3. ONE PASSOVER IN JERUSALEM (a short story of faith from the first century)
I will tell about these events, how they happened as I best recall, so many years ago, although they seemed like they happened just yesterday.
I am a merchant, as my father was before me, as my father’s father was. Buying and selling has been our trade for hundreds of years, every year following the same trade routes from my home port, to Alexandria. There I buy Egyptian cotton, flax, some turquoise, lapis, and amethyst stones to make into necklaces and rings. These would sell very well in Rome and in Athens among the wealthy Romans and Greeks. They would pay many denarii and drachma for these wares.
From Alexandria, I’d go to Joppa and begin my journey to Jerusalem, stopping to rest in Emmaus for the night. Jerusalem was very busy around the time of Sukkot and Passover, with people being in a festive mood. They would spend their money for small luxuries .
I would pick up a few more things to sell or trade in Judea and go north to Caesaria . From there, I would board ship to Athens, then Rome, and afterward, back home to my family.
I am not a rich man mind you, but I am not poor either. I give thanks to God that I am a good provider and my family does not starve by any means. We try to follow the mitzvoth of the Torah and always attend our synagogue on the Sabbaths.
This year started off as the last. It was during the reign of Tiberius Caesar when the iron hand of Rome held its grip on Judea. I paid my passage on the merchant ship and when we were filled with fellow merchants and their wares, we cast off anchor and headed toward Alexandria, the first stop.
To pass the day, I listened to sailors’ talk which consisted of stories about high winds and rough seas, when Poseidon stirred up the sea bottom, and giant waves crushed ships against the pillars of Hercules. As a Jew, I do not believe in these pagan gods, but only in Adonai, who first spoke to father Abraham a few thousand years ago.
On this trip, however, the talk was interesting since in concerned a certain Judean carpenter who taught torah in the synagogues. He also had special power to heal all those afflicted with illnesses. This was one person who I’d love to meet, as I had hurt my shoulder once in performing a mitzvah. I helped a man pull a cart from a ditch, but the cart was very heavy on my shoulder. Perhaps this man could heal it. Perhaps he would also buy some Egyptian cotton too. No telling if this man would be in Jerusalem at this Passover time.
We made port in Alexandria in good time. I bought some merchandise and the next day, we set sail to Joppa. We had fair winds and calm seas during our short voyage. We disembarked at Joppa and I proceeded to unload my merchandise. As usual, I rented a donkey and a cart to transport my merchandise during the two day trip to Jerusalem.
By the end of the first day, I reached Emmaus. There I spent the night at an inn. There I heard more talk about this carpenter, whose name was Yeshua. He used to build furniture, farm equipment, and mend wheels. But now, he traveled visiting different synagogues and taught from the Torah and from the prophets.
This was all very interesting to me, but what amazed me the most was the talk that he healed all the sick that came unto him, he had even given sight to the blind and made crippled men walk, even, might I dare to say, even given life to dead men.
I also heard it say that he had some followers, twelve, men from all walks of life. They just gave up everything to follow him. I went to sleep that night thinking of all these things, wondering how much truth there was in it all..
The next day, I started off again toward the city of Jerusalem. The city of the prophets. As usual, I expected great crowds of Passover observers. I reached the city late in the afternoon. I found the inn where I usually stayed, secured my merchandise with the inn keeper, who also provided feed for the donkey. I sat down for a meal of some bread, grapes, a bit of roasted lamb with lentils and wine. Afterward, I sold a few articles near the inn and settled down for a night’s rest.
The next morning, I awoke to much excitement, seeing people running to and fro. I asked the inn- keeper about the excitement, and he told me that last night a trial had taken place in the middle of the night at that! The high priest Caiaphas had tried a man for blasphemy and that there were three other criminals to be executed by crucifixion by order of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.
I had never seen a crucifixion, but it was said to be a horrible death, a slow death that only the Romans could come up with. Beheading was more merciful, reserved only for Roman citizens, not for Judeans.
I went outside to see a crowd running toward the governor’s palace. Out of curiosity, I followed along. The crowd was very thick with all kinds of people, both Judeans and foreigners alike. Little by little, the crowd pushed more towards a narrow road. There were mixed emotions in that noisy crowd. Some were shouting curses, others were wailing and beating their breasts and crying for mercy, but mercy for who? For criminals?
I was finally pushed by the crowd to the edge of this narrow road, which lead outside one of the gates of the city. Soon, I managed to see some movement on the road. There were some Roman soldiers marching behind a mounted centurion. Afterward, came two prisoners each carrying a roughly hewn cross-beam across their shoulders.
