Eli and the Rabbi

Young Eli ran down the rugged trail with one thing on his mind. The smell of the fresh pita emanating from his pouch and the gnawing of his stomach. This Galilean path was more crowded than usual today; Eli found himself hastily weaving through clumps of robes every few minutes or so. He was wonderfully fast. He could barely hear their scolding as he left them all behind. Yet the closer he came to the Sea of Galilee, the more crowded the trail became. He ducked through a slow-moving clump of very somber long-beards. He knew they were very important men, but they were too slow. One of the long-beards nearly fell over as Eli cut under his upraised arm. This was a very important man, Eli noticed. He was speaking very deeply and seriously. As Eli ran on, he could hear the long-beard yelling after him. He could tell it was a guttural reprimand. Those long-beards were always reprimanding him for something. Running too fast around them. Walking too slow in front of them. Laughing so loud. Speaking so quiet. Anything. It’s almost like they change the rules to fuss about whatever I’m doing, he thought. The bellowing long-beard was still going, though Eli couldn’t make out what he was saying.

How fast you run, Eli!
You are wonderfully fast, Eli!
Truly magnificent!

Eli laughed as he imagined the somber long-beard saying such things. He kept running. Today he was going to make it all the way to the water without stopping to catch his breath. That was his goal for today. Papa will be so proud, Eli thought. When I get there, I’ll tell him I ran the whole way! He imagined his Papa smiling and laughing and telling his friends. My son is the fastest! My son is wonderfully fast! My son can run the longest and jump the highest! Eli smiled as he imagined his Papa saying those things. Papa would never do that; Papa is so sad. Whenever Papa laughs, he looks like he is about to cry. Maybe my running will do it! Maybe if I run the whole way, he will finally laugh without wanting to cry. O Holy One of Israel, if You are not too important to hear me, make my Papa laugh a happy laugh just once today.

Yet the further he ran, the harder it was to keep running. There were too many people on the path. I have to keep running, Eli thought. Papa needs me to. Cutting around a corner, he came upon another flock of long-beards. They parted as he came and he ran through. I am Moses, Eli yelled, and you are the Red Sea! Laughing at his joke, he turned to see if they were laughing. They weren’t. Then he felt it. It was so unexpected and so quick and he fell so slowly in his mind. Only, he wasn’t the only one falling. He could feel the gray beard wrap around his face as he went down and landed on a skin-wrapped pile of bones. Eli was horrified. He had knocked one of them over and couldn’t get away.

Stand up, Eli. I know your father.

Eli stood up shaking. He looked behind him. Rising up off the ground was one of the meanest looking long-beards he had ever seen. His eyebrows were arched in a way that made you see that what he was about to say was very serious. The long-beard dusted himself off and picked up Eli’s pouch. The way the long-beard looked into his pouch made Eli’s face turn red. He was afraid and angry at the same time. The long-beard turned his face away from the pouch disgusted.

What is this? He asked Eli.
Fresh pita bread for my Papa, Eli answered.
No wonder your father has such a sour face. I wouldn’t feed this to a wild jackal.

The long-beard tossed the pouch at Eli and the bread fell out onto the ground. Eli began to cry.

That will flavor it, the mean long-beard said. Eli, stand up and face me like a man. I will question you and you shall answer.

Eli looked into the eyes of the long-beard. He was suddenly hit with a hopeless feeling. No matter what I do, it will be the wrong thing. Stay frozen. Say nothing.

Eli, son of Matthias, do you think you are a good boy?

Eli didn’t know what to say. If he said no then the long-beard would agree and feel even more important. But if he said yes, the long-beard would yell at him and stay there longer. Eli said nothing.

Eli, you have done nothing good today. You ran too fast. You fell down. You dropped your bread. Your father will eat dirty bread today, Eli.

Hot tears were coming down Eli’s face. Why did he always cry? Eli knew this old long-beard wanted him to cry.

Eli, the Holy One sees all. He knows you have done wrong today. If you pray to Him, He will ignore you. You don’t think the Holy One is blind, do you, Eli? The One who made our eyes, can He not see?

Eli’s tears stopped. These long-beards were always saying things like that about the Holy One. Papa says that whether they belch or speak words, it’s all one. Eli began to smirk. This only made the long-beard angrier.

Take your ratty bread to your sinner father, Eli. Eat the bread of affliction together. Drink the wine of reproof. Forever shall you scratch at the gates of the Kingdom, and forever shall they remain closed to you.

The long-beard spit on the ground and walked away from Eli.

Eli picked up the bread, dusted it off and put it back in his pouch. He waited until the gaggle of long-beards began to walk away. Eli looked at the ground. He could see the displacement of gravel where he had landed on the long-beard. He began to walk slowly. He didn’t feel like running anymore. He didn’t mean to run into the long-beard. He just wanted to make his Papa smile one smile that had no sadness in it. Was the Holy One really angry at him? Those long-beards are really important and they know a lot about the Holy One. They talk about Him all the time. They quote from the scrolls every chance they get. They must know something.

Holy One, will you ignore my prayer? Will you let my Papa laugh today? I didn’t mean to knock down the old long-beard…if Papa laughs today without wanting to cry, then I’ll know you hear me.

Eli was getting closer to the shore. He saw his father by his boat, mending his net in the shade of a fig tree. He looked up and saw Eli coming. He smiled, but it was a sad smile.

Eli, my boy!

