The Naked Man – pt. 49

Second Temple Jerusalem - cropped

For the setting and a cast of characters for this series, click here.

Yiftach, lost in thought, made his way to Upper Jerusalem, his feet finding their own way on what was fast becoming a familiar route through this unfamiliar city. As the streets grew wider, and the houses larger, the resentment and anger such conspicuous wealth and privilege normally provoked was dulled, his mind and heart still reeling from the confrontation from which he had just walked away.

Ever since Simon bar Giora had led his force of 15,000 men into Jerusalem at the request of the Council, Yiftach had seen little of his leader and – he had dared to believe – friend. Simon spent his days making endless plans with members of the Council, plans for the defense of Jerusalem, which may well depend on their ability to form some kind of alliance with John of Gischala and the Zealots, who still controlled the Temple area. Yiftach understood the pressure Simon was under, and the tension they all felt whenever their attention drifted to the ranks of tents beyond the walls of the city, to the Legions that were just waiting for word from Rome to begin their siege of this troublesome city.

So it was to his great surprise and delight when Simon had sought him out earlier that day. Passing a wine skin back and forth and making small talk evoked memories of all those years in the hills of Galilee, when it had just been fifty of them. As they told stories of those early days, laughing at one particular incident, Yiftach saw the lines of weariness and anxiety around Simon’s eyes soften. And realized that this was probably why Simon had come looking for him: for a moment’s respite from the pressure, and – perhaps – from a longing for simpler days, when “the enemy” was more-clearly defined. As they laughed and held each other’s gaze for a moment, Yiftach’s heart once more filled with love for this man.

But as Simon leaned forward to pass the wine skin back, Yiftach saw the lines around his eyes return, his lips draw back into a grim line. Instead of leaning back, relaxed, Simon’s posture became rigid, and Yiftach felt the moment of camaraderie pass as swiftly as it had come. “So,” Simon said, his tone flat, “I hear you’ve become a regular dining companion in the home of Council member Benyamin’s mother.” Startled by this statement, Yiftach said nothing for a long moment. He heard an edge in Simon’s tone as he continued. “I am curious as to why one such as you, who has dreamed of liberation from the power of Rome for so long, and shed blood in its pursuit, would abandon that dream in the very moment when we have a chance to realize it.” He leaned closer, so close that Yiftach could feel Simon’s breath on his cheek as he spoke. “This sect, so Benyamin tells me, preaches forgiveness of enemies. Encourages such nonsense as non-violence – “the beating of swords into plowshares,” as the prophets said. Let me tell you, Yiftach, there will be time enough for farming when we have driven the Romans from our land. You left your father’s plowshare to take up the sword with me: why would you turn your back on us – on me – when the hour of our deliverance is at hand?”

Simon leaned back against the tree, his arms crossed, waiting for an answer. Yiftach felt bands of fear tighten around his chest, but held Simon’s unwavering gaze as he began to respond. “In truth, I do not fully understand why I return there night after night. As I listen to what Yohannan Marcus – Benyamin’s brother – has to say, I find myself questioning much of what he says. Which,” he paused, a wry grin spreading across his face, “he encourages. I confess there is much I find hard to understand, let alone believe. But…” His voice tailed off. “But?” Simon echoed, a hint of menace in his voice now.

Yiftach was suddenly aware in himself that he wanted – needed – Simon to understand what he himself had just realized. “But there is something about the gathering itself that I find compelling. Simon.” He leaned forward, animated. “Do you remember all those nights sitting around the campfire, up in the hills, dreaming of what life would be like after Messiah came and drove the Romans from our land, and restored the glory of Israel?” “Of course I do,” huffed Simon. It’s what has kept me going through all we’ve endured to get us to this point. What of it?” “Well,” continued Yiftach, “we talked of what our life together would be like then. That Messiah would establish justice and peace when he came. That our people would no longer know hunger, or the burden of over-taxation. That all would share in the wealth of our people – that there would be an end to the grinding poverty you and I grew up with. That we would enjoy the fruit of our own labor and not have to give the majority to the wealthy landlords who live up there.” Yiftach pointed to the Upper City.

“Yes,” responded Simon. “I remember. What of it?” Yiftach hesitated before plunging forward. “That is what I experience at the gathering. Rich and poor, master and servant, men and women, all sharing a meal at the same table. No special food and the finest wine for the host and her peers, while the rest of us get bread and the cheap stuff. But all enjoying the meal provided – each contributing as they are able. When I break bread with them, Simon, I taste the future we dreamed of in the hills. Right now. With the Romans camped outside the walls. That’s why I go back, night after night.” He sat back, and waited for Simon’s reaction…

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