The Jewish Enclave of En Gedi
In the Year 128 CE
A two-day walk from the holy city of Jerusalem, on the western shore of the Dead Sea, stood the lush oasis of En Gedi. Fed by a jeweled waterfall, the grass was green as emeralds; the palm and date trees flourished and the vineyards were lush. Amid miles and miles of naked, treeless mountains of rock, where herds of ibex grazed. This was the Judean Desert–unchanged since the time of Joshua.
As the clouds shifted and the sun blazed, Livel and his brother Masabala patrolled the perimeter of the olive groves searching for any sign of approaching Roman soldiers.
At sixteen, Livel was narrow in the hips and shoulders. A newly sprouting beard sat upon an angular face, his chin a little too sharp, his brow a bit too wide. He had large, expressive coal-colored eyes and an imposing nose that curved at the end. His appearance teetered on the edge of homeliness–until he smiled, an act that transformed his face.
In contrast, fifteen-year-old Masabala was handsome, with thick ebony hair, sable eyes, long legs, and a sleek hard body. Even though he was younger by a year, he was already two inches taller than Livel.
Masabala weaved towards Livel with a sharpened stick in his hand, graceful as a panther, slashing the air like a sword. “Take that, you Roman swine!” he hissed, arm extended feigning an attack. He lunged, driving hard and stopping just short, as he gently poked Livel’s chest with the tip of his weapon. Faking a sneer, he hissed, “Had you been the enemy, you would be dead!”
Livel shook his head and laughed. “With a stick?”
“A stick today, tomorrow a mighty sword. Let’s go. There’s a cave I want to explore.” Masabala yanked Livel by the arm.
Livel dug in his heels. “We shouldn’t leave the grove.”
“You afraid?” Masabala jeered.
“Not afraid, just cautious. As you should be.” Livel knew his remarks would go unheeded. Once Masabala had set his mind to something, he was relentless, and it was fruitless to try to dissuade him. Memories flashed of the times Masabala had put them in harm’s way–climbing dangerous cliffs where one misstep would have meant death, hanging precariously from tree limbs as they built a forbidden tree house, their bodies scarred from scratches and falls.
Livel would never admit that he loved the danger, or that he silently rejoiced in his brother’s bravado. He did not have Masabala’s great physical strength, but he did have the courage and aptitude of a warrior, and he often fantasized what it would be like to act as impulsively as Masabala. But impulsivity went against Livel’s nature. He protested for the sake of protesting, telling himself that he was going along to keep Masabala out of trouble. In truth, he wanted to go. “We have to be back before dark.”
Masabala shot his brother a smile. “We will be.” He knew that Livel was more adventurous than he would ever admit, but there were great expectations surrounding his brother, and for that reason alone Masabala was willing to take the blame for all their bloodied knees and bruises.
They ran side by side towards a ridge of low cliffs. Masabala was swift as a gazelle, his stride long and elegant. Livel kept up by sheer determination.
Without warning, Masabala slid in the sand. Livel came to a stop beside him.
“No matter what our parents say, my destiny is to become a great warrior!” Masabala proclaimed, raising a clenched fist in the air. As a Kohen, his family was directly descended from Aaron, the older brother of Moses. Being a part of that lineage came with certain obligations and becoming a soldier was not one of them.
“I’m sure the entire Roman garrison will one day know your name and they will tremble in your presence.” Livel faked a bow and then playfully punched Masabala’s arm.
“And one day all of Judea will know your name as well,” Masabala said, respect tingeing his words. “Father says even now the rabbis in Jerusalem speak of you in whispers.”
As the first-born son of a respected rabbi, Livel’s fate was sealed at birth–he would follow in his father’s footsteps. What set him apart from others was his unique gift. Information stayed in his head, stored in compartments, available verbatim as needed. With perfect recall he could recite all six hundred and thirteen commandments–the ethics, laws and spiritual practices of the Jewish people. He spoke Hebrew, Aramaic, and he had learned to speak Latin and Greek from the traders who frequented En Gedi. By this time next year he would be studying under the tutelage of the great rabbis in Jerusalem.
Masabala ran backwards. “Come on, great scholar, I’ll race you!”
The boys sprinted toward the ridge that led to the cave they were going to explore. When they were halfway between En Gedi and the cave, they heard the thundering of horses’ hooves and the unmistakable clanging of armor. Horrified, the boys froze. Sound carried far in the desert, bouncing off the sheer walls, making it impossible to gauge how far away the soldiers were.
The Romans controlled Judea and were unmerciful adversaries. They would overrun villages at will and there were stories of young boys being beaten and forced to become sex slaves for the men.