Eli gave his Papa the bread. He told Papa about the long-beard and dropping the bread. Papa smiled a bitter smile. He told Eli that if the bread was dropped knocking down a long-beard, then he would gladly eat the dropped bread. Eli was used to his Papa making jokes like that; laced with anger. They began to eat. All Eli could hear in his head as the buzzing hot silence swelled between them were the words of the long-beard.

Eat the bread of affliction together. Drink the wine of reproof. Forever shall you scratch at the gates of the Kingdom, and forever shall they remain closed to you.

He told his Papa what the long-beard said and asked him if he thought they would be shut out of the coming kingdom.

That’s what those long-beards want us to think. The Kingdom is a fool’s dream, Eli. The long-beards made it up to keep people like us in our place. I don’t know if it will ever come, or what it would look like if it did.

Papa laughed to himself. Another sad laugh. Eli asked him if the long-beards would be the only ones who got in if the Kingdom came. Papa stared out onto the sea.

Honestly, Eli, it would be a miracle if anyone got in. You don’t know people like I do. You are still too young to understand.

Papa said no more. Eli was used to him saying things like this. He didn’t know what Papa meant, but he knew when his Papa was angry. He knew when to stop talking. Eli stayed by the shore for the rest of the day while his father fished out on the sea. Eli was playing a game the whole time; imagining he was a great king with a shiny sword. He imagined fighting the legions of Rome. He imagined his Papa in the army behind him as he rode out to face the enemy. The kingdom will come, Papa. Eli could hear the clanging of swords. He could see the sky turning red. This is the great war we’ve been waiting for. Eli fiercely swung a tree branch at the imaginary enemy. The kingdom will come, he said to himself. Then he found himself yelling it. The kingdom will come! Papa looked at him from the boat. Did Papa hear me? Papa shook his head and went back to fishing.

Later, in the cool of the day, as they were walking home, they saw a crowd assembled near the path. They could hear voices speaking loudly and Eli’s papa stopped. Papa told Eli that there was a crazy young rabbi wandering the hills and all the long-beards hated him. Papa laughed a sad laugh. If all the long-beards couldn’t stand him, maybe he was worth listening to, Papa said. They stepped off the path and walked toward the crowd. Eli sat on a rock under the shade of a wild olive tree and listened to the voice of the crazy young rabbi. He didn’t understand much of what the rabbi said, but there was something about his voice. He talked about the Holy One, but smiled and laughed and winked at the children. He made it seem like the Holy One of Israel understood them. He understood that Eli didn’t mean to knock down the long-beard; He understood that Eli was trying to cheer up his Papa by running the fastest. Maybe He understood how much it stung to stand with your head downcast as a long-beard said angry words and made the Holy One seem far away. It made Eli wonder who was right about the Holy One, the crazy rabbi or the long-beards.

Maybe the Holy One even understands Papa’s sadness. Do you understand my Papa, Holy One? Make him laugh a laugh that will make his heart feel better; if you hear me.

At this time, Eli stood up. The crowd began to get loud. A few long-beards had wandered into the fray and were saying the kind of things they usually said. Angry, sharp, cutting words about the Holy One far away. The crazy rabbi wasn’t smiling anymore. Eli thought he saw anger in the rabbi’s eyes. The rabbi’s disciples began to yell at the long-beards and the long-beards yelled back. Eli looked up at his Papa. Papa’s face was expressionless.

“What are they saying, Papa?”
“The long-beards are asking where this rabbi gets the nerve to speak of the Holy One like he does, as if he has some kind of authority outside of their ranks. The rabbi’s disciples are threatening to call fire down from heaven. The rabbi isn’t saying anything.”

Then a hush fell upon the crowd. Eli pushed through a few robes to see what was happening. When he had done so, he was shocked to see the rabbi looking at him, motioning for Eli to come to him. Eli walked forward with his eyes on the ground; bracing himself for more angry words and curses on him and his Papa. But he felt the hand of the rabbi on his chin, directing his face upward. Eli looked at the face of the rabbi. The rabbi’s face was wonderful. His eyes were both sad and smiling. It was then that Eli knew he could stand next to the rabbi and not be afraid of the condemnation of the long-beards. As he stood in the shadow of the rabbi, Eli looked at the terrible faces of the long-beards. And he saw something he didn’t expect. The long-beards were angry because they were also very sad. They were all children once who had endured harsh words from their elders. They had grown up believing that the Holy One was far away and angry at them. Eli somehow understood all of this as he stood in the shadow of the crazy rabbi. He didn’t understand how he knew it, he just did suddenly. He heard the rabbi saying something to the long-beards and the disciples. Something about becoming more like Eli. Somehow as the rabbi said this, Eli knew that the Holy One wanted Eli to keep running the fastest, to keep jumping the highest, to keep making his Papa smile and to keep pretending to be a great king with a shiny sword, fighting for the coming of the kingdom even if he didn’t understand what it meant. As the rabbi was speaking and Eli was looking around, he saw the long-beards grow silent and walk away one by one. They were still sad, Eli thought.

As Eli went back to his Papa, he saw that his Papa was laughing. He was laughing! Ah, but there were tears. Tears streaming down his Papa’s face! Eli grew sad himself.

“There are still tears in your laughter, Papa,” Eli said softly.
“Yes, Eli, but they are good tears. They are the kind of tears that are good for the heart, Eli. Someday you will cry these tears and you will see.”

On the way home Eli asked his Papa, “Is the rabbi crazy, Papa?”

Eli’s Papa laughed a clear laugh of pure joy.

Yes Eli, he’s crazy, wonderfully crazy.
Crazy enough to make you wonder.

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~ by shardsofeternity on August 24, 2010.

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