Shifra’s Story is a story of advent, written through the lens of a birth assistant. It is unique in that it is an attempt to retell the Christmas story through a female lens, focusing on the very real, very messy parts of the story that the gospels skip over. This is chapter 1 of 6.
The sun rose early, but we were up before the first rays of light had begun to color the sky. Jacob drew me into this first day of our journey with a gentle kiss, “Good morning, Shifra” he murmured, before together we said our morning prayer:
Modeh ani l’faneykha, melekh chai vekayam
She-hechezarta bi nishmati bechemlah,
I thank you, living and eternal King
For returning my soul within me in compassion
Great is your faithfulness.
Then, rising softly, he began his final preparations.
I breathed in deeply the morning smells of our home. I knew it would be weeks before I would experience the leftover vapors of my home-cooked stew, the sweet meadow grasses outside my home, or the familiar smells of our village’s animals sheltered close by during this season of birth. It was 25 years since Jacob first brought me north from Bethany, carried me across the threshold into this, our home. Here we had discovered the joys and challenges of marriage together. We had together brought eight children into this world – and seen six survive childhood. Two small graves had been tended carefully for my Caleb and my Joshua. But David and Jonathan (twins), Ruth, Abigail, Samuel and Micah had grown strong over the years. David and Jonathan had moved to Bethany a few years ago, to apprentice with a cousin of mine.
As I rose and brought the fire to life quickly so I could bake the morning’s bread, I thought back to the day I had first learned about this trip.
I was kneading out the bread for our noon meal when a breathless 10-year-old Samuel had burst into the room. “Ima! Ima! A Roman soldier! A Roman soldier on a big horse! A Roman soldier on a big horse is in our village! A Roman soldier on a big horse is in our village talking to Ava!”
I was horrified. Such a pronouncement from a serious boy like Samuel could not be good. There was nothing of value that could come of such a thing, I had thought at the time.
Time passed slowly. The bread was set to rise, and I had cleaned much of the house before Jacob finally came through the door.
I looked up. I could tell by his face that Jacob was not pleased by whatever he had been told. And I could tell that he was even less pleased at the thought of telling me.
“Go on – what is it?” I prompted.
“A Roman soldier came into the village this morning,” he began.
“A Roman soldier came into the village this morning on his war horse. It was quite a fantastic horse, Shifra. I think under different circumstances you would have quite liked to have met this horse. But today …”
“Yes?” my voice was ringed with worry; edged with impatience.
“Today, I think you would not have liked to have heard his rider. So today, I do not think you would have liked to have seen this horse.”
At that, Jacob walked over to the water pail and began to wash his hands. I was utterly confused, and completely exasperated by this point.
“What did he say?!?” I demanded.
“The horse? He didn’t say anything. Don’t be silly!”
“Not the horse, Jacob.” I tried not to laugh – I knew he was trying to lighten the mood – trying to help me hear what he had to say. “The rider, Jacob. What did the Roman soldier say, that I would not have wanted to hear?”
“Ah … yes … the Roman soldier said that the Emperor wants to do a census. He wants to know how many of us there are.”
“That is not so bad, is it?”
“Well, to know how many of us is one thing, but the Emperor wants for each of us to go back to our ancestral village. That means traveling all the way to Bethlehem!”
“Such a long way! And for what purpose?”
“No, no … it gets worse. He wants us to go so that he can levy another tax on us. He wants to tax each and every one of us.”
I slumped to my knees at this news. The last few years had been lean ones. The Romans continuously took from us all that they could – land, crops, animals, and taxes, taxes, taxes. Always there were more taxes. The tax collector in our village had recently died, and we had hoped we might have a short space of relief to enable us to get back on our feet. But it was not to be.
“And when do you need to leave for this journey?” I asked in a small voice – all of my fight gone already at the thought of more tax.
Coming over to me, Jacob wrapped his arms around my shoulders and drew me close. “Not I, Shifrah. All of us. All of us must go. And we must leave next week, for the census is to be completed before Passover.”
