Write On!

Prepare the Way

In Responses on December 22, 2011 at 3:30 pm

by Tara Wiley

I walk past the fortress surrounding Rachel’s Tomb towards the end of my work route every night. I remember what it was like when I was a little girl: a beautiful, smooth dome surrounded by aged stone bricks, almost austere in its profound simplicity honoring the beloved wife of Israel. I would gaze on this monument of my namesake and wonder in the wide-eyed, egocentric imaginings of a child: Would someone someday think of me and whisper to her daughter, May you be like Rachel ben Gedi? And what words would follow – well-loved, admired for her faith, for her amazing abilities… for what? As a little girl, anything seemed possible.

Now I am 29. The dome is almost invisible to me as I walk by the huge concrete fortress and watchtower that surround the landmark. Guards with machine guns stand watch; video cameras capture every image, every  movement of every soul, looking for danger. No longer does this place hold wonder; now it holds suspicion. Kind of like me. I used to wonder, dream, idealize my life and future. I have lived a lifetime in the last decade, enough to lose the dream. In its place: a hardened fortress, laced with suspicion.

Elohim, Adonai, what I wouldn’t give to believe again, my heart whispers, the first prayer I have uttered in years, and the words form themselves without my approval, and then my feet move towards the monument, and I don’t know what has come over me, but I am buying a roite bindele from the very vendors I usually mock. I pay with money earned by thrusting my weather-worn hands into the thankless job of mucking stalls in the many small barns littering the countryside, but I imagine the coins transformed into something more pure in this woolen red thread I now hold.

I ignore the turned away faces, the pious ones holding their noses and shuddering as I carry my work’s stench with me. A few even cross to the other side of Hebron Road. The shunning used to hurt, but I have convinced myself that solitude suits me.

Your walls are ever before me, the words of Isaiah whisper to my soul.

I long to enter through the Turkish stone gates into the place where women, at the appointed hour, can sit and pray in front of Rachel’s velvet-covered tomb. I want to wrap my scarlet thread around the monument, mine joining others who long to connect with the faith and sacrificial spirit of Rachel, to commit themselves anew to G-d. But I have to get to work. And besides, who am I to ask anything of El Shaddai? It is too late. I have wandered too far. And, let us not forget, I stink.

I wad up the scarlet thread and shove it into my pocket. Head tucked down, a flush of embarrassment spreading warmth up my neck, I rush towards the inn at the edge of town. The owner will be expecting me to take extra care to minimize the stench from his barn. His rooms are packed with the Bethlehem natives returning for the census. Whoever heard of demanding a census in person, in this day and age of dependable mail and Internet available to anyone who could make it to a corner cafe? But no one can fake their own identity in person. At least, not the common person.

The sun is beginning to set. I must hurry.
How long will you go here and there,
O faithless daughter?
For the LORD has created a new thing in the earth—
A woman will encompass a man.

I hear my papa’s voice reading the words of Jeremiah. They made no sense to me then. They still don’t. And the accusation stings, because it hits far too close to my own wandering heart. Why do I hear them now?

I shake my head as I near the inn, trying to shake away these strange, wandering thoughts, these disturbing prophecies. What I cannot seem to shake is a sense of anticipation, an urgency that quickens my pace yet again. Why am I suddenly drawn to this barn? It is no different than it was yesterday, I’m sure. And I hold no special affection for these animals, not like I do for the donkey at Joseph’s place, the one I’ve named Jacob. Nor like the new lamb at Amos’, the one who climbs into my lap with happy bleats that warm me through and through. In fact, the animals in this barn are stinky, noisy, and messier than most. This is no high-end business; the inn owner simply lets his cousin rent out the barn to hold the goats his wife keeps for milk and cheese, and the donkey they use sometimes to transport small loads when they travel on foot to relatives.

Then I gave an order and they cleansed the rooms; and I returned there the utensils of the house of God with the grain offerings and the frankincense.

Nehemiah? Another random Scripture at the forefront of my mind, drawn again from the childhood memories of my father’s nightly readings. He loved Nehemiah. As I approach the barn, pausing to fill a large bucket with water at the pump behind the inn, for one sacred moment, I remember crawling into his lap. For the first time in forever, I allow myself to remember the warmth I found pressed against his chest, listening to his voice rumbling there with G-d’s words.

I miss you, Papa. Adonai, I miss you too.

Shocked by the tears that suddenly flow, I forcefully return to work. Cleanse the rooms. And I find myself showing more care than ever before, scrubbing the wooden planks of the walkway between stalls, being sure to remove as much of the filthy straw as I can, replacing it with sweet, fresh bales from the loft, separated with the winnowing fork. And somehow, the hay becomes my grain offering, the barn my temple.

I approach the last, empty stall as dark begins to descend outside. Used for storage of supplies, this room is always a mess. Tonight, with a renewed energy I cannot explain, I decide even this room should be cleansed. So I scrub and sort and – I cannot say why, truly I cannot – I even add a bale of hay in the corner, setting the winnowing fork against it. There is a spare feeding trough here too, and it stinks from the old food that has rotted against its wood-and-metal frame. I take it out to the pump and scrub with all my might.

What has come over me? As I scrub, I pray. I try to remember the prayers of my childhood, but instead find myself just pouring out my heart, my longings, my need. I have never prayed to Adonai like this before.

As I replace the trough and turn off the bare bulb, I am stunned to find the stall still illuminated. Looking up, I see that a star brighter than any I have ever seen – a comet? No, it is still – shining through a skylight, seemingly directed to this very stall.

But for you who fear My name, the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in his wings. And you will go free, leaping with joy like calves let out to pasture.

Malachi? Really? And this is no sun – it is a star, though it seems to shine with a sun’s brilliance. Must be that water I drank from the pump turned into wine and I am under the influence. Regardless, something in this verse stirs in me a confession. Yes, Lord, I need Your healing. I long to be free. I am filthy, filthier than this barn was. Forgive my wandering. How long will You wait before rescuing Your people, rescuing me? I long for the Messiah my father prayed for every night.

I finger the scarlet thread still wadded in my pocket, and remember a cleansing ritual from Leviticus that involved a scarlet thread. It was used to dedicate a home that had been ritually cleansed. I lace the thread through my fingers. I had intended to take it to Rachel’s tomb tomorrow, to wrap it around the velvet covering the stone. Now I find myself wrapping it around that feeding trough, somehow a physical way of demonstrating my own longing to be purified, cleansed, made right.

The tears are spilling freely now, and I can barely see as I stumble out of the barn and make my way home in the other-worldly milky light of the bright night sky. I nearly collide with a couple in the street making their way to the inn, the woman obviously nearing the end of a pregnancy.

In less than a week, I will return to this place again. In that moment, I will discover why my heart had prompted me to such a thorough cleaning. And years later, I will remember with wonder and humility, that G-d prepared His barn-temple and my heart that night, the places that would hold the very Messiah I longed for.

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  1. WOW, that was beautiful!

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