Djerba, North Africa
10th Av 1647
Issac was relieved to enter the secret tunnel that buried itself into the hillside. The raging sandstorm that had whipped across from the mainland had turned the summer heat into a choking furnace. He leant against the rough-hewn wall to clear his throat and eyes and to shake off the sand. The grains fell and dispersed - as droplets of quicksilver would - across the stone floor, its surface like polished marble from the footsteps of centuries. As Issac began to walk forward towards the first door, the passageway and his ears reverberated with the squalls. It was only when he had closed the door behind him that the sensation finally stopped. Ahead of him lay the second door - more ornate than the first - with its three carved panels. Issac relaxed as he touched the familiar depiction of the white Bull of Mithra, the labours of Samson and on the lower section that of Tyche. As he opened this door the passageway widened. Bright light from the large wall-mounted torches lit up the mosaic floor. He knelt - as he had done so often as a child with Jacob - to read the words deeply carved in marble flagstones. He whispered them as he kissed the floor. “The Most High never does anything without contemplating the celestial host.” Issac paused for a moment before standing up and moving forward. He reached the third and final door and drew back the pink curtain that concealed it. This was the door of Solomon’s Temple saved after its destruction. Hiram’s brassworking on the cedar panels was as polished as it had been thousands of years before. The heavy door opened with no sound and beyond its portals lay a circular room its walls covered in frescoes.
In the centre of the room was a menorah standing on a gold, scale model of a four-wheeled chariot. Each of the wheels was being pushed by an angel. One had the head of an ox, another a lion, another an eagle and the last the head of a man. At that very moment a number of figures emerged from the shadows. They wore the togas of old and, barefoot, carried their sandals in their hands. In unison they placed these on the floor and facing him stretched out their forearms palms upward. “Welcome back Khalil Issac to the Closed Temple of Mal’ak. Our beloved Duran of Algiers is dead and it is the wish of our waad that you should now occupy the position of the Resh Galutha.”
Issac stepped forward and accepting a taper, lit the candle atop the central shaft. “Jabrail your light is with us.”
The other members of the Temple then retreated to take their seats. These were carved into recesses in the walls. Issac circled the menorah seven times, lighting the remaining six candles at the start of each circuit. When finished he stopped in front of a small throne whose base contained a basalt slab covered in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Issac knew it to be part of an ancient historical record recovered from the Temple of Apis which had been built by the Egyptian monarch Djoser at Sofar-Osiris. Behind the throne - on a small pedestal that sat in a deep alcove - lay the Arc of the Law.
Issac’s eyes were glistening as he faced the slab. “Begone Asmodeus ! The throne is now mine. Be about your business within the temple.” The candles behind him appeared to flicker as he turned to take his seat on the throne facing the others. “Brothers. The waad is now in session.”
Almost at once the dignified restraint that had characterised the ceremony thus far appeared to evaporate. Eleven voices clamoured to make themselves heard. Issac waited for the noise to settle of its own accord but when it did not he held up his hand with authority and some impatience. “My friends, you have done me great honour today and I hope to serve you well. It is right and proper that the eldest member of the waad will speak first.” Isaac’s voice was strong and he was gratified when an old man - with flowing white beard and locks - shuffled forward. “Elias ben-Henadad.” Issac bowed his head to the old man. “I welcome your counsel.”
The older man smiled. It was a smile that reminded Issac of Jacob’s grandfatherly indulgence. “Issac. I have known you since you were a boy and have been proud to watch you becoming a man. Uzzah Jacob was rightly justified in his faith in you but I fear that times have changed. We have become increasingly impotent in our capabilities and there is little you or any of us can do to alter that fact.”
Issac leant forward to look up at the impassive eyes of the older man. He knew he was been tested and therefore must show his resolve. The words came freely as he looked at the faces around the chamber. “My brothers. We are the Uzzah of the Path, the inheritors of the legacy of Philemon. We are the Oaks of Mamre, the Witnesses of the Covenant. We are the merkabah , the servants of the bein-ha-arbayim. For thousands of years the members of the waad of this Closed Temple of Mal’ak have striven to protect the interests of our people. By necessity our own lives are spent in the twilight. We are visible yet cast no shadow. We guide yet have no determined destination save opening the eyes of our oppressors to the true Path and the value of our Diaspora.”
Issac paused to see what effect his words were having. The shadows remained silent. “It is true that the ancient secrets and sciences, that we were privy to, are no longer exclusive and the skills honed over thousands of years that allowed us to blunt the edge of our oppressors by influencing their leaders are less effective. We must adapt to the improvement in literacy and have to try and alter the thinking of many rather than the few. This is the role that Jacob dedicated us to and that is the mission that I will continue.”
Elias ben-Henedad appeared satisfied with the answer. He bowed deeply then retreated to his seat and sat down.
Issac exhaled deeply before continuing. “Now my brothers. I would like a full report of your labours of the past few years.”
The full council had not been together for nearly five years and the reports took the best part of four hours. Three of the members had concentrated their efforts on the New World. It was soon obvious to the others that the colonisation of the Americas presented a whole new opportunity for the waad and they deliberated - long and hard - on how best to capitalise on it.
Finally it was Isaac’s own turn. “Since we last met I have been in Amsterdam with Manassem ben Israel. He is working with our friends in England to negotiate a re-entry for our brethren to that country.”
A Book by Menasseh ben Israel (1604-1657)
A voice from the shadows sighed. “Kezeh - ha - arez. I would like to have gone there.” Issac smiled. “Yes Elias. Angle-terre. No longer the ends of the earth mind you, it is none the less, a very powerful country. Getting our people back in would be a great step.” He paused for a few moments. “I was also privileged to be the tutor of quite an extra-ordinary young student called Baruch Spinoza. For one so young he carries a fearless pursuit of the truth in his veins and in the century to come he will be, as Maimonaides was, the torch-bearer of our Path.”
Silence descended. Issac stood up. “We are all tired and hungry. Return to your lodgings. We will meet with our sisters in public council tomorrow at the synagogue and God willing will open this temple again in three years. Retrieve - ” Issac was suddenly interrupted by the strident voice of one of the younger members. Issac recognised it as belonging to David ben Levi who had responsibility for the Balkans and Russia. “What ever happened to the Jesus megilloth ?”
Issac had not thought of his friends for many years. “They are in the Library of the Franciscan Church in Ragusa, secreted amongst the legacy of Queen Catherina Cosaccia of Bosnia.”
Ben Levi persisted. “Should we not endeavour to retrieve them at this time? ”
Issac shook his head. “I promise you that they will return to our care within a generation. For the moment the megilloth are safe and I have an angel watching over them.”
More than one voice called out. “Who? ”
“Maryam. Daughter of our brother Arif.” Issac turned to look at the tall black council member - from the Ethiopian highlands - who sat in the nearest recess to his right. There were no further questions. Issac took one last look around the chamber before continuing. “Brothers. The yeshibah is closed. Come forward from the shadows and retrieve your sandals.”
All stepped forward to kneel - one at a time - in front of Issac. Each in turn held out his hand, palm upward and squeezed the back of Issac’s left thigh. They then retreated and gathered their footwear. Once reshod the council members linked arms and formed a circle around the menorah. Issac also stepped forward and entered the circle. As he doused the candles he dismissed them with his final words, “We love God through the knowledge we have of him, and as the measure of the knowledge so is the measure of the love.”