The Lost Children

 

Painting by Leon Cogniet, 1824

Massacre of the Innocents, Leon Cogniet, 1824

Another Passover in Jerusalem and another year of offering my gifts with an empty and heavy heart. I know that G-d wants us to sacrifice to him, but it seems that it’s only a one-way street. Every year I come to Jerusalem and every year I leave with an empty heart. I know we celebrate that time when in ancient days G-d spared the children of Israel from His wrath: the Passover, as we call it. We escaped judgment and death; the Egyptians did not. The amount of suffering must have been beyond comprehension and the weeping must have been terrible as the first born of every family was systematically slaughtered to show the power of G-d and to gain our ancestor’s release. I couldn’t imagine it.

But when we left that place so many years ago, we headed to the Promised Land: a land flowing with milk and honey, and I suppose for a time it was just that. But it was not long before we turned on Him and went our own ways. I guess we deserved the punishment that came as a result. Who in their right mind can’t accept punishment for doing wrong?

Years of punishment. Decades. Centuries. Slaughter on both sides of the battle. G-d wiped us out by the hand of the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Persians. Then He wiped them out by each other’s hands. Finally, we came back home, but no longer did we reign, for we were, and are, living in enemy-occupied territory. Even so, with all the pain and suffering, it made sense, I could accept it: our sin produced judgment and then punishment.

But it is not for this that my heart has wept these many years. I suppose some might call me selfish and unconcerned with the nation, but when it comes right down to it, my life is all I have. My family is all I have, or rather, had.

My tears started years ago when my wife and I were expecting a child. I had just finished the house and we had just been married. What a celebration that was! Even in Roman occupied territory, you can find moments of joy, and my wedding was such a moment. My friends and family were all there as we celebrated far into the night with dancing and singing. We drank and gave toasts. We stood under the canopy. We received many gifts. With all of the singing, dancing, and drinking I thought Bethlehem had never seen such a celebration!

After the celebration, when I took my bride into my house, we gave each other such words and looks of promise that we thought would last a lifetime. I remember well the first moments of gentle intimacy and holding her far into the night. I remember not being able to fall asleep and watching her gently breathing next to me far into the night. I studied every curve of her face thankful G-d had given me a gift, possibly the greatest gift I could ever have received. I saw in the shape of her face my future and my children’s future. Not only would she be my wife, but she would also be the mother of my children.

Children. I had often allowed that word to roll around in my head. Children. They were to be another of G-d’s gifts to me. She and I had frequently spoken of our future children and how they would help me make shoes or help her with the housework. We talked of how we would teach them Torah and train them to be adults. We looked forward to finding them husbands and wives and then seeing our grandchildren. I saw all of those future moments in my wife’s face that night as we lay together on our wedding bed.

We had not been married for three months before she was pregnant. What a grand mystery that is! How it is that two people can lie together and be the cause of the life of another human is beyond wonder. What a gift!

But that first gift was not given for long. One morning I woke to find my bed empty. I called for my wife and searched the house, finally looking out the back window and seeing her curled up in a ball weeping. Quickly leaving the house, I went to her.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

The sounds of weeping were all she offered in return. I held her and gently caressed her temples and tried to dry her eyes, but the deep wells of her soul could only produce tears, no insight.

After what seemed to be hours, but most likely were only minutes, she spoke, “It does not move,” was all she could say between the sobs. My heart dropped and I held her. I felt her belly and waited. There was nothing. No movement. No heart beat. Nothing. My freshly flowing tears joined hers as I held her in my arms. I had never suspected how joy hangs at the end of a thin thread awaiting a time when it breaks, but in this moment I knew that to be true.

Months later, as we lay in bed, I saw a line in her face that I had not seen before. The hopes we had on that first night of celebration were now showing some cracks. The pristine future was now marred. I still loved my wife, maybe more now than ever, but I saw in her face a sadness I knew would never leave her: it was a sadness I would carry as well. Once again I watched her sleep far into the night until the morning sunlight bathed her face and she woke. I held her close and told her I loved her. I told her that even though we lost one child, a child we could never replace, we could have another. She smiled and, for the first time since the movement stopped, she kissed me. Afterwards, we got dressed and began our day, both with a sense of hope we had not felt in a long time.

