Wednesday, June 29, 2011

On the Worship of an Ass : a short story in eight parts

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: "This is a requirement of the law that the LORD has commanded: Tell the Israelites to bring you a red heifer without defect or blemish and that has never been under a yoke – Numbers 19:1-2


When Issur the cattlemen told the rabbis of Demblin about the birth of a red heifer, at first only half believed him. It has been six months since Amichai ben Dovid had hinted that he was the Messiah: both the reincarnation of Shabbatai Zvi, the disgraced self-proclaimed savior dead now one hundred and fifty years, and the fabled David, Israel’s anointed king of old. Every Jew in Demblin and the surrounding provinces held their breath. Would the rabbis declare Amichai ben Dovid the long awaited Messiah?

But many did not wait for the dickering sages to decide. Jewish peasants out in the steppes removed the roofs from their huts in anticipation of the cloud of glory which would usher them to Jerusalem. Very many more began to sell their property and household items. As land and goods flooded the market, prices dropped, and Gentiles bought goods and fields from the Jews of Demblin for a pittance. Why own land and a plow, these Jews reasoned, when any day now we will be residing on the slopes of Mount Moriah?

Then the red heifer was born to Issur’s herd, and the rabbis, who had been debating the half-hinted claims of Amichai ben Dovid, found it necessary to tramp out to Issur’s paddocks and examine the calf. And there, surrounded by mud and dung, the dissension among the ranks of the rabbis of Demblin was plain for all to see.

The birth of a red heifer is a sign of the coming of the Messiah and the restoration of his people, Israel, to their sovereign land. In the days when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the ash of a red heifer was used to cleanse all those who entered the sacred Temple Mount. If a heifer was truly red, without a spot or blemish or even a single hair other than red, it was slaughtered by its third year and burned and its ashes were used to purify Jews who wished to sacrifice in the Temple.

Without it, every Jew is suspected of having touched a corpse, and therefore is impure. Only the ash of the red heifer can insure the purity of those who worshipped in Solomon’s Temple. So, without a red heifer, there could be no rebuilding of the temple. And without the hope of the rebuilding of the temple, the Messiah would likely not come. The birth of a red heifer was viewed as a birth pang of the Messiah.

So when the rabbis of Demblin reached the barn, they studied the beast with great scrutiny, as if pouring over some sacred tome. A mighty crowd swelled around them, so much so that the military guard was called out and kept the Jews back with their truncheons and the flanks of their horses.

When the rabbis emerged from the barn, the division among their numbers was apparent. Half were on the side of Amichai ben Dovid and the other half were ready to declare him a heretic and excommunicate him. A vicious argument broke out right there in Issur’s muddy pens. The rabbis in favor of Amichai ben Dovid declared he was the Chosen one of Israel, and that the red heifer was a sign of the coming of the end of days and the reign of a Jewish King in Jerusalem.

The rabbis against Amichai ben Dovid denounced him with many of infamies and slanders, the most salacious was that he secretly worshipped the head of an ass. Violence erupted. The Gentile guards broke the rabbis apart. There was much screaming, cursing and incrimination. As bad as this scene was, there was worse to come.

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