Hands for sheep

The last time I saw my grandfather, Benjamin Mazel, was at an airport farewell. I was so small that when he held me in his arms, underneath his long, thick beard, it was a question whether he felt more the weight of me, or of the beard.Now, many years later, I sat with him on a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee, a little blue puddle down there in the early morning light. He had changed little. His beard had gone a snowy winter, but it was as much a forest as ever. His shoulders had stooped slightly, but they were still broad and firm. Out of his Galilee-blue eyes he gazed with a tender pride at our companions on the hill, a flock of sheep. They were his sheep, his flock. For he was well along in the second woolly profession of his life, Grandpa Benny -- first, in America, a tailor; now, in Israel, a shepherd.

He smiled at me now. ''You didn't say in your letter, David, how long you'll be in Israel.''

''As long as I can, to see as much as I can.''

''Jerusalem, of course.''

''Especially the Wailing Wall.''

''You must not call it the Wailing Wall, David. It is the Western Wall. Here we do not wail. We pray good and loud so God can hear us, but we do not wail.''

''Then I won't either. But I may cry a little, when I see the Wall.''

''Cry, don't be ashamed. The Wall is our oldest friend on earth. But I'll tell you a secret. I think the Wall, when it sees us for the first time, it cries a little, too.''

''What was your first prayer at the Wall?''

''It was my lifelong prayer, David. The same I prayed over my sewing machine in America -- for the Messiah to come.''

I sighed and said, ''Sometimes I think we human beings must make God scratch His head in wonder. I mean, some of us pray for the Messiah to come. Others believe he has come already, and will come again. Still others doubt there is a Messiah at all.''

''And you?''

''I hope.''

''Shall I tell you what Israel has taught me, Benny the tailor turned Benny the shepherd, of hope?''

''Is it a story? I always loved your stories.''

He nodded. Then, giving a look to make sure his sheep were all right, he began, ''I came to Israel because my life in America was over. Your grandmother, may she rest in peace, was gone. Our children were grown and had their own lives.

''You could say, David, that I was no longer happy with the seam of my life. So I ripped out all the stitches and I started over.

''I wanted to work with young people, on the kibbutz. When I came here I was old, and on that subject I was already a Solomon. I wanted to become a Solomon on the subject of feeling young again. Of being a pioneer.

''To work the land, that I couldn't do. But I heard of a kibbutz where they needed a shepherd, and I presented myself. The young people shook their heads at me. What did an old tailor know about sheep? Better I should make shirts for them to sweat or dance off their backs.

''But I said to them that if a man has spent his life making and mending garments, many of them wool, did they think that sheep would not know, when he touched them, that here were hands that had made beautiful things from their wool, here were hands that had honored them? Did they think that sheep would not follow anywhere a man with God-given hands for sheep?

''And right then and there, David, they gave a cheer and voted, unanimously, I was the shepherd.

''I needed no dog to help me, not even a shepherd's staff. The sheep took to me right away. They got fatter. They got woollier. They looked around and piped on that flute God had given them, that flat little flute. They were content.

''But great as was their company, David, and that of the young people, I found here a greater company still. A holy company. In America I had, always, God, blessed be He. But here I have, besides Him, our fathers. I feel their presence everywhere, on this hill, in that valley. If I am irresolute, Abraham can steady me. If I am afraid, Isaac can comfort me. If I am weak, Jacob can strengthen me. If I am broken, Job can mend me.

''And because God has so many helpers here for our earthly problems, He has more time to think about His heavenly one. We forget that He has the biggest problem of all - when to send the Messiah. Should he send him now, lest man destroy man and this beautiful world that God made, or should He wait a little longer, in the hope that man will save man before it is too late? My hope, David , is that the more God thinks about it, the sooner He will send the Messiah.''

An old memory stirred. ''When I was a boy,'' I said, ''I dreamed one night about the Messiah. He looked like my rabbi, but he glowed. He was sitting on a cloud, smiling, because God had just told him it was time to put on his overcoat and go down to earth. So he stood up and put on his overcoat and started buttoning the buttons. I became very sad. I looked at all his buttons, and it seemed to me there were more of them than stars in the sky. I was sure it would take him forever to finish. When I woke up I asked my father, 'Why must the Messiah wear an overcoat when he comes? Can't he just come in his pajamas?' ''

''He will come, David. But he won't come with all his buttons buttoned, or any of the trappings shown in our ancient pictures. He will simply enter our hearts. One moment they will be hard, and the next, yielding. One moment the life of a whole people won't matter, and the next the life of a single human being will be sacred. And God will rejoice with us.''

We fell silent, each lost in his own reverie, his own prayer. Suddenly one of the sheep gave a cry. Grandpa Benny went and picked it up, gently slinging it across his shoulders, so that its front and hind legs lay crossed on his chest. His hands held them safely in place.

''This one is crazy for iced orange juice,'' he said. ''Drinks it through a straw and has to have it three times a day. I'll be back soon. Meanwhile you be the shepherd, like our David of old.''

I watched him heading down the path toward the kibbutz, humming fragments of a tune to the accompaniment of the ''flat little flute.'' And I couldn't imagine how the Messiah could do anything more beautiful to my heart than the love of this man for that sheep.

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