That morning when I went to synagogue I saw a crowd of men talking feverishly. They were discussing some news from Rome about a census of all the inhabitants of our land. It seemed we were to return to the towns of our heritage and be counted. Most people in the town were nervously discussing what that would mean for them, their household, their work, and their belongings after they left. But since my family was originally from this area, I didn’t worry as much as the others because this meant I wouldn’t have to travel. In fact, it meant I might be able to make a few extra denarii as there were certain to be people coming to stay in our little town for the census.

A couple of weeks later my wife was all smiles when I woke. She was holding her stomach and smelled of vomit but was her smile eclipsed those signs. We were going to have another child! This time, I decided, even though I knew it might not affect anything, she was going to work less than before just to make sure the child came to us safely. The months flew by as I did double the load of work each day: I spent hours in the shop behind the house making shoes then hours in the house doing the chores my wife would normally have done. She kept insisting I was doing too much, but I would hug her, gently caress her stomach, and tell her if I could do anything to assure our child’s safety, then I would. In the end, she always agreed.

As she grew close to her time, people from the far reaches of the country began to filter into our town, quickly occupying most of the houses and empty rooms. I, and many others in the town helped the neighbors who had to leave rent their homes to the travelers. Although there was still uncertainty about the reason for the census, the town was filled with the sort of expectancy and excitement that always accompanies big events and large crowds. My house was filled with another sort of excitement, however, as my wife was nearly ready to give birth.

I woke up late one the night to the sounds of my wife’s heavy breathing and muffled screams that are normal during childbirth. I quickly found the neighbor women who would help in the delivery process and hurried them to my house. I held my wife’s hand throughout the night feeling fairly useless as the ladies made the many preparations. About the time when the sun crested over the edge of the distant hills, my son entered the world bathed in blood and sunlight, revealing a beauty that only a parent can appreciate. In that moment, all the hopes I had seen in my wife’s face so long ago on our wedding night, tainted as they may have been with the past pain, blossomed. After the women had cleaned and wrapped my son, I held him for the first time. I snuggled close to my wife holding the child between us as the women finished their work, closed my eyes, and rested in this peaceful moment.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that the women who were cleaning up seemed to be staying for an inordinately long period of time. I opened my eyes just in time to see one of them hurriedly run out of the house. Moments later she returned with another woman, older than all, who had seen her share of sunrises. I asked what was going on and they said they didn’t think there was a problem, but there was a complication the older woman would know how to handle. I looked to my wife and saw her face, though peaceful, had become paler than it was just a few moments ago. She held my hand tightly and continued to look at her son as the women were occupied between her legs.

The moment when she last closed her eyes will be frozen in my mind forever. Even though death had overtaken her, she was peaceful. She looked as if all was right with the world. She had brought a son into the world and gave me happiness for the last few years of her life. But, as is often the way, in the giving there is also losing. Three days later, with my new son in my arms, I buried my wife.

There is not much to say about the following months other than how the covering of pain and sorrow barely allowed me to experience the small moments of joy provided by my son. I loved him; of that, there was no question, but I missed my wife terribly. My heart was continually filled with both extreme joy and deadening pain. There were times I thought my heart would burst as the pain and joy battled within me, but the days rolled endlessly on with no reprieve and no conclusion. I don’t think a heart is meant to feel such opposing feelings at the same time.

One night, a short time later, I heard a man running from door to door begging for a place to stay. Although I knew I had space, when I heard him say his wife was pregnant and expecting her child at any moment I blew out the candle and went to sleep. I could not abide another pregnancy in my home. Not now, maybe never. The volume of his voice dwindled as he ran throughout the town, finally falling silent somewhere near the edge of town.

In the following days, many filthy shepherds trickled into the town at all hours of the day and night. While they didn’t speak much and were often unseen, their smell permeated the streets as they navigated their way to the far edge of town. I heard my neighbors say they had come to see a child that had been born outside of town in a small cave. I suspected it was the child of the man I heard looking for lodging late at night the past week, but I was never certain. I didn’t ask the names of the parents or the child, I didn’t want to know, but in time I overheard my neighbors say the child’s name was Jehoshua.

