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What God are you?

· Rachel the matriarch arraigns God ·

We publish here excerpts from the short story by the Austrian Jewish writer entitled “Rachele litiga con Dio” (Roma, Elliot, 2015, 48 pages, euros 7.50) [in Italian].[in English: Rachel arraigns God]

For the umpteenth time the citizens of Jerusalem, stubborn and fickle, had forgotten the covenant they had made, for the umpteenth time they had brought bloody offerings to the bronze idols of Tyre and Ammon. They even dared to carry the image of Baal into the very dwelling place of God, the dwelling that Solomon, his servant, had built for him.

Henry Ryland, “Rachel at the well” (1890)

When God saw that they had taken the liberty of mocking him in the inmost part of the sanctuary, his implacable wrath exploded. He extended his right hand and his cry ripped the heavens apart. His patience had come to an end: he would raze the corrupt city to the ground and scatter his people like chaff to the four corners of the earth. A clap of thunder and the dreadful announcement resounded to infinity. God’s wrath was not confined to the living but even woke the dead in their tombs.

When those venerable men lost heart their empty souls quivered before the Lord like trampled grass and they no longer dared to utter a word against his anger. Every earthly voice now fell silent out of fear, when lo and behold, Rachel, the matriarch of Israel, stepped forth alone from the tangled thicket of her anxieties. In her tomb at Ramah she had heard God’s wrathful cry and, thinking of her children’s children had sensed the tears running down their cheeks. Thus, mustering every ounce of her strength she had made up her mind to present herself to the One whose face cannot be seen. Falling to her knees, she lifted up her hands, on her knees she raised her words to the Lord.

“I know that you know my words even before I have spoken them, because in you every word re-echoes long before it is pronounced by human lips, in you every action is present even before it has been done by an earthly hand. And yet I implore you: listen to me patiently, out of your love for sinners”. After speaking thus Rachel bowed her head. But God saw her prostrate and weeping, and suspended his wrath for an instant to listen the afflicted woman.

When God on high listens space is emptied and time stands still. The wind ceases, thunder no longer crashes, nothing dares to creep or crawl, no birds fly and no one ventures to draw a breath. The hours lie motionless and the cherubim, like bronze statues, stand waiting. For when God listens the breath of life is stilled, the sounds in the heavens are quietened. Then even the sun hangs motionless, the moon rests in its orbit and before him the rivers fall silent and cease to flow.

Rachel for her part realized that God was paying heed to her entreaty and, turning, lifted her tear-stained face and spoke bravely of her fear. “You know that I am a daughter of Laban and I lived in the land of Haran in the East; as my father wished, I kept his sheep. One morning we took them to the drinking trough, but the serving maids were unable to roll the stone from the well’s mouth. Then a young and handsome stranger came hurrying to our help and we were amazed at his great physical strength. He was Jacob, the son of my father’s sister, and as soon as he had told us his name I took him to my father Laban’s house. Barely an hour had passed since we had seen each other, but our gazes were already secretly ardent and our hearts filled with yearning for each other. We were unable to resist this passion and already on that first day, when Jacob saw me, Rachel, we exchanged vows of betrothal. However, my father Laban was a man hard as the stony ground he tilled with his plough. And when Jacob wanted to take me in marriage my father decided to put him to the test. So it was that he asked my suitor to stay on and to serve him for seven years for love of me.

Nevertheless, Lord, Jacob accepted and I too submitted to my father’s will. We kept each other’s courage up so that our hearts would obey and be patient. We were able to control ourselves and stay firm, despite our desire for each other. Because of our misery, each day seemed as a thousand. When for the seventh time the year came to an end I went joyfully to my father and asked him for the marriage tent. But he ordered me to go and fetch Leah, my sister.

