Thursday, July 7, 2011

On the Worship of an Ass, V


Amichai ben Dovid was a paragon of hope. He forbade all the Jews of Demblin to utter an evil word against God’s most glorious creation, mankind, including Gentiles. Who are we to know the plan of the Most Powerful of Names, he said through Rubin of Hebron.

But one day, as if a dark cloud had descended over his soul, he became deeply gloomy. His expression was foreboding, as if he would lash out and throttle all those who surrounded him. He quoted passages from holy writ where men were compared with worms, and their days on the earth to flitting shadows.

He raged against the people around him, just as yesterday he had proclaimed his love and devotion to them. At other times, he appeared on the verge of tears. Rubin of Hebron took out a small harp, and gently played it a few feet from his master’s ears; this seemed to assuage his sorrow, for Amichai ben Dovid’s tears would dry, and he would sway and hum to the little melodies.

But most of the time he sulked and raged. He had taken two rooms in an inn, and refused to see all the dignitaries who came to him with their various petitions, disputes to settle, lawsuits to judge, ritual matters to elucidate.

Rubin of Hebron stood outside the door of his master’s chambers, and prevented all  from entering. When they asked him why they could not see the master, he spoke much like Amichai ben Dovid, with learned quotations from the Pentateuch, the Gemara, or the responsa. He hinted that it was all of God’s preordained plan.

The Jews of Dembin were in a quandary. Many had already begun to whisper that Amichai ben Dovid was Elijah the Prophet come to herald the coming of the Messiah. A few others, at the level of a deeper whisper, speculated that perhaps Amichai ben Dovid was the Messiah himself, and would soon cast off his disguise and raise the sword of vengeance and smite the enemies of Israel and return the people to Jerusalem in a cloud of glory.

Factions formed: those who doubted that Amichai ben Dovid was sent by God, that he was anything more than an exotic, but learned Jew, or worse yet, some huckster ready to defraud the community. Then there were those who speculated about all of Amichai ben Dovid’s words and actions, and they fit each one into a pattern of their liking, finding Divine support for the man with every one of his gestures.

For those who wished to believe that the redemption was at hand, they became so convinced that Amichai ben Dovid was the anointed one that even his arrival and departure time from the study house had great importance. Even the soup he ate and how much he left in the bowl had import.

With time, the factions polarized and their simmering, secret feud came out to the light of day. Even those who could not decide were denounced by those in favor of Amichai ben Dovid as the Messiah: to not believe was tantamount to denial, to disowning their share in the World to Come.

Throughout all the growing controversy, Amichai ben Dovid remained circumspect. His words continued their elliptical path, but his actions became even more erratic. One day it was noticed that his beard was trimmed, in violation of the Torah. When Tish’b Av came, the day commemorating the destruction of the Temple, and mourned with a fast, he was seen feasting in his lodging with his closest of followers.

It was at this time that the natural world appeared to mirror the confusion of the human: a deluge of snow blanketed the earth in late May, killing the early crops. Then a sudden warm spell arrived, with torrents of rain, flooding the province. An unexpected lunar eclipse one clear night cast a strange, flitting shadow over the blue-green light of the night world.

It appeared, to those who sought such confirmations, that the world was in the last pages of its final chapter. A red heifer had been born; strife and turmoil were let lose in the world and even in the House of Israel in Demblin. And in the midst of this terrible travail, Amichai ben Dovid announced that the strictures of the Torah had been abrogated.

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