by Luise Rinser
Translated from the German by Frank Thomas Smith
Philippos, the strict Baptist disciple, said: Yes, Rabbi, but when a tree bears bad fruit, one cuts it down. Didn’t you once curse a fig tree because it bore no fruit in winter?
What are you talking about, Philippos! You’re talking nonsense. Who told you that? And you believed it?
Whether it happened of not, cursed or not, Rabbi: you expect too much.
Do I demand figs from you in winter? Didn’t the farmer have indulgence with the weeds? Doesn’t the housewife wait patiently until the dough is leavened? And doesn’t the shepherd look for every lost sheep? Why do you speak then of cursing? I don’t want damning and destruction, but life. I have come to bring peace. But before peace exists, rupture arises.
Yehuda threw me a triumphant glance. Water for his mill, as he understood it. He understood wrongly.
Yeshua went on: Not that I want rupture. I want nothing but peace. Nevertheless peace comes only through determination. Truth is a sharp knife. One cannot serve two masters or fight in two camps at the same time. You cannot enter a house and give the greeting: Peace be with you! if you carry a dagger under your cloak. You cannot fill old skins with new wine without breaking them. You cannot say: I keep the commandment of love if you only love your friends and hate the others. Decide! You are free to leave me and go to those who think they can bring about peace through violence. I say to you though: if Yisrael chooses violence it will perish through violence, and no stone of Yerushalayim will stand on the other, and foxes and owls will reside in the temple’s ruins.
I slept badly that night. We all slept badly. Finally I got up and crept out. A stone’s throw away I saw a brightness, as if the moon had fallen on a rock. But the moon had set long ago and the night was dark. It wasn’t a fire either. It was a constant white light. I went a few steps closer, but then something stopped me as though I shouldn’t cross a border.
But I saw that the brightness was a person.
His voice. At the same time the brightness went out and I could cross the border.
Come here, Miryam! Closer. Sit down. You have cold hands.
Yours are warm, Rabbi.
Why are you shaking, Miryam?
The Light, Rabbi! What was it?
You saw that? It’s nothing special.
I didn’t dare to ask more, but I longed to lay my head on his knee, and I did it. But he pushed me gently off.
Not that, Miryam. Break the cord before it becomes a chain.
Hard words for one who loves, Rabbi.
He stroked my hair. Go and sleep, Miryam, it’s getting cool.
I went. He demanded so much of me!
But I slept dreamlessly till morning. He woke me himself. Wake up, night wanderer. We’re heading south!
His hair was damp with dew.
You haven’t slept, Rabbi.
The day became hot and there was a lot of dust in the air, but we walked steadily on. If the rabbi wasn’t tired, we weren’t either.
He was so far from tired that he preached that night in a small town. I however fell asleep while he was talking. I woke to children’s cries and scolding by our people: Leave him alone, he’s dead tired. Don’t you understand that even he must sleep?
And then his voice: Come, come!
A group of children crowded around him, and those who could not yet walk were brought by their mothers. The blessing, Rabbi, the prophet’s blessing!
How they pressed against him, and how he liked everything they did. They became bold and climbed onto his knees and kissed him, and he joked with them.
It was a very pretty picture, and new to us: the rabbi with children.
Yochana said: Look at that. The rabbi as father.
Suddenly she began to cry.
Would you like to return to your children, I asked her.
Can’t I cry and be with the rabbi anyway?
Then Shoshana, who had no children, cried, and Shulamit cried because her sons, though always near, had so obstinately withdrawn from her, and I cried because they did.
Yochana misunderstood my tears. When you see that, Miryam, don’t you wish to have children?
No, I said. And with whom? And now enough of such talk. We have chosen, once and for all. Not halfway.
Finally the mothers left with their children, the cries and twittering were lost n the distance.
Yeshua watched the children leave, then said: Whoever does not become a child will not find the father.
At least that what I understood him to say. The others heard differently. As so often happened, each one heard his own voice: If you do not become like these children, you cannot enter the realm of heaven. Or: Only children find the realm of heaven. Or: Children live in the realm of heaven. Or: These children will experience the realm of heaven.
We puzzled over it.
Only Yehuda thought he understood: It clearly means that this generation will know the realm of peace.
