Rabbi Ephraim of BethlehemPosted: December 24, 2012
Rabbi Ephraim of Bethlehem
Good evening. I am Rabbi Ephraim of Bethlehem, and tonight I want to share with you unusual, frightening, and wonderful events that have occurred in our village. Events so extraordinary, so terrifying and awesome they take my breath away, and my friends I believe I have been touched by God. Some people say touched in the head, but perhaps that is a sign of being touched by God. For when God draws near, no one remains unchanged.
But let me see, my story begins years ago. I learned Torah at the feet of Rabbi Eliakim, blessed be his memory. When first I read the Law of Moses from the bema at the age of twelve, the men of the synagogue said, “He shall be our next Rabbi.” And so from that day it was decided that I should be apprenticed to Rabbi Eliakim, who was an apothecary, that I might learn from him the making of medicine and the words of Torah. Day after day I worked beside Eliakim to learn the grinding and mixing of herbs, plants, roots and earths to make medicines for healing. Rabbi Eliakim had learned the arts of the apothecary from his father, who had learned them from his father before, who had learned the mixing of plants, herbs, roots and remedies in Babylon. He also trained me in the art of circumcision with a steady hand, and each day after the daily minion we would stay in the synagogue to study the scrolls of the law and the prophets.
One day not long before his death Rabbi Eliakim confided in me: “My son, I feel the tremors of death rattling in my bones. The foxglove no longer relieves the pains in my chest, and there is a secret I must confide in you. All my life I have waited for the coming of God’s Messiah, but now I fear that I shall not live to greet him, when he arrives. But you, you must be on the watch for him, for he will come, and when he comes it will be in our little village of Bethlehem.”
“But Rabbi, how do you know this?” I interrupted.
“Come look here in the prophet Micah: ‘But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah , who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old from ancient days.’ I believe this prophecy shall come true, though I will not live to see it. You will be the Rabbi, and you Ephraim must recognize him, so that you can greet the Messiah for me.”
“Master, I will do my best,” I replied, “but by what sign will I know of his coming?”
“Bring me the scroll of the fourth book of Moses. Now you read beginning here,” he commanded.
The withered forefinger of Eliakim was resting on part of the Oracle of the prophet Balaam. I began reading: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh: a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel. . .”
“Look and wait,” whispered Eliakim, “look and wait for a special star to appear, and then you shall know the Messiah is near.”
Rabbi Eliakim died the next spring and I became the Rabbi of Bethlehem. For several years each night I would look up in the sky in search of the star prophesied by Balaam. But no star appeared, and over time I lost heart. There were medicines to make, newborns to circumcise, my synagogue duties, students to teach, prayers, weddings, blessings, burials and my own growing family to look after. I stopped going out at night to search the stars.
Then in the fortieth year of the reign of Herod the King, Herod the Pig may the mighty one of Israel blot out his name, the cursed Romans ordered a census that they might tax us more efficiently. In order to be counted every man was required with his wife and children to return to the village of his ancestors. The roads were full of traffic, and the Inns were overflowing. As the Rabbi of our community it was my responsibility to administer the charity of the synagogue to impoverished travelers. So many people needed shelter and food, and there were sick ones. I was so busy I did not have time to think — time to stop and look up at the stars.
Excuse me, I am being called to make up some medicine, I will return shortly.
As I was saying, I had no time to stop and look up at the stars. So one evening as I was mixing rheumatism powders for Benjamin the Inn Keeper an older man leading a donkey with a young woman on its back came to my door. “Excuse me,” the man said, “we have traveled all the way from Nazareth in Galilee for the census, and the Inn has no room. A kindly gentleman directed us to you as the Rabbi of Bethlehem. My wife is heavy with child and I fear she will give birth tonight. For the sake of the Holy One of Israel, can you help us?”
“My Lord,” I thought, “why do you send them to me? There’s no room anywhere in Bethlehem tonight.”
“Well,” I began, “the Inn is full, my house is full, but let me see what I can do.”
“Oh thank you sir, thank you. I am Joseph, a carpenter from Nazareth and this is Mary my wife. We would be grateful for any help you can give to us.”
I called two of my sons and sent them to inquire at the neighbors for a spare corner for the strangers. My daughter Rebekah I sent to fetch the mid-wife. A short time later my sons returned, no room anywhere. Then Ruth the mid-wife arrived.
“Sholom, Ruth,” I replied. “We have a problem. This woman is about to give birth, and there is no place for them to stay. Every spare corner in Bethlehem is filled.”
“Even Menachem’s big house is full?”
“Even Menachem’s big house is full,” I answered.
“What about that cave Johannan uses as a kind of stable? We build a fire. We find some blankets, some clean straw. I have delivered babies under worse conditions.”
I turned to Joseph. “What do you think?” I asked. “I’m afraid it’s the best we can do.”
“With God’s help, and your kindness,” he replied, “everything will be alright.”
Ruth the mid-wife, myself, Mary, Joseph and the donkey made our way to Johannan’s cave. I sent my son Eli to ask Johannan’s permission. When we got the fire going, and Ruth began to help Mary I noticed in the fire light that the woman was very young, almost a girl.
I turned to Joseph and asked, “the girl is very young, how long have you been married?”
“To tell the truth rabbi,” he began awkwardly, “the wedding was rushed.” We were betrothed a year ago, when her father, my good friend Joachim, died. May his memory live forever in Israel. There were no sons, no relatives, so I a widower proposed a marriage. Now I can care of my best friend’s wife and his daughter, and if we should have a son, my friend’s name will be preserved in Israel. But as I was saying, the wedding was rushed. Five months ago I discovered Mary was with child, so we married right away.
