A Possible Past Life?

Sarah Tirri
December 31, 2019

Jerusalem 64–70 A.D.

On Friday 15th April, one week before the beginning of Passover, I along with my parents made the trek from Capernaum towards the enormous walled city of Jerusalem. Gentile and Jew—in a caravan of nearly a hundred—we were celebrating the fact that the spot where heaven and earth met, would soon receive us into its confines.

Herod’s showpiece, with its gleaming gold porticos and columns and staircases had been built on such a monumental scale that all approaching were uncertain of what to say. My father’s only comment pierced their trance… “Thousands of men and their beasts died building this sacred structure, we must honor them in our prayers.”  

My father’s brother was a low-level Temple Priest, a Levite, and we had been invited to stay with him and his family in a dwelling that was lavish compared to my natal home. My uncle assisted with the daily animal sacrifices, and as the festival preparations continued, my father was assigned the task of manning the gates. Hundreds of other volunteers offered their time, many helped with the never-ending task of keeping the public areas clean, some helped maintain the ovens, but everyone did something to make sure the climax of the Jewish calendar went smoothly.

With my aunt as chaperone, my mother and I wandered the markets to purchase the ingredients for the evening meal. My mother kept me close to her, gripping my hand, lest I be swallowed up by the mammoth metropolis. Following these daily excursions, the careful and precise preparation of the evening meal followed, and as my mother and my aunt worked in the kitchen area, I was relieved to be away from the churning city. I found the collective religious mentality of the Jewish people compared to the quiet abidance of my community, jarring.

A continuing influx of pilgrims added to the everyday chaos and I soon began to notice that almost every man, in some form of exhibition or another, enjoyed touting their opinions often to such a degree, that it looked like a holy sport. Convinced of their truth, they wanted everyone else to be convinced also. This was the game. I wondered whether anyone noticed the details of their lives because being heard was the only thing anyone seemed to care about. So much shouting, so much posturing, so much noise. The Zealots were the most fervent—they caused a lot of trouble—stirring people’s emotions and encouraging rebellion against Roman control. The Zealots were ill-mannered fanatics who enjoyed mocking the Romans appointed the daunting task of crowd-control. The young Roman guards were regimented and orderly and seemed mild-mannered compared to the Jews they were hoping didn’t get too upset by their presence.

I was safe and cared for, existing around my mother’s skirts until the growing turbulence prevented anyone from feeling safe ever again. The accumulation of resentment arising from the objection to indecent levels of taxation imposed by the Romans ultimately erupted during the year 66 A.D. This was the year the rebels attempted to prevent the Romans from entering the city walls. This was the year the siege began.

The Siege saw to it that no one could enter the city and no one could leave. Those attending Passover were now stuck inside the holy city and soon the common consensus of the prisoner/pilgrims was outrage. Everyone talked heatedly in huddled groups about incarceration and the grievance this amounted to—egging each other on until the next day when the outrage recommenced and matured.

The city had been equipped to accommodate upward of a million visitors, not a million refugees. When I complained to my father that I couldn’t sleep because everyone and everything was so loud, he said, “Don’t worry son, it won’t last long, sense and reason will come about.” Sense and reason did not come about and as the months dragged by, even the staunchly pious began to doubt that sense and reason might play a role in the fate of God’s chosen people.

The Roman Generals on the peripheral of the city were solely focused on getting in. Titus and all under his rule would not be moved. They devised and employed every means possible to penetrate the fortress, most of the walls being several meters thick and requiring the knowledge of the structural engineers employed by the Romans.

By now, thousands of Roman soldiers had filed-in from other provinces and keeping them out soon became the haphazard and frenzied activity of those within. It was clear to all that the Jews were ill prepared to deal with the effects of the rebellion; they knew nothing about war and were naive about what it would take to overthrow a well-organized army of soldiers who resourcefulness in the ingenuities of combat was legendary.

