Asher – who lived in darkness
It was hot although it was still early. Boaz had helped us out to the place where we usually sat every day, first Baruch and then me. Walking slowly he guided me to the tree where I could hear him kick away some loose stones and put down the cloak on which I would spend the day. He’s a good boy, Boaz. He is my nephew and he had helped me since he was old enough to walk. And when Baruch’s sight began to go, he helped him too.
Baruch murmured a greeting. We had known each other for a long time and had little to say to one another. Our companionship was comfortable with silence. From time to time we would talk about some event that had happened in the village, but often we were silent, alone with our own thoughts.
For many years I had spent much of each day under that tree. Its bark was familiar, rough to the touch, but I knew each knob and groove in its surface. I saw it with my fingers. Oh, I couldn’t see the colour, but I knew the texture, just as I could recognize people by feeling their faces. Yes, it is an intimate act, but it was the only way I had been able to see since I was a child. Boaz’ face was smooth above the slight beard that he was so proud of. He had been growing that beard for a year or more and it was a sign to him that he was now a man. My sister Rachel’s face was lined. She has had many worries – bringing up Boaz and his two younger brothers alone since my brother-in-law died, caring for me – all these things made her life hard.
I was a liability. I know that. In my heart I longed to be able to help her, but all I was doing was holding her and her boys back. I hated myself for it. I was angry at the illness that caused me to lose my sight; and, if I am honest, I was angry at God too. There, I have never admitted that to anyone before. I have barely acknowledged it to myself. But the anger was there. Why should I be deprived of my sight? Why me? What had I done wrong? I was only a child when I became blind, and since that time I had been dependent, firstly on my parents, then on Rachel, and finally, increasingly on Boaz.
Boaz gave us bread and wine and a small earthenware jar of dates with which to break our fast. I could hear the laughter in his voice as he promised to return later in the day to replenish the wine and make sure we did not need anything. His footsteps faded as he strode away from the village towards Jericho. I wondered where he was going. I was surprised. Usually he would tell me when he had plans to visit another family member in the town. We could hear him singing as he left us, a jaunty bounce in the sound of his steps. He had fallen in love and his mother was in the process of arranging his marriage with a young girl whom I had heard was beautiful. I did not know her well enough to touch her yet – maybe that time would come. I was happy for the boy. They would not marry for several years but it was good to know that his future was being mapped out.
People passed by. We sat, with our hands stretched out, begging for alms. Humiliating. How I hated doing it – and how my soul burned within me at the degradation I felt. Baruch seemed to accept his situation far more easily than I did. But then he had only been doing this for five years. For me it was almost a life time. The few coins I gathered in a week helped the family funds and we could not do without them. This was my contribution to the family and the reason why I sat under this tree day after day.
We recognized some of the voices of the people who passed us. They would call greetings to us – and move on. It was as if we were part of the scenery; part of the tree under which we sat, and not men at all. From time to time someone would leave the road and come across to us and ask how we were and drop a coin on our cloaks. We shared everything we received, for we did not always know to whom the gift was given. But it was good to have the company of each other, even if we were not very talkative.
On this day few people had passed. Some had left the village early in the morning, as we were settling down for the day, and they had been in a hurry. But no one had entered the village at all. It was a break in a familiar pattern and we wondered what was happening. Why was no-one travelling towards the village?
Then, just before noon, in the heat of the day we began to hear voices in the distance, coming from Jericho. We may not have been able to see, but our senses of hearing and smell were acute. We heard the voices when they were still a long way off, and then began to smell the clouds of dust that were kicked up by many people. We could not make out individual voices but rather a buzz of excitement that grew louder as the crowd approached.
Suddenly we heard pounding footsteps, and Boaz’ excited voice.
‘Asher, Baruch,’ he called when he was still some way off. ‘The Healer is coming. I have seen him. You must ask him to help you.’
I must admit my initial reaction to these words was a negative one. What could a man do to heal me? The doctors had done everything they could when I was young and now I was no longer a young man. How could one man help? But I felt Baruch lean forward eagerly. I was surprised when he said,
‘Asher, here is our chance. We must call the Healer! I am sure he can help us!’
I was reluctant still, but Boaz’ and Baruch’s enthusiasm was infectious. After all, I supposed, it would not hurt to ask.