Months later, as I was playing outside of the house with my son I saw a procession of well-dressed men, all appearing to be some sort of magi, or royalty riding camels winding through the small streets of our city. They said nothing as they passed my house continuing in the direction the shepherds had previously gone. I presumed they were also heading to see Jehoshua and so with nothing else to do and being overtaken by curiosity, I followed them. They dismounted their camels in front of a small house sitting just outside of town and knocked on the door. An older gentle-looking man opened the door and, after a brief exchange of words, humbly bowed and stepped aside allowing the richly adorned men entrance to the small house. The door closed and I, with my son in my arms, went to the window and looked in. In the back of the room, a woman sat on a small chair holding a small baby boy: Jehoshua I presumed. Before her, the well-dressed men kneeled down and placed exotic gifts at the feet of the woman.

I stared for a long time at this strange scene but it was the mother and child that finally captured my gaze. The child’s face was unlike any I had seen before. I don’t mean to say it was beautiful, in fact, it was a fairly normal baby’s face. But there was something about him that gave me a sense of peace unlike any I had felt since before my wife had died. Even so, I found the longer I looked at his face, the more unnerved I became: my peace slowly changed into fear, then shame, and finally anger. I looked to his mother and wondered why G-d had allowed her to live and not my wife. And why did so many people find this child to be of interest? Why was this family, outsiders to our town, being so adored by others? While the mother, father, and wise men were enraptured with adoration inside the house, outside the house my heart grew angrier and full of resentment. I spat on the ground, and with my child in my arms, turned and walked away. Little did I know the following day would see the last remnants of my joy taken from me.

It was late afternoon when I heard the sounds of armored horses approaching while I played in the street with my son, trying to erase the image of the child at the edge of town from my mind. I assumed it was the Romans coming to perform the census, so I gathered my boy in my arms and started towards the center of town. I had not taken but a few steps when I heard screams of terror coming from the direction of the horses. I stopped and listened for a moment before turning and running to my house. When I reached the front door the loud din of armor-laden horses stopped behind me. I turned just in time to see a soldier, holding a bare sword with blood dripping from the tip, dismount his horse. He saw me and barked, “STOP!” To this day I wish I had run at the soldier so he would have taken my life, but on that day and in that moment I froze. He closed the space between us quickly and before I knew what was happening he pushed me to the ground and grabbed my son. I tried to scream and I tried to fight, but in the end, I could only lie on the ground and watch as he took my son and decapitate him. The soldier dropped my son’s tiny body to the ground as his head rolled into the gutter at the edge of the street. In shock, my eyes locked onto the face of my son until the soldier stepped in front of me. I raised my eyes to see the man who had murdered my son. He mounted his horse, looked back at me for a moment with a vacant stare, and then turned, riding around the corner to join the now ever-present sound of swords and screaming. The last image I remember seeing before passing out was the back of the soldier’s horse.

When I woke, I considered the possibility my memory was only a bad dream, but the sounds of weeping heard in every direction in the darkness instantly brought me back to reality. I sat up and saw my son’s body lying next to me, with his head some five feet away from his body, in the gutter. There was a look of terror and abandonment still frozen on his small features. All hope and expectation had vanished from his dead eyes. They pierced my heart as if to say “Why, daddy, why? Where were you? Why didn’t you protect me?” I began weeping in that moment and to one degree or another, have not stopped since.

The next day I buried my son in the family crypt, the same one I had placed my wife a few short years ago. When I returned to the empty house I closed the door and sat for days staring at the wall, numbed by the remnants of lost hope strewn throughout my home. First my unborn child, then my wife, and now my son: all love had been taken from me. Nothing of value remained.

