Precarious Wisdom

Deuteronomy Fiction: Vaetchanan

Precarious Wisdom

“Be in what time of life you may, it will be among your misfortunes if you have not time to properly attend to pecuniary (monetary) matters. Want of attention to these has impeded the progress of science and of genius itself.” William Cobbett (1763 – 1835)

Behold, I have taught you statutes and ordinances, even as the Lord my God commanded me that ye should do so in the midst of the land whither ye go in to possess it. Observe therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples; that when they hear all these statutes, shall say: ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’” Moses to the Children of Israel, Deuteronomy 4:5-6

Falu the Jewish scribe clutched the wine-filled goblet in his left hand as he reclined on the couch. The couch was of new Roman design, the latest from Caesarea. From the salon of his hilltop home on the Carmel Mountain Falu could make out a stream of ships of Phoenician merchants and Roman legionnaires. The boats sailed down the eastern coast of the Mediterranean towards the port-city of Caesarea, the fortress and administrative center of the Roman Governor.

That must be a shipment of iron, Falu thought, as he looked at a slow moving Phoenician boat followed closely by a legionnaire ship. There are only two merchants who could afford such a shipment at this time of year, and only one has good enough relations with the Romans to successfully bribe them for an escort. It must belong to Flavius the Golden, that enterprising rascal.

Falu slowly flexed the fingers of his right hand. They were permanently stained with more than sixty years of ink. Falu carefully placed the goblet on the small table in front of him with the remains of his lunch, a small piece of fresh pita bread and some olive oil. He murmured a prayer of thanks to God for the food. He wiped his white beard to make sure there were no drops of wine left. A drop of liquid could ruin his manuscripts.

Falu never got drunk, though he loved wine. Today he was copying the prophecies of Jeremiah which often depressed him. However, the wine gave him a pleasant feeling that inspired him. His manuscripts were always superior after an infusion of strong wine.

A staccato knock shook his oaken front door. Before Falu could answer, a legionnaire captain followed by two soldiers entered his house.

“What is the meaning of this intrusion?” Falu stood up and yelled.

“Scribe Falu,” the captain addressed him while reading from parchment. “You are hereby arrested for your refusal to pay taxes owed to the Governor.”

“I told the tax collector I would have the money next week. I’m still owed money for my last work.” Falu pointed at his table piled high with manuscripts.

“The tax collector has notified the Governor that you have promised him payment for months now and he is tired of hearing the same story. Your house and possessions shall be confiscated and you will be sold on the slave market. Though I don’t expect you will go for much.”

“This is preposterous. I am a man of standing in our community. I can get the money. I just need a few more days. If you give me a few hours I can probably come up with the money.”

“Too late, Jew,” the captain nodded to his soldiers. For the first time, Falu noticed the chains they were carrying.

* * *

At the slave market, no one showed an interest in Falu. Falu was not sure what was more degrading; being offered as a slave or no one wanting him.

The auctioneer finally offered Falu as a package deal, together with a young muscular Jewish slave by the name of Ohad. They were bought by a heavy-set man, weighed down with gold necklaces, rings and earrings. His new master’s name was Flavius. Flavius the Golden.

Falu’s iron chains clanged heavily on the ground with each step he took. He decided that the Romans weren’t intentionally cruel, just practically so. Their infuriating utilitarianism and love of order suffocated life. At his age, Falu was unlikely to try to escape his new Roman master, but he was chained at the ankles just like the young Ohad by his side.

Flavius pranced on his pony behind them. “You Jews are a curious people,” he spoke over their heads jovially. “Your tax collector sold you to me at a pittance. I should come to the Carmel more often to buy slaves.” Flavius whistled a merry tune.

They walked at an easy pace down from the Carmel to the Mediterranean coast.

“Where are we going? How long will we be there?” Ohad whispered to Falu.

“We are undoubtedly going to the mansion of Flavius in Caesarea. We will be there until our death, or until we are sold to someone else. It could be worse. Flavius is known as an intelligent and generous man.”

Falu studied the road intently as they approached the outskirts of Caesarea.

“You see those hoof prints, Ohad?” Falu asked. “Those belong to a camel.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Ohad answered. Flavius stopped his whistling and listened to the slaves.

“Did you know that the camel is blind on one side?” Falu continued. Flavius leaned over the side of his horse to hear the conversation.

“Really? What side?” Ohad asked.

“The right side. I’ll tell you more than that. The camel is carrying a skin of oil on the left and a skin of wine on the right.”

“How can you know all of this? You’re making it up.”

“The camel has two riders, one Jewish and one Roman.”

“Falu, though I don’t know why you are in this predicament – I heard that you are amongst the wise – but how can you possibly know such details about a camel you have not seen?” Ohad asked.

