rabbi’s eyes. There was singing everywhere. The earth was trembling and began skipping like a lamb under his knees.
The Rabbi looked at him. “Go. Sell everything you have. Come, follow me.”
The Rabbi’s face came close to his and, as he watched his lips open like petals, he breathed upon him. A word swam to the rim of his fading consciousness. Ruach! And then, a thunderclap exploded inside his ears. He clasped his palms over them. They were burning. Those eyes looked deep into his and the Rabbi’s smile grew brighter and brighter until he was swallowed up and he fell deep into the boiling, molten heart of the smiling Sun.
He knelt there in the dusty road a long time. The crowd was gone. The Rabbi was gone. The roaring of many waters in his head was gone. His two servants stood beside him, not daring to say or do anything. He got up. He felt quite unbalanced. His feet did not feel the ground. “Help me,” he whispered. They took him by his hands and led him home. He saw nobody. Recognised no one. He stumbled and fell into his bed. And then he turned his head to the wall and began weeping unconsolably. He wept. And he wept. And he wept. Nothing, his father or mother did, the physicians they summoned, his friends who gathered around him, the exorcists they brought in to chant spells over him, and the women who desired him, sorrowed for him and sang hymns around him, could stem his weeping. By the afternoon of the second day, his parents prohibited anyone from meeting him. Only a servant was left outside the room to inform them about any change in his condition. He did not eat. He did not sleep. He only wept.
Three days later, in the middle of the night, he was gone.
His father sent out loyal servants to discover his whereabouts. Some of them went and attached themselves to the band that usually followed the Rabbi. But he was not among them. The family was angry at first towards the Rabbi. But since he was not among the Rabbi’s followers, they consoled themselves saying, “He was always sensitive. What did we do wrong? What could have gone wrong with him? May Adonai’s will be done! In His mercy, may He return our son and heir to us!”
Three weeks or so after Havel had disappeared, word came to his family that the Rabbi was in the Yarden area yet again. Havel’s father had pondered over the recent happenings and found a desire rising in his heart to see the Rabbi and listen to him. His servants told him about the route the Rabbi would be taking and, like his son, he found a vantage point on the roadside to catch a glimpse of the Rabbi. He stood still as he watched the crowd turn the bend and heard them singing and shouting praise to the Rabbi. Then the crowd was upon him, swirling before him and around him. His eyes roamed the crowd, one eye seeking his lost son and the other seeking the Rabbi. Suddenly, the crowd, that milling, dirty, dusty, straggly, wild-eyed lot, the sort of people he would hardly associate with, turned absolutely still. An unearthly peace surrounded all of them.
In the twinkling of an eye, the Rabbi was before him. “Simeon, I must eat in your house tonight,” he said. The crowd went by in a rush. He stood stock still. Coming to his senses, he rushed home to have a meal prepared for the Rabbi. Would he come as he had promised? Yes. There were three disciples with the Rabbi when he arrived and they introduced themselves as Kefa, Yaakov and Yochanan. He welcomed them by washing their dusty feet in a bowl of cool water with rose petals floating in it. As the meal progressed and he listened to the few words that the Rabbi spoke, it seemed to him as if his house, recently covered by a spirit of gloom, was bathed in a golden luminescence. Everything was illuminated. After the Rabbi left, Simeon turned to his wife and asked her, “Do you sorrow any more for our son?” “No, not any longer,” she replied. “It is the same with me,” he replied.
A few months had gone by since Havel had disappeared. The Rabbi, his inner circles of talmidim and hundreds of sundry other followers, kept doing their rounds of Roman-occupied Israel heralding the Kingdom of G-d. The Temple authorities and Roman and Jewish politicians became more suspicious and wary as more stories of miracles and the imminent takeover of Israel by a Jewish king descended from David kept circulating everywhere. The Temple guards were jumpy. The Roman soldiers sharpened their lances and blades. Wherever those who feared the Rabbi and saw him as a threat gathered, the atmosphere was filled with an eerie sense of apprehension and doom. But wherever his talmidim and the common people gathered, there was a heady sense of lightness, ecstasy and the feeling that something new had arrived that would soon overthrow the powers that existed and shift the very axis and nature of a planet whose centre lay in Yerushalayim.
There were troubles too among those who considered themselves the closest disciples of the Rabbi. The world was only too present and gnawing at the edges of the Kingdom of G-d. Squabbles and contentions arose among the Rabbi’s talmidim as they jockeyed to become the planets closest to the Sun, the councillors closest to the coming King, the regents of the expected Kingdom. One day, as they sojourned in K’far-Nachum, the Rabbi asked them, “What were you discussing as we were traveling?” They kept quiet; because on the way, they had been arguing with each other about who was the greatest. He smiled at their silence.
A few days later, the talmidim assailed the Rabbi again. Yochanan said to him, “Rabbi, we saw a man expelling demons in your name; and because he wasn’t one of us, we told him to stop.” The Rabbi smiled a mysterious smile. The disciples were openly irritated. At this, the Rabbi began laughing. The disciples were baffled, angry and unhappy.
“Don’t stop him,” the Rabbi told them. “No one who works a miracle in my name will soon after be able to say something bad about me. For whoever is not against us is for us.”
That night, as they reclined at dinner, Yochanan rested his head upon the Rabbi’s breast as he was wont to do. “Tell me, Rabbi, who was that man whom we saw casting out demons in your name? When we told you about him, you began laughing at us as if we were the most ignorant ones in this world!” he pleaded.
“Havel. It is Havel,” replied the Rabbi.
Yochanan did not know Havel.