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By Yisrael Gerstenfeld
Four-year-old Sarah had found another yellow scorpion in her back yard and began to play with it. This particular specimen, a mature male about five centimeters long, was of the type that people considered deadly many long years ago. To Sarah it was just another plaything.
Although she knew that annoying small animals was wrong, watching the small animal run down her arm was just too much fun. When it finally jumped off her hand, she grabbed one of its front pincers and put it back on her arm, repeating this cycle again and again. Sarah had convinced herself that the scorpion too was enjoying this game. Despite its frustration, it kept its stinger far away from the little girl. As everybody knows, scorpions or any other potentially dangerous animals would never hurt a human being. Not now. Not in this age.
Sarah's seven-year-old brother Shmuel was close by, sitting in an old green yard chair reading one of his favorite books. Hearing Sarah's shrieks of joy, he looked down and noticed his sister's new plaything. "Sarah!" he shouted, "Stop it! You know aggravating animals is forbidden!"
Sarah thought Shmuel spent too much time reading his books and not enough playing with her. He seemed to read any and all books he could get his little hands on, and had recently started using a lot of complicated sounding adult words. Sarah had no idea what "aggravating" meant, but felt it must be something bad. She felt Shmuel was always telling her what to do. "But I didn't hurt it," she replied. "I was only playing with it!"
"Yeah, the scorpion didn't think so. Let it go. Now."
Sarah, now deprived of her newest plaything, laid back on the grass and looked up at the clouds, listening to her twin six-year-old twin brothers Yoel and Yosef playing inside their modest single-story house. They were all virtually identical, all these homes in their quiet but crowded neighborhood, but everyone seemed satisfied with what they had. Playing inside was just fine, but after coming home from school and finishing lunch, the children preferred to spend most of their afternoons playing in their back yards.
"Children, why don't you both go play outside? The weather's just perfect," Sarah heard her grandfather Saba Yisrael tell her twin brothers, as he prepared a fresh cup of herb tea in the kitchen. Like most other days, he was home keeping an eye on her and her brothers until their parents returned from work.
Sarah knew that her grandfather strongly opposed bothering any living thing. When she first spotted the scorpion a few minutes ago, she waited until Saba Yisrael finished picking a handful of fresh mint and other herbs from their garden and returned to the house. Once he was out of sight, Sarah immediately grabbed the scorpion and started playing with it. Saba Yisrael hadn't caught her with the scorpion this time, but Shmuel did. And now, shortly after releasing it, Saba Yisrael returned outside with the twins and sat beside her with his cup of tea.
"Sarah was playing with a scorpion again, but she didn't bother it too much," Shmuel reported to their grandfather. "I made sure she let it go."
"Let me see it," Saba Yisrael requested, and Sarah pointed to where the small animal was crawling away. Saba Yisrael carefully picked it up by its tail, and called all the children over to see. "Look at this, children. You see this sharp point at the end of the tail here? It's called a stinger. My father told me that when he was young, scorpions would sting people with it. It hurt so bad they'd have to go to the hospital."
The children looked up at Saba Yisrael. He could see puzzlement in their eyes.
"I'm sorry, you don't know what a hospital is, do you? Hospitals are places where they used to take people who were hurt or didn't feel well so they can get better."
"But animals can't hurt people," remarked Yoel.
"Now they don't. But once, a long time ago, some did."
"But I've never seen an animal hurt someone," Yoel stated.
"Neither have I, but my father told me they used to."
Shmuel took a good look at Saba Yisrael. Saba Yisrael, who was old and had a long, white beard to show for it, had never spoken nonsense before. He had never told them anything that was untrue. But a scorpion actually hurting a person was unbelievable. Shmuel exchanged glances with each of his siblings. They all shook their heads, indicating that none of them really believed what their grandfather had just said.
Shmuel, despite his doubt, was intrigued with this new revelation. "Saba Yisrael, what else did your father tell you?"
Shmuel heard a chuckle from behind him, and a low voice saying, "Oh, boy. This is going to be good." Shmuel turned around toward the voice coming from the group of old men at the stone table behind him. These old men spent most of their time sitting around that table there in their back yard, studying Talmud day and night. But this group was in no way unique; similar groups of old men studied at tables in the back yards of other families. Shmuel even heard that groups of women studied somewhere, too. Adults referred to them as the Righteous Ones - the Tzadikim - but Shmuel did not really understand why. They seldom talked to Shmuel and his family. Usually these old men were rather quiet and talked only among themselves in low, pleasant voices. Every so often they would share a good laugh, and although sometimes they would occasionally have disagreements, none of them ever raised his voice.
While these men seemed to be as old as Saba Yisrael, they looked strangely different. Their hair and beards were white as snow, but their pink, unwrinkled skin resembled that of a newborn baby. Their eyes were bright and vibrant. They looked both young and old at the same time.
These old men almost never ate or slept. They just sat and studied, day and night. They were the happiest people Shmuel had ever seen.
Saba Yisrael flashed an aggravated look at the old man who had just chuckled at him. The man smiled back and returned to his text, as Saba Yisrael began to answer his grandchild's question.
"Well, my father told me when he was young, the entire world was very different then the world we all know."