Terrified, the brothers ran toward En Gedi. Livel turned for a quick look, trying to spot their enemy. That decision was catastrophic as he collided with a boulder and tripped. Masabala reached down and yanked him up. Livel screamed when he put pressure on his foot.
“I’m hurt. I can’t keep up!” Livel cried, grabbing his brother by the shoulders. “Go!”
“And leave you behind?” Masabala shook his head wildly. “We can hide.”
“There’s no place to hide and you know it!” He looked into the desert, to the dust kicked up by the distant riders, their spears and shields reflecting the sun. He would not be the reason his brother got captured. “I’ll be right behind you.” He gave Masabala a shove. “Just once, listen to me! Run!”
“I’ll get help and be back before they get here,” Masabala said as he ran toward home.
Livel took a tentative step on his swelling ankle. Walking would be a painful option, and running was out of the question. He hobbled a few steps, trying to decide what to do. If he turned toward En Gedi they would spot Masabala, so instead, he headed in the opposite direction. For ten minutes he crawled, hopped and limped, determined to put as much distance between himself and Masabala as possible. All the while he was hoping his brother would return before the soldiers found him.
He squinted into the distance. The horses and soldiers were so close now he could count their numbers. There were twelve. He looked toward En Gedi. His eyes searched for a wisp of dust, anything that might give proof of a rescue. There was only stillness.
The shouts and clattering of armor closed in on him, and soon he was surrounded. A soldier wearing a bronze breastplate and helmet dismounted. He reached for his pilum, a wooden spear with an iron tip. Livel stood paralyzed, gutted by the greatest fear he had ever known.
“What do you think he’s doing out here alone? Or is he alone?” the soldier asked his comrades in Greek. He poked Livel with the tip of his sword as he looked toward En Gedi.
“I’m injured, and my friend went for help,” Livel replied in Greek. All eyes were now riveted on him.
The soldier smiled, menace turning his eyes to fire. “My, my, a well-educated young Jew.”
An older soldier dismounted and approached. The men made way in obvious dereference to their leader. “My name is Marcus Gracchus,” the man said. “And yours is?”
“Livel son of Elazer.”
“From the venerated lineage of Aaron. I know of these things. Tell me, Livel, how many languages do you speak?
“Four,” Livel replied.
Marcus Gracchus smiled. He was in need of another tutor for his sons, and it seemed that good fortune had come his way. “Put him on the extra mount. We will take Livel with us.”
Everything was happening too quickly. Hands were coming at him and faces blurred as he was tossed onto the horse, his ankle throbbing. Livel understood as clearly as he had ever understood anything in his life that there was no point in resisting. He twisted in the saddle to get what he knew would be a last look at En Gedi.
Tears burned the back of his eyes, but he forced them away. He would not let them see him cry. Not now. Not ever. Livel could hear his father’s voice: when you are lost or frightened, confused or disheartened–turn to the Holy One, Blessed by He. He will always be with you.
Livel began to pray.
They traveled throughout the night, moving rapidly whenever the rugged terrain allowed them to do so. Livel prayed until exhaustion overcame him, and he fell asleep slumped over the soft mane of the horse. The ensuing nightmares were intense, whips and fire, his parent’s anguish, Masabala’s rage.
At dawn, the Roman troop halted, and Livel awakened with a start. Torrents of anguish washed over him, and the sleep world dissolved. They were outside a Roman encampment waiting for a bridge to be lowered. It would allow them to pass over a ditch that encircled the entire perimeter. His horse tethered to the saddle of a soldier, they entered the camp filled with hundreds of tents. As they moved over the paved roads, they passed stalls where the pounding of anvils could be heard. There were blacksmiths and butchers, bakers and wine sellers. They turned left and passed a street of bathhouses and barbers. Another left and they were on a street with hospitals, workshops, and endless mule-drawn carts heaped with food, armament, and every sort of supply.
Livel was torn from his mount, thrown into a tent and chained to a post. The only visitor came once a day to deliver food and empty the pot where he defecated. The rest of the time he lay alone on a mat of straw, withdrawing into a shadow world. He teetered on the edge of starvation, eating only enough to remain alive. The Judaism he so deeply believed in forbade suicide.
On the tenth day of his incarceration, the commanding officer, Marcus Gracchus ordered that Livel be bathed, dressed in a clean tunic and brought into his tent.
Gracchus lay on a chaise, impressive in a white robe trimmed with gold thread. He had a square face, angry sea-green eyes, a chiseled nose and soft, almost feminine lips. It was as if his face were divided: stone-like from the nose up, gentle from the nose down. His black hair was slicked with oil.
As a senator of Rome and an accomplished Legion Commander, he was in Judea by direct edict of Emperor Hadrian. The objective was to ascertain the situation in Judea and report back to the emperor. Domitius, his youngest son, had accompanied him. Scipio, his oldest, was sent to the northern border to take part in the building of a defensive wall for Rome.