“Age makes one anxious I suppose,” I began.
“It is not as you think Rabbi,” Joseph interrupted. “Mary is a kind and virtuous girl. When I discovered her with child I was surprised for we had not yet, uh, come together as they say. And disappointed as I was, I resolved to divorce her quietly, so as not to bring shame on the memory of her father Joachim my friend. But then I had a dream. An angel appeared to me, and told me to take Mary for my wife for the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit.”
I looked at this kindly old man with great patience and sympathy and said, “Yes, I’m sure you did the right thing.”
As the young woman cried out in pain, and Ruth the midwife encouraged her I marveled over the danger and challenge of entering the world. Pain, blood, flesh, life is fragile and wonderful, a gift, a messy gift, but still a gift from God.
As I left the cave I shook my head over a foolish old man, who was willing to believe his dream, and the miracle of hope born in the darkness. I returned home, ate my supper, now cold and made ready for bed. But in the middle of the night I heard knocking at my door. A loud insistent knocking as sometimes comes from those who need medicine in the middle of the night.
“Alright, alright,” I called out, “I’m coming already.” I walked toward the door, and as I did so, I noticed the voices on the other side far from being anxious and worried were indeed joyful and even a little drunk.
“Rabbi, rabbi, you must come and see what we have seen!”
I opened the door and found there five of our local shepherds smelling of wine and motioning me to come with them.
“Rabbi, you must come with us, we have seen angels.”
“You’ve been to the Inn, and drunk too much wine,” I replied.
“No,” protested one of the shepherds, “we went to the Inn after we saw the angels. And the angels said, ‘the Messiah has come.’ You must come and see, beautiful baby.”
“Baby, where,” I asked?
“In Johannan’s cave,” he replied, “most beautiful baby boy. Come see.”
“I’ll go see in the morning,” I replied my irritation growing, “you need to go home before you fall down, now good night.”
As I laid down to go back to sleep I remembered the angel of Joseph’s dream, and wondered, “could the shepherds have really seen angels? No,” I answered myself as I rolled over, “just too much wine on a cold night.”
Excuse me I hear my wife calling me, I will return shortly.
Now where was I? Yes, the shepherds. I had almost forgotten all about them, but eight days later, Joseph was at my door.
“Rabbi, rabbi, we had a son, and today is the day for his circumcision. Would you be so kind to come and do for our child the commandment of the Law.”
I looked into those old and excited eyes and couldn’t help but be infected by their joy. “Of course,” I said, as I went to get the ritual knife for the circumcision.”
I followed Joseph to Johannan’s cave, and the mother emerged carrying the infant. God made our flesh and called it good. And God commanded that the mark of the covenant should be on our flesh and written upon our hearts.
I began the ceremony. “Blessed be he who comes. May it be God’s will that in this child the messiah has been born.”
“Praised are you, Adonai our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us in the ritual of circumcision. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to make this child enter into the covenant of Abraham our father.”
Joseph uncovered the child, so I could proceed with the circumcision. As I made the necessary incision the child cried. Blood, flesh, pain, part of the miracle that is our lives. But also joy, joy in our covenant and relationship with the almighty. So I prayed.
“Creator of the universe, may it be Your will to regard and accept this performance of circumcision, as if we had brought this child before Your glorious throne. And in Your abundant mercy, through Your holy angels, give a pure and holy heart to Yeshua, the son of Joseph, who we have now circumcised in honor of Your great Name. May his heart be wide open to comprehend Your holy Law, that he may learn and teach, keep and fulfill Your laws.”
I have performed the ritual of circumcision hundreds of times, and yet I was strangely moved by this child. As the sun was setting Joseph and Mary thanked me, and I began to walk home, still feeling like I had been blessed by this child — Yeshua. And then I looked up at the darkening sky as the stars were coming out and I noticed a new and brighter star I had never seen before. And then I remembered the words of the ritual: “Blessed be he who comes. May it be God’s will that in this child the messiah has been born.”
I remembered the words of Rabbi Eliakim: “look and wait for a special star to appear, and then you shall know the Messiah is near.”
Could it be this child I just touched with the knife was the Messiah? I ran back to the cave. Joseph was packing his donkey. “Where are you going,” I asked?
“The angel spoke to me in a dream again,” Joseph sighed. “Herod is looking for our child, and we must flee for the sake of his life.”
“Then you must go. Obey the angel,” I said. “But you will need provisions for your journey. Wait here, while I go into the Inn.”
“Benjamin,” I yelled, as I walked through the door of the Inn. “Get me four loaves of bread, some cheese and a small bottle of wine. And hurry, I have travelers I must send off on the road.”
Benjamin returned with the food, and I gave him his rheumatism powders, and returned to the cave.
“Joseph,” I called out, “here is some food for your journey.”
“You are too kind,” Joseph replied.
“No, it is the little I can do for the Messiah. I promised Rabbi Eliakim I would greet the Messiah for him, and I have had the honor of circumcising the Messiah. May your child be blessed for all the blessings he will bring to Israel. Flee from Herod. Travel quickly and safely.”
As Mary and Joseph vanished down the road I thought about how fragile life is flesh and blood, pain and suffering, but also joy and hope. May the Holy One of Israel reveal to each of you your star in the sky. And with each beat of your heart, may you embrace your flesh and your blood, even your pain and your suffering, and may God grant you to know hope and joy this Christmas.