Rachel Eberlein had just languidly stirred honey into her sage tea when she spotted Rabbi Hayyim soaring down from a feathery cloud that hung over Safed and Mt. Meron. It was the only mark in an otherwise clear blue sky. While he was still far too distant for her to make out his face, she knew it was Rabbi Hayyim Vital, her tenant these last two years. Just as people have distinctive walks that make it possible to identify them from far away, so they have their own special ways of flying. Rabbi Hayyim’s path was a series of bumps; he descended a bit, his kaftan billowing and offering a glimpse of his thighs, the then lurched up, then plunged, then lurched up again, all while standing erect with his arms stiff at his sides. It was as if he did not know whether he really wanted to reach earth.
It was a week before Lag B’Omer, and the sun’s rays were still a caress rather than a hammer blow, as in the summer. The magnitude of the day—somehow that phrase from Yom Kippur came to mind, the magnitude of the day—required a woman to sit on her second floor balcony and sip tea (sage tea because her stomach had hurt this morning, even though her time of month had passed a couple days ago). God had decreed it, as evidenced by the fact that her neighbor across the courtyard, Hannah, was also sipping tea on her balcony, surveying the verdant hills that ringed the holy city. She glanced at Rachel and followed her gaze to the sky, and, Hannah was pretty sure, raised her eyebrows.
Rachel frowned. Hannah always had to stick a thorn in her side. Rabbi Hayyim was just a tenant, no more, a way for a poor widow to put bread and cheese and olives on her table. Hannah was the one who should be ashamed of herself. She was remarried now, and should not so closely observe her former husband. She did not appreciate Rabbi Hayyim’s knowledge of the deepest secrets of the Torah that had descended from heaven to the Galilean mystics in recent times, as if God were compensating his people for their exile from Spain. Rachel spoke with him sometimes about the great mission that the Holy One, Blessed be He, had charged his people with, to raise up the divine sparks captured by the shells of evil. At times he spoke quickly, with a fiery intensity; at other times he would say a single word and fall silent and take to his bed for hours. In any case, if the stories were true, Hannah’s leers were out of place. It must have been her fault, she must not have known how to care for a man. Rabbi Hayyim was small and did not eat, and while his face was handsome enough, it had several pock-marks that were clearly visible under his spotty beard. Also, he had no income. In fact, he hadn’t paid his rent for two months, a fact that Rachel reminded him of just as he lunged down from treetop height and crashed loudly beside her, falling on his bottom and crying out in pain.
She helped him up to his feet, brushed off his kaftan, and settled him into the chair next to her. He sighed and she poured him some sage tea.
Rabbi Hayyim sipped, grimaced, blew on the tea, ran his free hand through his hair and then over his beard, and then placed it between his legs. After a moment, Rachel realized that her eyes were on his hand and not on his face, and she shook herself and told him (as she always did) that it was indecent. Rabbi Hayyim quickly jerked his hand away but did not seem to know where to put it, so it remained hanging in the air for a few moments between them until it dropped loudly onto the table, echoing his own landing of just a minute before. He took a gulp of tea and apologized for not having brought rent money back with him.
“I chose in the end not to enter the treasure room.” He looked up at the sun and squinted.
She waited, but he did not speak. He glanced at her quickly and then away. With what seemed like immense effort, he started to get up, then seemed to lose all strength and collapse in his chair.
“After prayers this morning,” he said, “I had no strength. I had worked so hard, but I had not felt the divine presence. I had accomplished nothing. I was …” He took a deep breath and looked over at Hannah, who saw and looked away. “I was unable to study, so I walked down the hill, through the cemetery, and up the mountain. And at the top of the mountain was a ladder, and I looked up and a great woman stood at its top, as beautiful as the sun and I thought it was …” His voice trailed off and he peered at Rachel for a long moment. She started, realizing that her eyes had been closed. “I thought it was my mother and she said, ‘Why are you weeping, Hayyim,’ and she held out her hand and raised me to the top. I stood at a gate and before the gate hung an ever-turning sword, and I was fearful because I knew it was the gate to Paradise. I tried to flee, but she led me through the gate and the fire burned but did not consume me.” He looked at Rachel again. “Do you understand? Have you been there?”
She was confused. “Where?”