We could hear the crowd getting closer, and then Boaz, his young voice high-pitched with excitement, told us that the man they were calling the ‘Son of David’ was on the road, right where we were sitting.
Baruch called, ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!’ His voice rang with the urgency of the moment. Another minute or so and the Healer would have passed us by.
I echoed his words and we called again. The people were cross with us. They told us to be quiet. How dare they? They had no idea what it was like to sit day after day waiting for someone to give us a coin, humbling ourselves, sitting in the heat and the dust.
If anything it spurred me on to shout louder. So Baruch and I cried at the top of our voices,
‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!’
I heard a lot of shuffling and then silence. The crowd was waiting. Later Boaz told us that the Healer himself had stopped and the crowd that was following him came to a halt.
The Healer called to us.
‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he asked.
I realised that his voice could travel a long distance. It resonated deep in my spirit and made me tremble. Not with fear but with an emotion that I have still not been able to identify. I do not think I could have resisted it, even if he had told me to do something impossible.
We struggled to get up. Moving was difficult after we had been sitting for such a long time. Now eager hands helped us, and pulled us forward. It is always a problem when people who do not know what it is to be blind try to help – for they have no idea how vulnerable you feel to walk in continual darkness not knowing what is ahead of you. Boaz, who was used to helping us, slowed them down and we negotiated the stretch of rough earth between our tree and the road.
The Healer was waiting. The crowd was silent.
Baruch, who was always bolder than me, answered ‘Lord, we want our sight’.
For a moment I held my breath at his audacity. Then I felt gentle fingers touch my eyes and a ripple of power ran right through me. It was as if a hot knife had touched snow – and the darkness that I had lived in for so long melted away. It took me a moment to understand what had happened. I could see! And the very first thing I saw after so long was the laughing face and sparkling eyes of the Healer! Then he turned away from me and touched Baruch and he too could see!
For a moment we were both shocked into silence. Then there was chaos. We grasped each other, the three of us and swung one another around, laughing and shouting praises to God until we all landed in a tangled heap in the dust. The crowd began to realise what had happened and their murmurs turned to laughter and then to shouts of praise! For a moment I was horrified that I had made a rabbi of the stature of the Healer fall into the dust, but he was laughing and having fun just as we were and it was a special moment as he hugged us close, there on the ground. He was praising God too and his whole face was glowing with joy.
What struck me most were the beauty of the faces and the vibrant colours of everything! I could not absorb what had happened. It was too much to take in. But there it was. I could see everything, and my heart swelled and sang within me.
Someone had run to fetch Rachel and her sons – at last I could see them. As I reached out to touch their familiar faces, I could translate the feel of their skin and the shape of their noses to visual images that I never thought I would see again. I knew, in a way, that this was goodbye for I had to follow the Healer; and Rachel knew too. She turned to Boaz, who was beaming with delight, as if she knew that he too would follow this man, this special man. Boaz, his wispy beard ginger in the sunlight, clasped her in a huge embrace and told her that he must go and she nodded, giving him her blessing, although I could see that her heart broke at the thought of him leaving. Boaz turned to a young girl standing behind his mother and smiled at her. Shyly she smiled back and together they turned back to the village to follow the crowd.
Baruch had already gone ahead, telling everyone his story, what had happened and how he had felt. I also began to walk away, but then for a moment I turned back and went to the tree where I had sat for so many years. Stooping down I felt the bark, so familiar to my fingers, and saw the roughness, the knobs, the grooves – and the colours. I suppose in a way I thanked the tree for giving me shade for such a long time, but then my heart swelled with emotion and I lay in the dust under the tree and thanked God, asking him to forgive me for my anger, praising him for loving me so much that he restored my sight.
It was as if a torrent of water rushed through my body, washing away all feelings of anger and bitterness, all the frustration and pain of the last years. When I rose and began to follow the crowd I saw the Healer, a little ahead. As I looked at him, he turned and looked straight at me, smiled and nodded, and I understood that somehow he knew that I was once again right with God. I followed him, eventually taking his message of good news and the kingdom of heaven to Ephesus, where I met Timothy and helped to build the infant church in that place.
God is good. Praise his name, for he gives sight to the blind and sets the captives free! Ask me. I know.