The Gaon’s Revenge – Part IV
A Short Story by Terry Brennan
The Vilna Gaon's Tomb in Vilnius
Ending of Part III:
His father cinched the leather bag closed and handed it to Yehuda, who slung it over his saddle. Then the Gaon held up the shofar towards his son.
“Here, take this Yehuda,” said the Gaon, “and keep it in your hands. Sound your horn at the signal.”
“What signal?” Yehuda was confused.
But his father, the bronze box held fast in his two hands, focused a hard gaze on his son. “You will know. Now, please, help me onto my mule.”
~ ~ ~
The morning light was playing tricks on Yehuda’s eyes as he guided his mule around the bend in the narrow path down the neck of the canyon. A bright, clear sky spread above the canyon’s walls, shards of sunlight glancing off the western wall. But in front of them as they approached the mouth of the canyon, the darkness of night still held the forest in its grip as if the sun had never risen. It was a darkness that grew in depth and intensity, a blackness that inched its way out of the forest toward them.
Yehuda heard the blackness whisper his name.
“Father! What …”
“Have faith, my son. And hold firmly to the shofar. Or we may both perish. Here … come alongside me.”
Two abreast, Yehuda and the Vilna Gaon rode out of the canyon
~ ~ ~
Arms outstretched in front of him, the Gaon held the box in both hands. As the mules walked out of the canyon’s mouth toward the growing black, they became agitated and spooked. The Gaon was having a difficult time remaining in the saddle with the box held in front of him.
“We should dismount,” said the Gaon, releasing one hand to pull on the reins.
“Quickly … quickly,” he snapped. “Get down and help me get down.”
The Gaon held the box firmly in both hands as Yehuda, the shofar shoved into his belt, helped him out of the saddle and onto the ground. “Come … now we walk.”
And the blackness whispered the Gaon’s name … Elijah ben Shlomo … Elijah ben Shlomo …
~ ~ ~
Yehuda nearly lost heart. The blackness gained speed in moving toward them, it grew exponentially, spewed forth a maelstrom of thunder, lightening and punishing rain. And its voices increased in fury … you are doomed, Yehuda.“Father?” whispered Yehuda from his right side.
“Steady,” said the Gaon, his aged voice barely audible above the malevolent cacophony that was racing down on them.
The Gaon stopped … pushed open the lid of the box … placed it on the ground. “Steady.”
The black tempest raced across the sky, blotting out the sun, and swept around them. Now they were surrounded by a cyclone of evil.
The Gaon closed his eyes and began speaking words into the obsidian tumult that engulfed them.
“Rak chazak amats. Rak chazak amats. Rak chazak amats,” the Gaon repeated over and over again. The ancient war cry of Israel, the words spoken by God to Joshua as he was elevated to leadership and the words Joshua and all Israel repeated in a roaring shout to bring down the walls of Jericho. Be strong and courageous, yes … but more than that. Yehuda knew this war cry – this ruwa; this shout – was the unwavering, unyielding confidence of victory before the field is ever taken.
Yehuda felt a stiffening in his spine as the Gaon’s voice increased in volume against the black enemies that surrounded them, clamoring for their deaths.
“Rak chazak amats. Rak chazak amats. Rak chazak amats!” As the Gaon’s voice rose, the box at their feet picked up the chant and roared an echo in response. The box began to quiver and light was now pouring out from inside.
“RAK CHAZAK AMATS,” roared the Gaon. “Blow the shofar, Yehuda … BLOW!”
Yehuda put the shofar to his mouth and blew into the ram’s horn with all the breath in his lungs. The sound of the Jewish war trumpet struck the frenzied Stygian onslaught in a monumental collision. The black trembled.
“RAK CHAZAK AMATS,” cried out the Gaon … but now his voice was overwhelmed by the thunder of a thousand voices erupting from the bowels of the bronze box, like the echo of ancient bells in a church tower bouncing off the canyon walls behind them. The tumultuous frenzy around them gained in fury … but now the voices were no longer threatening. They seemed to be … wailing?
Yehuda trumpeted the ram’s horn, drew another breath and emptied all of himself into the shofar’s blast.
What was that …seeping out of the black? Blood?
