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The River Mystery
by Doug Lipman
The rabbi walked to the edge of the river. He was in the center of his town in broad daylight, standing on the wooden levee that kept the slowly flowing river in its course. Yet no one was around. The streets and the river itself were deserted.
The air was filled with a sense of danger.
The rabbi looked down into the water. As dirty as the river was as it ran through his small Eastern European city, it could be lovely, too. The sun's light filtered through the brown water. Where the light shown, he saw tiny gold flecks sparkling in the languid current.
He would have enjoyed the sight much more, if he were not aware that his life was at risk, just for being outside.
He walked to the deserted bridge and crossed the river. Once he reached the other side, he looked up the river. Usually, boats were tied up on this side of the river, unloading cargo or travellers. But today, he saw not a single boat - not even a person - in either direction.
"I must be a fool," he thought, "for expecting to see anything today." But a voice within him said, "Just wait!" So he did.
After a long time, he saw the slightest movement far up the river. At first he thought his eyes were fooling him. But as he watched, the object became larger. It was a ship coming down the river!
The ship floated very slowly, as though it were merely drifting in the sluggish current. He heard a sound behind him - a dog barking in the distance. He thought, "Are they coming?" Yet he stood his ground.
Nearly an hour later, the boat bumped lazily into the levee near where he stood. He jumped aboard. He was not surprised to see that there was no one at the helm. He knew he would have to climb down into the hold of the ship, soon enough. But he put it off by walking first around the deck.
Behind the cabin, he saw fish that had been caught and piled on the deck. The fish had been dead for some time, yet they were beautiful in an odd way. Their scales shown slightly, with a hint of a golden sheen. Something about the fish tickled the back of his mind. Yet he could not call forward the still-forming thought.
At last, he could put it off no longer. He entered the cabin and climbed down the wooden ladder into the hold. There he saw what he had feared to see: the crew was dead. Their swollen faces showed the all-too-familiar rash of the plague. Turning away from the bodies, he noticed the galley. The fire in the charcoal stove had long since gone cold. Next to it, the bones and skin of a fish lay just where they had been left after the flesh was cooked.
Looking at the bones of the fish, something jelled in the rabbi's mind. He ran up the wooden ladder, found a rope near the stern, and threw it over a piling on the shore. He was not used to this work! With many turns of the rope around the piling, he made the boat as secure as it would have been with three turns of a knot made by a real sailor. No matter. For the survival of his people, this boat must remain in the town.
A moment later, he crossed the bridge again into the Jewish side of the town. Automatically, his feet carried him toward the synagogue, where he knew that all his fellow Jews would be gathered to pray - and to discuss whether to comply with the squire's decree. He could picture the faces of those who would want to flee immediately, before they all became fair game to be hunted and killed. And he could imagine, too, the smaller group of those who believed they would be saved without leaving all their property behind.
Suddenly, he stopped. Almost against his will, he turned around and crossed the bridge back onto the non-Jewish side of the river. He continued past the commercial buildings along the river. Now he knew he was in even greater danger. Of all the people in this neighborhood who represented danger to his life, the most dangerous lived in the house ahead of him - the house he walked up to.
He stood at the door. He knocked. He waited. He said the "Shma" to himself, the most basic prayer, the prayer that observant Jews want on their lips as they die: "Listen, people of Israel, the Lord is our God; the Lord is One."
The door opened. There stood the burly, young Polish peasant. As soon as the peasant saw the rabbi, his eyes lit with fire. He instinctively reached for the knife in his belt.
The rabbi let his open hands hang at his side. Having just said the Shma, the only thing that came to the rabbi's mind to say was "Listen." Something about the innocent way the rabbi spoke that word caused the young peasant man to stop still.
The rabbi said, "I have found the true cause of the plague. Please! If I am wrong, go ahead and kill me. But if I am right, you will want to know the truth, to save your people as well."
The young man didn't move a muscle. But something in his face relaxed just a little bit, and the rabbi took that as consent.
The rabbi turned and left. He could hear by the sound of hard-soled boots behind him on the cobblestones that the peasant was following him toward the river. The two of them climbed aboard the boat.
By the time they left the boat, the two men were walking side by side. The rabbi said, "Whether he knew the truth or not, what do you think the squire had to gain from this?"
Soon, the rabbi was pounding on the door of the synagogue. "Let me in!" From inside, he heard the sound of the improvised barricade being removed. As soon as those inside opened the door and saw the peasant with the rabbi, they quickly closed the door again. "Rabbi," they said in Yiddish through the door. "Are you being threatened? Is that ruffian forcing you to bring him here?"
"No. I have come of my own free will. I want this young man to address our congregation." The rabbi saw the horrified looks of those who let him in. As the young man followed the rabbi inside, the rabbi heard murmurs, "The two of them are in league. They have betrayed us."
The unlikely pair walked toward the bima, the dais. The rabbi saw that all the Jews of the city were there. Those who had believed they should have obeyed the decree instantly now had a firm set to their mouths. They wore coats for travelling. And they had bundles containing all the possessions that the decree would allow them to take: a single change of clothes.
The eyes of those who had been willing to wait, as the rabbi had suggested - even under the penalty of death - shown with a slight glimmer of hope.
At last, the rabbi faced the congregation. "Listen," he said, then turned to the peasant beside him.
Hesitantly, the peasant began to speak. "The squire told us that the plague was caused by you Jews. But your rabbi has shown me. The gold flecks in the river are the same as the gold flecks on the fish. It's a poison that made the fish sick. From eating the fish, people got the sickness. That is why so many have died.
"The squire was wrong when he blamed the Jews. The plague was not divine retribution for having you among us. And by blaming you, he kept us from knowing the true cause of the plague - while your and my people died.
"I can tell you that you are no longer in danger from me and my band. But the squire is not safe from us. We do not like to be lied to. We do not like to be used."
As soon as the peasant left, the rabbi ordered all the windows unshuttered and the doors opened. Then the entire congregation sang as one. Anyone for blocks around could have heard them sing the most basic Jewish prayer, "Listen, people of Israel....Listen."
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This page was last updated on Monday, March 10, 2003
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