The rabbi, and the ewe.
This article was originally published in Romanian five years ago, as Rabinul si oaia.
Nehorai the rabbi was a wonder. When he spoke up on the barrel in front of the villagers you could plainly see the mist of truth coming off things like you see summer heat coming off the scorched dust of the roads, and when he'd strike the Torah against the table without moving it a hair you could hear twinkling the crystals in Heaven's own candelabra. The very angels above would come down to seek his advice, for fear of stepping out of the Almighty's words, for nobody in four corners of the world like no one in the ethers knew the word enough to as much as correctly express the inferiority of his understanding in front of the beardy, kinda wry old man.
Ahh, he was a wonder, Nehorai the rabbi, and the villagers couldn't figure how was it that he made his house in their tiny settlement lost in the emptiness and muds of the plain, and took wife, Rahela, a good girl and hardworking, from the village, with who had smart boys and pretty girls, all gone to their places, some to school in Universities, some by the needs of trade on water or land to the distant dusts of Dalmatia or the mists of the Islands of Pepper and Amber, some married to respected husbandmen of the place or afield, withe beautiful houses and healthy children, joyful like they were. It's also true that the villagers didn't spend much time on the matter, having their own work to do, even if the old crones around the fire spoke some nights that the rabbi is older than anyone in the village, and than the village outright, and than the wood that made the fire and who knows, maybe even the rocks holding the fire in the fireplace and perhaps the fire itself.... that he had been married before, other than to Rahela, with another woman, just as old and dry as now, with who he had other children that also went to their houses and places, and the woman dried out and bent over and in due time went to the choir, but the rabbi changed not as much as a hair in his beard, but stayed the same as the very first day.
And before that one had another wife, and before that one yet another, and another, and another... The old women would say he had read the Haskalah papers, also old, also dry, with eyes still shining a devilish light and he had said to the young and fiery rabbis that indeed, they're right... broadly speaking, that he had read the Shulchan Aruch in draft and shook his head, explaining to the Saphedim what to take out and what to cut, and they in their stupid minds left what was to be taken and took what was to be left, eh, that's how people are, but Nehorai was not people, and in fact Nehorai wasn't even his real name, but many were waiting for him in many places under many names while he minded his own mind in the little village lost in the endless steppes, raising geese and ducks both in the yard for stuffing and taking to the market in town, and in the rabinical school for the same except in different manners, and let them wait. "What's all the hurry", he'd say now and again, and probably with good reason.
But one good day like any other, as he sat in his chair and read (without following the words on paper, as it was no longer needed for a long time now), in the unpleasant buzzing of thirty empty heads reading as well, with fresh curls and still stinking of breast with every breath, he saw outside the window an ewe. The ewe was looking straight at the rabbi, and the rabbi was looking straight at the ewe, apart from the others and no longer chewing for sprouts and grasses, like is the lot of all sheep. No sound was heard, at least not by the pupils, but the rabbi's ears were roaring so he went outside and sat next to the ewe.
The ewe was looking at him, the rabbi was looking at the ewe.
"How am I to teach you the law, beast without reason and without tongue as you are ?! Even if you want, you can want what you will, but that doesn't mean you can... " The rabbi could find no words, which hadn't happened in a long, long time, someone asked for advice once, estwhile, it seemed like yesterday but it was many centuries ago and he knew not what to say so he said nothing, and this silence changed the course of all the world's affairs in such variety of divers ways that generations of rabbis and learned scholars that came hence neither had managed to write it all up, nor comprehended it all completely.
After generations on generations on generations of ewes that foaled lambs that were eaten in soup and jellies, and again and again and again lo! that the endless play of happenstance which otherwise doesn't even exist took a fact out of abstraction that itself could not exist : the ewe with a desire to learn the Torah. That will made it to no degree more capable of learning than any other ewe found itself, yet plainly manifest incapacity, obvious and in the end admitted with gentle eyes by the very beast changed its unyielding, unshaken, burning desire not one whit.
"You're going in the pot!" thought outloud the rabbi, exasperated as he hadn't been since the wedding of Nabucodonosor the first.
"Is that how one learns the Torah ?" The gentles eyes, incapable of understanding, perfectly capable of desire, and of will and aspiration, would have gone in the pot or anywhere else. Because the ewe's faith in the rabbi exceeded any human bond of trust, the ewe not being in the end a person, and looky wonder, the very dams holding instruction away, which is to say the lack of a mind capable of reason, allowed it obedience, and faith, and total dedication. It'd have made itself, without regret and without restraint ewe tripe, if that's how one learns the Torah.
And so the rabbi took it inside the schoolhouse, and sat the ewe by a table, in a corner. The ewe sat patiently, now and again grasping and chewing on a sheet of paper, but not the holy texts, just plain note paper the other pupils were trying to copy on. "It does what it can by its powers", answered once the rabbi to one of the flightier children that asked him why is the ewe eating the paper instead of writing like any other pupil. "Where've you seen hooved beast to write ?"
The unprecedented gesture of the rabbi caused a sensation, the pupils turned the matter on all sides until the most bedeviled one in the lot, which in their society and by their execrable estimation passed for the smarter and more competent in matters of text and tradition came up with the notion that the rabbi is thus teaching them a lesson, of humbleness and learning, because look that even a beast is capable of staying put and not bleeting for hours on end, chewing peacibly on a sheet of paper. The rabbi said nothing, and the ewe even less, who's going to be the fool to attempt to explain to a horde of kiddies that the world is not made for them and to their use, but exactly them for it, and specifically for them to be made into pies and stews, on which the grass to grow, all the tastier. For the sheep, the sheep to come.
Wise men from afar found in turn like the bedeviled child, whom they praised for his wits, and took him to high schooling and private neighbourhood universitiesi, yet the respect enjoyed by the rabbi did not diminish, as it did not increase, like the ewe's wisdom did not increase, as it did not diminish, through her induction in the school, at the table, with paper in front, like all schoolboys.
After a while the ewe died, without having advanced as much as a spec of dust on the road she had wanted, notwithstanding having spent its entire life trying. The rabbi however didn't die, nor after that while nor any other, principally because in the generations of goose and ganders that pretended a few hours every day to be studying the Torah there wasn't a single one to have advanced as much as a spec of dust, and the law says clearly that the last rabbi can not die.
Nehorai looked disinterestedly out the window, and thought that there's no hope even from ewes for this otherwise very beautiful world, in its own pointless manner.———
- This is a Romanian thing, "de cartier" ie "of neighbourhood" denotes a ghetto item, whereas "private" says the same it says in English. [↩]
Sunday, 12 May 2019