Guest post by Larry Lefkowitz
It was soon known in the neighborhood that the shoemaker left his wife and children. Since the shoemaker had devoted himself increasingly and unceasingly to reading the holy scriptures to the ignoring of his work and his family, his leaving didn’t come as a complete surprise. Like Moses, his commitment to the work of the Lord was total — and at the same cost to his family. Perhaps being a pious woman helped the shoemaker’s wife to accepted his calling. When besides leaving his family, the shoemaker left the neighborhood, not only his wife raised an eyebrow, we all did.
Rumors abounded as to why and where he went. Varied and imaginative they were — even that he went to look for the hidden place of the Ark of the Covenant. All of the rumors placed him in the desert because the reported sightings of him had him heading south. But as to exactly where in the desert, no one agreed. Some placed him in the caves near Qumran — perhaps because his wife said that shortly before he disappeared, she heard him murmur over and over: ”The wars of the children of light against the children of darkness.” Others placed him in the cliffs above Ein Gedi.
Three years later the shoemaker returned, seemingly uncaring whether his wife had remarried. Any questions of his neighbors and customers to his whereabouts during the previous three years he dismissed angrily; in any event because of his quick to anger temperament, few dared ask him where he had been, or what he did there. Even the most persistent of neighborhood busybodies knew to hold their peace in the presence of the shoemaker. The saying, “If you don’t want to be the sole of a shoe, don’t antagonize the shoemaker,” was common neighborhood coinage. Nobody called him by name, he was always “the shoemaker,” as if to use his name was too personal, evincing a familiarity that could be dangerous. I called him — to myself – “Enoch” because of the legend of Enoch the shoemaker who with every stitch connected the upper and lower world. There was something about him of a prophet of wrath – except that he didn’t prophesize. Or if he did, we failed to grasp his prophecy.
Upon his return, the shoemaker shooed the cats out of their quarters and reopened his cobbler shop which had remained closed during his absence. No longer with access to his former living quarters (which his wife had sold when she moved in with her new husband), he slept on a mat on a narrow, raised platform which he built above his work bench inside the shop, dubbed by neighborhood wags as his “Procrustean bed.” The shoemaker didn’t have many costumers, either because of his strangeness or because of his temperament or because he was far from being a master of his craft, and the customers that did frequent his shop did so because it was located close to where they lived. Most of all, his prices were low.
From time to time, I gave him some business because I was curious about him and because I was drawn to the odor of leather and glue that filled the shop. He didn’t mind if I lingered there without saying much. He usually had some tacks in his mouth, more, I suspected, as a defense against having to speak than as a work convenience. I didn’t pester him with questions, adopting he strategy of silence, or indifference, which didn’t help me much, even though he tolerated, and eventually seemed to even enjoy, my presence. Maybe he just got used to me—like an old shoe.
One day, as he was working on the sole of my shoe, he uttered, more to himself than to me, ” ‘And ye shall tread down the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet,’ “, his hammering punctuating his avowal. And then he stopped, dropped his hammer on his workbench, spit out the tacks (an act which surprised and startled me), and began mumbling something about the Rabbi from – he couldn’t pronounce the name very well — one of those towns in Eastern Europe. An uncommon rambling on the shoemaker’s part about a rabbi who one day astounded his disciples by entering his room and refusing to leave it for the rest of his life, dependent upon them to bring him food. Here the shoemaker paused as if wrestling with some thought and then, holding my glance in his, added something about how the presence of evil in the world might possibly have been too much for the rabbi’s sanity to bear. ” ‘Trapped in a fortress of evil without anyone to ransom him.’ ”
I nodded and said nothing. What could I say?
Some days afterward, the shoemaker was gone again. A second time. The desert again? No one knew. Speculation nourished the neighborhood gossip in the following days. Someone said that before he left, he murmured over and over, “Dispersed to the place of the wicked to their subduing by fire.” Toward the end of the same week, I heard a knock on my door. I opened it. A youth stood there, a pair of shoes in his hands. “From the shoemaker,” he said. “I didn’t leave him any shoes to be repaired,” I told him. “He said they were a gift,” the youth persisted. I glanced at the size written faintly inside the left shoe — it was my size. Although they had been polished to a bright sheen, the shoes were not new, and I surmised that somebody had left them to be repaired and failed to come back for them. But why look a pair of gift shoes in the mouth? They were expensive shoes. The shoemaker’s from better days? Maybe his wedding shoes? I thanked the lad and gave him some change. As he was about to leave, I grabbed his arm. “Tell me, do you know where the shoemaker went? His shop is closed.” The boy shrugged, already thinking perhaps of what candy bars to buy with the coins I had given him..
I didn’t get around to putting on the shoes for a couple of weeks, until my usual pair sprung a hole in the sole of one. As I put on the right shoe, I spied something inside. It was a folded piece of paper, which had been inserted in the toe portion of the shoe. I opened it. On it was written a single word: “Azaz.” I repeated the word over and over, trying to fathom what it meant, this shoemaker’s code delivered in a shoemaker’s fashion. Finally, it rang a bell. Something about a scapegoat.
The “Azaz” wouldn’t let go of me. It was as if the shoemaker was pushing me, to use the clue he had vouchsafed me, to solve the mystery of his disappearance. I began to delve into the subject.
I had been right about the scapegoat connection. The scapegoat was a goat that carried the sins of the people placed on it, designated “for Azazel,” which was driven onto the desert to perish as part of the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement. The rabbis of the time interpreted “Azazel” as “Azaz”, which meant “rugged” and “el”, which meant “strong”. They considered that “Azaz” referred to the rugged mountain cliff from which the scapegoat was cast down. Others said it referred to the goat-like spirit haunting the desert to which the Israelites were accustomed to offering sacrifices. The shoemaker had had a wispy, goat-like beard. Surely coincidence, but I found it disturbing nonetheless.
I never saw the shoemaker again. Nor did anyone else. Perhaps his one word message meant that he hadn’t yet given up the search for the key to the presence of evil and his beholding with his own eyes “the recompense of the wicked.” I was not a type to go on quests, even though the nature of evil often confounded me. Although it is forbidden to feel envy toward a poor, lost shoemaker, I felt envy: I had to live with the vexatious question of evil; the shoemaker had gone to try to decipher it and strive with it.
When I wake up at night and cannot sleep, the bad thoughts come. And so I, too, ponder the nature of evil in the world. Maybe for the shoemaker the days and the nights had become one.
Rashi said: “Satan prosecutes in the hour of danger” – that is, at such a time of danger he doesn’t differentiate between the just and the wicked. Perhaps the shoemaker realized that the evil in himself or his attempt to uproot it impelled him to be alone in the desert. To be ”subdued by fire” or to be “a brand plucked out of the fire.”
The Ramban said that just as the fire intended to destroy the thorns gets out of control and destroys the crops, the evil inside of us must be restrained.
The shoemaker was not a person of restraint.
For days the shoemaker and his quest weighed heavily upon me. It did not lift until shortly before the Day of Atonement when I chanced (if chance it was) upon the story of how one day Rabbi Levi Yitzhak was asked by a poor shoemaker if he had something that needed fixing. The rabbi chastised himself, “You see, even he can see that I need to fix myself.”
Which may explain why I continue to bring my shoes for repair to shoemaker shops outside of my neighborhood when it would be easier to buy a new pair of shoes. When I do, I often think of the shoemaker. A tzadik. In the footsteps of Jeremiah.
Larry Lefkowitz has had published approximately 135 stories, as well as poetry and humor. His literary novel, “The Novel, Kunzman, the Novel!” is available as an e-book and in print from Lulu.com. and other distributors.