"What do you mean?" asked Yosef.
"Everything has changed. People, animals, even plants. Where today there's peace, before there was strife. Where today there's harmony, before there was dissention. Where today people respect the earth, before they abused it. Let me give you an example. How do people get around now, go from place to place?"
"They walk!" shouted Sarah, pleased to be part of the conversation.
"That's right, they walk. Or they travel by horse or donkey, or on carriages pulled by horses or donkeys. My father told me, and I'm serious about this--they used to move around in metal boxes on wheels--they used to call them cars."
"What pulled these cars along? Horses?" asked Shmuel.
"No, they moved all by themselves. They had engines that burned something. I think my father called it gas, but it wasn't a gas--it was some sort of liquid. It made the cars move all by themselves. But burning this gas dirtied the air."
Saba Yisrael hesitated for a moment before continuing. "I don't remember exactly how my father explained it. Anyway, people stopped using them when the whole world changed about a hundred years ago."
The children sat quietly, each one trying unsuccessfully to picture a metal box with wheels, moving all by itself.
Shmuel's curiosity was aroused. "What other things were different then?" he asked.
"The world, it was a very bad place back then, not like now. You know, my father didn't like to talk much about the bad parts. But it's not important, children."
"Come on," insisted Shmuel.
Saba Yisrael laughed. "When I was a small child about your age, I used to bother my father all the time. I asked him all sorts of questions about the way things used to be, just like you're asking me. I could hardly believe some of his answers."
Shmuel saw Saba Yisrael glance around, as if looking for someone. Saba Yisrael smiled when he saw that Sarah had already gone to the far end of the yard to play. Saba Yisrael continued in a low voice. "People were bad then. Not all people of course, but many. Many bad people hated the Jews with a passion, and did terrible things to them."
"What did they do?" asked Shmuel.
Saba Yisrael paused. "Arabs attacked and killed many of us. Here, in our holy land. There were terrible, bloody wars between Arabs and Jews."
"There's no such thing as wars," said Yosef. "Only in scary stories. Nobody could kill another person!"
Shmuel was shocked, too. All the Arabs he had ever known were wonderful people just like everyone else. They had always been like brothers to the Jews. "Saba Yisrael, are you sure that's what your father told you? Are you sure he wasn't just trying to scare you?" Shmuel asked.
Saba Yisrael shook his head. "No, it's true. When my father told me, I saw tears in his eyes. He tried to hide it from me, but I could see his pain."
Achmed, one of the old men studying Talmud, glanced at his friend Hassan sitting across from him and sighed. A tear ran slowly down his face. Two men sitting next to them, Paul and Heinrich, noticed this and slowly shook their heads. The old man who had chuckled earlier turned to Achmed and Hassan and said gently, "It's all right, brothers. It wasn't your fault."
Saba Yisrael continued. "There was so much hate, so much loss. The world was a disaster, until it all changed. I know. It's hard to believe." Tears were beginning to well up in Saba Yisrael's eyes. He rose abruptly, saying, "Excuse me children. I need a glass of water," as he walked towards the house.
The boys looked at each other silently, until Yoel said, "It's not true. Saba Yisrael is just telling us stories."
"But Saba Yisrael would never lie to us!" Shmuel said.
"Well, then his father lied to him!"
The old man at the table who had chuckled, the one who looked so much like Saba Yisrael, addressed the children in a low, deep voice. "No, I did not. I'm sorry, children. It's true. My son Yisrael - your grandfather - was not lying to you. There were many evil people before the world changed, but the evil ones are no longer with us today."
Suddenly, Shmuel heard a deafening roar coming from the far corner of the yard. Sarah was trying to play with Sylvester - the family's five-year-old pet lion - who had been grazing quietly with Lambchops, their pet lamb. Sylvester simply expressed his displeasure at being bothered again, and moved to another part of the yard to continue his grazing. A flock of white doves, alarmed by the roar, took to the air. Shmuel watched as they flew to the east, towards the Third Temple that stood majestically over Mount Moriah, barely half a kilometer from their home. The afternoon sacrifice had just concluded. Shmuel could clearly see a wisp of incense smoke rising upwards from the Temple Mount, and could hear the Levites song in the distance. All was peaceful and tranquil, as it had been throughout the lifetimes of Shmuel and his brothers, his parents, and his grandparents.
In spite of his great-grandfather's confirmation of Saba Yisrael's story, Shmuel was unconvinced. He knew a phony story when he heard one.
Seven-year-old Shmuel looked at his younger brothers, and said in a whisper that only they could hear, "You just can't believe these old people. They don't know anything about life."
His brothers all nodded their heads in agreement.
While this story is fiction, the security situation we now face is real. But no matter how great the hardships, how painful the losses, how abundant the tears, we must never lose faith and hope for a better day. A day when even the smallest amount of violence or human suffering will be unimaginable. A day when we will see the vision reflected in the Aleynu prayer come alive:
"We therefore hope, Lord our God, soon to see your majestic glory, when the abominations will be removed from the earth, and the false gods exterminated, when the world will be perfected under the reign of the Almighty, and all mankind will call upon your name and the wicked of the earth will be turned to you."
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