Rabbi Nachmani — An Original Christmas Story

Rabbi Nachmani

Scene One —

Refugees are everywhere. They come without a denarius in their pockets and just the clothes on their backs. They come from Judea fleeing the evil and murderous regime of King Herod, who is so paranoid he kills his subjects without even a hint of evidence of disloyalty. And so they undertake the dangerous crossing of the desert and come filling the streets of Alexandria looking for work, looking for places to stay and something to eat. And where do they come? The synagogue of course. They say, “We are Jews, a little charity please?” And my people and I are all out of charity.

I am Rabbi Nachmani, the leader of a small synagogue here in Alexandria. Of course with a population of half a million Jews Alexandria has many synagogues. In fact there are more Jews living in our City than in all of Herod’s Kingdom. It’s amazing at the rate he kills his own people, there are any Jews left in Israel.

Now Herod never was much of a Jew. His ancestors were Idumeans, and his father Faisal, changed his religion for political advantage with the Romans. Israel has been a mess for a long time. No, Herod is more a Roman than a Jew, and that is why the Roman Senate in their infinite wisdom appointed him as King of the Jews. My great-grandparents blessed be their memory came to Alexandria 50 years ago to escape from the chaos of the administration of Faisal, Herod’s father.

So my great-grandparents came and made a home here in Egypt. My grandfather was a carpenter, and my father was a carpenter, and I too am a wood worker, and the rabbi for our small synagogue of the wood cutters. Mind you a rabbi is not a preacher. Sometimes I lead the prayers, but more often the scriptures are read by members of the congregation and the prayers are often sung by Daniel ben Sirach who is our congregational song leader. No, mostly I help negotiate marriage contracts, preside at weddings, perform the bris, provide interpretations of the law, distribute charity and occasionally mediate disputes.

Like the other day Moishe sold a cow to Joshua ben Israel. A month after the sale the cow stopped giving milk. Joshua wanted his money back. So, they brought their dispute to me. “Moishe,” I asked, “did you know your cow was going to stop giving milk?”

“Of course not Rabbi,” replied Moishe.

“But Rabbi,” objected Joshua, “how could he have not known?”

“But why do you say that?” I asked Joshua.

“Because he did not breed the cow before he sold it to me!”

“But I didn’t know the cow was due to be bred,” protested Moishe.

“Alright already! Moishe,” I said, ” you take the cow back and breed it with your bull. Then give the cow back to Joshua, and then let God decide if the cow will give milk.”

Moishe and Joshua agreed to this decision, because it is always better to trust your disputes to the synagogue than the Egyptian courts. We always try to keep the Egyptians out of our affairs. The hardest part of my job is distributing charity, especially with all of the refugees flooding in from Judea. The established members of our community, the families who have been here for generations expect that they should receive priority in the distribution of charity and not the newcomers. And so the refugees are a pain in the neck. And we also fear some of them. Among the poor who are trying to escape from Herod’s murderous ways there are also zealots who want to stir up trouble.

The zealots hate Rome and they try to inflame rebellion wherever they go. And our community here in Alexandria does not want trouble with the Romans or the Egyptians. We have established a reasonably comfortable life here, the authorities by and large leave us alone, and we don’t want outside agitators inciting hostility against our Jewish community.

So as Rabbi of the synagogue I am careful even dubious of welcoming refugees from Judea into our community. But sometimes even when we are cautious because we are afraid we need to be open to what God might be doing right underneath our noses. Let me tell you about a recent family, who arrived from Bethlehem about two years ago. But first I hear my wife Elisheva calling. You stay here in my shop and I will come back after I find out what she wants.

Scene Two –

Another family asking the Rabbi’s wife for help. Sometimes they think if they ask the Rebbetzin for help, she will be more generous. And maybe they are right. Anyway I was going to tell you about a family who arrived two years ago now from Bethlehem. They came across the desert in winter. They came very afraid seeking a place to hide. The husband Joseph was a carpenter. So out of loyalty to my own craft I welcomed him. My friend Ephraim was looking for a helper and I arranged for Joseph to go to work for him. The wife, Mary was very young, suckling her first child, a boy named Yeshua, a form of Joshua, meaning deliverer. When I asked Joseph why they were fleeing from Judea he had the most fantastic story.

He said when he had been betrothed to Mary for a few months she showed up pregnant even though he had not touched her yet. He said he had considered divorcing her quietly but an angel told him in a dream the child was special, and he was supposed to name the baby Emmanuel from the prophet Isaiah meaning God with us. Well there is no fool like an old fool I guess, and if everyone believed their dreams where would we be?

