The sun rose over the garden where my wife and newborn son lay in a newly cut tomb. Thirty days had passed since my Eliza had died in childbirth, taking with her all my hopes and joy. Spring had come to Judea. The vineyards were all in bud, bursting with the promise of new life, but in my heart, death reigned. My life had been pruned as savagely as the most severely clipped and seemingly barren vines in the depth of winter. Ironically, today was my thirtieth birthday.
By rote I spoke the final words of Kaddish and placed two stones of remembrance before the grave. The official days of mourning were at an end, but as I walked to the Bethany synagogue mikvah to wash away the ashes of my sorrow, I still carried the weight of my grief with me.
Near the ark containing the Torah scrolls, a minyan of ten village leaders prayed the morning prayers. They did not look my way or speak to me of Eliza and the baby. There was nothing left to say. Custom declared that this morning was officially the moment for me to get on with living.
I accepted their seeming indifference as I stepped into the cool bath and immersed myself, sinking my curly, unkempt hair into the water's tomblike embrace. When I emerged, I still found my thoughts returning to the beautiful woman I had loved with all my heart, and to the baby boy who had lived only three short days.
If only ...
Did my persistent sorrow show in my face? Did resentment for the brevity of grief permitted me reflect in my eyes?
Judah ben Perez, my friend since childhood, greeted me when I had dressed in clean clothes and emerged into the late spring sunlight. Now we were both widowershe for many yearsbut I resented and rejected any comparison between his stoic acceptance and my too fresh, too painful sense of loss.
"The peace of HaShem is with you, David ben Lazarus, my brother!" His tone was too bright, as if he had forgotten Eliza was gone. His words hurt me like light hurts the eyes when one looks directly into the sun.
"And with you, Judah."
"Welcome back." He took my arm as though I had been gone on a long journey. "Have you heard the news from Jerusalem?"
Being a rich merchant in the nation's capital, Judah was much better positioned than most to receive the news from the wider world. His trading caravans regularly made journeys to and from Petra, Ecbatana, and Alexandria. Amphorae of oil or wine or dates or wheat, each bearing the clay seal of the House of Perez, were frequently seen on the docks of Caesarea Maritima. From there they were soon en route to Antioch, Athens, and even Rome itself.
The Roman province called Coele-Syria that stretched from Damascus to the Nile included the Jewish homeland and was rightly called the Breadbasket of the Empire. Pomegranates and sycamore figs grown on my land took their places in the straw-lined baskets of commerce conveyed by Judah's export company.
Sometimes it amused me to think that grapes from my Bethany estate, raised under my care, picked at my direction, crushed under my supervision, and transformed into wine of my vintage, made much longer voyages than ever I had done or dreamed of doing.
I never cared to visit Rome, but the fortunes of my house were increased every time a Roman senator's wife praised the product of my labor. Therefore, I had always looked forward to Judah's reports.
He was counting on that interest now. As transparent as was the device, I was still grateful for his concern.
Though the politics of Rome and Jerusalem were unfolding a mere two miles from where we stood, I shook my head. I had heard nothing of the outside world for the past month. "What now?"
"The new Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, is staying at old Herod's palace. He has held meetings with Caiaphas and Annas. The high priesthood is well and truly in the complete control of Rome. Sacrifices are offered daily by Caiaphas in the Temple for Rome and Emperor Tiberius. Every synagogue is commanded to pray for Tiberius."
"May HaShem bless and keep Tiberius ... far away from the land of Eretz-Israel." I smiled slightly as I uttered the rabbinic blessing for our oppressors.
"Tetrarch Herod Antipas has taken Herodias to his bed."
"The wife of his brother."
"And here's the big news ... Caiaphas himself performed the marriage ceremony. The sect of Pharisees is in an uproar. A very quiet and fearful uproar, but even so ..."
I pondered this news. "It's sure to lead to unrest in the countryside, where people still have a conscience. What will Pilate say about such an unholy union?"
"Pilate could care less about his morals. I mean" he glanced over his shoulder before continuing"was there ever a more wicked ruler than Tiberius Caesar? As long as our people do not fall into open rebellion, and we hold our tongues and pay our taxes and"
"Pay and pay and pay. Was there ever such a time as this? Come, Messiah! Deliver us!"
"Herod Antipas has gathered up his entire court and gone off to his palace in Galilee for the season. Out of sight of the people and Pilate."
I walked with him toward the road that led to my home. "That's better for all of us. May HaShem bless and keep Herod Antipas ..."
"Far away from us ..." Judah paused.
The departure of Antipas from Jerusalem was a good thing. His oppressive rule was far worse than that of his father, Herod the Great. Antipas was fully controlled by Rome, while possessing the same vices as his "Butcher King" father.
