Shoftim by Rabbi David Hartley Mark


By Rabbi David Hartley Mark


“When you enter the land which the LORD your God is giving you…let no one be found among you who is a sorcerer, a soothsayer, a diviner, a magician, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts….”   –Deut. 18:9-11


Who’s that? The constable? Oh, it’s you, Stranger—I saw you at the village well, and thought that, perhaps, you might be inquiring after my services. I am but a poor woman; yes, but also (She looks around, furtively) a medium, a psychic, a soothsayer. I can read your palm. Or, if you like, bring me a lock of hair of a woman you have loved from afar, and I will brew a potion that will make her love you. Yes. Yes; I can do all this, and more.

Children? Where? Oh, you ask, do I have any children? No, no—the Lord, in His questionable wisdom, did not bless me with any little ones, prior to my late husband’s passing.

Who was my husband, may demons strike him? (Spits onto the ground) His name was Hevel ben Chor, a sandal-maker, though he never pursued his calling for any amount of time—he preferred to spend his days in  the village tavern, drowning his imagined woes in barley beer and wine. He would either wheedle coins from his wastrel friends, or spend whatever small pennies he could steal from me. I loved him, once—years ago, when my hair was a luxurious, brunette mane that I vainly wore down to my waist—when I could remove the head-scarf, of course. As the years went on and his drinking increased, he brought me nothing but grief.

How did he die? My stupid Hevel got into a bar-fight with One-Eyed Shalom over a dice game. Shalom accused Hevel of cheating. Hevel took out his awl, but One-Eye pulled a knife. It was all over in an instant; I hated him, but I hope that Hevel did not suffer, before his long journey down to Sheol….

Constable Seder ben Chok came to tell me, but I did not mourn; no, no ashes or sackcloth for me. D’you think that I wear cloth-of-gold? (Laughs bitterly) No: these rags are all I own; call it sackcloth, if you like. I let the town bury him in Potter’s Field.

Since that time, I have been secretly reading a palm here, auguring sheep’s entrails there, and reading the stars for a fee—it is forbidden, but Constable Seder ben Chok turns a blind eye to my activities—he is a kind man, for all his bluster and his knotty nightstick; he knows that I would starve, otherwise. There is no provision in the Laws of the Village for maintaining aged widows, and no one will buy me as a debt-slave; I am too old and weak.

Instead, I depend on the kind-hearted folk of our village to leave me a gift, here and there—Ofeh the Baker will save me day-old bread, though I must soak it in water to get it past my nearly-toothless gums. And Yerek the greengrocer will make me up a basket of three-day-old fruit and vegetables—they are long past fresh or ripe, but I am not fussy. A lone, poor woman in Israelite society cannot afford to be.

Call upon the Town Council? Why, why on earth would I do that? They care little about poor folk such as I. To speak truth, they do issue a yearly proclamation during the harvest season, ordering farmers to leave the corners of the field and the gleanings falling from the harvest-wagons, there on the ground. It is a challenge for these old legs to hurry to the fields of rich farmers, such as Boaz, and gather the grain that I cannot winnow, anyway—my fingers are racked with swelling, and often refuse to bend or grasp.

Complain? I did not think that I was complaining, Stranger—I do trust in the Lord, and am thankful for any scrap of meat or fish that my better-off neighbors can spare. When Passover arrives, the town mayor himself sponsors a feast, where we recline like royalty and munch on matzo, dipping it in the horseradish to remind us how harsh and sharp life can be—as if I needed any reminding! As I recall—though I have never had any education from Priests or Levites—we did escape from the Land of the Pharaohs, long, long ago….

And so, I call myself a witch—only to survive, mind. I love it, when some foolish farmer or lovestruck boy creeps into my hut, asking me to read his palm. “Cross mine with silver, first,” I answer him, and, though he gives me but a few clay coins, I am content. Otherwise, I sit outside my hut on a cool spring night, feeling the welcome breeze that drives away the hamseen-heat. I dream of what might have happened if I had married Ro’eh the wealthy herdsman, who came, the longish lout, and begged my father for my hand, years ago. I refused him—I was but a foolish young girl, then, preferring handsome Hevel to the shepherd: the worst mistake of my life. Yes, those were days long ago, long ago….

Oh, are you leaving, Stranger? Well, thank you for hearing out a poor old woman’s chatter. Different? What do I wish had come out differently? Well, had I been born a man, perhaps people would take more notice of my loneliness and poverty. The Law’s prohibitions against witchcraft, which make my trade illegal, would not exist, had it been a man’s activity.

I do not know why the Lord God, in His wisdom, seems so dead-set against us poor single women making a living. Perhaps I will take this query to Navo, our local prophet, when he comes around this way. Or—ha!—perhaps I will attend the next Town Council Meeting, and put the question to them, directly—how do you think they would respond, Stranger? Not to my benefit, surely. Ai me—a widow’s life is a hard one.

Good night, and God be with you.

Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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