The prisoner which got my attention was behind the other two. He was being whipped by two burly roman soldiers, each brandishing a short whip made of ropes. It was obvious to me that this man had already been beaten, very much so. As this gruesome parade of misery and human suffering moved more and more toward the city gate, I managed to have a better look at the third prisoner. I learned later that the fourth prisoner had been set free in honor of the festival of Passover.
The third man was about 20 cubits from me, when I noticed that beside me was an old man with a long white beard. He was sobbing greatly and praying for mercy for this third man. He looked up at me with tears in his eyes, and then he spoke these words to me;
“It was all foretold by the prophets of old, my son”, “by Isaiah, by Daniel, that the Son of David would be afflicted and carry the burden of our sins.” “he would also be born in the town of Bethlehem as foretold by the prophet Micah”
“Who is he? I asked. The old man replied,
“His name is Yeshua, raised in Nazareth, who worked as a carpenter, who came to fulfill the Torah and the Prophets. I heard him teach at the Mt. of Olives, I was there that day, and he also taught at my synagogue. He is full of the Spirit of Adonai my son. He is a righteous man indeed.”
“But why” I asked “do they want to crucify him, why?” The old man did not get a chance to answer my question, for suddenly, there stood in front of me, a tall, rough looking roman soldier.
“You” he barked, as he stepped nearer to me, his finger pointing directly at me, “carry that man’s cross” and he pointed to Yeshua, “he’s too weak to carry it any longer.”
I felt uncomfortable with the soldier’s request, in fact, a little angry. “Why should I, a free man, carry the cross of a condemned man?” I protested. The soldier stepped nearer to me, his hand on the hilt of his sword.
All of a sudden, I felt a hand on my arm. It was the old man. He looked up into my eyes which were still full of tears. “My son” he pleaded, “do not despise such an honor. You have been chosen by God to carry the burden of the Son of Man, as he is carrying yours, and the sins of the whole world.”
I did not understand the complete meaning of his words until now. The roman soldier looked at the old man, and then to me,
“You’d better take the old man’s advice if you know what is good for you” he growled as he continued to glare at me, his hand still on the hilt of his sword.
I looked at Yeshua, who was now on his knees, with the heavy cross beam tied across his shoulders. Sweat and blood were pouring from his face. There was a large circle of thorns embedded on his head, buried deeply in his scalp. Blood was matted in his hair.
When I saw him, my heart was filled with compassion. Never had I seen a human being so mutilated, in the midst of so much suffering and hate. I took a few steps toward Yeshua. The Roman soldier then gave an order and another soldier took his sword and cut the ropes that tied Yeshua’s arms to the cross beam. But even free of the ropes, Yeshua continued to hold the cross beam as if it were a part of his being. Little did I know that it would be so true.
I was now beside this man Yeshua. What I saw horrified me. Pieces of flesh were hanging from all parts of his body. His eyes were swollen and chunks of his beard had been torn out. There were pieces of sharp metal and bone embedded in his back and legs. His body was broken and bloody, a mass of human carnage, a victim of hate and wrath. What ever did this man do to deserve such punishment I asked myself? Didn’t the old man say that he was a righteous man?
I bent down to help him pick up the crossbeam. Then he looked at me with a look I’ll never forget. Under his swollen eye lids came a look of peacefulness and love, together with the physical weariness and pain. I spoke only these words to him;
“Yeshua, I have been ordered to assist you, and I will do so to ease your suffering”
He slowly nodded his head, and I put my head under one side of the crossbeam, with my arms over the top, and together, we both pushed up with our knees. The crossbeam felt heavy against my shoulder. All of a sudden, the pain hit me again. I remembered so many years ago, when I was helping a fellow merchant to lift a cart. I had hurt my shoulder and I had been in so much pain ever since. Lifting things would bring on this pain.
Yeshua seemed to have sensed that I was in pain. I looked at his peaceful face and said;
“It’s the pain, I hurt my shoulder many years ago”
Then Yeshua did something that to my dying day I’ll never forget. He stretched forth his hand and ever so gently, touched mine squeezing it softly. Suddenly, strength and power surged through my arms, back, neck and entire body. The pain in my shoulder vanished. I lifted up the crossbeam without any pain whatsoever.
I looked at Yeshua amazed. This man, Yeshua, had healed me. This Yeshua was more than just a man. Could he really be the Messiah of Israel that the prophets spoke of?
Together, we walked slowly down the street, the other two criminals were ahead a ways. The crowd was full of mixed emotions. Some shouting and cursing, others weeping and beating their breasts, pleading for mercy. We went through one of the city’s gates. We followed the road out of the city, towards a hill that resembled a skull.
Some of the crowd began to disperse, others followed our gruesome procession up the hill. Up and up the hill we went. The crowd was now sparse, with now only a few men and women. Some of the religious leaders were following behind. The Roman soldiers were also there, barking orders one to another. I looked up into the sky. In a few hours, the Passover lambs would be slaughtered.
