Konigsberg, Prussia, 1794
This time evil came riding on shafts of lightening, thunder its rapacious roar—torrents of pounding, cold rain hurtled out of the blackened sky for hours on end.
Yehuda pulled his fox-lined cape more tightly around his body, his left hand gripping it securely against his neck, his right hand throbbing in pain as his mule jerked against the reins with every bolt and bellow from the skies. “Papa . . . please. We should seek shelter from this storm.”
The dark shape ahead of him, nearly obscured by the downpour, wrestled his mule to a stop on the narrow, muddy path through the tall pine forest. As Yehuda came alongside in the enveloping blackness of the storm, he didn’t like the look of his aged father—fiery determination in his eyes, yes, but a sallow, sunken exhaustion in his face.
“We push on, Yehuda. We cannot, we must not, turn back again. Tonight, we cross the Prieglius.”
A chest-rattling cough was muted by his expansive white beard as he turned away from his son and kicked his mule forward.
His father was as stubborn as this mule. Yehuda knew his father feared this would be his last opportunity, his last chance to make his desperate pilgrimage to Jerusalem. But the hounds of hell were surely unleashed against them. Evil had stalked their days and threatened their nights ever since they left Vilna, only eight days past. Hooded bandits on black stallions hunted for them in the dense Lithuanian forest and thieving Gypsies swept down on their camp in the blackness before dawn. Only the sharp eyes and ears of Itzak, his father’s servant, allowed them to escape unharmed. But this rain . . . this rain would not relent.
And neither would this Talmudic scholar.
Yehuda’s aged father was no ordinary pilgrim. Renowned as the Vilna Gaon, or genius of Vilna, Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman was a Torah prodigy from the age of seven. As a result of his great wisdom and his extraordinary comprehension of both Torah and secular knowledge, the often reclusive Gaon spent forty years writing voluminous corrective notes to the ancient texts of his people, particularly the Talmud. Now approaching seventy-four years, Yehuda’s father was regarded as the most influential Jewish writer of his time. There was almost no ancient Torah text that did not bear his notes.
But about one year earlier, the Gaon received a vision—a visitation—that turned his focus from the past to the future. The words he wrote down on two sheets of parchment were a pair of prophetic utterances he was convinced were delivered directly from the throne of Yahweh. And all life changed around the Gaon.
Twice before Rabbi Elijah had set out for Jerusalem, and twice he had been forced to retreat back to his home in Vilna, nearly losing his life in each attempt. Yehuda feared this attempt might . . . no, put away those thoughts . . .
Itzak, ever watchful, reached a bend in the path and raised his hand for them to stop. Leaning forward, he inched his mule ahead and disappeared from sight.
Sitting in the darkness, soaked through to his skin, Yehuda’s mind conjured up a picture of the hearth at home, his wife, Khana, stirring a huge pot of lamb stew, his seven children and their myriad cousins creating an uproar like the rumble of an avalanche in winter. Wait . . . that sound, that roar was in his ears, not his mind.
“Father, what is that sound?”
The Vilna Gaon hunched his shoulders under his thick cape and seemed to shrink in size. “It is the sound of defeat, I fear.”
“Come!” Itzak’s urgent command was nearly buried by the mixture of thunder and distant tumult.
Yehuda followed his father’s mule around the bend. On the far side he pulled slightly to the right so he could see past his father into the gloom where Itzak stood, holding fast to the reins of his mule.
Behind Itzak, Yehuda could just discern the northern cliff edge of the Prieglius River Gorge, southeast of Konigsberg. Yehuda slid from his mount and stepped quickly to the Gaon’s side. With Itzak’s help, they eased Rabbi Elijah to the muddy ground. All three turned and, with great care, approached the edge of the cliff.
Several hundred meters below them, the Prieglius River Bridge bellowed prolonged groans, like a great beast trying to give birth. The river boiled over the bridge in massive, riotous brown waves that crashed and ebbed with growing ferocity. At times, the broad planks of the bridge were thrust to the surface of the raging torrent, at other times the middle section of the bridge disappeared under the rampaging river.
Itzak pointed, fear frozen on his face. “Is that the bridge we plan to cross?”
The Gaon closed his eyes and leaned into Yehuda’s chest. “There is no other bridge . . . not for hundreds of kilometers in either direction. Either we cross that bridge now, or we go home. Again.”
The faces of his children passed through Yehuda’s mind as he envisioned trying to cross the savagely swaying Prieglius River Bridge. Once more its planks arose, awash with tree limbs and bubbling brown water. “We can try.”
His father rested his head against Yehuda’s shoulder. “Thank you, my son. We . . .”
The bridge was lifted high once more by an onrushing wave of floodwater. The massive braces of the bridge bent toward the gorge, their thick support ropes screeching as they pulled against the wood. In an instant, like a sail driven by gale force winds, the middle third of the bridge blasted down the gorge on the back of the raging water. Carried by the flood, the Prieglius River Bridge disappeared into the darkness.
Three hundred meters above the river, Yehuda felt his father’s body sag against his chest. He grabbed the Gaon under the arms to keep him from falling.
“Itzak, help me. We need to get my father to shelter.”
With Itzak’s assistance, Yehuda lifted the Gaon onto the mule. As he considered how to secure his father in place, the Gaon opened his eyes. His voice was shallow, but clear.
“Take me to the house of Abraham Rosenberg, rabbi in Konigsberg. He is the son of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin.”
“Your most loyal and learned pupil,” said Itzak.
“Yes.” The Gaon nodded. “And a man we can trust. One of the few.”