You hear what you want to hear. He didn’t say that.
Shimon said: What the rabbi means is that we should be so full of trust, so unaffected before Adonai as children before their father.
Yeah, yeah, said Yehuda, and believe that this father feeds and clothes us and corrects all the mischief we’ve done and forgives us seven times seventy times. That’s what you mean.
Shimon didn’t hear the mockery. Yes, that’s what I mean, that’s what he meant.
Philippos said: There is a rejection of grownups in the rabbi’s talk, that is, the clever, the suspicious, the profiteers and the powerful. To be a child means to be without property and power and to let yourself be led.
Thomas said: Led by whom? Trust whom? Overly trusting children are good for nothing. Sheep who don’t smell the wolf are torn apart.
Yochanan said: You must think higher. What Shimon said is correct, only I will say it differently: To be a child means to feel, or better still be certain that an primal harmony exists into which everything fits.
That’s too high for me, Yehuda said. Too much dissonance pricks my ear for me to believe in this harmony.
I said: Yehuda, what are you working for?
For the liberation of Yisrael of course.
That means that you want happiness and peace for Yisrael. But that is harmony. How do you know anything about harmony? You remember only dissonance. You also have your dream, Yehuda. Perhaps it means: To be a child means to have a grand dream? Who gives up dreaming gives himself up.
Shimon said: Joseph’s dreams in Egypt.
Yes, I said, but not only Joseph was a dreamer. All Yisrael dreamed, and of what? Of Canaan, the land where milk and honey flows. And they followed the dream, and as in a dream they went through the sea and the desert, and whenever they stopped dreaming the dream and gave up hope, disaster struck, in order that they could continue to follow the grand dream that led them. If Yisrael hadn’t dreamt we wouldn’t be here.
Yochanan then asked: Has Yisrael arrived? Is this the dreamed of Promised Land? If it were, Yehuda wouldn’t be still dreaming. We never have anything but our dreams, and they are our reality.
That’s how you see it, Yehuda said. I see it differently. My dreams are quite a bit closer to reality than yours.
The talk of becoming a child still ran through my head the next day, and finally I asked Yeshua himself, and told him our solutions to the puzzle.
Tell me yours, Rabbi!
Answer me this: Where is the child you once were, Miryam?
I grew from it. It is in me. I was it and am it and always will be.
What is it then, that was and remains?
Just that: I
What is it? Don’t you know? I’ll ask you another way: Where does what you call “I” come from?
From my parents and grandparents.
Wrong. From them comes the form in which your I appears on this earth. Your I and every I is older than all ancestry. It is as old as the primal light. You are a spark from that light. The human being is light from light, spirit from spirit, child of the Eternal One.
But didn’t you say that one must BECOME a child? Now you say that one is a child at all times.
What one is, one must become. The divine child must always be born anew. Divine birth occurs unceasingly.
Rabbi, you give man a high rank. Why, then, is man so ungodly small and evil?
His rank will not be taken from him as long as the divine child in him cries for the Father.
Children cry for the Mother, Rabbi!
The Eternal One is Father and Mother.
And if man smothers the divine child’s cry?
The divine is immortal. Miryam: you still think in years and centuries. The divine is measured otherwise, and everything reaches its goal. Each child finds its home. Read the prophet Yeshayahu. There is written: You come from nothing. But also: You are gods. Try to understand that, Miryam.
A few days later the question of immortality came from a completely different side and in a different way – from scribes who had come from Yerushalayim to speak with Yeshua. They were Sadducees and wasted no time.
Rabbi, we have a point of contention with the Pharisees. It is an old argument, as you know. Tell us your opinion. We value it. Tell us. Do you really believe, and is it to be believed, that a person who dies rises again to a new life?
It was clear to him what they were aiming at: they wanted to know on which side he stood, on theirs or that of the Pharisees, who believed in the resurrection, which they denied. To believe in it or not determined how one stood politically. In fact, though, the idea of life after death was completely alien and without interest to them. They did not come for instruction, not at all. Therefore you could call their question a trap. So he answered them, as they deserved, with a counter-question:
What does the scripture say?
In Psalm 49 is written: “Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places for all generations. They run to the underworld like sheep and their form shall waste away. Humans are like animals that perish, and none sees again the light.”
