Advent, Day 18: Shepherds

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Agam left the next morning.  

If you knew our history, you would think this would not move me.

Agam was the youngest of us and the loudest.  I had worked these hills for twenty years.  I did not expect that a new boy would obey my every word.  But we must work together and some things cannot be allowed.

A few years before Agam, a young fool named Chanan tried stealing from us.  When we are out on the hills, we are closer to nowhere than somewhere.  Chanan stole some money, several shekels, from us. He did not choose only one or he might have gotten away with it.  He gathered all the money he could find. Did he think we never check?  He denied it, so we searched his things and found nothing.  But we knew.  He seemed not to understand that there were no other suspects.  He was the first new worker in three years and in less than a week we have a thief among us?  

I broke his arm.  He was lucky I left it at that, since I knew I was only sending him out to work the Jericho road or worse.  Who needs more of them, I ask you?  But neither did I want his blood on my head.  I never thought the Almighty accounted us for much, but murderers?  The shame that would bring my mother!

As for Agam, he knew everything I knew the first day he joined us.  When I tried to explain our cooking schedule, our washing routine, he stared through me.  Any words I said about shearing or guarding or feeding meant nothing to him.  I am not a pious man, but the great King Solomon said, “Listen and you will be counted wise.  Stop listening and you will stray from knowledge.” 

So I left Agam to make his mistakes, which he did without my help or interference.  I stepped in only when he thought to mock old Erez.  Erez came to the flocks twenty years before I did and he taught me everything, patiently.  My father had instilled in me the cost of speaking out of turn, but I am certain I was headstrong and foolish even when silent.  Erez never reminded me of my many mistakes.  He only repeated, “I have learned from the Master and from the sheep.  What I have is yours.”  

Our life does not make following the ceremonial laws easy.  Erez himself always said, “You can be clean or you can be a shepherd.”  But Erez was the most righteous man I have known in my years upon the earth.  He would greet each day with praise and end each night thanking the Almighty.

Therefore, when Agam chose to imitate Erez’s painful gait, to hunch his shoulders into a “u” and speak in whispers and wavers, and worst of all to gasp between words, I felt the strength flood up through my legs, into my chest, and flow through my hands.  Yes, he mighty Solomon said much about angering slowly.  But he also told us to to punish a mocker, that the simple might learn prudence.  I broke none of Agam’s bones.  But his limp was no longer pretend.  

Erez did not grow angry at Agam for his mockery, but served the young man his meal first–a right accorded to Erez as eldest among us–the whole time Agam was recovering.  I might have counted that as rebuke, except that the day I punished Agam was also the evening Erez first invited me to join him in his prayers.  

Erez remained in camp all that day because his breathing grows worse.  We insisted and he did not protest, which tells me more than I wish to know. That day, we took the sheep to the water and followed our typical routine.  

Typical.  

We light the fires at day’s end.  Attacks happen most at night, so we surround our camp with the tangled thorns to create a barrier.  We take turns sleeping and at least two of us stay awake through every watch.  Erez insisted that he would watch through the night because he made no contribution during the day.  I could feel Agam straining to answer, but he held his tongue.  He was learning.  I ask nothing more than that.  

Erez and I recited our prayers after our meal, before he settled in to keep watch.  I laid down, weary from the day, and closed my eyes.  

I do not expect you to believe what happened next.  In your place, I would not.  “Shepherds drink heavily.  Everyone knows that,” I can hear them say.  They know all about our lives, those who have never passed a single night as we do every night.  

I could see light with my eyes closed.  I first thought I had blinked and slept and morning had come.  When I opened my eyes, the light became so bright I could see nothing.  But I could hear.  Oh, I could hear.  

I will not tell you of that night. Many have asked.  They do not believe us and they ask so that they may laugh.  I will say again, I understand. Solomon gave us this counsel, which I have told everyone who wants to hear my telling of it: “Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues.”  I do not tell the story.  I am not pious.

But I will tell you these few things: 

I went to see.  And I did see.  

When I rose to pray with Erez the next morning, extra early in spite of the long night, I found him, sitting propped up against his favorite tree with his face in the sun.  His head was bowed, his warm cap in his hands as he always held it to pray, squeezing it tightly between his bent fingers.  He died that night or that morning, I know not which.  

Agam came to me, his pack over his shoulder.  

“I have to go,” he said.  “I must find out.”  

He put his hand on my shoulder as if we were old friends.  Perhaps now we were.  

I am old.  Twenty years passing since that night have made me eldest.  

Every morning I remember what I heard and greet the day with praise.  Each night I remember what I saw and give thanks.  

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