The Laughing Rabbi

Nothing ever happens here. The last time anything noteworthy occurred was when Benjamin’s bullock unexpectedly dropped dead on its way to the winepress, overturning the bullock-cart and sending ripe red bunches of grapes tumbling down the hill to land in a sticky puddle of juice at the bottom.

So the news that was buzzing round the village had caused a stir, and even I was alive with curiosity. Of course, the stories were exaggerated, of that I had no doubt. Whenever a gifted young rabbi attracted an enthusiastic following, the tales of his doings were embellished with every telling. Nevertheless, even my sceptical old heart thrilled with pleasurable expectancy at the rumour that he was coming to our synagogue the next day.

The anticipation wasn’t likely to keep me awake. When every step is an effort and every movement pain, exhaustion engulfs you as soon as you lie down.

So when supper was ended and the light beginning to fade, I shuffled over to my straw-filled palliasse and placed a hand on the rickety stool which my daughter-in-law had carefully placed beside it, on which to steady myself. As gently as I could, I lowered myself to my knees, then leant forward until my head touched the linen of the palliasse, and then rolled over onto my side. It had taken me a while to perfect this technique, but it meant I could go to bed unassisted. Once on my side, I reached out for the cloak which lay rolled up on the floor, and pulled it over me as protection from the night chill.

When I awoke the next morning with the first rays of sun slicing through the dancing specks of dust from the little hole at the top of the wall, I felt as excited as a child, and it took me some moments to recall why. The young rabbi from Galilee was visiting our synagogue today, and we would see for ourselves how much truth there was in the gossip about him.

Nobody expected me to go to synagogue any more, not on the Sabbath, not even on feast days. Since the arrival of my grandson, my daughter-in-law was too busy to help me out of bed in the mornings, and without her assistance it took so long that the service was over before I was ready. But today I was determined to be there, so I started early.

First I rolled up the cloak and tried to toss it over the stool, where I would be able to reach it without bending down. It took many attempts, but finally the top of the cloak hooked over the top of the stool and stayed there.

With difficulty, I pushed myself up into a sideways sitting position, and from there, managed to get onto my knees. Reaching up beyond where I could tilt my head to look, I grasped the stool with both arms and, unable to suppress a cry of pain, I clawed my way to my feet until I stood, breathless, staring at the floor, which was my only view of the world since the disease had eaten away at my back and I had become more and more bent over. In fact, it had been eighteen long years since I last stood erect and looked anybody in the eye. Taking the cloak in my hand, I eased myself onto the stool and after many attempts, succeeded in pulling the cloak around my shoulders, far harder than it sounds since my hands could no longer reach to the back of my neck.

My feet were already sandalled. I had given up removing my sandals at night; the effort of putting them back on in the morning was just too great. When my husband was still alive, he had found a sturdy branch with a forked top which he had whittled down into a comfortable handle, so that I could have a walking staff to support me. Taking the branch which was leaning against the wall, I made my way to the centre of our home, where my daughter-in-law had just placed warm bread and a fresh jug of foaming milk on the table.

“Well mother,” smiled Elias, “this is early for you!”

I gave him a quiet nod. I had told no one of my intention to attend synagogue today. “I’m coming with you to hear the young rabbi,” I announced.

We left the home together, Miriam following Elias, the baby held against her breast by a shawl tied around her shoulders. This I could not see, but I knew because it was how I had carried Elias twenty-five years earlier.

As usual I stared at the dirt track beneath my feet, enjoying the places where the pasture encroached on the roadside, and the grass running along for a few yards made a pleasant change of scene.

Every time I walked this road I stopped outside our neighbours’ farm. Their fields sloped away downhill and their olive trees, devoid of any shelter from the prevailing winds, bent so low over the road across the boundary of their land that even I could see some of the glossy dark leaves and fat olives. I always took a moment to relish the sight.

Today I seemed to notice these things even more – as if I was really present to the present moment, instead of being always on my way to somewhere else or distracted by the pain.

I took my place, resting on my stick, at the back of the synagogue where the other women stood. I couldn’t look up to see the young man’s face but I saw the hem of his tunic and the worn-out sandals as he walked past to take his place on the bimah.

We sang a hymn and then the synagogue ruler must have handed him the scroll; I heard it being unrolled. With a voice of musical clarity he began to read the words of the law: “If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns, you shall not harden your heart nor close your hand from your poor brother, but you shall generously open your hand and lend him whatever he needs.”

Then I heard him rolling up the scroll and he began to teach, words which were like balm to every aching soul in the room.

“Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you who mourn, for you shall be comforted. Blessed are you meek, for you shall inherit the earth.”
When he finished speaking there was an awed silence, for none of us had heard any teaching like it before. But nobody expected what happened next.

I heard him step down from the bimah, and his sandalled feet scuffed across the stone floor of the synagogue. I saw them approaching again, fringed by the bottom of his tunic. I waited for him to pass on by, but he didn’t.

He stopped right in front of me, and then, bending his knees, he crouched down until his face was level with mine. And what a face it was – alight with laughter, as though he knew a hilarious secret that the rest of us were not privy to. His penetrating eyes looked deep into mine, and I darted my gaze to the floor. Women didn’t look men in the eye, especially rabbis, and yet he seemed to be inviting me to.

What could he possibly want with me? I thought of the stories I had heard, heard and dismissed as exaggerated.

“Look at me.” There was authority in the voice and I did not resist. As I raised my gaze to meet his, the hilarity lit up his face again and he said, pronouncing each word with great deliberateness, “Woman, you are freed from your sickness.”

Before I had time to respond, he placed his hands on me and I felt all the pain seep out of my body, as though a drain hole had been opened in the soles of my feet. And then I felt a surge of warmth which began at the base of my back and flowed up into my shoulders. The next thing I knew I was standing erect, free from pain, and looking the world in the eye. He grasped my hands, laughing out loud with delight, and swung me around and around.

A burst of praise erupted from deep within me. I had to glorify God for what He had done, and I broke into the words of a Psalm that I had learned as a small girl: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless His holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits. He forgives all my sins; He heals all my diseases; He redeems my life from the pit.”

Another voice joined in with mine. The young rabbi continued the praise in unison with me: “He crowns my life with lovingkindness and tender mercies; He satisfies my years with good things so that my youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” And so it was.

As I turned and left, clutching to my heart the gift I had received, I became aware of a commotion behind me, men’s agitated voices. I caught the words “healing, “Sabbath”, “woman” and “improper”. I stopped and looked back at the young rabbi surrounded by angry men. He saw me look, and shook his head at me, as if to say, “This is my problem. You leave it; I’ll deal with it.”

I fairly skipped back up the road to home and, throwing my cloak onto my bed, rolled up the sleeves of my tunic and began preparing the midday meal while my daughter-in-law fed the baby. As I worked I kept recalling the light of laughter in that young man’s eyes and an answering chuckle bubbled up from somewhere deep within me. I sang as I worked, certain beyond doubt that more than just my body had been healed that day.
Luke 13.10 – 13

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2 thoughts on “The Laughing Rabbi

  1. Just beautiful. What a wonderful retelling. I love it.
    I want to look into Jesus’ eyes and see the laughter there. I want him to heal me and swing me round too! This makes me want to pray that Psalm myself.
    Thank you.

  2. Thank you for this powerful reminder that Jesus touched peoples lives from a place of love and relationship. I am sure the way you retell this story is closer to the way it really was, how different to the way we might imagine it through church life today. Thank you.

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