Judah's strong jaw stiffened as he waited until a group of village women carrying laundry baskets passed us on the road. When he was certain no one could hear, he resumed. "Well now, my friend, let me tell you. There is unrest in the air. There has come a man ... a prophet or a lunatic, depending on who you ask. His name is John. Some say he is Elijah the prophet returned, as holy prophecy teaches. He appeared in the wilderness east of the Jordan, preaching against Rome and Herod Antipas. He calls the common folk to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom of God. He warns of HaShem's judgment: fire and destruction raining down upon the House of Herod."
I stopped in my tracks and studied my companion's excited face. Was this ripple of rebellion the same feeling that had caused the Maccabees to rise against the Greek oppressors some two hundred years before?
"Either a fool or a true prophet of the Lord. What do you think?" I asked.
"I've been waiting to go see for myself."
"For you to return to the land of the living." He raised his eyes toward the gates of my home, where my sister Martha waited for me. "Would you like to come with me? To see this fellow yourself? To hear what treason he speaks?"
I did not answer at first but considered all I had heard. Such a man was not only a danger to himself, but dangerous for everyone who stopped to listen to him. "Work in my vineyard is what I need to focus on."
Martha raised her hand in greeting. "Shalom, Judah! Good morning, my brother! I have a meal prepared. Enough for you too, Judah."
Judah laughed. "As always, Martha. Enough for me and ten others."
"Will you stay and sup with us?" she asked.
"I will. So much to discuss with your brother."
"David ... welcome back from your long journey." Martha kissed me. "It is a new day, my brother. Was all well at the synagogue?"
We would not speak again of Eliza and the baby. "It seems prayers for rebellion against Herod Antipas have been heard," I replied, touching the mezuzah on the doorpost and reciting the blessing.
"Beautiful day, then." Martha led Judah and me to the dining table, laden with the finest foods. A feast to bring me back to an enjoyment of life. It occurred to me that Judah had planned all along to walk me home. We did not speak openly about the present state of corruption among our leaders but discussed Scriptures and the history of our fathers, who had managed to survive corrupt and apostate kings in generations before us. In this way we explored the world we lived in, by remembering what had gone on before.
Had there ever been a time like this in all the history of Israel?
The answer was yes.
Was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob faithful to those who remained faithful? The answer, of course, was yes. But that did not mean good men would not suffer for the sake of our holy commands.
Judah and I ate slowly, chewing on God's Word as the true feast of our minds and hearts. Hours passed and my pain lessened. I was surprised by my ability to smile at my friend and my sister again. Only the night before I had doubted I would ever smile again.
The last prayer of thanks was given, ending our meal marking my return to life from the House of Mourning.
My sister Martha concentrated on the matters of the house and servants. Her work for me and my estate was perfunctory and effective. But the house seemed bland and flavorless without the great love and joy of my wife to season it.
My heart lived in the dungeon of despair. At night, in the time when darkness exaggerates everything, my thoughts were without the hope that morning would ever break.
In spite of my sorrow, I welcomed the sun each day. Work was my one consolation. The vines of the House of Lazarus were lush and beautiful. My winemaker was a thin, sun-parched raisin of a fellow named Samson. He had spent his life in the vineyards and risen through the ranks as a laborer to become one of the finest vintners in the land. Under his supervision my vineyards flourished, and the Lazarus estate wines were praised in the halls of the great.
Very early one morning I mounted the white mare to survey my property. Samson preferred to ride a donkey, which allowed the little man to be closer to the ground. Three of Samson's pet goats followed after us.
"You see, sir, I bring my own 'cheesemakers' with us. Very good with wine and dried apricots." Samson whistled to the goats, whose pleasant faces seemed to smile in agreement.
We rode through the vines planted on the rocky limestone of the south-facing vineyard. The fruit on these vines was smaller and the foliage less exuberant than the opposite side of the hill.
When I commented on this, Samson slid off his obedient mount, patted his goats, and leaned in to examine a tight cluster of grapes. He plucked two berries, giving me one and holding the other in his open palm. "Inhale the aroma, sir."
I obeyed. The fragrance was rich and sweet. "Ahhhh," I breathed.
Samson was pleased with my response. He gestured, and together we popped the berries into our mouths at the same moment. The f lavor burst on my tongue. I let the juice linger.
"Good," I said.
"An understatement, sir, if I may be so bold."
"Intense," I corrected.
He plucked a bunch and handed it up to me. "Breakfast. It's good to be alive on such a morning as this, if I may say so, sir."
"Good. Yes. But still not easy."
Samson joined me in our impromptu meal. With a wave he embraced the struggling vines. "These are your most faithful vines, sir. They struggle for water every season. Set their roots deep in search of every drop. Pull flavor from the limestone and thin soil. And their clusters are filled with passion for life."
