King David’s Trees
Originally published in Per Contra Spring 2012
No one remembers when Rabinowitz began to tell his students tales about the Angel of Death. It was sometime at the beginning of the term, but he started slowly, sparsely, as if prepping the ground for the seed he would eventually plant. Between lessons he would tell the class legends he had culled from various old books he had read as a young man in Europe. Between algebra and geometry he wove a fabric of words that was crowded with holy men who refused to die. Little did the children know what his stories were to presage. But I knew. And I kept a special eye on Rabinowitz and his fixations.
“We’ve all heard of King David, children,” Rabinowitz one day began. His rimless glasses were perched on the edge of his nose and his pudgy fingers were crossed over his round belly. “He was a brave man, a cunning warrior, a wise king. But like every mortal, he was afraid to die. One day, he asked God to tell him the day of his death. God told David that this knowledge was forbidden to humans. But when David pressed God, and asked Him at least to reveal the day of the week, God told David that he would die on the Sabbath. So every Sabbath afterward King David studied the Torah nonstop, because he knew that the Angel of Death could not take the soul of a person while he was studying the Torah.
“Well, during Sabbath on which David was ordained to die, the Angel of Death came down to take David’s soul. But the king was so immersed in the study of the Torah that the Angel of Death could not approach him. So the Angel of Death went outside to the grove of trees outside David’s window and to distract him, he violently shook the trees as if a great storm was brewing.
“David saw the terrible movement and went out to investigate. But the Angel of Death still could not approach him, for in his mind he continued to study the Torah. So the Angel of Death shook the crown of one tree with particular violence and the King climbed up a ladder to see what was the matter --- but all the time, he was engrossed in the study. Then the Angel of Death played a trick. He weakened the highest rung of the ladder, and when David stepped on it, he fell to the ground. He was so stunned by the fall that he forgot the Torah and sat with his mouth open in wonder. In the end, children, the Angel of Death stands over each us with a sword dripping with poison. When David stopped his study and opened his mouth, the Angel of Death allowed the drop to fall into the King’s mouth. And in this way, he took King David’s soul.”
The class was silent, unsure what to make of this strange, beguiling story. Rabinowitz smiled warmly. There was a soft glimmer in his dull gray eyes.
“What does it mean, boys and girls? Never let down your guard, for no one knows the day of one’s death. And as you can see in this story, even if you do, well… Now go outside and play.”
And as the years went on, his tales became even stranger. It was as if Rabinowitz was rehearsing some role he planned to play, and these storytelling sessions with us reflected him his narrowing options --- winnowing his possibilities and honing them against an invisible whetstone.
One day in the winter, he paced about the room. The class should have been studying history, but Rabinowitz’s mind was elsewhere. He kept gazing out the window at the gray winter drizzle and the blowing trees, building himself up for a story.
“The tale of Adam and Eve is very familiar,” he started. “But we don’t know the whole story. Before leaving the Garden of Eden, Eve was met by the Angel of Death. Death approached Eve and asked if she would watch his son for a short while. Eve agreed, but as soon as Death left, the boy began to scream.
“Well, Adam came to Eve and the boy, and insisted that the boy stop crying. But the more Adam complained, the more the boy cried. Adam grew angry, grabbed the boy, and struck him dead. But even dead, the boy continued to scream. Adam was now worked up with irrational anger, so he chopped up the boy’s body into small pieces --- and even that did not quiet him. Now Adam began to grow fearful, so he cooked up the pieces and he and Eve ate them. When they had finished eating, the Angel of Death returned and asked for his son. Both Adam and Even denied knowing his location.
“Then the voice of the child spoke from within the hearts of Adam and Eve. It said: ‘There is nothing you can do father, so leave. I have entered the hearts of these humans, and will remain here and with their children until the end of time.’”
Rabinowitz stopped and examined each child to see if they saw the meaning of the story. But they were silent, for in the face of this gruesome tale of eating death, little children could have no appropriate response. He then looked at me then, and I at him --- and I smiled at Rabinowitz, and peered into the eye of his secret.
Word of the story must have reached the school administrator, because for several weeks, Rabinowitz stuck to Hebrew and Geography. But nothing could stop his compulsion.
“This is the last day of the year,” Rabinowitz said while standing. He was formal like that, addressing children as if he was making a speech at a Zionist conference. “So, I have saved a special story for you. A story so you can remember me....
“Well, we all know that Moses was an obedient man of God. But when it was his turn to die, God had difficulty collecting his soul. He first asked the angel Gabriel to fetch it, but the angel refused. Then he asked the angel Michael, and he too refused. And so on; God went through all the heavenly hosts but none of the angels felt they were worthy enough to collect the soul of this holy man. Finally, God came to the Angel of Death, who boasted that he had taken the souls of Adam, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, so surely he could snatch the soul of Moses.
“But God cautioned Death. He told him, if you take his soul through his face, you will fail, because you cannot look upon his face any more than you can look upon my face. If you take it from his hands, you will fail, because those hands held the Torah. If you take it through his feet you will fail, for those feet have walked the paths of the World to Come.
