Joachim dashed aimlessly through the woods, oblivious to the cold night air. Eyes blurred by angry tears, he couldn’t tell where he was going and couldn’t care less as the low branches grazed his cheeks.
The pain was nothing compared to the sting of the priest’s taunting words this morning, which were still ringing in his ears.
It was the Feast of the Tabernacles. Joachim had gone to the temple early to present his meal offering and give thanks to God for the bountiful harvest. He had brought with him fine flour, unleavened bread, salt, together with frankincense and oil,along with his high spirits.
As always, the Lord has been generous with him and blessed him with his produce.He was eager to make his thanksgiving, then go home to Anna and celebrate in their sukkah together. This year was special as they also celebrated twenty years of happy union. Anna was waiting at home for him. They would have a sumptuous meal, enjoy some wine, then gaze at the stars together. Just the two of them..
Though they are not blessed with children, theirs is a happy marriage, like a long sweet song. His sweet Anna…he still saw her as the blushing bride he had carried into his house twenty years ago. Like wine, she has aged beautifully,growing in grace and wisdom. She is kind and generous to the poor and often opened their doors to widows and children in need of a warm meal or a temporary refuge. Every evening, it is a joy to come home to Anna who is always gently smiling at the door, waiting for him with a warm delicious dinner. She always listened patiently as he talked about his day. She is his best friend and his lover. To him, she is worth all the diamonds in the world.
Initially, she was deeply saddened that she could not bear him any children as procreation was considered a duty of all Jewish men. She felt that she had failed him in some way. At the tenth year mark of their marriage, she had suggested with trembling that he take a cocubine who could bear him children. But he refused vehemently as he loves her dearly and couldn’t bear the thought of marrying another woman,disturbing the peace and bliss they enjoyed.
Their forefathers,Abraham Jacob and Elkanah were fine examples.Sarah, Rachel and Hannah had suffered scorn from their husbands’ cocubines, a fate he couldn’t bear to bring to Anna. He would rather be alone with Anna than have a quiver full of children, but no peace in the home..
There was already a long queue snaking around the temple court, men waiting to offer their sacrifice.
“Shalom Joachim!” It was Jacob, with his son Joseph, were already waiting in line
“Shalom Jacob! “ Joachim grinned at the sight of his friend. They chatted a little, asking after each other’s family. Joachim craned his neck to see the altar
“Samuel’s the priest offering our sacrifices today.” Jacob commented nonchalantly, answering his unasked question.
Joachim was nodded silently, thankful at that. After thirty years of friendship, Jacob read him like a book. After the incident with Ruben, the other priest on Sabbath, he was not keen to meet him again so soon, especially at the altar.
They relaxed into a friendly banter about the celebrations and harvest. The focus soon turned to Joseph.
“He’s just turned 13” Jacob said with pride, patting Joseph’s shoulder.
Joachim smiled warmly at Joseph. “Congratulations! You’re now a bar mitzah. I heard from your papa that you are very diligent in your scripture reading . What are you studying now ?”
Joseph blushed “Thank you sir. I am now studying the prophets”
Jacob ruffled Joseph’s hair affectionately “This boy always has his nose in the scriptures when he is not helping at my carpenter shop. It’s not as if he’s ever going to be a priest !” There was an unmistaking tinge of pride in his voice.
Joachim pondered at that. Indeed, the Lord had decreed that only male descendents from the tribe of Levi were allowed to serve as priests. Unfortunately, just because one was born into the right family did not guarantee one had the temperament to be a good priest. Ruben was one such example. A man with an acerbic tongue, who clearly favoured the rich patrons of the temple over common folks. Just last sabbath, he had refused entry to a widow who could not afford to pay the temple tax. He all but manhandled her.
Joachim was so incensed at witnessing such a scene that he had rebuked him in public. The other witnesses cheered as most of them resented him but no one ever had the audacity the confront him like that. Ruben was positively fuming as he stomped off.
“Well, well, who do we have here? If it isn’t the most righteous man in the whole of Nazareth!”
A sardonic voice floated from behind them. Joachim gritted his teeth. He did not have to look back to find the owner of the voice. He turned to face Ruben’s mocking grin.
“Shalom, Ruben” Jacob and Joachim chorussed
“Shalom Jacob” Ruben greeted back slighting Joachim on purpose. He then turned his attention to Joseph.
“Well Joseph, I heard that you are quite a scholar. Tell me, what do the psalms say about a righteous man and his family?”
Jacob narrowed his eyes, wondering why Ruben had a sudden interest in Joseph as he usually only paid attention to the richer folks. He wasn’t sure if he liked where this conversation was leading to.
Joseph’s eyes twinkled. He has always loved to discuss the scriptures. He thought for a moment then quoted fluently.
“Blessed is every one that feareth the LORD ; that walketh in his ways.
For thou shalt eat the labour of thine hands: happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee.
Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house: thy children like olive plants round about thy table.”
Ruben smirked. “Well said, my boy!” all the time eyeing Joachim like a vulture.
“So Joachim, seeing that you have no offspring, you are probably not that upright after all. Why else would the Lord not bless you with children? Have you some hidden sin that cannot be spoken off? Then perhaps it is not lawful for you to offer sacrifices together with the other men here. ”
Joachim froze. His fists clenched into tight balls, his breathing ragged as he struggled to compose himself at Ruben’s provocation.Jacob groaned inwardly. He should have known.
“Ruben!” Jacob admonished “That was really uncalled for. Joachim is one of the most righteous men I know! Why, he always gives generously to the temple workers, which is why God blesses him with a good harvest every year. If this is about Joachim rebuking you last week, you were the one at fault. Be a man about it ! Perhaps you should be the one who needs to make a sin offering! ”
Ruben studied his fingernails as he replied casually “Jacob, Jacob..you do good carpentry work, but do not forget that there are scores of carpenters who would be ready to take your place for the temple repairs”
This time, Joachim had to pull Jacob back.
“Jacob! Please do not offend him on my account. Think of Rebecca and your children! You need the income”
Joseph felt bad . Even at that tender age, he could sense that Ruben had used him to insult Joachim, a dear family friend he both loved and respected. Oh Lord, how can I salvage this? He pleaded inwardly.
Ruben smirked as he knew he had the upper hand this time and was about to walk away when Joseph spoke up respectfully.
“But Sir, if I may add, the book of Sirach also says ’better it is to die without children, than to have them that are ungodly.’”
He paused for a while, racking his brain for a good example to bring home his point.
“ Just like the priest Eli! He had two sons but they were so wicked that they brought ruin to the family”
At that, Ruben’s face turned a deep shade of purple. Unbeknownst to the young Joseph, his words had hit a little too close to home for comfort . Ruben’s own sons were known for their ungodly ways. Many had joked behind his back that they were the reincarnation of Hophni and Phinehas (sons of Eli) .
He mumbled excuse about needing to attend something and stomped off.
Jacob’s heart soared with pride
“Bless you! My child! The Lord must have put those words in your heart!”
Joachim was silent. His mood dampened after the episode with Ruben.
Jacob touched his arm “Brother, do not take his words to heart, we all know it’s not true. You and Anna are the most God fearing people we know. Look at how much the Lord has blessed you! ”
Joachim nodded. But he bent down to pick up his sack of offerings and gave him a small sad smile.
“I’ll be alright Jacob. But right now, I‘m not in the proper frame of mind to offer my thanksgiving. I ...I just need some time alone. Shalom, my friend, Shalom Joseph ”
Start writing here…