“Before Passover?” I practically wailed. “But who will watch over the animals? Who will plant the crops? Who will make sure that the lambs are birthed safely? Who will plant the vegetables – make sure that we continue to eat? Who will be left to keep the village safe, if we’re all to go our separate ways?” By now I was crying – my words toppling one on top of the next. I did not know how we could cope with yet another tax, much less the journey, but at this time of year, when there was so much to do – so much that our meager survival demanded we do – I did not know how we would come through this.
“That is what took me so long, my dearest one. After we had heard the news, the men of the village met in the synagogue. We discussed the news, then each of us stated how far we would have to travel, and how long it would take. Thankfully most people in the village live very close to their ancestral homes. Mostly people must make only a one to two day journey. The men and older boys have divided up the work and care of the village between themselves, and they will take it in turns to make their journeys so that there will always be enough men here to keep it safe. Apart from us, only Solomon and Sarah and their children must travel any great distance, and even they only need to travel to Galilea, which is not so very far.”
I did not know how to respond to this news. Everyone else in the village would be okay. It was only us – cut off, and far from our ancestral village – who had to make the long journey. Wasn’t it bad enough that we were so far from family? Wasn’t it hard enough being an outsider in this place? Now we were even being punished through the Romans – it seemed there was injustice at every turn!
Jacob felt my shoulders heave, he must have heard my sobs, and somehow sensed the reason for my pain.
“Shifrah … did you not hear me? The men have divided the work amongst themselves. Our livestock will be taken care of. Our fields will be planted. Our home will be taken care of. Even your vegetables will be dug. We will be okay.”
I heard Jacob’s voice through the fog of my reeling mind, but slowly, as he rubbed my back, stroked my hair, and whispered gently, over and over into my ears, the reality slowly seeped into my heart. And then, as though I had turned on my heel, it suddenly occurred to me, “The twins! If we have to all go to Bethlehem, we will have to go through Bethany. We will have to pick up the twins! We will be together, all eight of us for the first time in three years! Oh, Jacob!”
“Yes,” my husband replied, marveling at my rapid change of heart. Then chuckling he added, “and what do you think of taking everyone up to Jerusalem and celebrating Passover in Jerusalem, eh? What do you think of that?”
The tears came back at that thought. It had been many years since we had been able to afford the time and cost of the trip to Jerusalem, but oh, to see the city again – to be part of the Passover in Jerusalem! What an incredible privilege!
“The men of the village insisted that if I was going to Bethlehem, I should take a lamb and lay it on the altar for us. And that I should remember them when I said my prayers, and remember them in the Holy Temple. And this would be how I could thank them for taking care of our home while we were gone.”
Bread made, I thought about how quickly everything had come together. The soldier’s order had come just last week – the day before the Sabbath. And now, nine days later, we were ready to go.
Jacob had evidently nudged Samuel and Micah as he had gone out to feed the animals one last time, and I saw them carrying bags and bundles out the door. The girls were close on their heels, and soon there were six neat parcels by the front door, ready to go.
We sat on the floor eating our bread, and washing it down with fresh water from the well. Everyone had the sleepy-excited faces, knowing the day held both the promise of adventure and the worry of the unknown.
Ruth, age 14, was worried that in her absence Avram would change his mind about their upcoming engagement and notice another young woman in the village.
I worried about Abigail. Already 12, she still had the small body of a child, and I wondered whether she would be able to make the long journey.
I didn’t worry about 10 year old Samuel. He was quiet and serious, taking in everything and everyone around him, and I knew he would do fine, as long as he didn’t get lost in his thoughts and stray behind.
And then there was Micah. Now eight, he had just started at the synagogue school, but he was still very much a boy, and I knew that secretly he was looking forward to weeks on the road: running, sleeping out of doors, exploring cracks and crevices, and playing whatever games struck his fancy as we went.
I looked across at Jacob in the slowly lightening shadows, and we repeated the morning prayer together as a family, before setting out just as the sun began to streak the sky with light.