“In the fragrant garden, with its four rivers and groves of shade trees and, yes, trees bearing fruit. Birds of all colors and sizes are in the trees, and white geese waddle through the grass, reciting entire chapters of the Mishnah and eating of the fruit of the trees.” He hesitated. “Do you remember?”
Rachel did not know what to say. “But your mother …”
Hayyim glanced at Hannah, who was now dozing, her head on her shoulder. He leaned over until his mouth was close to Rachel’s ear. “I must tell you a secret. When I married Hannah, evil people here in Safed cast a spell on me and I … I was very unhappy and could not make her happy. This is why we parted.”
Rachel leaned away from him and said sharply: “Your hand!” It had wandered back to the fold in his kaftan between his legs.
Rabbi Hayyim crumpled in his chair, ashamed. But he went on speaking as if nothing had happened, except that his eyes were closed, as if he were seeing the vision he was telling. “The woman took me to the throne of God in the center of the garden and placed me at the right hand of the Holy One, who bade me teach Torah to the saints and sages who sat in rows and rows around Him. And when I had finished my lesson He commanded that she take me to a treasure room, one never opened since He created the world.”
He lifted up his right hand, his eyes still closed. His left hand trembled in his lap. “She said: ‘Open the room with this key, for no man may open it but you.’ And I approached the door and was about to insert the key into the lock when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and saw a great sage who has been dead for many years; he stood between me and … the great woman, and he said …”
Rabbi Hayyim began to weep. The pitch was high, he raised his head and opened his eyes and cried to heaven, and then placed his head on the table and wept and wept. Rachel hesitated and then reached out to touch his head, to comfort him. Rabbi Hayyim suddenly sat up erect and Rachel, startled and frightened, jumped to her feet.
“He said, I counsel you not to open the door, because if you enter the treasure room you will possess the treasure, but you will never return to Safed.”
“What was this treasure?” Rachel cried out. She looked about the courtyard, for help, but who could be there? All the men were at their places of business or in their houses of study, and the women were busy with their chores. Except Hannah, who had also risen, and was watching. She shivered, as if the sun had grown cold. “What did you do?”
Now the strange man was smiling, but she could not fathom his smile. “Dearest Rachel,” he said. He spoke with the same ecstasy she heard when he tried to explain the secrets of the Torah, those taught to him by the cloth merchant he called the Lion. He held out his hands to her. “Dearest Rachel, I took his advice and I returned.”
After a long pause, she reached out and took his hands and he used them to lift himself up. He stood very close to her; she could feel his breath on her neck. Then, suddenly, he pushed her away and cried out. She followed his gaze and saw Hannah. The wife who had not known Rabbi Hayyim stood facing them, her arms raised, and intoning what Rachel knew was a curse. No matter that she was married to a man of means who had given her a child; she still lived the shame and frustration she had known before, and she sought revenge.
Rabbi Hayyim soon left for other lodgings, and never flew down to her balcony again. Bad times soon came; the Lion died and trade slowed and the merchants left, family by family, to seek better fortune elsewhere. Rabbi Hayyim also disappeared. There were no longer lodgers and Rachel lost what meager livelihood she had skimped by with. Using the last remaining savings her late husband had left her, she traveled to Damascus at the invitation of an elderly aunt, who gave her a tiny attic room with a small window through which the sun shone briefly, for a moment, each morning. Many years after that, when she was gathering up leavings at the marketplace as evening fell, two days before Yom Kippur, she found herself face-to-face with an old man whose kaftan hung loosely on an emaciated body. He was coughing badly and Rachel offered him some water. She observed the pock-marks visible behind his wispy beard and realized that he was Rabbi Hayyim. They stood there in silence for some time. He said he was readying himself to return to Safed. She told him this story. They occasionally saw each other in the months that followed, on the street, or in the market, but they never spoke again. Two weeks after Pesach she heard that he had died. Her aunt told her that among his papers had been a dream journal and that one of the dreams was reported in her name. Rachel never read the book, and thus did not know whether he had written it as he told it to her, and as she told it to him, as it had happened or perhaps had not.
Necessary Stories, a collection of twenty-four of the best of Haim Watzman’s short fiction, is now available as an e-book in print on Amazon. Available on other platforms as well. More information on South Jerusalem
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