The Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Marsmattnn Tallahassee courtesy of Flickr (painting by Francesco Hayez)
story by Mirel Abeles
The stench of burning bodies insinuated itself amidst the smoke-filled air which invaded every corner of the city. It penetrated windows and doors and slipped through the wet cloths covering our faces, making us gag.
As if that was not bad enough, the fire lit up the skies, turning night into day and heating up the sweltering summer night. The flickering light from the flames cast macabre shadows on our windows, writhing shapes contorting like a scene from the after-world.
The evening breeze which generally eased the Jerusalem heat brought no relief tonight. Instead, it fanned the flames and helped spread the heat together with the offensive smoke, making us sweat even as we shivered with fear.
The shrieks of the priests burning in the Temple smothered the groans of the starving which had assailed our ears over the past months. But it could not drown out the cries of the maidens losing their maidenhood, the gasps of the dying, the wails of the murdered, the war cries of the Babylonians all of which merged into a cacophony the likes of which had surely never been encountered before. It rioted on our already damaged nerves.
I hugged my boy close, the prodding of his bones like stabs to my heart. My closeness could not provide an extra defense against the night’s sounds and smells, yet still I hovered over him.
In the seventeen long months since the siege began, our food supply dwindled, then disappeared. One by one, I buried my parents, my wife and four of my children. By now, we had naught but empty stalks to chew or dry bones to suck, if we were lucky enough to find them. Thankfully, my kind-hearted Sara had died before we reached that stage of deprivation, which brought on depravities never before imagined. Our own neighbor had been found boiling the dead body of her babe to feed her remaining children. An abomination.
The dried hull of wheat I had given my son to chew lay on the floor. He no longer had the strength even for that. How fragile the body of my Zechariah! Every bone in his body discernible beneath his skin, his eyes grown huge, his belly unnaturally distended: I wondered if I had not reached a point where I would have considered doing the same for him. It was too late now.
Oh Lord, how much more can we take?
A slight rustling noise, and I swerved, pushing Zechariah behind me as I drew my knife: not as large as the one I used to work with, but honed just as sharp. Sharp enough to slice a hair. In the light cast by the flames I recognized the slight form of my uncle’s son, Meir, splatters of blood on his disheveled clothing.
He wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead and gnawed on his cheek. His eyelids revealed eyes, open wide, resolute, thought he shifted uneasily. “Come with us, Hanan. To the tunnels. To escape the city.”
I slowly shook my head.
He spoke in an urgent whisper. “The troops will never let you stay. They will drag you to exile, to Babylonia. You’ll be nothing but a captive, a slave,” he hissed. “You and Zechariah.”
“Not Zechariah. He will not survive the march.”
“So come with us, now.”
He did not understand. Even the short march through the Shiloah cave to questionable freedom would be too much for my son.
A voice from outside urged, “Meir, we must hurry!”
“Go, Meir. You are young. Escape. Survive. It is too late for Zechariah, too late for me.”
He hesitated, I’ll give him that. My uncle had right to be proud of his son. When I meet our maker, I will tell him so. “Go, Meir. You must make sure that one of our family lives on.” I shooed him away with my hand.
“Meir!” his friend called again.
The sounds of the Babylonians drew nearer. Meir shot us a last doleful glance and ran out.
I strained my ears, but heard naught to signify that he had been discovered. The crowd seemed not yet to have reached our street. Perhaps he would make it to the Shiloah. Perhaps he would indeed make it to safety. I muttered a quick prayer for him.
I stared at my son, and wondered what would reach us first, the fire or the gentile horde. He turned beseeching eyes on me, to do what, I do not know.
“Live, Zechariah, live!” I hissed. But he smiled softly. He was beyond that.
As the outside noises grew louder, I lifted him in my arms and drew him into the darkest recesses of our home. I raised my knife, and intoned the sacred prayer “Shma Yisrael….”(Hear O Israel…) My voice wavered but Zechariah looked at me and nodded as his tongue darted out to taste the salty drops flowing onto his face. And so with one swift movement, I sacrificed my oldest son.
Now, my hands covered with the blood of the innocent, I sit and write these final words. The clash of metal has been inexorably drawing nearer and nearer as I write. When it reaches my door, I will slip these words into its hiding place and go to reunite with my loved ones. And as I do, I enjoin you to remember the plight of the family of Hanan, the Cohen.