The days passed and turned into months, during which time I heard rumors the reason the soldiers had come was to find one boy and kill him. But since they didn’t know which boy they were looking for, their command was to kill every boy in town who was under two years of age. The rumors also said the boy they sought was the child from the edge of town and that furthermore, he and his entire family had escaped the night before the soldiers came. It was as if they knew it was coming yet did nothing to save the rest of us. Our children’s lives, my only son’s blood, paid for that child’s freedom. It was not a price I was willing to pay, yet having no choice, it was a price I was forced to pay.

The months turning into years drove all memory of joy from me. Everything I did was performed with numb mechanical motion. I repaired shoes and thought of nothing other than how G-d had allowed this to happen. I went to synagogue each week fulfilling my duty but no longer believed anything. I no longer hoped for anything. I no longer loved anything.

Every year I went to Jerusalem for Passover and every year I offered my dutiful sacrifices. I think somewhere underneath the cloud of despair filling my soul, I thought G-d would find it in his will to alleviate my pain. But no respite ever came. Some might say it’s hard to hate someone you no longer believe in, but I did. I hated G-d and everything my religion told me I had to do.

While I was not much older than the many other men I knew, time and hate had stooped my shoulders, slowed my step, and clouded my vision. With hope long gone and duty an unloving taskmaster, I decided this year’s trip to Jerusalem for Passover would be my last. It was not a long trip but the walk from Bethlehem had become increasingly difficult each year.

Since my pace was slow and the crowds would be large, I left early in the morning before the sun was up. It was shortly after sunrise when I haltingly passed through Jerusalem’s gates and heard the noise of the crowd in the distance. It was a noise I was familiar with since Passover was always busy, but this sound was unlike any I had heard before. It took me a while to reach the gathering, but not so long that the noise had died down: in fact, if anything, it had grown louder. I found myself in the back of a crowd and saw Pilate standing on his dais speaking to the people.

It didn’t take long for me to realize this was the annual ceremony where he made a goodwill offering to release a prisoner to the people, supposedly exhibiting his grace and mercy for all to see. We could choose any person we wanted of those criminals presented: this year there were two men offered as options. The first was a man named Barabbas, a known criminal and murderer with rough and angry visage. From what I had heard of him, I was certain he would not be chosen. The second man had a gentle looking face, almost evoking from me the remembrance of hope I had long since forgotten. With the ashes of joy gently stirring, Pilate raised his hands to quiet the crowd. “Whom do you want me to release for you,” he said with a flourish, “Barabbas, or Jehoshua?”

Jehoshua.

Upon hearing that name I immediately remembered where I had seen that face. The years instantaneously collapsed and in that moment I found myself standing both in Jerusalem looking across the crowd at the man, and in Bethlehem peering through the window at a small child being worshiped by the magi: they boy and the man were one and the same! His face, now looking directly at me, caused all the dark layers of numbing despair that had accumulated over the intervening decades to well up within me. Here was the man, the child, who was responsible for the death of my son those many years ago, and I was being asked, along with the whole crowd, whether to kill him or not. “Blood for blood,” I thought. The crowd began to yell out “Barabbas,” and I quickly joined in. I didn’t care that he was not a murderer: I didn’t care about that at all. I only cared that I was now finally able to enact my vengeance on the child who had brought into my life such grief. Let his father know the pain of losing an only son. Let him feel what it’s like. “Barabbas,” I cried louder and louder. “BARABBAS! BARABBAS! BARABBAS!”

The rest of the day was a blur. A cloud had lifted from my life bringing me a dark sense of something, maybe a twisted joy? I don’t think I would call it that, but I would say I felt satisfaction. I finally felt, in a very small way, I could do something to rectify the wrong that had been done to me. It was not long before I found myself at the front of the crowd following Jehoshua to where he was taken and beaten senseless. With each snap of the whip, I saw my son’s head laying in the gutter. With each tear and lash, I saw his bloody and empty neck. I saw justice as my heart swelled with hatred and dark joy. Finally, someone was paying for my son’s death.

I led the crowds through the streets as the cross was placed on Jehoshua’s back and he was forced to walk. I spit on him. I threw stones at him. I’m sure those around me wondered what could possibly cause this tottering old man to have such energy and what fueled my hatred. I saw it in the look in their eyes, but I didn’t care what they thought: let them wonder. I would revel in this moment and unleash the full measure of my life’s loathing. I spat hatred as he walked along the steep streets of the city, heading to the hill of crucifixion. I was ecstatic, nearly euphoric.