As you know Lord, Leah was the first-born. You had given her a somewhat uncomely face so that no man coveted her; the fact that no one wanted her caused her suffering. I loved her fondly precisely because she was afflicted and was a gentle girl. And yet, when my father ordered me to take her to him and then asked me to leave them alone I intuited that they were plotting something. Thus I hid myself nearby to hear what they were planning. My father spoke: “Listen, Leah, Jacob has come to us and to obtain Rachel’s hand he has already worked in my service for seven years. However, through love for you I cannot permit this marriage. Indeed it is out of the question that a younger daughter should leave her father’s house before her older sister and that the first-born should be left without a husband, to be taunted by her own serving maids. Such a practice would be sacrilegious, unheard of and against God’s will. Therefore, Leah, make yourself ready, take the wedding veil and wrap it tightly round your face so that I may take you, instead of Rachel, to Jacob”.

As soon as I heard these deceitful words my heart burned with anger at both Laban and Leah. I went in secret to Jacob and whispered to him to take care that the following day my father did not give him another bride instead of me. And to enable him to recognize the deception, I taught him a sign: before entering his tent, the bride would kiss him three times on the forehead.

That evening Laban had Leah veiled. He wrapped the veil round her face twice, so that Jacob would not recognize her in advance. He then sent me to the granary so that no servant would be aware of the deception. Thus I was locked up and forgotten, left to feed on my own rage. It was already dark under the roof and it was then that the door was softly opened. And there was my sister Leah. She approached me gently and delicately stroked my hair; when she raised her eyes I realized that hers were dimmed by a cloud of fear. “What will happen dear Rachel? Our father’s conduct saddens me. He has taken your beloved from you and has given him to me. Cheating that innocent man disgusts me: how can I hold up my head before him who desires you? What should I do? Help me, Rachel my sister, I beg you in the name of the merciful God!”. Despite my love for her the evil within me had been getting the upper hand and, like an exquisite dish, her distress restored me. Yet, as she had pronounced your name, the holiest and most merciful of your names, Lord, it seemed to me at that point that I had been struck by a blaze of light, my heart pounded in my bursting breast and I felt that my darkened soul was invaded by the force of your goodness and the intoxicating power of your mercy. Sharing her distress, I took pity on her, I, your foolish maidservant, and against my will I explained to her how to deceive Jacob.

This, Lord, was my action, the only one in the world of which I may be proud, for in this way I was likened to you, through generosity and mercy; my soul suffered superhuman anguish and I do not know, Lord, whether you have ever tempted a woman on earth more than you tempted me on that infelicitous night. And yet, Lord, on that night I could bear it.

I fled in haste to our father’s house for it would not be long before the deception was discovered. Alas, what I had foreseen happened! Jacob, an axe in his hand, rushed in to strike Laban. Becoming aware of his wrath, my father was paralyzed with terror. He thus threw himself to the ground, old and trembling, and began to invoke your holy name. And once again, Lord, on hearing your holy name I was imbued with the strength of a sacred daring and I hurled myself against Jacob so that his fury would strike me instead of Laban. But the blood of anger inflamed his eyes and as soon as he saw me, who had played a part in the deception, he hit me in the face with his fists so hard that he knocked me down. However, Lord, I bore it without complaint, for I knew that his rage contained great love.

When he saw that I lay bleeding at his feet, he, in his fury, was overcome by pity. And he not only took pity on me but for love of me he also forgave my father Laban and did not drive Leah out of his tent. A week later, my father gave me to him as a second wife, and he opened my womb and I bore sons; sons whom I urged to invoke you courageously in moments of greatest need, with the secret of your true name. And with this name, O merciful Lord, I invoke you today for the greatest suffering of my heart: do as Jacob, let the axe of your wrath fall and dispel the clouds of your anger! Lord spare Jerusalem!”.

Rachel had spoken in a loud voice as if her words had to penetrate a hundred heavens, but after that heartfelt supplication the strength of her soul failed. She fell to her knees and bowed her trembling head to the ground, while the locks of her hair flowed over her body like a torrent of black water. In this position Rachel awaited God’s answer.

