I gaze into the Chanukah flames
I hear them whispering…
And so I sit
Listening, oh so closely…
…Night in ancient Jerusalem. A crescent moon and a few lone stars shine over the dark and deserted streets. In strategic points across the city spirals of smoke can be seen rising from large pagan alters. Even during the day the streets are nearly empty; it is a city in mourning, huddled within herself, trying to find comfort and protection from the Greek enemy. Yet Greek culture can be seen pushing its way into the Judean city. The alters manned by Greek soldiers, men dressed in short robes, the smell of roasting pork, and doors painted over with Greek inscriptions.
In the center of the city in one of the main streets there is a house with such an inscription. Just above the inscription is a wreath of roses. It is a large house, one of the largest on the street and obviously wealthy. It is the home of a man once called Eliakum Hakohen now known as Yakum the Hellenist. Once one of the respected Kohanim in the Bet Hamikdash; now one of the respected governers of King Antiochus.
Inside the house, in the large sitting room, reclines Michal, wife of Yakum. She gently rocks her newborn baby, quietly humming a sweet lullaby to her child.
“Sleep my sweet child.” She stood up and gently laid him down in his basinet. Then she sank down on the sofa and sighed deeply. She should really go to bed, she knew, but the memory of a conversation she had earlier that day with her husband disturbed her.
“Elia… err… Yakum, you know our baby will be eight days old tomorrow,” she began tentatively.
His reply was brusque, “Don’t even say what you’re thinking. The answer is no.”
He cut her off sharply, “I said no. No child of mine will be circumcised. It’s against the law. I will not hear another word on this matter.”
Michal bit her lip and remained silent, though she knew that she would have to go against her husband’s command. No child of hers would remain uncircumcised. She was a proud Jewish woman and nothing would stop her. She regretted having to resort to an alternate plan, one she had created when her grandmother had visited her the day before.
The baby’s wail disturbed the quiet and Michal wearily stood up and lifted him out of his crib. She sat down heavily on the sofa and cradled him in her arms. Immediately his cries ceased. Slowly her eyes began to close as sleep overtook her.
Michal awoke with a start. She lay the baby aside and peered out the window. It was very dark; just before dawn. Her pulse quickened. It was time to execute her plan. She seized the child and noiselessly slipped out of her house, baby clutched tightly to her chest. Please, please don’t cry now, she begged silently of her child. Her heart pounded and she rounded the corner and hurried down the desolate streets. The sun was soon to rise and it was imperative that no one see her.
“Please G-d,” she prayed, “Please help me. Keep me and my child safe.”
As she rounded another corner, her heart stopped. At the end of the street she saw an alter with smoke rising lazily from it. No, she wasn’t going to sacrifice a pig on their pagan alter. Truthfully though, did she really have a choice? She was the wife of Yakum the Hellenist and King Antiochus’s governor! Everyone believed that she was the pampered wife of Yakum and a staunch Hellenist. No one would believe her if she were to tell them that she was a prisoner in her own opulent home, that she was a practicing proud, albeit hidden, Jewess.
Michal’s steps slowed with indecision. What should she do? Sacrifice a pig as she was expected to? Or stand up to her hidden faith and lose her life and her child’s?
As she neared the alter, her heart began to hammer in relief. The Greek soldiers manning the alter were deeply asleep. She quickened her pace once more, stepping around the soldiers, murmuring a quiet prayer of gratitude.
As she neared the outskirts of the city the baby began to weep.
“No sweetheart,” she moaned, “You mustn’t cry now. We’re almost there.”
Day was beginning to dawn and the first early risers were emerging. Michal took a deep breath, trying to calm the thumping of her heart. If she were caught… the outcome was too gruesome to contemplate. She lifted her eyes heavenward,
“G-d, I’m doing this for you and only you. I don’t even know what I’m going to say to my husband when I return home. I have nothing to answer to him. I can just imagine his reaction when we wakes up and sees both of us gone. He might even hand me over to his Greek friends. I’m begging you dear G-d, please, please watch over me and my child. Keep us from harm.”
