Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Reuven’s Vow (a story based on a Jewish folktale, in VI parts)

Safed is called the town of a thousand mystics. Thrust a rod out, the saying goes, and hit a Cabbalist. But it is also said: Safed is a town where Jews scream out their prayers, and mumble their heresies.

In a town where everyone’s nose is between the pages of The Zohar, it is said that men often fall over even tiny stones in the road. When a man’s head contemplates the ten divine sephiroth, he often fails to see the two mounds of manure in his path. And this was the case with Reuven ben Sosa and his terrible vow.

Reuven ben Sosa, at seventeen, was already a noted Cabbalist. He knew vast tracts of The Zohar by heart. He wrote amulets which could cure all manner of ills, from a tooth ache to a tumor. If someone was possessed by a dybbuk or demon, no one thought of calling anyone else but Reuven ben Sosa. He would walk right up to the possessed person, and speak to the demon in a strange language. He would cajole, threaten, scold or even praise it to leave the unfortunate body it had stolen, and he never failed. Reuven ben Sosa, at such a tender age, spoke the language of the shades. People respected and feared him. He also came from an old family, who had lived both in Safed and the land of Israel as long as anyone could recollect. His father was a noted Cabbalist and his father before him. In Safed, Reuven ben Sosa’s family were leading citizens.

If Reuven ben Sosa had one fault it was a certain sense of frivolity. He enjoyed a practical joke, and was fond of telling humorous tales. His father frowned upon it, but what could he do? Reuven never told a joke or played a prank in front of his father, and no one could deny the boy’s great gifts. If anyone said anything bad about Reuven ben Sosa it was something along this line: even the greatest diamond has some flaw. But in Safed, if you had an illness or needed mediation with the unseen, who else could you call? Safed needed Reuven ben Sosa even with his little pranks.

As Reuven approached his eighteenth birthday, the date of his wedding was set. He had been betrothed to a girl from another prominent Safed family before Reuven or the girl were born.

Listen: on the day before his wedding, Reuven and two young companions took a lighthearted stroll through the hills around Safed: . It was early spring, and in the evening it had snowed. Safed was muffled in a blanket of white, but the sun was warm, and the southern slopes of the hills quickly melted, revealing spring’s first swaying flowers. The ground thawed, and the mud became churned up.

The young men walked to the banks of a stream and sat on a large stone. One produced a bottle of sweet red wine and the young men all drank to Reuven’s marriage, tipping the bottle back. They teased him about the great beauty of his betrothed (whom he had never seen) and the prospect of joy on the wedding night. One of the young men rose to relieve himself. Near an exposed embankment, he saw a strange thing thrusting out from the ground. He called over Reuven and his other companion.

“What is it, Yitzhak, did you find King Solomon’s treasure?” Reuven asked

“I don’t know, Reuven,” the young man answered. “It looks like a finger stuck in the ground.”

Reuven ben Sosa bent down. It did indeed look like a human finger thrusting out of the earth. The three young men began to joke about the finger. One dared Reuven to place the ring destined for his betrothed, and engraved with his initials, onto the finger. Reuven, never shy about taking a humorous dare, placed the ring on the brown, chalky finger, its bones clearly visible beneath a sheath of mud. He then recited the benediction: harai at m’kudeshet li, you are betrothed to me, three times. Nothing happened. One of Reuven’s friends chuckled. They all listened: all they could hear was the rushing of the stream, swollen with snow melt.

Suddenly, the stream stopped its roaring. The birds, who had been chirping in the trees above them, fell silent. It was as if a great muffling veil had been thrown over the land. A cloud moved across the sky and the spring sun and the hills were smothered in cold. A great roar then peeled. It sounded not unlike ice cracking during the spring thaw, but with a tinge of human sorrow, like a cry.

Reuven bent to remove the ring and the finger twitched. The moan, which to that point had not been localized (it seemed to emanate from all around them, in every rock, tree and clod of dirt) now was clearly coming from the finger; or more properly, from the wet hole of mud opening around the finger. The hole grew in depth until an arm, shoulder and then quickly, like a baby sluicing from his mother’s womb, the torso and legs emerged in front of the young men.

She was clad in a tattered funeral shroud, shredded and caked with mud, and it covered her head; only the blank orbit of her eyes were visible, like a tracing beneath transparent, sodden paper. A twisted knot of hair still clung to her skull and fell down her neck in ragged streamers. The corpse howled and moaned.

At first, Reuven ben Sosa held his ground. For a moment he entertained the notion that he would tackle the corpse and wrestle the ring from her. But his companions grasped him by each arm and began to run.

All the way back to Safed, the young men ran, and all the while the horrible moaning and wailing trailed them. It was only in the evening, as they entered the town in a sprint and barred themselves in the study house, that the infernal noise ceased.

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