The Messiah Doesn’t Phone
“Upon your walls, Jerusalem,
I have set watchmen;
all the day and all the night…”
No one in his right mind would choose to be at the Wall on a rainy October night, thought Michael, shivering in his uniform. It was cold in all four of the butkes, the guard posts at the entrances to the Western Wall plaza; but, as a Russian immigrant in the platoon had observed, each was cold in its own way.
The post on the stairs to the Moslem Quarter shuk was somewhat sheltered from the wind by a bend in the alleyway; but its sliding steel door would not close all the way and let in a constant stream of wind and rain. The post in the pedestrian tunnel connecting the plaza to the Moslem Quarter was plagued by an unceasing, damp draft, which occasionally would build to a moaning wind and had the effect on the miluimnikim, the reservists, of a Chinese water torture. While the post on the stairs to the Jewish Quarter was sheltered from much of the wind by a stone balustrade, the roof leaked; and it was only half the size of the others, rather like a phone booth, so that only one soldier could fit inside at a time. But the coldest, windiest, wettest post comprised two facing butkes that straddled the main entrance to the plaza, near the Old City’s Dung Gate, which Michael shared with his partner…
The Wall area was deserted but for a single Hassid swaying back and forth in the far left corner. They were standing between their butkes discussing the government’s latest plan to lower inflation, when they suddenly noticed a stooped-over figure scurrying across the deserted plaza. As he approached, the stranger took shape as a young man with a long, scraggly beard. They immediately identified him as “BT,” an acronym that stood for the Hebrew words ba’al teshuva, literally, “one who has returned” to the fold of religious observance. In practice, however, particularly at the Wall in the middle of the night, the term described someone who had not returned so much as he or she had left—as toward the outer reaches of the ionosphere. Indeed, the figure rapidly converging on the butke actually seemed to float across the plaza, hovering at least half a foot or so off the ground.
“I think we got a live one here,” said Alvin.
The young man was dressed in the BT style: a wide-brimmed, black fedora which drooped over his eyebrows, a shapeless woolen overcoat draped loosely over his scrawny frame, brushing against the tops of black, high-topped basketball sneakers. Below the brim of the fedora, his face was pale but glowing from within with the esoteric power of the Word he had just heard for the first time, perhaps that very evening, from his new rebbe. He glided smoothly over to Michael and asked loudly, in English, his eyes beaming with joyous excitement, “What time is it, please?”
Michael looked at his watch, noticing out of the corner of his eye that Alvin was gazing off toward the Jewish Quarter, stifling a grin. “It’s ten to three,” he replied.
“Baruch Hashem! Thank God, I’m not late!” the young man exclaimed, clapping his hands together and glancing heavenward.
“Late for what?” Alvin asked.
“Please, how do I get to the Temple Mount?” the stranger asked, ignoring the question.
“The Temple Mount is right over there,” Michael replied, pointing toward the gate at the top of a path that overlooked the women’s section of the Wall. “But why do you need to go there now?”
The young man looked behind him, then to the left and to the right. Lowering his voice to a whisper, he confided, “I have an appointment.”
“An appointment!” Michael exclaimed.
“With an all-night shrink,” Alvin muttered.
“Yes,” the man continued, “at exactly three o’clock. You must help me get to the Temple Mount!”
“I’m afraid the gate is locked at night,” Michael said. “Whom did you say you were meeting?”
Again the young man glanced around before answering. “It’s supposed to be a secret,” he said softly, “but I’m sure Hashem has placed you here to help me. You see, it’s Moshiach.”
“The Messiah is waiting for you on the Temple Mount at three o’clock?” Michael asked.
The young man’s smile stretched blissfully from one side of the fedora to the other.
“Yes,” he sighed.
“Well, Michael,” Alvin enthused, “we don’t want this gentleman to be late for the Messiah, do we? I think you should walk him up to the gate. Meanwhile, there’s a phone call I should make.”
“That’s a good idea,” Michael agreed, shouldering his rifle. “Let’s go up to the gate,” he suggested, taking the young man’s arm.
“Oh thank you!” the young man beamed. “Thank you.”
Michael and the BT climbed the steep path, which began near the butke at the plaza level and ended above the women’s section of the Wall at a green metal door, the Mugrabi Gate to the Temple Mount. On the other side of the door, to the right, stood Al-Aqsa Mosque; to the left, the Dome of the Rock shrine. As they climbed the hill Michael glanced at his eager companion and asked himself for the umpteenth time what he was doing there. As they reached the door Michael glanced at his watch in response to a beseeching look from the young man, who was panting for breath.
“Two fifty-eight,” Michael said.
The young man tried the gate, confirming it was indeed locked, then closed his eyes and leaned his head against it, smiling and chanting softly to himself in Hebrew. Michael bent close to him and heard the words of the Psalm, over and over: “Give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good; for His mercy endures forever.” He looked again at his watch. Two fifty-nine. If the Messiah really does come in another minute, Michael pondered, will I be able to go home and go to sleep?
By 03:05, the BT’s chanting had faded to the barest whisper. By 03:10, it had stopped.
“I don’t think he’s coming tonight,” Michael volunteered. “Maybe you got the time wrong. Did Moshiach specify daylight saving time, or GMT, or what?”
“Of course!” the BT exclaimed. “I must have misunderstood the time! I think it must be daylight savings time, since that’s when I had my dream that Moshiach would meet me. Yes, of course! And summer time ended since I had my dream, so the right time is four a.m., not three! I’ll just have to wait here till then. That’s all right, isn’t it?”
“Sure,” Michael replied. “But I have to get back to my post. If you need us, just give a shout. You can see our butke right down there. And give my regards to Moshiach.”
The young man smiled his thanks and resumed chanting. Back at the butke, Michael found Alvin reading a magazine.
“So where’s your friend?” Alvin asked. “Don’t tell me the Messiah’s taking him out for breakfast?”
“It appears the Messiah and the young gentleman are in different time zones,” Michael replied.
“I’ll say that guy is in a different zone, and it’s got nothing to do with time,” Alvin said. “I called the command post. They said there’s a duty shrink at one of the hospitals, but as long as he isn’t violent, just to leave him alone.”
The two men did not resume their conversation, but retreated into their own thoughts, occasionally looking toward the metal door at the top of the path. By the time Michael climbed back up to check on him around 04:30, the young man had gone…
It was now time for the daily cycle to begin again. He waited for the passage of the night to be marked by the muezzin’s call from the Temple Mount. They were late this morning. Suddenly the speakers atop Al-Aksa’s minaret sounded a deep hum of amplification, followed by the call to prayer blasting forth an ear-piercing chant, which was echoed, one by one, from mosques across the City of David. The wailing chant droned on for a quarter of an hour, then suddenly fell silent.
Michael’s ears rang in the abrupt stillness, which was soon replaced by the twitter of the first solo bird, then swiftly joined by the rest of the dawn chorus. Over the Mount of Olives, the sky was now a lighter shade of black. On the path up to the locked gate of the Temple Mount, two cats entwined in a mating dance. The old coffee seller from down the hill in Silwan, his floor-length jalabiya swaying under the burden of his ornate, brass jug and softly jangling cups, shuffled past the butke in a cloud of fresh cardamon.
Ilan Chaim, a Jerusalem resident since 1972, is an editor, writer, and translator; a former chief copy editor of The Jerusalem Post and information consultant to Israel’s Foreign Ministry.