The air was thick like sticky molasses, almost too thick to breathe, and it felt like it was pushing back against my leaden limbs as they swished slowly in my solemn walk to the table. I finished placing the cups and bread at the table. My arms and legs were like stone and my blood flowed slow, like molten lava. I needed to leave the room. It was suffocating me.
I watched as the rest began to file into the upstairs room. They’d borrowed this room from my father to have a meal together. Twelve of them, and the Rabbi, gathered together in this small, heavy space. They’d all come together to share this small seder – a “ritual of the faith,” they’d called it.
The idea was to remember a time in their history of deliverance. A time of joy and mercy following a night when death had walked the earth unmitigated, stealing souls of children not marked with lamb’s blood. That night had secured the freedom of their people from slavery, so they partook of the same ritual meal every year to show honor and thanks to the God that had saved them, and their children, from death and oppression. Hope should have saturated the atmosphere of the room, I thought, considering the meaning of the meal, but Hope hadn’t shown up yet.
As I stood outside the door, watching them each take their place at the table, I thought back to less than 24 hours before.
Just yesterday there’d been joyous Hebraic shouts of Hoshana, bright sunlight showered the earth with promise from blue skies, and people had gathered, convinced that their long-prophesied “anointed one” had come into their midst. Colors had been bright and hearts had been giddy, especially since the arrival of the mashiach had come just in time for the seder that honored their people’s deliverance so many years ago. But, tonight a darkness seemed to veil everything. Joy was drowned out by a silent dirge on the air.
I knew they felt the lamentation in the atmosphere as they filed in to the borrowed room prepared for the seder meal. They each sat in silence, as if their hearts were leaden, and their shoulders too weak to bear the weight of the air around them. The Rabbi stood, tying a towel around his belt and picking up a bowl of water. He lowered himself to his knees, and slowly, methodically, began the tradition of foot washing with each of the twelve men gathered at the table.
Some began to question, and one protested. Foot washing was to be conducted by a servant, or the owner of the home, not the honored guest, and certainly not by a rabbi. I’d offered before preparing the room to perform the task, but the Rabbi had refused. I continued to watch from behind the door’s opening as he continued gently cleaning their dirty and weary feet, telling them only that they would understand why later. They submitted. They were used to his strange ways, it seemed. Silently they sat, but even as he washed, they were visibly burdened – heavy with some sort of unknown darkness that seemed to live among them.
Feet washed by their master, they sat now in silence to eat. The deafening roar of the quiet was finally broken by the Rabbi’s soft voice.
“One of you here is a traitor.”
Nervous glances and questioning murmurs were traded. He didn’t seem to notice, instead breaking the bread into small pieces. He dipped one piece and handed it to the bookkeeper. As he passed the unleavened bread, a symbol of humility and the removal of pride from the souls that partake, he began to teach – something I’d been told he often did. “Take this matzoh, and eat it. All of you. It is my body, that will be broken soon.”
Heavy breaths were taken as they ate. Was this another one of his allegorical parables?
The oppression in the room was almost visible now. Like a slow, dark smoke, it swirled around them, making their lungs heavy and their blood, as it raced through their veins, loud in their ears.
The terrified bookkeeper ran out of the room.
The Rabbi poured the wine, a symbol of promised deliverance. “Drink this wine. It is my blood, that will be shed for you.”
As they drank and waited for the parable they knew must be coming, the Rabbi quietly told them, “I’m leaving. This will be my last seder with you. Where I am going, you cannot follow. I will only be with you a little longer. Do not forget me, live how I have taught you. People will know you are my friends by the way you continue to love one another.”
One of the twelve, tall, muscular and ruddy, looked at the Rabbi with tears in his eyes. “I don’t understand. Why can we not go with you? I won’t let you go alone. I will go with you, no matter the cost.”
The Rabbi’s gaze softened and he looked at the Ruddy One with a gaze of deep affection. “The devil has been after you from the beginning, Simon,” he said. “But I myself have prayed for you. I have begged God to hold you in his hand, that you wouldn’t falter and that your faith and loyalty would be strong. But, you can’t learn to stand up strong, Simon, unless you fall down first. You’ll fall down three times before the sun rises. But when you stand up again, you will be the rock that the others will lean on. This task, I must do alone. Your task – learning to stand – is what you must do.”
Perhaps it was the weighted despair that filled the room, or perhaps it was because the words of his teacher stung and cut deep. The tears rolled down Ruddy Simon’s cheeks. He sighed as he wiped his silent tears with the back of his hand.
I stepped away from the door. I knew that what I had seen in this small seder gathering was something more than just a religious observance among a spiritual teacher and his loyal adherents. Tonight was going to be the start of something life changing, and to observe any more would mean I was treading on something sacred and holy. Something not meant for my eyes.
As I turned to walk back downstairs, I heard from the upper room, one wavering voice, slowly beginning to sing a solemn hymn. As his voice faltered with bitter emotion, the others joined in, and the reverent song of praise began to sound more and more like a requiem.
I grew heavy again with grief from an unknown source, and unable to stand, I sat silently at the bottom of the stairs as I listened to the voices above me ring with lamentation and reverence, dancing heavenward. As the anthem of worship and grief carried the voices of the men in the room, I knew that the bookkeeper wasn’t going to return. I knew that the Rabbi, after this meal, would never return either – not like this anyway.
As I sat in burdened silence, I found the tears silently began to spill from my eyes.
Tonight wasn’t about broken matzoh and symbolism found in the wine and meal. Tonight was about something bigger. Tonight that humble Rabbi was going to change everything. And maybe, finally, Hope would finally show up for supper.