This time, instead stead of being a joyous occasion, it would be a Passover of sadness, of grief, of a righteous man being condemned to death. It just didn’t make any sense to me. All I knew was that I was there to help this man named Yeshua, and to help him bear this cross that he would soon embrace to meet the arms of death.
We finally reached the top of the hill. A roman soldier directed us to a spot in front of a long pole, which would be the center beam for the piece we were carrying. He ordered me to drop it. I let go and the piece fell to the ground and Yeshua falling right next to it.
The roman soldier then pushed me away, and proceeded to lift the cross beam and nail it to the center pole using four long iron nails. What followed would be something I’d never forget, the image still etched into my memory. It was an image of Intense suffering, pain, cruelty, and just plain madness. Two roman soldiers grabbed Yeshua by his arms and dragged him over to the cross. They then threw him down between the two crossed pieces of roughly hewn wood. They then proceeded to stretch out his arms across the crossbeam.
One of the soldiers held Yeshua’s arm to the crossbeam as the other grabbed a mallet and a thick, long, spike nail. The nail seemed to be a hand span in length and as thick as a middle finger. He then placed the nail on Yeshua’s wrist and proceeded to bring the mallet down on the nail.
The nail penetrated flesh and muscle quickly, and held fast to the roughly hewn wood. Blood poured out of the wounds and dripped onto the ground. But what amazed me more were the words that proceeded from Yeshua’s lips;
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
One would expect curses and not words of forgiveness to proceed from the mouth of a condemned man, but Yeshua was not just an ordinary man. I’d like to think that what the old man told me was true, the he indeed was the Messiah that all Israel hoped would come, to free this nation from this wretched Roman rule.
But then, if he is the Messiah, then why allow all this to happen? He could have prevented it. Was there something I didn’t understand? A detail overlooked? A word of prophecy that the Torah teachers failed to mention?
I watched now as the Roman soldiers took hold of the cross, pushing and pulling it upright, and then dropped it into a hole in the ground. I gazed once more at this Yeshua who was now suspended between heaven and earth, by two nails through his wrists and feet held fast to a block of wood.
This Roman cross of suffering and affliction now stood erect with the beaten and bloodied body of Yeshua, who spoke not a curse, but words of forgiveness. Could he indeed be this long hoped for Messiah of Israel?
I could not bear to watch any longer. I could no longer help him or do anything for him, so I started back down the hill. I turned to look once more. I saw a woman and a man by the cross, and Yeshua was looking down at them. He seemed to be talking to them. I wanted to stay, but my feelings of anger and grief were besides me. Anger toward this cruel Roman rule and injustice, and grief for this Yeshua who deserved none of this.
Then he looked toward me, just for a brief moment, I felt something in my heart, which penetrated into the depth of my soul. I felt his thoughts which were saying; “thank you for showing me compassion, and for helping me with my burden. This burden I carry is for the whole world.”
I then saw one of the criminals that was nailed to a cross beside him, say something to him. Yeshua turned and spoke some soft words to this man, I saw this criminal smile, in spite of the pain and agony. The words that Yeshua spoke also penetrated his heart and soul.
My eyes welled up with tears, I couldn’t stand by any longer and see this suffering. I continued to walk back down the hill. I no longer wished to look back, but only to leave the city and leave behind me this scene of hate and pain, of suffering and grief.
I reached the inn where I was staying at. I paid the inn keeper a few shekels of silver, then took the donkey and cart and headed north to Caesaria where I would continue on my journey. I just wanted to get away from this city, which now, only brought violence and hate to its Passover feast.
As I traveled northward, I noticed that the sky was turning dark, thick black clouds hid the sun from view. It was a strange feeling. A day turned like night. This had never happened. Even he donkey acted strange. It stopped suddenly and started to bray, stomping the ground kicking up a cloud of dust.
I do not remember how long I stood there in the road. With the donkey, the cart, and all my wares, trying to figure out these strange events. I felt bewildered, a bit confused. Who was this Yeshua really? Messiah? God made man? A man connected to God in a way I could not understand?
Suddenly, I felt a rumble, from under the earth which grew louder. The ground under my feet began to shake. I heard a clap of thunder and saw a bolt of lightening which lit up the sky for one brief moment.
The sun then came out from behind the clouds, and began to set toward the west. I turned once more to look towards the east, to gaze upon the city of Jerusalem, the Daughter of Zion, who murdered the prophets, whose inhabitants lay within the iron grasp of the Eagle of Rome.
I am telling theses events the way I remember them. My name is Simon, a merchant from the city of Cyrene. This story is a legacy I have left to my two sons, Alexander and Rufus, who, like me, now follow in the footsteps of our Messiah, Yeshua.
BY Rabbi Jacob Ben AVraham