“I am curious as well,” Flavius stated. “Stay here until my return.” He trotted ahead of his slaves to catch up with the unseen camel.

Falu and Ohad stopped and sat on the side of the road, happy for the break. Falu removed his sandals from under his iron shackles and rubbed his aching feet. They saw Flavius disappear behind a curve of the road.

“Flavius will kill you if you are wrong,” Ohad stated.

“I’m not wrong,” said Falu.

“How can you be so sure of something you have never seen; where you don’t even have the evidence of your senses?”

“If you are limited just to the world of your senses, yours is a sad existence indeed. Though in this case my deductions are based entirely on what I have seen and know.”

“Prove it,” Ohad demanded.

“Our master is about to do so,” Falu motioned to Flavius galloping wildly towards them.

“You were right! You were right!” Flavius waved his chubby arms.

Flavius dismounted his horse, ran towards Falu and kissed him on the head.

“You were right my dear Jew. I can’t believe it. You must tell me. How did you know? How did you know every last detail? Are you a prophet?”

“No, I am a simple Jew, but I will tell you how I knew. It was obvious that the camel was blind on the right, because he was only eating from the vegetation on the left. I knew that the skin pouch on his right was wine because the drops that fell from the pouch sunk into the ground, while the pouch on the left had to be oil as those drops did not sink. The urine in the middle of the road would have come from the Roman, while the urine on the side of the road would have come from the Jew.”

“Brilliant! Amazing! You are a genius. We must celebrate this.”

Flavius unlocked the shackles of both Falu and Ohad. He insisted that Falu ride his horse while he led them to his mansion.

At his mansion Flavius commanded his servants to prepare a feast. He invited his neighbors. Musicians were called for. Flavius sent Falu and Ohad to bathe and provided them with fresh clothing. Word spread throughout Caesarea that Flavius was hosting a party. Within an hour there was a large crowd feasting in the patio of the mansion. A skinned sheep on a spit turned slowly over the fireplace. The aroma of roasting meat filled the mansion. A band of musicians played a lively tune. Flavius whistled and danced to the music.

Falu and Ohad sat at the center of a long table. Falu eyed the wine longingly and rubbed his sore ankles with his ink-stained fingers.

“Brothers, sisters,” Flavius announced to the crowd. “Today I bless the Jewish God. I bless the Jewish God who has given His People uncanny wisdom. Today I was blessed with seeing this wisdom firsthand. This Jew,” he pointed at Falu sitting at the place of honor, “demonstrated a genius and an insight I would not have believed possible. They should not be the slaves of any man. I hereby release you. You and your companion,” he pointed at Ohad sitting next to him.

Falu and Ohad stood up and bowed their heads to Flavius.

“It is you Flavius who has demonstrated wisdom and kindness,” Falu said. “It is written in our books, that those who bless us shall be blessed. It is you Flavius, who has blessed the name of our Lord this day, who shall merit great blessing.” Falu embraced Flavius kissed him on both cheeks and walked out of the mansion without looking back. Ohad bowed to Flavius and ran after Falu.

“Where are you going?” Ohad asked Falu.

“To the port.”

“Why? What’s there?”

“There is a shipment of iron arriving shortly that most of Caesarea does not know about yet. I’m going to pre-sell some while the price is still high. Once the shipment arrives and the market is flooded, I’ll be able to buy it at a discount.”

“That’s brilliant. What will you do with the money?”

“Get out of debt and stay out of debt.”

“Can I join you? Can I help?”

“I wouldn’t be telling you otherwise. I need someone to carry the actual iron.”

“As long as it’s not around my ankles I’ll be happy to carry as much iron as you want.”

“Be a slave to no man,” Falu said sharply. “Least of all to yourself. Do not seek too much comfort. That too can enslave you.”

“I don’t understand you, Falu. Do you wish to make money or not?”

“Let us make enough to correct our debts of the past and live light and free in the future.”

“I shall follow your wisdom.”

“This is not merely wisdom, Ohad.” Falu stopped and rubbed the sores on his ankles. “This is bitter experience.”

* * * * * *

Secondary Source:

The basis of the story comes from the following account in the Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 104a:

“A case occurred in which two captives were taken from the Carmel Mountain. Their captor was in back of them. One captive (Reuven) told the other that the camel in front of them is blind in one eye, and is carrying a pouch of wine and a pouch of oil, and a Jew and Gentile are leading it.

The captor: How can you know?!
Reuven: The camel eats only from the vegetation on one side, for it cannot see with the other eye. The drops of wine falling from the pouch sink into the ground, the drops of oil do not sink in. The Gentile relieves himself on the road itself, and the Jew goes to the side.
The captor ran to catch those traveling in front of them, and found that Reuven was right about everything. He kissed him on the head and made a feast for him when he got home. He danced and blessed God for giving such wisdom to His chosen nation. He let them go free.”

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