The tent was lavish with carpets on the floor, pillows scattered about, draperies and tapestries hanging from the walls. Incense burned, the scent of myrrh and frankincense wafting through the enclosure.
“It’s been reported to me that you are barely eating. Have a seat,” he said in Greek, pointing to a stack of feather-filled pillows.
Livel didn’t move. He just stared at the man, defiance in his eyes.
“You will learn to follow orders,” he said, his demeanor turning ominous. “Sit!”
“I am returning to Rome and taking three hundred of my men with me. When we get to Rome, if you’re healthy, I will allow you to become a tutor to my sons.”
Livel knew he was on precarious ground. This was not a man to defy yet his anger seethed and he couldn’t help himself. “I may be enslaved, but you can’t make me eat!”
Marcus slowly lifted a whip that sat beside the chaise. As if he were swatting a fly, he cocked his wrist. The whip slashed across Livel’s bare arm.
Livel cried out, as much from shock as from the pain.
“You will do as I say, or I’ll sell you as fodder. Is that what you want, boy, to be fed to a hungry lion in the center arena of the great Coliseum in Rome?”
Livel shook his head.
I will eat. I will live. And one day, I will go home!”
Masabala ran until his chest ached and his legs threatened to collapse. He bolted through the olive groves and raced down crowded streets until he reached the center square of the village.
“Abba, Abba!” he screamed, spotting his father, Rabbi Elazer. He stood beneath the shade of a tree, a group of students at his feet. In his fortieth year, the rabbi was a tall man with protruding ears, a prominent nose and a receding hairline.
“What wrong? Where’s your brother?” the rabbi cried as Masabala charged to his side.
Masabala yanked on his father’s arm. “We spotted Romans! Livel is hurt. He couldn’t run so I left him in the desert while I came for help.” For a split second Masabala thought he saw condemnation flash in his father’s eyes. Shame seeped over him as he bit back tears.
“Horses! Get the horses!” Elazer yelled, sprinting toward the barn.
* * *
Masabala, Rabbi Elazer and the rabbi’s closest friend, Yehuda, galloped into the desert. Masabala rode beside his father, his knees locked hard against the saddle as they flew over the rock-strewn terrain.
Ten minutes into their rescue, Masabala pulled back on the reins and his horse slowed to a walk. He scanned the distance between En Gedi and the caves. “There, Abba. I left him there! I remember that clump of rocks where he fell!”
They were moving forward slowly when the rabbi reined in his horse and slid off the saddle. He knelt on the ground, tracing tracks in the sand with trembling hands.
Yehuda crouched beside him. “It appears to have been a small group, no more than eight or ten. They’re heading north,” he said.
“We will follow.” The rabbi looked straight at Masabala. “And when we find them, we will help your brother escape.”
* * *
They moved through the valley between Masada and En Gedi as the sun was setting, the waning light making it more and more difficult to see the tracks left by Livel’s captors. Blanketed in despair, no one spoke, the only sounds the panting of horses and the calls of an occasional flock of birds passing overhead.
Then, without warning, there was a subtle shift in the wind. The sand began to vibrate and lift, drifting across the barren ground, the winds increased, hurling grains of needle-like sand and small pieces of rock into the air. For men who inhabited the desert, they knew there was no choice but to seek shelter. The rabbi pointed toward the caves, his shouts barely heard over the now shrieking storm. Pulling the tunics over their faces for protection, they coaxed their mounts toward the cliff walls.
At the mouth of a cave, protected by vast boulders, they dismounted and led their horses inside.
“Father,” Masabala screamed, “we can’t just give up!”
The rabbi pulled Masabala into the cave. “We are not giving up! But I will not risk your life or Yehuda’s life.”
“We can’t just stand here and let them take Livel!” Masabala cried, frustration burning his face crimson.
“We have no choice but to wait and place our trust in the Holy One, Blessed be He.” The rabbi turned toward Jerusalem. A truly pious man, Elazer lived with one foot in the secular world and the other in the spiritual realm. Prayer was his form of communication with God and he believed without question that his lamentations would be heard.
I raise my eyes upon the mountains; whence will come my help? My help is from Adonai, Maker of heaven and earth. He covered his eyes with his right hand, preparing to recite the invocation that was the cornerstone of Judaism, a prayer that proclaimed the ideology of one God.
“Sh'ma Yis-ra-eil, A-do-nai E-lo-hei-nu, A-do-nai E-chad. Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. Ba-ruch sheim k'vod mal-chu-to l'o-lam va-ed. Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom forever and ever.”
The rabbi reached out a hand to his son. Masabala stared at his father and then slowly turned away.
His father would rather pray than fight.