I wanted to say: You don’t think sharply enough when you opine that with the decay of the form the spirit also decays. I would have liked to tell them what Yeshua had taught me about immortality. What would he say to them?
He said: Explain yourselves!
All right, Rabbi, listen: Moshe wrote, and our law has remained so: If a man dies and leaves behind a wife, but no child, the dead man’s brother must marry the widow. Right? Good, now listen further: There were seven brothers. The first one died and left a childless wife. The dead man’s brother married her. But he died and left the same childless wife. The third brother married her, but he also died, childless. The fourth acted according to the law, but he also died and finally all seven died and, last of all, the wife died.
I couldn’t hold back my laughter. I laughed and laughed.
Why is the woman laughing? One of the Sadducees asked. It is improper.
I said: I’m laughing because I like your story. It’s as funny as the one about the farmer who sends his servant to cut the wheat, and when he doesn’t come back the farmer sends another to find him, but he doesn’t return either, and so on with no end. It’s lucky there were only seven brothers and not twelve or twenty.
The Sadducees were angry. One said: Rabbi, send this woman away. What have women to say here?
Yeshua ignored their anger. He said: What do you want with that story? Speak!
Rabbi, the Pharisees believe in the resurrection of the dead. Tell us, if there is a resurrection of the dead, to which of the seven men does the one wife belong?
I thought: All seven.
But Yeshua said: None.
Why not? Because marriage and procreation belong to the transitory in time and space. In the great cosmic Shabbat nothing more will be begun and nothing ended.
They were silent and pensive. Yeshua continued: Don’t you know the place in the Scripture when the Almighty speaks to Moshe from the burning bush: I am the god of Avraham, the god of Yisrael, the god of Ja’akov? My question to you: Is the Almighty a god of the dead? Does he tend to the dead in the underworld, does he reign over dust or over an unthinkable nothing? I tell you: He is a god of the living – or he is nothing. But if he is, then those who go to him live again. Doesn’t that seem logical to you?
They were silent, thinking.
He went on: You await the Messiah and say he is the son of David. Do you know the Psalm in which David speaks of the Messiah and calls him his lord? How can he who is still to come be he who, at the same time, according to the Psalm, sits at David’s right hand?
They had no answer to that. How were they supposed to understand such talk? Of us Yochanan was the first to understand and he translated it into his language: The logos was from the beginning, therefore he is the ever-present and eternal-future.
Yeshua, already leaving, turned around and said: Well said, Yochanan. I say to you all: before Avraham was, I am.
With that he left us. The sentence should have been: Before Avraham was, am I. But the I was emphasized in a terrible way, as though there were no other I but him.
There were times when Yeshua seemed overwhelmingly great, especially to me. But he always quickly backed off like someone who shows something, then immediately covers it before you can see what it is and later you don’t even know if you saw anything.
I was interested in the question whether all people were brought back to life again.
All! The Rabbi answered.
But will they all continue to live in the same way: the just and the unjust? Is there a judge who decides that?
He said: Aren’t you able to free yourself from earthly ideas? Didn’t I tell you about the divine child?
I didn’t understand him. That high knowledge was swept away from me. As so often happened, I got the answer the next day when Yeshua made my question the theme of his sermon. We went over that sermon a hundred times, until finally no one knew the exact words. But the essence remained and lost none of its power.
This was the story:
At the end of time all the peoples of the earth will gather and there will be great confusion and fear. Then one appears and sits on the judge’s bench. With a single motion of his hand he divides the human throng and indicates to each his place, to the right or to the left. But no one knows why he or she is here and not there. The confusion doesn’t last long and the judge speaks, he says to those on the right: “You gave me food when I was hungry; you bandaged my wounds and gave me medicine; you gave me shelter when I was hounded from my house; you opened your door to me when I was persecuted, homeless, a refugee from the powerful; you helped me obtain justice and freedom when I was thrown into prison because my cry for righteousness was misunderstood; you have worked for peace in my name and have been beaten for it. Come then, friends, into my realm.” To the other, however: “You feasted when I was hungry; you threw me out on the street and took my house; you spit on me because I was humble and from a foreign land; you handed me over to the persecutors when I asked for lodging for a night; you had me work for you and when I became weak you threw me out; you withheld my wages because you bought arms to wage war; You beat and killed me when I argued for peace and righteousness. Get out of my sight.” Then the ones so addressed all said: “We never encountered you, how could we have done good or evil to you?” But he said: “You never encountered anyone but me. What you did or denied to a living being you did or denied to me.”
