Azriel greeted the Hebrew month of Aviv with open arms. This was the beginning of a new year and the month of redemption, a redemption he wasn’t expecting.
By Roman decree, the descendants of King David converged on tiny Bethlehem for taxing. To accommodate as many as possible the innkeeper’s family moved to the roof. Except for the money, he would have thrown the lot onto the streets. They were boisterous and rude, pressing his family to meet their demands.
Storming into the kitchen, Azriel’s eyes bulged as cheeks flamed with anger. A bull of a man, he was ready to explode, until his eleven-year-old, Hedva, offered him a ladle of water. He found it impossible to look upon his daughter and remain angry.
“Only a few days longer,” Hedva said.
“I don’t know if I can last,” he said, sitting upon a three-legged stool. She patted his hand as his thick chest heaved. “I thought this Roman tax was a blessing, bring us money, but it has brought these . . ..” He stopped abruptly trying to find a term to describe the inn’s guests without offending God. There wasn’t any so remained silent.
Frustrated, exhausted, and defeated, Azriel took a pot of stew out to where the travelers were eating. That’s when he saw him, a tall, slender man. Another looking for a room. Even if there had been space, he was determined to take no more.
“I seek a place,” the man said, trying to be heard over the tumultuous noise.
“We come from Galilee.”
“I said we’re full.” Azriel shouted, trying to be heard.
“. . . is there . . ?”
“What?” Azriel couldn’t understand.
He spoke again. It was impossible to hear. Azriel escorted him onto the street where it became possible to hear and get rid of him. The traveler repeated his question. “We have traveled far. Is there no place to find shelter?”
“Do you realize how many people have come because of this Roman order? My family sleeps on the roof to provide room for these, these . . .” Azriel again stumbled for a word to describe his insufferable guests that wouldn’t offend God and again gave up. “All of Bethlehem sleeps on their roofs while others take over our homes. You won’t . . .,” Azriel stopped mid-sentence as his eyes fell upon a young woman seated on a small donkey. “Is that . . .?”
“My wife. She is with child,” the man said.
“How soon?” Azriel lowered his voice.
“Very soon. The journey has been difficult.”
Azriel’s tone became more conciliatory. “Look. There really is no room in my house, and you’ll not find a place except under the stars, and that is not good. With the honest come the dishonest. She needs something private.” Azriel stroked his beard trying to think where they could possibly lodge, then said with great hesitancy, “There is one place. I’m sorry, but it’s all I can think of. There’s a small cave behind the house. I truly wish I could think of something better.”
“No, that will be fine. Thank you.”
“Micha’el.” Azriel called his son who had come out of the house to care for the animals. “Clear a place in the cave for this man and his wife.” Then to the new guest, “Rest on the bench by the door. Inside is no place for a woman.”
As the man helped his wife from the donkey, Azriel returned inside. “Gilead. Help Micha’el clean the cave. We have guests staying there.”
“The cave? Are you so greedy that now even the animals must give up their place of rest?” his wife said.
“It’s the man’s woman, Malka. She is with child. There’s no place left in the town, and she’s near to giving birth. I couldn’t allow that under some tree or among these . . .,” he waved a hand toward the main room, “these men.”
“Give birth? Absolutely not. Ehud, help your father finish serving the food. Hedva, take over the kitchen. Oh, Azriel, a cave? To give birth in a cave? The poor child,” Malka dried her hands and hurried outside.
As Gilead rapidly swept the last of the dung from a section of the shelter, Micha’el scattered a generous portion of new straw. When all was ready, Malka approached the couple.
“Come, child. It’s not much, but it is clean,” she said. The young woman took one step and faltered, clutching her stomach while exhaling a gasp. Malka put an arm around the girl’s waist. “It’s not far. We’ll go slowly. Micha’el, I need Hedva’s help.”
The boy ran to the house, returning with his sister before the visitors had covered half the distance to the cave. The woman stumbled again, crying out softly. The contractions were coming more frequently. The man handed the bed mats he had been carrying to Hedva and swept his wife into his arms. Hedva rushed ahead to spread the mats on the straw where the man laid his wife. He watched as Malka knelt and patted perspiration from the girl’s pained brow. Concern for his wife etched deep lines across the husband’s brow as he knelt at her side. Taking one delicate hand in his, he silently offered a prayer of thanks for finding someone who knew what to do.
Meanwhile, Micha’el had gone to the donkey. Scratching the creature’s head, he looked toward the cave and worried, too. “Come, little one. Let me find you a place to rest, too.”
Placing the donkey in a nearby stall with grain and a buckename shall be called Wonderful . . .” t of water, the boy stared as the woman cried out in pain. He had added extra straw, yet worried it wasn’t enough.
Malka, began issuing orders. “Micha’el, fetch clean cloth from the kitchen. Gilead, bring water, then all you men wait outside.”
Inside the inn Azriel and his older sons worked feverishly until their guests settled for the night, finally dropping exhausted onto the kitchen stool, a deep sigh brought him peace. After a time, he rose and went outside to check on the new arrivals.
Approaching the entrance he saw a lamp with two people huddled in its golden glow. Drawing closer, he could see Micha’el seated on the ground next to the man. Stopping a few meters away, he gazed in awe. In the boy’s lap was a scroll. The man had one hand on his son’s shoulder while holding a lamp in the other so the boy could see. Azriel listened as the man uttered a prayer and then encouraged Micha’el to read from the Prophet Isaiah.
“For unto us a child is born, unto us, a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful . . .”
Azriel interrupted. “What kind of work do you do in Galilee?”
“I am a carpenter.”
Azriel gasped. “I am so sorry. Had I known you were a holy man, I would never . . .” The cry of a newborn stopped him. “From that sound, you have become a father, and by the strength, it is a healthy child. Congratulations.”
“Thank you,” the man said.
Shortly, Malka appeared, looking tired, but smiling. “It’s a healthy boy, praise be to Hashem. Go to your wife.”
Azriel moved next to his wife and put an arm around her shoulders to draw near. She rests a weary head on his arm.
“Do you remember when Ehud arrived?” she said.
“How could I forget? I didn’t sleep for weeks until he figured out the difference between night and day.”
“Father, I’ve never noticed that star before,” Micha’el said, pointing upward.
“It’s beautiful. A good omen,” Malka said.
Invited inside, Micha’el looked down at the babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in the manger he had filled with fresh straw. Looking on with an infectious smile, he asked, “What will you name him?”
“The Lord, praise be His Holy name, has instructed that he shall be known by the Greek form of Joshua. He will be called Jesus,” the man answered.
Azriel was about to make a comment about the overt influence of their previous overlords when a commotion arose outside. Going to the entrance he was taken back as a group of shepherds walked directly toward the stable.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“An angel of God, praise be His Holy name, appeared as we tend our sheep and said that the Messiah has been born this day in the City of David. As a sign, we shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. Then there appeared a multitude of the heavenly host saying, Glory to God in the highest, and peace be on earth, and good will toward men.”
Dumbstruck, the innkeeper turned to stare at the cave. Slowly dropping to his knees he began to praise God, tears coursing down brown cheeks. The Messiah had come at last.