“The Angel of Death told God that he would find a way, and went to find Moses, who was sitting writing the name of God. Death took out his sword to frighten Moses, and so by fear take his soul. But when Moses saw Death flying toward him, he looked him in the eye, and Death went blind. He fell and cried out in pain. Moses admonished him to leave or he would cut off his head. Death pleaded with Moses, telling him that God had mandated that he take his soul. Moses refused, and the Angel of Death went back to God in terror. God was angry with Death for not fetching the soul of Moses. Death tried to plead with God, proclaiming Moses too strong. But God restored Death’s eyesight and commanded him to return and try again.
“The Angel of Death grew angry, and again rushed at Moses with his sword. But Moses had a staff engraved with God’s name, and he tripped Death and was about to kill him, when God spoke to Moses: ‘Do not kill Death,’ God said. ‘The world still needs his services.’
“Then God continued, asking Moses why he struggled when his death was at hand. Moses told God that he did not want his soul to be handed to just anyone, and asked that God Himself take his soul. So God agreed. He came to the earth and laid Moses on a bed. Then God spoke to the soul of Moses and told her that the years allotted to this body were over. But the soul of Moses pleaded with God. She had grown to love this man, and would not leave. So God promised her a place beneath his throne. But his soul continued to quibble. When Moses realized that his soul was arguing with God, he asked her to leave with the Almighty, and his soul obeyed. Then God bent down and kissed Moses on the mouth and inhaled the breath of life from him, and he died.”
That was the last day of school, and no one for long remembered Rabinowitz’ s strange story of an angry Moses who made the angels weak and nearly killed Death. The children had other concerns. For children, death is a remote rumor. The idea is such a shadow entity that I often watch them play dead, laying their bodies out on the ground as if they had given up their souls. You won’t see the old performing this mock ritual. For them, death is as real as the next breath they take, or do not take; it is as accessible as their own thoughts and fears.
I departed from the school and from Rabinowitz and his stories, and moved on to other tasks. But I kept Rabinowitz in my thoughts, of course, for I knew the secret course he had set himself upon. Years passed, perhaps decades (for when one is busy, the years blur into one monochrome trail of things taken away never to return).
Then one day I received word that it was Rabinowitz’s turn. And I found him shut into an apartment in Jerusalem, alone among a mountain of religious books, a stand of old eucalyptus trees swaying in the wind outside. His beard was long, and he wore a skull cap. He had grown observant, and his lips were constantly moving.
“Do you remember me, Mr. Rabinowitz?” I asked as I stood across from him. He looked at me wearily. He was mumbling. I knew that he was studying the Torah in his mind.
“You can speak to me, Mr. Rabinowitz. I’ve never forgotten you and your stories about the Angel of Death. But there are some things I can’t understand. Maybe you can help me? If King David was so carefully studying the Torah on the Sabbath, how did he let himself be distracted by a little wind in the trees? The Sabbath was the day of his ordained death. God told him so. Why was he not more careful?
“And when Adam and Eve ate the son of Death, and thereby brought death into the world, was that before or after they ate of the fruit of good and evil? If before, then eating the fruit was pointless. If after, then eating Death’s son was useless, for according to the Torah, death was already in the world.
“And the story of Moses: here is God’s great prophet acting like a petulant boy, refusing to be taken to death by anyone but God. When did this take place? Hadn’t his rebellion with the rock already been punished by God? And then he was even more rebellious, refusing to die! Would God really put up with that? I tell you, Rabinowitz, your stories are grist for the mill. Is any of it possible? And even if so, and a man or woman can forestall death, then else can people do? If someone has that power, then he should die. Otherwise, he will truly become like God. The exercise of this power is the very reason it must be crushed.”
“You try to distract me,” Rabinowitz finally said. “But you won’t. My life is dedicated to the Torah. I study even in my dreams.”
He was swaying over a page of Mishnah, mumbling the words. He did not look at me. Holiness seeped through his pores; it was as if the holes in his skin, the channels in his body, his nose, his eyes, the portals of his ears, were overflowing with divine effulgence. And it was a beautiful thing to behold. It was a rare, lovely sight! Not every day does one sees such devotion that everything falls away and is opened, revealing a great jewel hidden out in the open. I knew that Rabinowitz had penetrated profound mysteries.
So I sat and watched the spectacle of a man living past his term of life. His body was worn out --- a mere heap of bones, loose gray skin, and dull, faint eyes. But the spark of his soul shown bright. I could see no flaw in the flow of his actions. His devotion was as seamless and strong as a great and mighty river streaming down to a glistening sea.
I waited for Rabinowitz. After all, how long did he expect to continue? No matter how real his devotion and love of God, his real impulse was the fear of death. And he was human, and therefore not without flaw. I waited for Rabinowitz to snooze, to cough, or to flick his eyes. But his concentration was cut from one piece of sturdy cloth. I looked at my watch; I had people to see, and I couldn’t wait for an old man to shirk out of his mortal duty.
So I left for a day, and returned the next. I found Rabinowtiz still studying, as if he had not moved. So I left once again, and once more returned. This time he was not at his desk. Outside the window, the old eucalyptus trees were dangling like flags on a windless day. Rabinowitz was sitting in a chair. His face was slack, but his mind clung to the thread of the Torah, and I did not have the will to rouse him. So I left once more, knowing that when I came back, I would have to confront him about his delusion. But for now, I had lost my heart. Rabinowitz had taken it and held it hostage and bound it with the cords of Torah. And for this I loved him.