Author’s Note: One of the oldest anthologies of world literature, the Hebrew Bible reflects the human search for meaning in an uncertain world. Themes such as the struggle to understand our mortality, our social responsibilities towards each other, and how we cope with trauma, infuse these mythic narratives.
Many readers are familiar with the character of Aaron, the brother of Moses. Few are acquainted with the story of his wife, Elisheva, who is only mentioned once in the Hebrew Bible. The story below is a modern example of a literary genre known as midrash, an imaginative elaboration of the original scriptural text. This midrash deals with an episode in the life of Aaron’s family when he assumes a new position of leadership on behalf of the people as the High Priest. The story takes place in the desert, after the people have fled from Egypt, received the Torah, and constructed the portable sanctuary. It is written from Elisheva’s point of view.
Stepping inside the courtyard of the holy place, the curtain flap open in the wind affording a brief glimpse of bronze and golden objects twinkling inside the tent, little lights flickering in the gloom. The brush scrapes the ground as I sweep up the accumulated ashes into a heap and stoke the dying embers, their carnelian glow once more flaring into life.
This coming back, this returning to the refuge of my skin, my hair, my lungs, my heart, my limbs, and my joints. Sensations arise in the space within the sanctuary’s bounds, my breath comes and goes, my body settles in as a part of the sanctuary’s covers, beams, poles and sockets—all part of this sacred, intricate design. During our spinning and sewing and forging and hammering, I had got up to tiptoe around, gazing in wonder at the fine linens of the tapestries and special garments, the smooth contours of the tent structure with its furniture inside and the radiant golds, blues, purples, reds of these creations which seemed to be springing from some other place.
My husband has been chosen to stand at the entrance where life meets death. After all our upheavals: the plagues and portents, the running in terror with just the clothes on our backs, across the sea, desert, mountain, the crossing, surviving, climbing. I suddenly aged, deep lines dug ditches around my mouth and eyes, my hair thin wisps of silver down my back. Heat blazing, heartbeat sprinting, joints creaking and then a blanket of fatigue overtook my bones. I ran out of patience. All these years I have channeled my energy into looking after our children, providing nourishment. And I helped with the birthing of hundreds of babies, looking after the other women of the camp, and reaching for them in turn for support.
Despite everything, Egypt beckons to me in my dreams. The ravaging furnace burning down on us, the shuffling dust of the alleyways and the wooden table where we ate and sang together in secret. They still travel with me. I hear the echoing voices of my parents, the jovial chuckle of my father at some tiny delight, a child showing a magic trick.
In this new desert land of our becoming, our grandchildren are starting to forget the language of our oppressors. Soon the camp and our own ancient language will be all they remember.
Yet in the freedom of the camp, I have become heavy with sadness. Two of our four grown sons have grown distant. Recently Nadav and Avihu began to remove themselves from the camp, offering sacrifices many times a day. They spend hours discussing minutiae of legal precepts with each other. They no longer sit with me, and they don’t want lovers or families of their own. They would rather be shut away discussing the vessels of the sanctuary. I feel a creeping dread as something stirs within my entrails. I wake often in the early hours.
Where is Aaron, my husband?
There was a terrible incident. He fashioned a golden calf when Moses was gone too long on the mountain. Afterwards our people carried out a mass slaughter. The loss of life, the blood, the agony was unbearable.
We rarely speak of it but when we do, Aaron looks away.
“Why did you do it?”
“I was scared.”
“The people’s distress and fear.”
“Why were they distressed and afraid?”
“The terrifying silence, the emptiness, the feeling of abandonment. Moses was gone so long, and they needed reminding of the essence of things, the candle within. They needed comforting.”
“So, you tried to comfort them?”
“Yes. I thought the golden calf would lift their spirits, create some holiness. I hoped it would remind the men to be like your nephew, Betzalel, our great architect, who channels divine inspiration into his art. The men would also remember they are made in the image of the divine and would return to the work of our holy community, dedicating themselves to the Great Mystery. So, I tried to fill them up with confidence and good feelings, the food and song of celebration. But it turned out wrong. The filling up was a mistake. I tried to do the work of creation for them. This gift, something separate and apart, was a solid object of cold, dead metal which had no room for holiness inside it. Now thousands of people are dead and it’s all my fault.”
Outrage. We couldn’t hear anything in the cacophony of crying. Deafness descended and panic set in once again, reminding us of Egypt.
