In Plain Language: ‘En passant’

When God takes from us, comfort can only be found in believing the loss was for a higher purpose. This is the story of what happens when one man comes face to face with that purpose.

Men pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Men pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 Father, where does the wind come from?” Rabbi Shimon smiled at his brilliant young son’s inquisitive nature. As they took their weekly stroll through the lush forest of Mainz, Elhanan would often ask his illustrious father the questions he had saved up during the week.
“The wind – like all of nature – comes from the Almighty,” said Rabbi Shimon.
“But exactly where it starts, and where it ends, we do not know.”
“Then where does God come from?” said the boy, pulling at father’s long frock coat. “Where does He start from?” “He has no start; no beginning, and no end. He stretches from one end of the world to the other, and far, far beyond that. It is good that you ask me all these questions, my young scholar, for that is how we learn, that is how we finally arrive at the truth.”
Elhanan, just six-and-a-half, was known in Mainz as the “illui,” a child prodigy. He could already read and write both Hebrew and Aramaic, and he had memorized the daily prayers and weekly Torah readings. His study regimen was long and rigorous. He rose at five, prayed, ate some porridge, and then took his seat within Rabbi Shimon’s vast library. Each day’s assignment was laid out for him: A series of Mishnayot, a page of the Talmud, an aphorism to memorize. By the time his melamed arrived at 10, Elhanan had already studied more than most adults do in a week.
The only times his learning was interrupted were the Shabbat afternoon walks with his father – and chess. Rabbi Shimon – who called chess “the Talmud of the mind” – had taught the youngster the fundamentals of the royal game, and Elhanan quickly became a master.
His sharp mind plotted every move from the first pawn; he knew well in advance what pieces his opponent would play and what he would counter.
Rabbi Shimon – himself an avid player – taught Elhanan a unique opening gambit, one that resulted in quick victory over most of his challengers he faced. When he opened his board, the locals lined up for a chance to see, firsthand, the diminutive chess-master working his magic.
Rabbi Shimon longed to spend more time with his son, but he was a very busy man with few free hours. The chief cantor in Mainz, he gave beautiful renditions of the prayers and wrote many piyutim, the poetic masterpieces performed each holiday. He was in great demand and often traveled throughout the Ashkenazi communities of the Rhineland. He also sat on the Council of Sages, as one of the leaders of German Jewry.
One fall day, after a long trip abroad, Rabbi Shimon returned home late at night to find his wife sitting on the floor in a corner of their home, her eyes black with exhaustion and red from incessant crying. With one look, he knew some horrendous tragedy had occurred. “What is it?” he screamed, but his poor, tormented wife could barely get the words out.
“Elhanan, Elhanan,” she whimpered, but could say no more.
Rabbi Shimon looked around and saw several neighbors in the house, all with pained looks on their faces. One of them took Rabbi Shimon aside and told him the terrible truth.
“Five days ago, Elhanan disappeared.
Your housekeeper was also gone, and so we went to her village to look for her.
There we were told she had taken Elhanan and turned him over to the bishop.
Of course, the bishop and his church are off-limits to Jews, so we are at a loss as to what to do. We share in your sorrow; Elhanan is the apple of our eyes and our community’s favorite son.”
Rabbi Shimon, wild with grief, grabbed his coat and asked the neighbor to borrow his horse.
“Where are you going?” they asked the rabbi.
“There is only one person who can command the bishop, and return my son to me. I am off to see the duke.”
The neighbors were filled with dread, as the duke was as prejudiced as he was powerful. But Rabbi Shimon was determined to save his precious boy. Arriving at the castle gate, Rabbi Shimon banged until the duke’s attendant came out to see who was making all that noise.
“What do you want, Jew?” he asked gruffly.
“I must see the duke; it is a matter of urgent importance.”
“I cannot wake the duke for you,” snarled the attendant. “He would give me a dozen lashes if I do.”
“This is a matter of life and death,” cried Rabbi Shimon, “and I will not leave this place until I see your master.”
Hearing the ruckus, the duke poked his head out the window and motioned for the rabbi to be let in. Upon entering, the rabbi bowed and the duke asked him to be seated.
“To what do I owe this great honor?” said the duke. “I have not seen the esteemed rabbi for some time.”
“I have come to beg for the life of my kidnapped son,” said Rabbi Shimon.
“Surely this cannot be fair in the eyes of the duke; I beseech you to have him brought back to us.”
The duke eyed the rabbi for some time before answering: “There is very little that occurs in my province of which I am not aware. I have indeed been informed of the incident, and I share your sentiments that kidnapping is a gross violation of our impeccable system of law and order.
“Normally, I would order the boy handed back to you. But it seems the bishop has already baptized the youngster, and, according to our creed, any child, once baptized, is promised to Christ and must live out the rest of his days in service to our Savior. But, if it is any consolation, I am told that your son is exceptionally gifted; he will no doubt bring much glory to the church as he grows older. So, dear rabbi, you will have contributed something very valuable to the one, true faith.”
Rabbi Shimon tried to argue with the duke, but was summarily silenced.
“Our meeting has ended,” said the duke, “return now to your family and fellow Jews, and be glad you are leaving in one piece.”
