A Stranger on the Third Night

The following is an essay inspired by a post my mother wrote several years ago on her own blog Never Ruthless entitled: “Yaakov’s Teshuva.”

Several whiskeys consumed, I sat back satisfied. My head, as autumn leaf, fell gently back, my gaze meeting the palm fronds that make up the roof of my little wind-battered hut. 

The stars winked at me from between the leaves. I stretched my feet out over the dirt. 

The cool earth hummed beneath my heels, as my eyes closed and drifted off. 

I began to wander over ancient deserts, climb mountains clothed in glory, drink water from stubborn stone, and defy raging oceans.  All around me swirled epochs: endless loss, boundless love, wars, poverty, peace, deceit; history and mythology blending, mixing until I could no longer divide between them. I felt wrapped in eternity, nestled within, but not confined, by time. 

When my eyes reopened, before me sat a stranger – unfamiliar and yet I saw in him the entirety of humanity; every face and facet, every hope and horror, including my own, were his before. I stared at my guest, unable to bring forth sound, my hands trembled softly in my lap. My heart beat as when one communes with the Divine, the compelling silence that exists at the meeting place of awe and terror. 

“I spoke with your mother several years ago, on a night much like this one.” His voice held a gravity more powerful than suns, as if his every word expelled, drew the universe towards him.

“I was upon the ancient hills of my fathers, of Abraham and Isaac, the hills my children made holier than God himself, more precious to them than the Covenant. I always walk among those hills, drying the tears that have been shed upon them, and burying the splatters of blood that have consumed them. 

“I sought comfort from the chill that night, the winds were blowing with a fury that tore through me. I descended the steps, the thirty-three steps, below a radiant warmth was rising to greet me.

“I entered your mother’s sukkah, I could feel that I was not the first to find themselves seeking comfort in this place. Many had arrived before me, were given love and strength, their wings mended, they would take flight from here, graced by a mother’s embrace, and wisdom hard-earned. Perhaps, on that cold night, I too was wounded, perhaps I too sought comfort? Who after all requires more comfort than an eternal being? 

“Oh, if only I could die but once! Let time pull the starry cloth over my eyes, and leave me to rest in oblivion, but alas, I am resurrected season, after season, after season, my sins and suffering trotted out before sleepy congregants while I weep in the back of the Temple – the place left for non-members. 

“They read of my father’s blessing. I shudder when I hear the scream of my dear brother, as the dawn broke in his brutish heart, and he understood that he traded lentils for the whole of Paradise. The echoes can still be heard in every wail of injustice, every shattering of a broken heart. It took me years to realize how much I had hurt him, and how much he loved me. I would give back every blessing if only I could mend the damage done but… 

“When they read of my mother, my dear mother, overshadowed by father’s legacy, my heart leaps in my chest, the tears, like rivers, flow from my eyes. I miss her so much. My father was too great for me to love, too distant to be hugged, his blessings were bought with fresh meat, his touch was suspicious. His stern silence terrified me. He wanted me to be someone I was not, a gamesman, a brave hero who slaughtered beasts of the field in the noon hours. But I was not a hunter, I enjoyed pursuits of the mind, my mother understood that. She was quiet but observed all. She saw the past and future and beheld them as one. She tried to instruct my father to see as well, but he was blind. 

“With a love that only mothers can grasp she cast me again from her womb, this time not with my brother, but to distance me from him. After my sojourns, my entanglements with love, hate, trickery, and salvation, I returned to her, and buried her. Death made residence with me after she was gone, I lost my beloved Rachel shortly thereafter, and watched my family grow and tear itself apart. My life has been one of sadness and shame, they herald me as a Patriarch, but…”

He paused and looked off into the abyss of his memories. The air was still, and he continued. 

“With hospitality that rivaled my grandfather, your mother brought me a cup of the most delicious warm tea. They say angels cannot eat or drink, but perhaps they are simply not often asked?

“Your mother asked me if I had any regrets, if there was something I would change from my life if I could. It was not the first time I had received such a question. The answer sprang to my lips like a melody lodged in one’s brain, I can recite my regrets without end; they are as numerous as the stars of the heavens, and the sands of the shore. Perhaps these are the offspring I was promised?

“I told her of Joseph, the one I elevated above his brothers, the schism I caused within them due to carelessness. Had I not learned this lesson from my father? If only I had my mother’s – your mother’s – wisdom. If only I had seen each of my children as a Cosmos, as a Creation unto itself! If only I hadn’t sat above them in judgment, but guided them with wisdom! If only I had harnessed their colors to weave a garment that would clothe every orphan and comfort every widow. If only I had taught Joseph that dreams were not medals of honor to be brandished, but the silent burden of the dreamer…

“And so, I carry these regrets, I bear their terrible weight on my back so that you can learn from them. I will never have the rest of the dead, I will never be able to cast my guilt in the ground, I must show my sins, display my scars, wear the blood-dipped tunic on my back. I must use them to teach, to enlighten. By doing so, I believe I rectify some of my errors. I repent, not through prayer, but through my tales and my tears. 

“When a mother and father raise their children to love their siblings and not quarrel with them, my load gets lighter. When a bridegroom treats his young wife with dignity and love, some of Leah’s tears evaporate and cease to drown me. When someone loves and does justice even for his adversary, Esau’s scream becomes just a little bit fainter in my ears. 

“And then there is you, David. I carry you on my back as well. You and all the stiff-necked doubters. You followed my example. You wrestled with God. You brought him down to the dirt, you punched and kicked, you pinned Him to the Earth resting the weight of the Holocaust upon Him, pushing Him deeper into the sand, burying Him as Moses did the Egyptian. You overcame Him, and He asked to be freed at dawn, but you would not relinquish your hold. 

You hold Him still.”

“Why didn’t you get His name?” I asked. It was the first words I had spoken in what felt like centuries. My mouth was dry but the words in whispers escaped. 

He smiled. “Because, my child, I understood that a name would have killed Him.”

“Why have you come to me?” I inquired, sensing that he was preparing to part. 

“I could not muster the strength to sit with your mother this year, perhaps next year I will have the courage, perhaps next year I will again need to land in her nest, to be loved and strengthened? 

Please wish her a Chag Sameach from me.” 

With that, the stranger departed, and the walls of my Sukkah swayed gently in the cool desert breeze. 

About the Author
I am, among other things, the co-host of the Peace Talks podcast. A podcast about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that attempts to hear from the chorus of voices that animate this conflict. In each episode, we try to deepen our understanding of the conflict and humanize those involved. You can find it on any podcast player you prefer or on our website at: https://peacetalks.buzzsprout.com/
Related Topics
Related Posts