Hanukkah, the Feast of Dedication, was approaching, and all the children of Vaysechvoos were excited. All, that is, but one.
Heshie was upset. Very upset. All the children were rehearsing for the Hanukkah play that was to be presented in the synagogue. Yes, there would be a play, and then a meal of delicious latkes, with plenty of garlic and onions fried in oil for all to eat. And of course, dreidel games for the children.
Now, one would think that there was little cause for Heshie to be sad. But he had his reasons. The play was very important to him.
Yonkel had the part of Mattathias and Yitzhak was to be the mean Syrian king, Antiochus. But the real honor went to Mendel in the role of Judah Maccabee.
That’s what upset Heshie so much!
“Mendel’s a rotten actor and he gets to be the hero? Just because I’m short and heroes are supposed to be tall, I didn’t get the part,” he wailed to his parents.
“Shhh!” his father responded impatiently.
“But Papa, I know I could do it, and much better than Mendel.”
Heshie’s father, Ezra ben Yosef, was a pious man. Though a carpenter by trade, he spent long hours studying the holy books. He so wanted to see his son share his love of the Torah and the scholarly works of the ancient rabbis. But Heshie would instead find ways to excuse himself from study.
“I need to be out in the fresh air, Papa! That way I’ll grow tall and strong! Reading and studying the holy books will only distract from what is important.”
Eshka, his mother, said, “Shhh! Be quiet, Heshie. Your whining will only upset your father. He has little patience for worldly matters like plays and festivals.”
Getting no sympathy from his parents, Heshie retreated to the loft. “They don’t understand,” he moaned to himself. He sobbed and sighed until he was overtaken by merciful sleep.
Dinner was ready and Eshka climbed to the boy’s loft to let him know. She found Heshie asleep and gently shook him. He didn’t stir. Eshka shook him with some force the second time. But still, the boy would not wake. “Ezra!” screamed the frightened woman. “Heshie, I think he’s dead!!!” Her husband rushed up the wooden ladder and grabbed the child, “Wake up, wake up!” he pleaded.
Ezra sighed with relief. “Dear, he’s not dead. His body is warm and he’s breathing.”
“Then why won’t he awaken?”
“I don’t know. We’ll ask the sage of Vaysechvoos. He’ll know how to help our Heshie.”
The wise man arrived shortly, but after examining the child, he could offer no explanation other than saying, “He is living, but he seems to be in a trance, like he was in the presence of angels. I don’t know how to waken him. Or even if I should try.”
The pious carpenter and his wife were bewildered. Their son lay still before them. Yet, he wasn’t in Vaysechvoos; it seemed that he was thousands of miles and thousands of years away.
Indeed, Heshie was in another time and land. He was on the rocky hills of Judea and he was a man, not a boy. And tall! Why, he stood half a length higher than his father! Another young man approached him. “Why are you not with the others?” he asked with some authority. “Well, I er, um . . . ” “Come with me now. We will never prevail in ridding our land of the foreigners if we are not moving as one unit, one army, one force, under the one true God!”
Heshie was bewildered. “One army? Judea? Could it be? Could I be transported to the days of old? And this fellow none other than the Maccabee, Judah?”
His eyes and his heart knew beyond any doubt.
The two men approached a cave where a hundred others stood. The Syrian patrol could be seen coming, and though they were distant, their emblems clearly identified the destroyers.
The man who had led him to the others began to speak.
“This is one more battle we must fight to force the oppressors out of the land, that we might cleanse it from wickedness and recover Jerusalem, the holy Temple and all that is the Lord’s.”
This is not a play, thought Heshie. I’m really here. And while I’m not Judah, the Hammer of God, I am one of his band of guerrilla fighters. If only Mendel and my parents could see me now!
Heshie was handed a large bow and a quiver full of arrows. He’d never handled a weapon before. He managed to extend the bow string a bit, but it took all of his strength.
The men began chanting in unison psalms of protection.
“Guard my soul and deliver me . . . Redeem Israel, O God, out of his troubles.”
The voices were strong and melodious. And indeed, the psalms of protection seemed to impart protection—an invisible armor that was much sturdier than that worn by the Syrian patrol. Heshie had paid so little attention in cheder* that he did not know the psalms by heart as these valiant soldiers did.
Next, the Maccabees began chanting the battle psalms:
“Oh, give us help against the adversary, for deliverance by man is in vain. Through God we shall do valiantly; and it is He who will tread down our adversaries.”
Heshie realized that the strength of the Maccabees was not in their weapons or in their brawny biceps. He began crying because he truly was not one of them. He didn’t have their zeal for God, their love of Torah, their sense of prayerful purpose.
Then Heshie heard a voice. It wasn’t the Maccabees chanting nor was it the wind. It was a still and gentle whisper meant only for him: “A wise man is strong; yea, a man of knowledge increaseth strength.”
The words pierced him in a way that was both painful and sweet. He opened his eyes to see his loving parents beside him.
“He’s awake, he’s back!” they simultaneously exclaimed.
Heshie gazed into the wise eyes of his father. Here is a man who has tasted, no, devoured the holy words of God all his life. What strength such devotion to the things of God produces, Heshie thought. It was the same strength and confidence he had seen in Judah and his men.
“Papa,” the boy lifted his head. “After supper, can we read together from the psalms of David?”
* Hebrew elementary school