Aaron told me he will always love me but now the air where once there was a singing robin is void of our voices. We have created a masterpiece of muteness, Aaron and I, a duet of noise and silence.
Aaron has to atone and then perhaps we can start anew. He and all our sons have to repent, to stay in the confines of the sanctuary for seven days in quiet solitude. Seven days of returning. Returning to the space within. They are encouraged to dwell inside and tend to the sanctuary with intention renewed, planting seeds for our future.
And after they left for the sanctuary, the rest of the camp has been full of busy activity, people rushing about getting things ready for the consecration of the priests. A jumble of jars of flour and oil and the bellowing of bulls, shrieks of lambs, jostling in pens outside the precinct.
Aaron left and I was alone. Silence entered our tent. I regretted not going to stay with one of our daughters-in-law and the grandchildren. I watched the migrating birds flying away, the pepper specks disappearing until the vault was empty.
They’ve been gone seven days already. Last night the sun chose its room and prepared to retreat into bed for the night. Dusk settled and I was open to all of evening, sleep overcoming my eyes, indigo.
Then suddenly in fright, it came to the fore. Tranquility no longer, no more. The darkness descending, the plummeting chain. I awoke there on the floor mat of my tent, heart pounding.
I had dreamed of grabbing and grasping, many people around me desperate, needing to be filled, imbibing until drunk and vomiting. And the earth, enraged, had swallowed us up and spat us out. And all the while the messengers, the angels danced at the gates of the garden, hot and sweating, with their swiveling swords.
We had fled, down valleys and across streams, where beasts live beyond park and pale, amongst the craggy rocks, lurking treacherously behind desert brush. There in a cave were souls curled up on the ground, slumbering, awaiting their turn like scorched seeds waiting for the rains to come.
And as the dream continued, only half alive, my veins constricting and my breath rattling in half a lung, I heard something. A small voice in the night crying for my attention, a new mother in labour. So I fled faraway to the other side, beyond where the horizon meets the edges of the earth to the outskirts of where women’s memory resides.
While my sisters and daughters talked of rupture and absence, our bodies were joined to our mothers’ bodies and those of our grandmothers. And the stories we told, our tears somehow became forgotten in the pain of childbirth. They rise up sometimes in other dreams, struggling to be heard and seen above the comings and goings, the babies’ cries and the pots and pans. They drop back down underneath the embroidered covers, burrowing.
Now so suddenly and brutally awake, shaking off the sticky cobwebs of dreams, I get up and go outside to a wide-open night sky and a bony moon. The walk is lonely, past thorny bushes black at this time of night, then the sandy earth beneath bare feet. Coming down an undulating slope, there is the glow from the sanctuary.
Someone is looking out, returning my gaze, a movement and a glimmer. Between the flaps of the awnings a presence lingers, peering from her bedroom out into the night. Her eyes open wider, and I see the two onyx stones. And a wind blows through the courtyard of the sanctuary, the curtains momentarily sway, and I see a swell within her, she is with child. New life within her shifts its tiny limbs. There is another ripple of wind, and the linen fabric of the enclosure settles once more under the restful dreaming moon.
The sky is going grey. Aaron and our sons bide their time in the sanctuary precinct, reminding me of my monthly time in the women’s tent. Outside the camp for seven days, bleeding out the beasts of sacrifice, they too are humbled. Seven days finished, echoing the seven of fullness, like the promise of a pregnant belly.
So as not to wake anyone, I tiptoe around the courtyard, peeking behind the drapes. There they are, all tucked up in their blankets, my husband, my grown boys. Calm, harmonious rhythms of breathing in, breathing out. Such love for that smooth, bald head, those lines around his crinkled eyes, all those whispering sighs. Here is the abundance of roots deepening down and branches reaching up, sap rising from my tending and protecting.
Turning and looking around, here again is the wondrous architecture of the sanctuary and I wonder about the placement of furniture in this impermanent home.
So too I wonder about the hidden secret place, and I start to wander, to look for it. Ever so quietly, smelling the sweet frankincense and myrrh, I run my hands over the smooth gold of the candelabra.
Then I see it. The inner curtain. I peek round it and see gazing winged angels, their eyes beholding each other with tenderness and passion.
Suddenly I am transported back to Egypt. I am in my mother’s clay brick house, but she is not there. I touch her robes hanging up to dry, and, parting them, I find something behind that I have never seen before. A golden door is set in the wall. I open it and an underground tunnel leads me all the way along its twists and turns to a cave with a warm, round, bubbling brook at its centre.