Masabala had no use for a God that would forsake his brother.
* * *
Hours later the howling winds finally subsided. The silence that followed their journey was eerie; it hung over the riders as they traveled through the shadowed night.
“I’m so sorry, my friend,” Yehuda said, moving next to the rabbi. “Perhaps we can try again at daybreak.”
“It’s over,” the rabbi said, silent tears falling. “There are no tracks to follow. My son is in the hands of the Holy One, Blessed be He.”
“No!” Masabala shouted. “We must keep looking.”
“Which direction shall we go?” the rabbi asked gently.
Masabala looked north and then east and west. There were hundreds of Roman encampments between here and Jerusalem and he had no idea where they might have taken Livel. He wanted to shout at his father, to scream every obscenity he knew. Instead, he kicked his horse and rode ahead, embracing his anger, allowing it to plant itself in his gut. The closer they came to En Gedi, the angrier he became, as if he were being consumed from the inside out.
Anger was easier to accept than guilt.
* * *
Two months later
Alone in the kitchen of the two-storied stone house, Miriam stooped over a pot that hung in the hearth. Barely four and a half feet tall she had black curly hair that she kept covered with a scarf for modesty, gentle grey eyes, thick brows, and Livel’s ingratiating smile–a smile that had died the day her son disappeared.
With a heavy sigh, she brushed the hair from her eyes, reached for a spoon, dropped it in the stew and stirred. It was an act that took enormous willpower, because in truth, Miriam didn’t care if it boiled over or not. In fact, she didn’t really care much about anything anymore. She missed her son. She missed him so much that at times she would see a shadow and turn her head quickly, certain that it was Livel. Other times she was certain she heard him call, and she would run upstairs to his room. Each time, the disappointment assailed her anew, and she would collapse in a heap on the floor.
Miriam kept all of this to herself, including her belief that God was punishing her because she had forgotten the greatest of all virtues, humility. Even Saul, Israel’s first King, had preached that his heart not be lifted above his brethren. Yet she had been self-important, as if Livel’s great talents were her doing and not the Holy One, Blessed be He.
Miriam was so entrenched in her own grief, that the simple act of a smile made her feel disrespectful to the memory of Livel. Even her husband, Elazer, was becoming impatient with her. Yet, she could not be intimate, could not bring down the walls that surrounded her. If she did, she would shatter.
* * *
It was the day after Sabbath, and Masabala stood at the entrance to Market Street. The place was teeming with buyers, some from as far away as Beersheba. They came to the fertile oasis to haggle prices with the merchants for dates, oranges, mangos, goat’s milk and cheese. Masabala was here to escape his loneliness, even for just a little while.
He watched Joseph, the cheese purveyor, slice a hunk and wrap it in cloth, muttering about the buyer taking food from the mouth of his children. Masabala smiled, knowing that Joseph lived well off the profits from his cheese. He moved into the fray, sidestepping jugglers and barbers chairs. As he entered a bakery, he felt a tap on the shoulder.
He turned to see Sarah staring at him. “I miss Livel,” she whispered, her eyes filling with tears. Sarah was a slender fifteen-year-old with big brown eyes, a round face, high cheekbones and a crooked smile
Masabala took her arm. In silence, they dodged mules being loaded with supplies and squeezed between shoppers. Without words, they traversed several backyards, climbed over a stone wall and kept walking until they were standing beneath their tree house.
Sarah found a toehold and climbed to the first low hanging branch. Years earlier Livel had secured a plank of wood, where the branch met the trunk, so that Sarah could ascend easily. When she reached the platform, she sat cross-legged under the canopy of branches. She watched as Masabala climbed into the fortress, then sat beside her.
For so many years it had been just the three of them, their private fort where they were allowed to talk about anything, no matter how inconsequential or irreverent.
“It’s not the same without Livel,” Sarah said, “but if I close my eyes and
“We’re not children anymore,” Masabala snapped. “Livel’s gone and he’s never coming back!”
Sarah knew that Masabala’s anger was not aimed at her. He still blamed himself for Livel’s capture. “If things had been different and you had been the one hurt, would you have let Livel stay with you?”
Masabala shook his head. “But we wouldn’t have been there in the first place if not for me.”
“And Livel could have said no, but he didn’t.”
Masabala didn’t want to hear her. Anger was his refuge and the need for revenge all consuming. He stood and kicked at a tree branch until it broke.
“Stop it,” Sarah admonished. “You’re going to ruin everything.”
“Everything is already ruined,” Masabala shouted, yanking a board from the corner of the tree house and heaving it to the ground. “This is a stupid, useless place, and I want it gone!”
Sarah grabbed his arm. “You don’t mean that!”
He jerked away, his mouth in a snarl. “Get out! Now! Before you get hurt.”