She frantically rocked her child, willing him to be quiet. Yet his cries intensified. The streets were beginning to become more populated and people were now staring at her hysterical baby. Michal pulled her kerchief lower over her head, praying that she not be recognized. The palpitations of her heart increased. She wasn’t going to make it… someone was going to report her and then it would all be over…
And then the city gave way to narrow pathways and rolling hills. Michal glanced over her shoulder and ascertained that she was not being followed. She sighed in relief yet continued her hurried pace.
It wasn’t long before she came to a large boulder. She knew that just beyond was a small cave and he was waiting there for her but how would she get it open? She shifted the baby over and tried moving the boulder aside but it was too heavy for her weakened body. She leaned against it, panting.
Then suddenly, she heard footsteps. She froze. So this was the end… Her thoughts ran in a disjointed manner. After all her precautions she was still going to get caught… someone had followed her all the way to the outskirts of the city… they were going to kill her and her baby…maybe her husband had found out…it was easier for him this way to get rid of his cumbersome Jewish wife… tears filled her eyes as she began to whisper the Shema.
“Michal, is everything okay?”
She lifted her head proudly. She was ready to die sanctifying G-d’s name. “Yes,” she said defiantly.
“Michal, are you sure? Do you know where you are?”
Michal blinked and looked up at the man in front of her. It wasn’t a Greek soldier. The tall lean figure, the long white beard, it was all so familiar. She gasped, “Oh Grandfather, I thought… I was so scared… I didn’t realize it was you!”
He chuckled. “That much I was able to tell. Now I assume you would have some trouble with this rock.”
“Yes,” she said stepping aside.
Without too much effort he moved aside the boulder and ducked into the small cave. She stooped down and followed him inside.
He looked at her gravely.”Now, you’re sure you want to do this?”
“Are you certain? It’s extremely dangerous.”
“Are you absolutely positive you want to do this?”
“Yes!” she cried desperately, “My son is Jewish and today he is eight days old. He must have a Bris!”
“Do you understand what were to happen if you were caught, heaven forbid? Do you know that if the Greeks find a child that is circumcised, they throw the mother and the child down from the top of the city walls? ”
“Yes, I fully understand the ramifications.” Tears glistened in her green eyes. “You said you would do this for me, why are you asking me so many questions? Please, go ahead. I want my son to be entered in the covenant of Avraham, I want him to be a real Jew.”
“If you say so.” He gave her a hard look one which she returned.
He saw her determination and nodded once. He produced a sharp knife and ran his fingernail against the blade and nodded once more.
“Hand me the child, please,” he said in a surprisingly gently voice.
Wordlessly, trembling, Michal handed her baby over. He lay the baby down on the rough floor of the cave and kneeled over beside him, ready to begin the ritual. Michal watched; her hands clasped tightly together, tears streaming down her face.
With a swift motion the circumcision was done. The cries of the baby filled the small space, echoing off the walls.
“And his name will be called in Israel…” he paused and looked up at her.
“Yochanan,” she whispered in a choked voice.
He bandaged him up and handed him back to his trembling mother. She rocked him gently and slowly his sobs began to subside
“Thank you,” she whispered her eyes upon her child.
“Quickly return to the city. It is still early. Remember to try to be casual, as if you’re taking your baby for a walk. Don’t do anything suspicious. May G-d watch over you.”
She looked up into his wise old face. “Thank you Grandfather.”
“Be well, may G-d be with you…”
…With a loud crackle the first candle waved goodbye. I sat, palm stuck to my cheek, watching as the other candles sputtered and died away.
Yet they remained blazing inside my heart and soul.
I felt invigorated by her Emunah and Mesirut Nefesh.
This wasn’t a story of long ago. This is a story that I was going to continue…