In this episode Rav Shlomo, aka Rashi, tells our hero about an ancient book of history that a colleague once possessed.
The Eternal Jew’s Tale
Twelfth Era, Part 1., 1094 C.E., Troyes
Journey of a Book
When Pumbedita’s history was writ and sealed, its last ravs* were blown like seed, scattered west, east, north. Elisha the healer was one of them ravs. He come to reside in Constantinople and there acquired a mysterious tome as pay from a bishop, deathly ill, that he healed with some Hindu herbs. But Byzantium had no use for Jews so our rabbi was blown further west. Come to Prague, and served a prince as surgeon and cook and tutor for his children. There, a priest in the prince’s house was also a tutor and mentor of faith, teachin’ bible in its Latin form. A suspicious man, and envious too.
* rabbis, great teachers
Elisha, anxious to earn his trust, said,
“I have a book I can’t read, writ in a Latin alphabet. Perhaps this book is one you know, and can teach me how to read.”
A haughty glint from the icy priest.
“Much poison is carried by you Jews. If this be heresy know for sure this book will burn, and you might, too. I’ll give this book to the inquisitors and surely they’ll come to interrogate you. But mayhaps this comes from the true faith. If so, I’ll teach it to you. Perhaps you’ll awake, and open your eyes and save your soul.”
Now dread overtook our too-trusty rav. His good intentions turned to ill, like sweet cream poured into vinegar. Like dung in a cistern, that priest’s soul; how much rain and how many years to clean it out?
“Bring me the book, and God will judge!”
And Elisha thought, ‘You are not God, but a worm of a man, and so a worm will judge.’
In his room Elisha considered escape but his room had no window, and if it did, a Jew in Prague running from the law, like a rabid dog, he won’t live long. He handed off the book with a gallowy smile.
The air turned chill; the night came on. Dishes clattered; children chattered. The priest he called for a candle to read.
“Let there be light!”
Priest as god. He called for the bishop, and still they read, and more they whispered and bit their lip and pointed, and glanced at their captive Jew.
Finally, as another candle faded with a flicker and sputter, the bishop declared:
“This book was writ by a pagan of Rome and is full of the tales of pagan kings, many a wicked and arrogant man. But nary a word of our savior king. The godless pagan who writ this book, this Pludarch, unknown he is to us. And yet he writes of righteous acts and moral men who seek the good. We know not if this be history or empty fable of emptier men.”
Now the bishop pointed with his eyes a-squint.
“Inquisitors will want to see this book, and if you value your miserable life, Jew, leave Prague this very night.”
With that, Rav Shlomo ends his tale, with nary a further word to explain who that rabbi was, and his unknown book.
But I still have to question the Troyes rav,
“Since when is history a topic for Jews?…”
So we walks down a lane to a tiny room. There, an ancient man as thin as a wisp.
“Meet Rav Elisha of Pumbedit, him who held in his own hands that book of knowledge from Bar Yochai’s times, now lost forever in the maw of the church. The Lor, the Righteous Judge, has taken this Grecian book of history and hidden it from human eyes. But let us not forget ourselves. Moshe and Yehoshua* and Zakkai** and Akiva,*** prophets and sages, kings and priests, many have told their histories, and it is now for us to do the same. Witnesses of justice and witnesses of crimes. We are the eyes of God on this plane.”
* Joshua, leader after Moshe; ** Yochanan ben Zakkai, born ~ 30 BCE; *** Rabbi Akiva, born ~ 40 CE
And I thinks,
“These eyes that see, how much is God and how much is garbled? How much Adonai, how much I don’t know? How much prophetic, how much theoretic?”
Enough! Tomorrow’s my first class. So I rush back to my room to work, to decide what tales of mine to tell.
Me, Saadia, the Eternal Jew, shoemaker, wanderer, journeyman, cook, messenger, envoy, advisor too. Become a yeshiva teacher and sage. In a world a changelings, I’m a changeful man.
Evidence! That’s what my eyes have seen. Turn it and turn it into history. Yet who can judge the true from the false? Will we let higher arks* define our truth?
* others say: hierarchs
The problem is how to see it right. Sense and nonsense and higher sense combine, like separate minds recordin’ our past. And add to the pot our thieveries too — fabricated memories and fantasies. And more than that, we’re sloppy eyed, foggy eyed, forgetfully blind. Can’t see what we don’t want to see; don’t see what we ain’t lookin’ for, and quick to discard most of the rest.
We make history as it makes us, and remake histories as the remake of us. And we’re caught like Zeno in his infinite regress*, and blind as Balaam** whippin’ his ass.
* that is, the feedback cycles of making and being made by our versions of the world
** B’midbar/Exodus 22:21-28
Now I’m supposed to teach history. So I’ll start my teaching with a famous compare:* ‘It’s the first of times and the worst of times.’ A tale of two cities, Jerusalem and Rome.
* others say: pair
Everyone knows that Jerusalem is the center of the world and the throne of the Lor, which Rome, them seizers, are envious of. And everyone knows the lamentable fate, when the Roman barbarians laid to waste that heavenly city and God’s own Throne: exile for God and Jew alike.
So when I heard that Rome was bein’ sieged for a year, and famine was eatin’ them up, and when Baduila* had finally tore it down, just like Jerusalem, tore to the ground, I thought with a tinge of bitter revenge,
“Them Roman Christians will suffer our fate: Baduila will send them packin’ like us, walkin’ these waste and rocky roads, wonderin’ why time runs backwards now, away from Aden and away from the Lor.”
* aka Totila, 546CE
Well, them Christians didn’t walk our way. Their faith* weren’t bound to a piece of the earth. Which taught me well and soon enough, though history seems like recurrent crimes, like a double mirror with repeatin’ reflections, our symmetries ain’t so simple as that.
* others say: fate
In the next episode, trouble ahead, trouble behind…