But God was silent. There is nothing more dreadful than God’s silence, on earth as in heaven, or among the clouds that swirl around each other. No ear on earth can bear the din of this silence, no heart can endure the stab of this emptiness: within him, as long as he is silent, there can only be God, and not the living, for he is the life of life. Not even the patient Rachael could bear the infinite silence of God as an answer to her screaming pain.

Once again she raised her eyes to the Invisible One, once again she supported herself on her motherly hands and a spark of her anger drew fiery words from her lips. “Have you not heard me then, O Omnipresent, have you not understood me, O Omniscient, or must I, your ignorant handmaid, speak more plainly to you once again? Try to understand then, O Stubborn One, that when Jacob spilled his seed in my sister, I too was gripped by jealousy, just as you are now jealous because my children light incense to other gods and not to you. But I, who am no more than a weak woman, have been able to control my resentment, and for love of you who are merciful, I took pity on Leah, while Jacob took pity on me, remember this O God: all of us, poor and ephemeral human beings, have defeated the evil of envy, while you, Almighty, who created and perfected all, the Alpha and the Omega of all things, who have an ocean while we have only droplets, have you not wished to show compassion? I well know that the people who descend from me are wilful and ever rebellious against your divine yoke, yet should not you, who are God and the Lord of all abundance, perhaps overcome their arrogance with your generosity and their transgressions with your mercy? It must not be that a human being is humiliated in your angels’ sight and that they say: “There was once a woman on earth, Rachel, a frail mortal, who kept her anger in check; but God, who is Lord of all people and of all things, remained a slave to his wrath like a servant”. No, God, that cannot be, for unless your mercy were infinite you yourself would not be infinite, which means that you would not be God. You would not be the God whom I made for myself out of my tears and whose presence called me in my sister’s anguished cry. You are a strange God, a God of vengeance, a God of wrath, a God of punishment, and I, Rachel, who love only the God of love and have served only the All-Merciful, I Rachel disown you, here and now, before your angels! Let the chosen ones and the prophets bow down; but look, I, Rachel the mother, do not bow. I stand erect and advance towards your very centre, I walk between you and your word! For I want to fight with you before you fight with my children and therefore I accuse you: your word, Lord, contradicts your being and your irate word belies your true heart. Therefore judge, God, between yourself and your word! If you are truly the wrathful God you proclaim yourself to be, then fling me down into the darkness with my children, for I do not want to contemplate your face if it is the face of an angry God, and the fury of your jealousy repels me. But if instead you are truly the merciful God whom I have loved from the beginning and by whose teachings I have lived, then show yourself to me at last, look me in the face with the light of your goodness and save the Holy City!”.

After she had launched the sword of her words in heaven Rachel’s strength was once again spent. Fearful, the patriarchs and prophets drew back, for they were afraid a thunderbolt would blast the impious spirit who had argued with God. Frightened, they gazed upwards but no sign was forthcoming. However, the angels, who in the face of God’s frowning countenance had hidden their heads under their wings and looked aghast at the bold woman who had denied the Lord’s omnipotence, all of a sudden saw a light radiating from Rachel’s face and her forehead shining. They knew then that God had looked upon Rachel with all his solicitous love. Therefore the angels’ fear vanished; reassured, they raised their eyes to behold that God’s presence had restored the light and splendour, and the beatific azure of his smile sparkled, filling the infinite spaces.

In the meantime, here below, human beings, as ever foreign to the laws of heaven, did not imagine what was happening above their heads. Clad in their shrouds, they lugubriously bowed their foreheads to the darkened ground. Then suddenly, first one and then another thought they heard a gentle whispering, like a March breeze. They raised their eyes, still uncertain, and were astonished. The thick clouds parted and a marvellous rainbow appeared, which in its seven colours of light brought back to Rachel the Mother her tears.

Stefan Zweig

PRINTED EDITION

 

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