RAK CHAZAK AMATS! the war cry of Israel, reverberated from the ground below them, the forest in front of them, the canyon walls behind them … even from the sky above them. But even amidst the massive chorus of voices bellowing the great war chant of Israel, Yehuda could hear the shrieks and cries from within the black vortex. Without warning, like bleeding black comets seeking a return to oblivion, shards of the black assault were hurled into space, some on fire – all of them leaving the wail of the damned in their wake.
Yehuda had no pity. He blew the shofar as hard, and as often, as his physical body would allow.
“RAK CHAZAK AMATS,” cried out the Gaon in a chant reverberated from the box by thousands upon thousands … the host of heaven.
The black tumult around them shrunk; agents of evil were slain; demons, in rapidly accelerating numbers, fled from the field with wails of hopelessness.
With a mighty blast, Yehuda drove a force field of sound into the black … and it was cleaved in two as if a sharpened axe had split it asunder. The massive black storm shuddered, fell in upon itself and, with a blood-rattling shriek of defeat, detonated into millions of wailing, vanquished enemies.
~ ~ ~
The Vilna Gaon once again found himself sitting on the ground. He would also sleep upon the ground tonight. And his body would pay dearly.
But how could his mind, body and spirit feel any worse than they already did?
Emotionally and physically drained by the battle he and Yehuda had survived outside the canyon, his clothes sopping with perspiration, exhaustion fogging his thoughts, the Gaon sat alongside Itzak’s grave, sitting Shiva for a man who gave his life to serve. The Gaon laid a rock on top of the grave.
He was numb, but he felt Yehuda sit down by his side.
“I’ve rebuilt the fire and found some cheese and bread that haven’t been spoiled. And the mules are fed and cared for.” It had taken Yehuda hours to find and return with both of the mules. Yehuda was as physically and emotionally spent as the Gaon. But his father knew there would be questions.
“Why did we need to face that demonic horde?” Yehuda’s voice was muted, as if he barely had the energy to speak. “Why couldn’t this angel of yours …”
“ … this angel of yours have intervened and fought against that evil? What were we doing out there in the middle of the plain against an army of demons?”
The Gaon didn’t move his eyes from Itzak’s grave. “I asked for it.”
He felt his son shift … then felt Yehuda’s eyes on him. The Gaon kept looking at the grave.
“In a dream or a vision – I know not what it was – Bayard showed me what was inside the box,” said the Gaon. “The words of Joshua. The words of the great war cry. And I knew, in my heart, what it meant.”
He twisted his shoulders to look at his son. “We had two choices, Yehuda. The first choice was whether we would stand and fight, or flee before the hounds of Hades all the way back to Lithuania. And those demons would pursue us to our home. Back to your children, Yehuda. Back to your mother and sisters and brother.” In the midst of his exhaustion, the Gaon vigorously shook his head. “I think not.”
Yehuda nodded his head in understanding, then placed a hand on the Gaon’s shoulder. “And the second choice?”
“Hmmm … the second choice,” repeated the Gaon as he turned his gaze back to the grave. Thoughts of Itzak filled his mind. “It was a question I asked Bayard. ‘Who will fight for Itzak?’” The Gaon took his left hand and placed it on Yehuda’s hand on his right shoulder. “That cohort of evil took the life of a precious man who loved well and did no harm. I was not about to let somebody else avenge his death. Bayard opened the box … and opened a way for me to bring justice. My second choice – our choice to make – was whether we would let the angels do our fighting for us, or we would go out and face down the evil ourselves. We could stand firm and issue the great ruwa, the great war cry, or we could flee and leave the battle to someone else.”
The Gaon turned to face his son once again. “Forgive me, Yehuda, but I was too proud to run away. And I was too angry with myself for not protecting Itzak. So angry that I wanted revenge. I wanted to run the sword of truth through the belly of evil. Forgive me, my son, for putting your life at risk too.”
Yehuda’s hand squeezed his father’s shoulder. There was forgiveness in his eyes. The Gaon smiled and nodded in thanksgiving.
“Now,” he said, turning back to the grave, “it is time for me to pray the prayer of repentance. And then you and I must pray for our friend, Itzak.”
The Hebrew prayers were tumbling from the Gaon’s lips. Both he and Yehuda took rocks and placed them on top of the grave. And the sun slipped behind the western wall of the canyon.