~ ~ ~
On the mantle, the clock was just short of midnight. Outside, the storm raged unabated, as wild and clamoring as two hours ago when they first had reached the Konigsberg Synagogue and the home of Rabbi Rosenberg, hard against the synagogue’s western wall. Changed into dry clothes and fed a hearty soup, a thick mug of hot tea warming his hands and a welcoming fire heating his body, the Vilna Gaon was thankful to God for saving their lives once again and for bringing them—exhausted and despondent—to the home of this good man.
Yet his heart was heavy with failing to fulfill his vow . . . to bring his prophecies to the leaders of Jerusalem. No, not his prophecies. Never his prophecies. He was just an instrument. The prophecies came from the heart of God. His job was to deliver them. Again, he had failed.
“You didn’t fail, Rebbe.”
Rabbi Abraham Rosenberg rested in a chair facing Rabbi Zalman, his left side toward the crackling fire that faced the Gaon. His eyes reflected the comfort of his words.
“No man was going to pass through the Prieglius River gorge tonight,” said Rabbi Rosenberg. “From what Yehuda tells me, you have been spared death many times on this journey. Yet the demons of hell continue to come against you. Praise his holy name, the Lord of Hosts has brought you safely to my home. I do not think it coincidence.”
Leaning forward in his chair, Rabbi Rosenberg closed the distance to the Gaon to just more than an arm’s length. “Tell me, honored one, how may I be of assistance?”
They were alone, Yehuda and Itzak retired for the night. Doubt assailed the Gaon’s mind as he considered the impact of his coming request. But he set his heart upon the Lord, closed his eyes, and recited the Shema.
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
After the first two words, Rabbi Rosenberg joined in the traditional opening to Jewish prayer.
The Gaon raised his head, looked into the fire, and then turned to his host.
“Other than my sons, your father is probably the one man nearest to my heart,” he said. “No disrespect to you, Rebbe, but if he were closer, it would be his home in which I would be resting. Because what I have to share with you tonight is from the throne of God himself. Its importance transcends the ages, and its meaning shakes me to my soul.”
Reaching to his neck, the Gaon lifted a stout leather cord from his shoulders and pulled from under his robes a leather pouch that was attached to the cord. He fixed his attention on the rabbi, the pouch held between them.
“As my son will attest, I sleep only two hours in a day,” said the Gaon, “never more than thirty minutes at a time. My hours are filled, and my stamina supplied, by studying the words of the Torah. Just over one year ago, with Yehuda in the room, I slept for seven hours straight. During that time, my spirit was lifted into a different realm, a place of living light and exquisite peace. That place was not of this earth.”
Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman looked over his shoulder to make sure the door to the room was securely closed. “I received two prophetic messages that day, both of which are written on parchment in this pouch. This journey—the last, I fear, of three attempts—was intended to take these prophecies to the Rishon LeZion, the chief rabbi in Jerusalem, and allow them to be safeguarded there. The messages in these prophecies must be protected and preserved until the day comes when they are needed.”
“You honor me, and frighten me, at the same time, Master,” said Rosenberg. “What should I ask first—what is in these messages, or why are you sharing this information with me?”
His long, thick white beard bobbing on his chest, the Gaon nodded his head and looked at Rabbi Rosenberg from under his eyelids, like a teacher pleased with his pupil. “Well spoken, my young friend. First, I will tell you what. Then I will tell you why. And then you will have a fateful decision to make.”
Rabbi Elijah reached into the pouch and withdrew two pieces of parchment, each one folded over. He allowed the pouch to fall back upon his chest as he held the two pieces of parchment before him in his right hand.
“On that day, the first words the Voice of the Light said to me were, ‘Son of man, listen to my words and write them down for the days to come. When you hear that the Russians have captured the city of Crimea, you should know that the Times of Messiah have started, that his steps are being heard.
‘And when you hear that the Russians have reached the city of Constantinople, you should put on your Shabbat clothes and not take them off, because it means that Messiah is about to come at any minute.’ ”
The Gaon watched Rabbi Rosenberg closely. First, Rosenberg’s eyes widened in wonder. Then he sat back, the first of many questions flashing across his countenance. He stirred, raised his hand to speak, but held his tongue. A sigh lifted his shoulders, then appeared to be released from every part of his body. He shook his head, and the Gaon felt a twinge of fear and despair.
“Rav,” Rosenberg said, expressing respect for the great rabbi, “my mind is spinning in a torrent that my words cannot yet express.” Rosenberg spread his hands. “No man knows the hour of Messiah’s appearance. Many have issued unfounded predictions and been proven fools. But you . . . many revere your knowledge and your wisdom. Master.” He leaned toward the Gaon. “Are you certain?”
A jab of indignation stabbed at the Gaon’s heart. “That I heard a word from the Lord? That the light which spoke to me was heavenly? Was Isaiah certain . . . Jeremiah . . . Ezekiel? I think, not certain. But confident? Yes, I am confident that I was called into the throne room of the Lord and that these words were from the Holy One.”
“Forgive me, Master, but I . . .”
“No!” The Gaon held up his left hand. “Judge me . . . not yet. There are two pieces of parchment, no?” He separated the two sheets, holding one in each hand. “It is the second one”—he motioned with his right hand—“that gives me confidence in the providence of each one. But first . . .” He placed the pieces of parchment back in the leather pouch and pushed himself more erect in his chair. “Let me tell you why I am sharing these secrets with you tonight. Tomorrow, Yehuda, Itzak, and I will begin our return journey to Vilna. No more will I attempt to reach Jerusalem. Clearly it is not yet God’s timing for these prophecies to reach that city. So when we depart, I will leave something behind.”
There is more - just to the Prologue!
Get the book to read the rest of the story.