But then something happened: Jehoshua stumbled and fell. At first, my dark joy grew, seeing him laying in the gutter of the street, bleeding and mocked by everyone around. But when the Romans took a man from the crowd and placed the cross on him, my heart sank. “Let him carry it,” I spat out with such violence it silenced the crowd. “Let him know the pain I’ve felt. Let his mother and father, if they are here, see what death looks like. MAKE HIM CARRY IT HIMSELF!”

The crowds stood silent for a moment as the Romans placed the cross on the back of the other man. Jehoshua slowly stood and began to follow the man bearing his cross. With each step, Jehoshua took without the burden of the cross my hatred for both him and the Romans grew. My taunts grew louder and my heart grew darker and angrier as I was now yelling at both Jehoshua and the Roman guards. I was leading the crowd in volume and in hatred. I had never known such power and freedom, that is until he turned his head and his eyes peered directly into mine. I stopped yelling and glared silent death into his eyes with hatred greater than I knew possible. But then everything changed. In that brief moment of time, motion seemed to stop and all grew strangely quiet. Our eyes were locked together and as certainly as I had ever known anything, I knew he knew his life cost me my son. But the look in his eyes was not of one who didn’t care; rather it was a look of empathy. He knew my only son died to save his life, and yet somehow I knew it was necessary: I didn’t know why I just knew it was. I saw in his eyes that my pain was why he was here: he was here to right all injustice; he was here to give purpose to my pain; he was here to pay the same price my son had paid all those many years ago. When he turned away from me, though my pain was still present, my hatred began to slowly melt away. The noise of the crowd grew once again as they continued on their way, but I had gone silent and stopped moving. Now at the back of the throng, I began to follow again, but this time at a distance. I did not know why, but with each step forward the weight of hatred and depression diminished.

By the time we reached the top of the hill, the sky had grown dark and rain was imminent. They laid Jehoshua down on the wooden cross and drove long metal spikes into his hands and feet. But instead of feeling anger and hatred, with each strike of the hammer, I felt sadness. There was no new hatred, no animosity, and no dark joy; there was only deep and profound sadness. I fell to my knees and wept for the death of my wife. I wept for the death of my son. I wept for the loss of my joy. I wept for my empty years. I wept for Jehoshua.

The first drop of rain struck my face as the last hit of the hammer rang out. They lifted the cross and dropped it into a hole, slamming down and tearing the nail wounds. Jehoshua cried out. I continued to weep.

I don’t know why, but I stayed there the rest of the day, standing in the rain and watching him die. I saw the life leave his face and his body drop, leaving it hanging like a rag stuck upon a nail. Beneath the cross, a small group of people huddled together and cried. Lightning flashed. Thunder rolled. The sky went dark. Nature now reflected the emotions and pain I felt at the loss of my only son. Somewhere, I’m sure, Jehoshua’s father was crying as well.

When I returned to Bethlehem I went to my house, closed the door and sat down staring at the wall and thinking about what I had seen. I felt the numbness that had been my constant companion these many decades lift revealing afresh my past pain. I felt the pain of the loss of my wife. I felt the pain of loss of my son. I wept myself to sleep.

When I awoke, I went to the back corner of the room and uncovered a small chest I had hidden years ago. I opened it and pulled from it a dried lily from my wife’s wedding gown I had kept these many years. I smelled its faint, yet still sweet aroma. I pulled out the small blanket my son was wrapped in on the day of his birth. I held it close, rubbing it gently on my cheek. It smelled of him.

In time, I gently folded the blanket and returned it to the chest. I placed the flower on top of the blanket and closed the lid. I sat on my bed clutching the chest not knowing what tomorrow would hold. Yet, even though I was now old and knew there were not many more sunrises remaining, for the first time in a long time I felt the seeds of hope once again growing deep in my darkened soul. It was not long before I once again fell asleep, this time tightly clutching the chest to my heart.

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