I blink, and once again find myself in the sanctuary, touching the inner curtain. The first threads of sunlight appear on the rosy strips of tapestry and light up the acacia and bronze. I hurry out, quietly, quietly, back to the courtyard and look up at the full array of colors filling the firmament.
I need to get home to the camp, to prepare celebratory cakes and return later for the festive occasion. Soon we will be a family of priests, chosen to serve in the sanctuary and there will be rejoicing and feasting.
Slipping towards the camp now, long nightdress damp and dirtied underfoot, needing a wash. Plans formulate, the mind steadies for lists and busy-ness once more. The daughters-in-law will arrive soon with the children. Cleaning, clearing, chopping, baking, feeding, holding, caring.
Before I reach the top of the hill, he calls my name: “Elisheva!”
My name, yes, my name! Elisheva. It means my God’s oath, or my God is seven.
I look back towards the sanctuary.
Aaron is by the entrance, smiling: “Seven days are complete, my love, my bride. I’m about to take my oath of service and we will be reunited again.”
Here he is at the entrance to the sanctuary, waiting for the Divine Indwelling to call to us, to meet us.
And a still, small Voice can now be heard, barely audible above the desert wind.
“How will I see you?”
“We’ve been searching foreign lands our whole lives for signs and wonders.”
And the Voice asks: “How will I hear you?”
“We couldn’t hear each other. We couldn’t hear above the cries of our people enslaved next to the mighty river. We had been deaf, under water.”
And the Voice asks: “How will I touch you?”
“Our skin was like the scales of a fish, floating dead in the Nile.”
And then the Voice tells us: “I’m waiting for you to be more intimate with Me. Return and listen, feel my pulse, sing prayers in my holy space, pour out your heart, wait for me.”
As the blue brightens and the air is turning, lifting me into the morning, I see the bull. Once a calf, now transformed and grown, destined for sanctification on the altar, a transformation into smoke and suet. They will pour out its blood. What a sacrifice, this perfect life to be taken, this valuable possession, so that we may live.
And I turn away from the pungent smell of burning animal brought on the wind. Aaron’s shame disappearing in smoke. The bull diminishing, my heart heavy for the breaking of life but now remembering our wedding; how I had looked at the smashed glass and became conscious of our flaws, the messes we make. Each created thing has its place and time.
Now the bull’s life-force is being released, the germinating seed is cracking open, roots traveling inwards and burying down, down, down and sprouts stretching upwards. My grandchildren come and they cling to me and together we see Aaron re-emerging.
The preparations are finished, the washing, the anointing and here he is, here he is, here is Aaron coming out in his glorious vestments. The excited whispers of the crowd grow as we look on.
A butterfly emerges from its chrysalis.
And I am a part of it, too, I am there, a part of two, the other ear, thumb and toe anointed in oil.
And I am a part of my sons, too. They emerged from my womb.
My heart listens for the footsteps, the life of the fire dances within and without, awaiting; the back of my neck, the insides of my wrists, my thighs, my palms, my nose, my lips anticipate your taste.
We sing together inside our sanctuary.
Inside you will see and hear and touch, in here, we’ll find part and parcel of Us, you and me, and me and you and this vanishing view.
The scarlets, blues, purples of this garden, these embroidered robes, the golden sunlight engraved on the head-dress, the gemstones, the flowers glittering and glorious and dazzling. The bells and the pomegranates and the vegetation quiver and breathe their aliveness.
You emerge and, my love, I emerge, and the butterfly, my love and I can feel it in our bodies and we can fly.
And the garden sanctuary beckons, its warm earth, delicate rains, vast expanse of air, sun, almond blossoms, and the nothingness and the everything within.
Text ©2022 Deborah Wilfond
All rights reserved
…grew up in London and earned a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Edinburgh University in Scotland. After completing legal training at the University of Law, she worked in family law in London for a few years. During this time, Deborah went to Jerusalem on a ten-day trip where she met and fell in love with her husband, who happens to be a Rabbi. They got married and Deborah moved to Jerusalem. There she worked as a yoga and mindfulness teacher while mothering their three rambunctious children. Since 2020, Deborah has been living in New York. She is currently teaching mindfulness and pursuing graduate Jewish Studies with Spertus Institute.