The listeners departed silently.
I had questions though, and I didn’t find the answers.
Rabbi, help me to understand that story. Who has the authority to judge? Who can accept and reject? Tell me: Who is the judge?
Don’t you know? Is the judge another than the one being judged?
Rabbi, I wouldn’t know where to put myself through my own insight. I would prefer you to be my judge.
I am it.
Rabbi, you contradict yourself. First you say the person judges himself. Now you say that you are the judge.
Is that a contradiction?
Who can understand that?
One day you will understand it?
Never! I cried and ran off. I felt pursued. He talks nonsense, I thought, and drives me crazy by it.
I stayed away a whole day. I’ll never go back, I thought. Life with him is unbearable. I must save myself.
I returned of course.
He stood at the entrance of the shack in which we were staying for a few nights.
We were worried about you, Miryam. Thomas and Philippos are looking for you.
And you? Weren’t you worried? You’re so sure of me, right?
He looked at me a long time. Scrutinizing. Is it too hard for you with me?
Yes, I screamed. You are unbearable.
Do you want to leave me?
I thought: Where should I go? I live from his presence.
But I said defiantly: Every rope breaks when one stretches it too tautly.
Come now, he said. Supper is ready.
That was all.
There was no longer talk of leaving.
We rested a couple of days.
I wouldn’t have been so calm if I’d known what happened to Thomas and Philippos the day they went looking for me. Mounted police stopped them and searched them for weapons. They had none. They were let go.
When I heard about it I was shocked. Yehuda! I thought, he makes himself and us suspicious, too often he disappeared into the night, too often he came home with an empty purse, too often he rubbed his hands together. And he did it with wrathful satisfaction.
Finally he could no longer keep the news to himself. He took me aside: Miryam, our thing is becoming clear and active.
Our thing? What thing?
What thing? Listen: There’s a great guy among the rebels. He has a head on his shoulders, I tell you, and he has experience and an exact plan. He has his people in his hand. He decides who’s to be robbed, extorted, kidnapped, killed next. He’s clever: he never let’s his people attack the Romans directly, only Jews, only those who give the Romans a hand, or also even a little finger. All Yerushalayim trembles. No matter how much the police search for them, they aren’t caught. They work in small groups without a permanent base, sometimes here, sometimes there, sometimes at night, sometimes in broad daylight, and before they are even seen they disappear with money and hostages. It’s all according to the plan this head worked out. And imagine: he never appears himself. Only a few of his people have even seen him. It’s as though he didn’t exist. But he does. I’ve met him. His name is Bar Abba.
How you admire him, Yehuda! You admire someone who uses violence. Why don’t you desert to him? This Bar Abba is close to your heart! That’s a man, right? Completely different from our rabbi. Say it openly! Why are you still with us?
Yehuda lowered his head.
Shall I tell you, Yehuda? Because you’ve gotten it into your head that the rabbi is Yisrael’s liberator, he, and no other. But if it’s not that way?
He lifted his head high. Can’t you bear to see me happy?
Yehuda! You aren’t happy. You are deathly unhappy, and on the false path, and you have blocked the right one. You choose Bar Abba instead of Yeshua. You choose violence and destruction instead of peace.
He stopped listening to me, he walked away. How he fled from his own knowledge! How he fell head over heels into the abyss, which he had dug himself. Should I have spoken to the rabbi about him? Shouldn’t he have forced him to decide? I said nothing. Let the weeds grow with the wheat. I had no right to judge.
At that time we were on our way south and came to Jericho. A knife seemed the pierce my heart: the balsam forest that belonged to my father and that my brother sold in order to bring the proceeds with him to his desert cloister; the forest was no longer there! Cut down. In its place stood one of Herod’s new palaces. As though what he had inherited from his father wasn’t enough for him: the villas, baths, palaces, the racetracks, the theater. Another palace then. And on the ground that was so fertile.
