No Ordinary Rabbi

 Heat radiated from the dusty street as the setting sun pulled shadows across the low stone houses. The man sitting on the mat carried by his four friends listened to the low murmur of many men inside the courtyard. Men in groups of two and three hurried down the street past them and pushed through the gate into the courtyard. Now the crowd spilled out into the street. Men spoke angrily and one inside raised his voice urging calm and patience.

The men carried the mat away from the crowd and lowered it to the street. Moshe, the leader stroked his beard. He squinted at the crowd outside the wall and looked up at the sun setting behind the mountains. He jerked his head at his brother Shuli and they walked several paces away from the others.

“Adonai” he prayed, “forgive me, but I don’t care about a Messiah, I care about walking again. I know you said we are to be content with our lot, and baruch hashem I am not complaining. I just want to stand next to my wife, put my arms around her, as a man. That’s all.” Mordecai hung his head; the desire was strong. “Thirty years I have lain on a mat outside the synagogue begging for alms. Isn’t that enough time?” Mordecai watched Moshe and Shuli walk away.

“Shuli, we’re going to lower Mordecai through the roof” said Moshe.

Shuli raised his eyebrows. “With what? The power of your personality?”

“We passed Avrim’s tent shop three houses down. He’ll loan you what we need.” Moshe stroked his beard and squinted up toward the lowering sun. “We need to hurry.”

Moshe’s eyes were flat and he did not smile, nor had he risen to Shuli’s attempt at humor. This Moshe is not to be argued with, thought Shuli. He shrugged and hurried back the way they’d come, toward Avrim’s tent shop, to find him before he sat down to his evening meal. Avrim the tentmaker was a large man and it was dangerous to interfere with him when he was taking food.


Mordecai took a deep breath to steady his voice. “Moshe, you’ll have to carry me, two of you, in your arms. The others can push forward.” Even to himself his words sounded hollow and hopeless.

Moshe said he had a better idea.

“You’re going to what!” shouted Mordecai.

“We’re going to lower you through the roof. Relax. We’ve done this before.”

“You have not!” said Mordecai.

“Well, maybe not” admitted Moshe. He squatted next to Mordecai and held him by his shoulders. “Listen, my friend, you want to walk, right? The Prophet Isaiah says that we are to be strong, and fear not, for our God will come with vengeance, he will come and save us. Then shall the lame man leap as a deer!” You’ve heard the stories as well as I. This rabbi makes the blind see, the dead he raises to life. He is the prophet Isaiah spoke of, I’m sure of it. He will surely heal you.” If we can get you to him, Moshe thought. “God tells us to be bold, so we are bold, eh?” he said.

Mordecai grimaced. This Moshe was not to be argued with. He said “I do not want to make a fool of myself” he said. “I would rather not be remembered as the cripple dropped on top of Isaiah’s prophet.”

Moshe knew Mordecai’s shame. He had helped carry Mordecai to the synagogue or the city gate since they were boys. Some days they left home very early so they could secure the most profitable location before the other beggars arrived. “You will not be ashamed any more, my friend” Moshe whispered to him, squeezing Mordecai’s shoulders for emphasis. Moshe nodded to the others and together they picked up Mordecai’s mat and carried him to the back of the house where the rabbi was teaching, up the stairs that climbed to the roof.

Moshe, Shuli, and the two men dropped the mat on top of the palm fronds and mud that covered the wooden beams of the roof. They bent over, hands on their hips, breathing heavily, then shaking the cramps out of their arms. Shuli apologized to Mordecai for the roughness and handed a length of rope to the others. They tied the ropes to the corners of the map with square knots, leaving a loop in the other end to put over their shoulders.

Mordecai watched the men move, two on one edge and two on the other edge to the side of the roof, as they worked two beams loose. He watched he palm and tamarisk branches and mud break apart and scatter, some falling into the house. They set the beams against the edge of roof out of the way as angry, confused words came from inside the house. Mordecai gripped the sides of the mat, closed his eyes, and prayed while the men put the loops in the rope over their heads and across their shoulders. He opened his eyes and nodded at Moshe, and was lifted and lowered quickly and unevenly to the floor. Inside the house men pushed each other to get out from underneath the mat and three were pushed out the door into the courtyard. Moshe and the men dropped the ropes and peered into the house.

A beam of light from the open roof lit Mordecai, three of the rabbi’s men, and the rabbi himself. The house was quiet now; everyone watched the rabbi.

The rabbi brushed dirt out of his hair and off his cloak, and looked at Mordecai for the space of three long breaths. He looked up at Moshe, grinning and expectant, and then looked again at Mordecai. “Son, your sins are forgiven” he said.

Mordecai watched the rabbi but felt the stares of the others. Shame crept over him like a fog. The room was quiet still but for the angry whispers of the councilmen near the doorway.

Mordecai watched the rabbi’s face as he spoke to the councilmen. There was nothing to do, nowhere to go to save himself from the shame and embarrassment of his predicament.

He had heard the whispers of those who gave alms or simply passed by where he lay on his mat, not unkind but not helpful, whispers wondering whose sin had condemned him to life as a cripple. God’s curse had come upon him, but unlike Job Mordecai had not been given one-hundred times what had been taken from him. “I have confessed my sins every day,” thought Mordecai, “every day without fail.” A beggar has a lot of time on his hands, time to think, time to despair, time to lose what pride he has left. “‘My sins are forgiven’” he repeated to himself. “My sins are forgiven?” To be forgiven in this manner seemed inadequate and disappointing.

After the shame came sadness, and after sadness came disgust. He looked up to catch Shuli’s eye. “Get me out of here” he mouthed.

Just then he rabbi turned his head and looked at Mordecai. “Rise” he said. “Pick up your bed, and go home.” He held out his hand.

Mordecai took the rabbi’s hand, stood, and looked the rabbi in the eyes. He felt as if he’d stepped into a dream and unseen hands had lifted him to his feet. He picked up his mat and walked through the silence and out the door. Hands reached out to touch him as he walked past.

Moshe and the others ran down the stairs and nearly ran Mordecai down in the street. They hugged him, cried, and shouted “baruch Hashem! Blessed be the Name!”
“He told me to get up and walk, and I got up and walked! Just like that! He said walk, and I walk! He said pick up your bed, and I pick it up!” Mordecai sat down in the middle of the street and stood up again, holding his arms wide in triumph and delight.

Moshe took him by the arm. “Come” he said. “I can’t wait to see the look on Michal’s face when she sees you.” Moshe’s face turned serious and the others stopped, wondering what was wrong. “Do you remember how to run?” he asked Mordecai.

Mordecai threw his mat to the ground and began to run down the street, faster and then faster still as he felt strength return to his legs and joy return to his heart.

His friends ran after him, praising God.

The rabbi smiled as he spoke to the men inside the house.

All that remained in the street was a dusty, useless mat.


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