But then he had the most bizarre story about Magi astrologers from Babylon who came to Jerusalem asking where the messiah was to be born. They said, they had read the signs in the heavens, and a star had appeared in the sky announcing the birth of a new world ruler, who would be born in Israel. Supposedly Herod granted them an audience and even summoned the high priests to advise him about where the messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem,” they said. So, Herod told the Magi to go and search for the child and if they found him to bring back word to the King.

A short time later, the three Magi surprised Joseph, Mary and the child in Bethlehem and presented to them princely gifts, gold frankincense and myrrh. But then the Magi told Joseph they had been warmed by an angel in a dream not to go back to Herod, because the King would seek out the child to destroy him. News even reached Alexandria that the murderous Herod had sent soldiers to Bethlehem to slaughter all male children under the age of two.

So having been warned by the Magi, Joseph packed up his family and set out for Alexandria. The little family could not wait for a caravan and crossing the Sinai alone is a dangerous journey. They were accosted by Bedouins who stole the gifts of the Magi. So Joseph and his family arrived in Alexandria penniless. Elisheva found herself instantly attracted to the Baby Jesus and offered Mary comfort and even found money in her household budget to provide food for the little family. There is something special about Yeshua. Oh, he is as mischievous as any other two year old, but there is a peace that seems to surround him as he follows his mother to the market or comes to visit my wife Elisheva.

I might have doubted Joseph’s story about Herod seeking the life of the child, but about six months after the family arrived, I heard news that strangers from Judea were in Alexandria asking about refugees from Bethlehem. I went to Joseph and warned him that his family needed to keep a low profile, and invited Mary, Joseph and the child to come stay with us, and we would pretend that Joseph was my cousin, who was working in my shop. My house is not large, but we managed to fit Joseph and his family by sending three of my children to live with their grandparents for several weeks. And sure enough the “strangers” came to the synagogue of the wood cutters looking for refugees.

They were evil looking men. “Are you harboring any recent arrivals from Bethlehem?” their leader asked.

“No,” I replied, “the members of this synagogue have lived in Alexandria for generations. My great-grandparents came here 50 years ago.”

“What about him?” the leader asked pointing to Joseph.

“He is my cousin Joseph, we were both born here in Alexandria. We don’t like new comers. They take our jobs. We want to keep them out. You won’t find any of them here!”

“Then you won’t mind telling us if you see or hear of any arrivals from Bethlehem,” concluded their leader.

“That’s right I confirmed. You won’t find any new comers here. We don’t want’em.” With that Herod’s spies left my work shop. Just to be safe Joseph, Mary and the child stayed at our house for several more weeks.

Excuse me, Elisheva, is calling for me. I will come back as soon as I can.

Scene Three –

My wife needs that I should find a lamb for the Passover Meal. Seems funny for Jews living in Egypt to celebrate the Passover – the Exodus. But it is our tradition. Anyway after the visit from Herod’s spies I was more inclined to believe Joseph’s account of their leaving Bethlehem. But I still harbored some doubts until two weeks ago when during a restless night I had a dream.

In the dream an angel came to me. But it seemed more like real life than a dream. The angel was tall radiating light from giant wings of translucent feathers. I stood still with my mouth open in awe and fear. The heavenly being stared at me for a full minute as if waiting for me to speak, but no sound came out of my mouth. Then in a deep commanding voice the angel said, “Do not be afraid Nachmani. I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of God. I bring you good news. Herod is dead. You must go tell Joseph, he can return with his wife and child to Israel, for now no harm will come to the child. And this will fulfill what has been spoken by the prophet Hosea, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” When the angel went away, I awoke wondering if what I had seen had been in waking life or a dream. The angel seemed so real. I can still remember the commanding voice. I doubt I shall ever be so close to the divine again.

The next morning I sought out Joseph to share with him the message of the angel. “Joseph, my brother, forgive me for ever doubting your story. Last night an angel came to visit me. He told me that Herod is dead and you and Mary and the child can return to Israel to fulfill the prophecy, for there is no one now to seek the life of the child.”

“But how can I be sure?” asked Joseph.

So I described the angel that appeared to me: “tall, large translucent wings.”

“Did the messenger say its name was Gabriel?”

“Yes, he did, ‘I am Gabriel who stand in the presence of God,’ he said.”

“It is a wondrous thing,” Joseph said, just like the angel I told you appeared to me.”

“My friend,” I replied, “I am so sorry I ever doubted you. Through your child Yeshua, we have been touched by heaven.”

Our poor synagogue could not duplicate the gifts of the Magi, but David, Gamaliel, Ephraim, Jacob and I gathered what little money we could to send the little family back across the desert to Israel. I tell you my friends, we have been touched by God. And I have learned, do not begrudge charity to the poor, especially those who are homeless or fleeing from injustice. God is often working miracles right underneath our noses, and the messiah is always closer than we think.

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