What’s the problem, Miryam? Everything is transient. Does your heart hang on a balsam forest?
I’m not crying because of that.
If Yeshayahu were here he would cry out what he cried out and wrote a thousand years ago: “Woe to them who place house upon house, until no room is left and are only landlords.”
Eight hundred years ago, Miryam, to be exact. But do you know the next verse? “Many houses will lay in ruins, the others empty of people.” Nothing stays as it is. Some day fertile land will be here again, sheep will graze and people full of hope will live in the houses. To weep over the passing of the transient is foolish.
Rabbi, the transient is beautiful and the intransient is invisible, as though it didn’t exist.
O relapsed one! Forgetful! Of little faith!
Rabbi, sometime I think: you are only a dream – my dream, transient like everything.
But I AM! I am he who IS. I am who stays. I am the intransient dream, which is reality.
The word, not spoken louder than the preceding ones, roared in my ears like the sound of the ram-horn. I was dizzy.
Come now! Yeshua said, now in his normal voice.
Someone in Jericho had announced our arrival. The people were already streaming toward us. There was so much pushing and shoving on the narrow alleys that I was afraid. There couldn’t only have been rebels among the crowd, but also informers from Yerushalayim. We were under suspicion. To what extent we would learn later. Nothing happened yet. Nothing, except that Yeshua stood before a mulberry tree and called up into the branches: What are you doing up there? Come down!
The one he addressed called down: I am so short, Rabbi, that if I’m down there I won’t see you.
Yeshua laughed. Come, you’ll see me better. I’ll have supper with you if you’ll invite me, Zacheus.
Zacheus (where did Yeshua know him from?) slid down the trunk and stood in front of Yeshua. He was really very small and one could have taken him for a child as he now jumped for joy. Rabbi, will you honor my house?
The people around us muttered: He goes to this tax collector, to this chief thief, the swindler; doesn’t the Rabbi know anything about him?
Zacheus must have heard them. He hung his head.
Yeshua lifted him by his mop of hair: Is what they say true?
It’s true, Rabbi.
Yeshua laughed again. But to the others he said: And you? Have you never swindled, or taken or given bribes, never overcharged? Are you all just ones? Is this one the only sinner?
The retreated, embarrassed and annoyed.
Zacheus, though, said: Rabbi, you turned my heart inside out like a sack, and look what falls out: a thief’s booty, Rabbi! But I swear to you: today I will give back everything unjustified that I own. Not only that: I will give back fourfold to those I tricked and half of all my possessions to the poor.
Enough, enough! Yehuda murmured, enough contrition.
But Yeshua put his arm around Zacheus and said: I have come to seek lost sheep, and I find them. Come, take me to your house.
Yehuda said: I’m going to eat somewhere else. I can’t stand such fuss and blabbing. Giving money to the poor – What good is that? They run through it in three days. One must be able to handle money, otherwise it runs through your fingers and then look for it in the sand.
What was awkward with Yehuda was that you could never call him completely right or completely wrong. He was against the rich, but gave great importance to money for, say what you will, money makes you happy, of course only if all have it and all have it equally. Equality meant for him equality of possessions and righteousness meant taking away the possessions of the owners and distributing them to all. Then there will be peace. In his thinking it was all so simple.
We only stayed one day in Jericho because the town was full of soldiers and mounted guards. It was already too close to the capitol and also too close to Alexandrion, where Herod had his treasury and where an important robbery had already taken place. The area was closely guarded.
We stayed overnight outside of Jericho and kept hidden. However, the next morning the word was out: The miracle rabbi is here!
Ever and again the same show!
I walked among the groups of waiting people, pretending that I didn’t know the rabbi, and asked them what they thought of him and what they expected.
Why did you come here if you don’t know who he is? Don’t be so curious, Woman!
Another said: He’s a wonder worker. Didn’t you hear what he did in Galilee? He touches the sick and they are well.
And how he preaches! We are already better because of his words.
They say he’s Elijah, the prophet, who has returned.
Another with his hand before his mouth: He’s on our side against the Romans and the rich. If the people get behind him something can happen. Do you understand?
Another pushed him: Stop blabbing. That’s dangerous talk. Who knows who she is?