Rabbi Shimon returned home, more a ghost than a living thing. He began a mourning period for Elhanan that never ended. His piyutim took on a somber, dirge-like tone more suited to the Days of Awe than the festive holidays. All the tortured pain in the collective Jewish soul flowed like a river when he ascended the bima on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, striking like an arrow into the center of God’s forgiving heart.
On many a Shabbat, Rabbi Shimon would walk along the path he and Elhanan used to tread. He would stop at a point where he could see the faraway cathedral on the mountain where he imagined his son to be. What was he doing now; what kind of life was he living? These questions haunted the rabbi, and only his deep love of God allowed him to escape total madness and depression.
Many years went by, and the situation of the Jews of the Rhineland worsened considerably. There was constant anxiety and apprehension in the villages and hamlets where the Jews resided.
Then one day, one of the elders called an emergency meeting of the council.
“I have heard,” said the elder in a frenzied voice, “that a major action is being planned against us. There is talk of the church organizing a massacre of Jews, in order to take pressure off the noblemen and wealthy landowners, who are being blamed for the ever-increasing poverty. Many of our people will die, and we will be driven mercilessly from our homes.”
The sages looked at one another in shocked silence. What could they do, these pitiful, defenseless Jews? And then Rabbi Shimon stood up and spoke.
“I shall go to Rome and seek an audience with the pope.
Should he deign to receive me, I will plead for our rescue.
There is no other way.”
“You would go to the pope?” asked the council in amazement.
“I would meet with the Devil himself,” said Rabbi Shimon, “if that would save our people.”
And so the rabbi traveled to Rome. He was acquainted with the pope’s personal physician, a Jew, whose secondary – perhaps primary role – was to launder money for the Vatican. The doctor managed to secure a meeting with the pontiff.
Rabbi Shimon trembled as he was ushered into the pope’s quarters.
Seeing the ornate furnishings, the wall tapestries depicting biblical scenes, the pope’s flowing robes and large white skullcap, Rabbi Shimon, for just a split second, imagined he had entered the Beit Hamikdash. But the large golden cross falling from the pope’s neck brought him back to the bitter reality.
“Thank you for seeing me, Your Eminence,” said Rabbi Shimon, with a bow. “I have come to plead with Your Holiness to spare our people from an approaching calamity, one which only you can prevent.”
The rabbi, his head bowed in deference, explained his community’s predicament, and as he did, he slowly lifted his gaze and began to stare into the pope’s eyes, warily at first, and then deeper and deeper. After a few moments, a tremor of fear, horror, revulsion and joy – jumbled together into one impossible mixture of emotions – gripped the rabbi. He had seen these eyes before, many, many years ago.
Suddenly, he could not hear the words the pope was saying or the questions he was asking. He saw the pope’s mouth move, he knew words must be coming out, but he could not hear them; nor could he pull his eyes away from that other pair of gentle, sensitive, familiar eyes.
Finally, he managed to whisper, “I have heard that His Holiness is fond of chess; perhaps we could have a game.”
The pope and surrounding entourage of cardinals was taken aback by this strange request.
How would the rabbi know of their pope’s fondness for the game? And what caused him to suddenly bring it up? The pope, however, was nonplussed.
“I am indeed enamored with the game; it gives me respite from all my weighty duties,” he said, and called for his magnificent marble chessboard to be brought forward.
As the hand-made ivory pieces were set up, Rabbi Shimon spoke up: “I have one request to humbly submit to you. May I please have the privilege of making the first move?” “Of course,” said the pope, “guests always go first.
And he motioned the rabbi to proceed.
With that, Rabbi Shimon made his opening gambit, the one he had taught so many decades ago to a long-lost son.
When the pope saw that move, he froze in his seat. He stared down at the chess board, then up at his opponent, then back down and up again. His gaze was focused not so much on the rabbi as on some far-off place. It was if his mind was crashing through walls of pain and forgetfulness, leaping barriers of tears and pity, returning him to another, lost world. Now he became speechless.
When their eyes met again, there was a mental, mystical reunion that took place, transcending time and space.
Worlds had crashed and come together again. The cardinals, mystified, looked at one another with baffled faces.
Finally, Rabbi Shimon took hold of the pope’s outstretched hand, and spoke softly: “All of us begin as pawns in this universe. Some may go on to become knights or bishops, or even kings and queens. But ultimately, it is our Father in Heaven who moves the pieces around the board.”
With that, the rabbi kissed the pope’s hand – as was the custom – and slowly backed away, out of the room.
What happened next is shrouded in mystery. Some say the pope disappeared, never to be seen again. Others say he committed suicide, and was buried without fanfare. Still others claim that the cardinals conspired to have him removed from his papal office, on grounds of heresy. Whatever the case, the edict against the Jews of the Rhine was lifted, though their reprieve, alas, would prove to be only temporary. It was only a matter of time until that community – Rabbi Shimon included – would suffer a martyr’s tragic fate.
And only then would Rabbi Shimon and Elhanan be reunited forever.
■ The legend of Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yitzhak of Mainz and the ‘Jewish pope’ is alluded to in the piyut ‘Melech Amon’ (The Faithful King), recited on the second day of Rosh Hashana. It contains within it the acrostic ‘Elhanan, my son, may he be granted eternal life, Amen,’ as well as the name ‘Shimon Bar-Yitzhak.’ The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; [email protected]