I agreed. "This south field will make our finest wine this year."
"Every year, sir. I do admire the heart in these vines." He held a deep purple grape up to the light. "Not like their brother vines, who have an easy existence growing on the opposite side of this same hill. Not so much flavor in the fruit. Grown from the same cuttings. Planted the same year. But an abundance of water and less harsh growing conditions in the northwest field has made the grapes ... hmmm. If I may say, sir ... the vines on the north produce more fruit but with much less character."
I held another grape to my lips and sucked the juice. "I once heard my father say he would pull out these vines and plant something else."
"Your father was a fig grower at heart. Not a winemaker, begging your pardon," Samson suggested.
"You talked him out of that, if I recall."
"I had to prove him wrong, sir, if I may say so."
"And so you have done."
Samson glanced toward the fading pastels as the sun rose above the horizon. "Vineyards. The only crop I know where a hardship in the maturing makes the end result exquisite." He turned his face toward me. Behind his drooping eyelids I saw that he understood my hardship.
"What about a righteous man like my grandfather?" I challenged. "When Herod the Great took his vineyards?"
The old man leapt upon his donkey, then hesitated, considering his response. "There are hardships, some injustices, which only God can address. I am not a scholar of Torah as you are, sir, but I know the Scriptures pertaining to vineyards. If I may say, the case of what happened to your grandfather and the ancient vineyards of your familyis this not what the evil king Ahab did in stealing the vineyards of Naboth? In the time of the prophet Elijah, when Elijah preached against Ahab and Jezebel. And she had Naboth slandered and murdered in order to steal his vineyard."
"I remember well the story. And its conclusion. Such an act brought God's judgment on Ahab and his queen."
Samson waited for me to ride on. "Do you recall all of it, sir?"
I recounted the tale. "Ahab and Jezebel killed Naboth, the good vintner, and ripped out the ancient vines in order to plant a vegetable garden."
"And for murder and the theft and destruction of the vines, God's justice was fierce against those two."
"No bringing back the life of Naboth. Or replanting the vineyard."
"Heaven, they say, is a very big place with many beautiful vineyards. The Lord once showed my heart that Naboth lives. Naboth is in heaven ... alive and happy now. Naboth and his family tend ancient vines for the Ancient of Days. That heavenly vineyard produces wine we only dream of. But we who follow the words of the Lord will one day taste the heavenly wine."
"Omaine. And I will look forward to that day." I agreed with my lips, but my heart questioned that evil men like Herod could rip out my ancestors' vines.
We rode west toward the village of Bethphage, the House of Unripe Figs, which stood between Bethany and Jerusalem. As we approached the western boundary of my property, I saw a familiar hill. The beautiful vineyard and fig orchard before us had once belonged to my mother's father. Through injustice and treachery, it had been confiscated by old Herod the Butcher King forty years earlier and was now part of the royal estate of Herod Antipas. I knew what had provoked Samson to discuss ancient history, modern politics, and divine justice.
"Bikri," I murmured. The vision of my grandfather's betrayer, now a wizened, pitiful old cripple, rose in my mind.
"Bikri, indeed, if I may say so, sir. Falsely denouncing your grandfather, of blessed memory. Never was a finer man, nor a kinder, nor a more generous, than your mother's father, whose name you bear." Samson spat noisily and messily before wiping his chin on his sleeve. "Thrown in prison by old Herod on the word of a scoundrel like Bikri."
"They say Bikri was afraid for his own life."
Samson bristled. "Even so! He was supposed to be your grandfather's friend! And it wasn't just fear. It was greed! Now Herod Antipas holds title to what should have come to you."
"Never mind," I urged, despite dark thoughts of my own. Evil, it seemed, was never completely vanquished. The demons merely disappeared for a time and then claimed another host willing to do their bidding. Just as King Ahab of old had located false witnesses against Naboth, Herod had carried out a similar plot against my grandfather, except that my grandfather died in prison before his trial.
Shaking off the grim recollections, I added, "People say old Herod went through many horrors before he died. And we all know what became of Bikri. Father took me to gaze down on Bikri twice a year as I was growing up. Passover and the Day of Atonement. We always stood on the parapet above the portico where Bikri lays. Father said to me, 'Remember, son. Bikri is an example of God's justice.' I go there still when I am tempted to doubt God is a just and righ teous judge."
"Struck down in his prime before he spent half of the bribe money he received and now lives as a friendless cripple most of forty years," Samson agreed. "God is just ... at least in the case of Bikri. Still, I miss your grandfather. No bringing him back. And what he missed. The joy of watching his grandchildren grow up. I'm of an age now, dreams of grandchildren for me and Delilah. That's my goal." He patted the donkey and mused awhile as we rode. "It was wrong to steal his vineyard, wasn't it, sir?"