I went further with my question. One said: Don’t get involved. Who knows what they’re cooking up?
This rabbi, he talks piously, and afterwards you notice that you’ve heard a call for revolution. He plants poisonous seeds.
A youth who heard that said: He cured me of epilepsy.
Someone took him aside: Who told you to say that? How much did they pay you?
The youth yelled: I’m telling the truth and you know it. What has the good rabbi done to you?
I took the boy with me to Yeshua and told him how he had defended him so courageously. Yeshua put his hand on the youth’s head and said: On such as you I build my realm.
The youth said: I want to stay with you.
Yeshua said: You’re too young. In a couple of years you will be one of mine. What’s your name?
The rabbi said to me: He will share my fate.
What do you mean, Rabbi? Your words are chilling.
That evening when the people had gone, cured or not, in any case comforted, and we were all together alone, Yeshua told the story that caused me to understand in a flash what he meant by what he called his fate, and what the youth would share:
A man planted a vineyard, leased it and left the country. At the appropriate moment he sent a messenger to pick up the contracted amount of grapes and wine. The lessee beat him and sent him away with empty hands. The owner sent another messenger. The same happened as with the first messenger. He sent one after the other. In vain. Several were even beaten to death. Finally he sent his own son. They will recognize my son and won’t dare to lay a hand on him, for he is the heir and their future lord. But the lessee said: If I kill the son, there is no longer an heir and the whole vineyard will be mine, for the owner is far away and will not return. So he killed the son. What will the lord of the vineyard do when he finds out?
An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth: the lord will come and have the lessee and all his helpers and helpers’ helpers killed.
Another said: What a foolish lord! He learns nothing from experience.
A poor knower of men, that lord. He should have known beforehand what the lessee was like.
He should have given the messengers armed protection, and especially his own son, after all that happened.
I said: Rabbi, the story is terrible and completely inconceivable. Why did he send his own son to his death? For that’s what he did. Shouldn’t he have foreseen that?
But if the son went of his own accord?
The father should have forbidden him to do it.
If the son did not allow himself to be held back?
The father should have locked the doors and gates, installed steel bars. Is the father not lord? Must not the son obey him?
So the father sent him after all?
So is it.
How can you say then that he went of his own accord?
Yeshua didn’t answer. That story left me no peace. What did he mean by it? It seemed dark and terrible. I didn’t want to understand it.
The next day I held on to Yeshua’s arm: Rabbi, that story! Who is the father, who the son, who are the messengers, what does the whole thing mean?
You’re usually so clever at solving riddles.
How can you joke? That story makes me afraid.
So you did understand it?
Rabbi, who is the father who sends his son to his death?
Who is father, who son?
At that time I put those words aside. What I understood was this: he spoke of his own death.
Yeshua, I said, your death will be mine.
He hit me on the arm with his open hand. A rectification. That’s what you think, Miryam? You would desert my cause? Not accept the inheritance?
You are my life, Rabbi, and if you go you take my life with you, even if I stay here as long as you so order.
Why are you speaking of life and of death, unteachable one? I will conquer death through my dying. I am he who remains, I am the living, I am the life. Whoever loves me lives and learns not to know death. With that he left me standing there. I understood nothing of all that. Nothing except that he would die. I wasn’t fooled by him speaking of victory. There are victories which are defeats. Now I know better: there are defeats which are victories. The defeats of the divine must always be victories of the divine.
I know that now. But then I went out and wandered through the fields. He’s going to die. One day he’ll no longer be here. But when? He didn’t speak as though it were very far away. And if he is gone before his work was done? What work though? Deep down didn’t I share Yehuda’s hopes? Didn’t I want the victory of my people over the Romans, a free Yisrael? Wasn’t it Yeshua who was giving up?
I threw myself into a thorn bush: let the thorns scratch my face and arms.
I fell asleep.
Continued it the next issue of SCR.
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Luise Rinser (1911 - 2002), a schoolteacher who faced execution by the Nazis and lived to write about it, became one of the most celebrated and politically engaged authors in Germany. A best-selling novelist, diarist, short-story writer and political essayist, Ms. Rinser published about 30 books. Her works sold more than five million copies in 24 languages.