A year into the standoff, an each-for-their-own mentality gathered momentum. Self-preservation was inaudibly displayed in a general attitude of suspicion.  No one was sure of the future they had once taken for granted, and no one was sure of anyone else’s motives. Solidarity now dispensed with, everyone began turning on each other. Law and order was failing, crime was rife, and looting, commonplace. All the women could do was pray for the ways things used to be, but no one was sure whether Yahweh was even listening.

Another year into the siege, desperation compelled a band of Zealots to torch the cities grain reserves, after which they could be heard postulating to the jeering crowds that God would surely and miraculously come to their rescue, He just needed cause. God performed no such miracles and rescued no one. During this time the Romans continued the round-the-clock building of their towers and battering rams, and we Jews began to consider what was suspected—had God really forsaken his own people?

Living in such small quarters with so many distraught people left me nervous to the point that I became physically ill. I had constant pains in my belly and rashes all over my face. Breathing hurt. I was always hungry but our meals got smaller and smaller. I would have stolen food had there been any to steal. The howls of desperation from people feeling like I did came from everywhere—day and night, and the foreboding that we all felt, would soon be irrevocably cemented in a hysterical acceptance of our fate.

It was during this time that my mother gave birth to a baby boy. He was tiny, not much bigger than the palm of my father’s hand. My mother’s milk supply was insufficient to settle the baby for long. Once I saw my father shake my brother because he wouldn’t stop crying.

With no food was to be found anywhere, the plants were consumed, then leather, then wood, then just air. People ate anything that would help assuage their hunger pains and we all drank dirty water. My baby brother and I were skin and bone and so was my mother, but she did what she could to protect her boys from the savage impulses of people paranoid that she was hiding food.

Everyone still alive was accused of hiding food but no one ever found any. There was none left, anywhere. Pestilence and famine systematically began to claim us all—Roman, Gentile and Jew. The stench of rotting flesh was putrid but the only bodies permitted to leave the city walls were dead ones. This was the round-the-clock job of the junior soldiers still strong enough to bear the weight.

My Uncle died of malnutrition first, then his wife and then my father. Their skeletal frames were curled into fetal balls. Tens of thousands of others died in the same position, many with their hands clasped together in prayer, most with their hands covering their ears.

Late one night, as we lay awaiting redemption from our God who was surely punishing us, my mother entered into her final delirium. I did not know what to do; I was only five, so I just watched. First, she started talking to herself, then shouting at the air, and then sobbing—banging her head against the floor. I then watched her get up and slowly and methodically build a fire in the middle of the living quarters with some wood she had retrieved from under her covers. She did this with the door wide open so the Zealots could see very precisely what their insurgence had ultimately led to. My baby brother who hadn’t been properly nourished in the womb nor out of it, was suddenly very quiet. I watched my mother move towards his crib, he was watching her too. My mother picked up my brother by his feet and dangling him in the air, she screamed. “My poor baby, why should I keep you alive in this world of war and famine? Even if we live till the Romans come, they will make slaves of us; and anyway, hunger will get us before slavery does; and the rebels are crueler than both. Come, be food for me, and an avenging fury to the rebels, and a tale of cold horror to the world to complete the monstrous agony of the Jews.”

My mother then pulled a knife out of her apron pocket and slit my brother’s throat. Then, still in trance, she slit his body lengthwise and threaded his dripping carcass through a long wooden skewer. After roasting him on the fire, she began to chew the meat, and then she threw some at me. I was not hungry. This made her angry. My mother who was no longer my mother then wrapped the other half of my brother’s charred body in a piece of linen and waited for what she knew would happen next.

Those still alive could smell the aroma of freshly cooked meat and came quickly. Several Jews appeared in the doorway. My mother beckoned them in and said, “Here, this is my own child, and my own handiwork. Eat, for I have eaten already. Do not show yourselves weaker than a woman, or more pitiful than a mother. But if you have pious scruples, and shrink away from human sacrifice, then what I have eaten can count as your share, and I will eat what is left as well.”

The starving men backed out of the doorway, withdrawing their gaze from the horror of horrors. The entire city soon heard about the abomination and a collective shuddering was palpable in the eerie aftermath that followed. For the first time in years, everyone was suddenly sober, and that night rather than endure the grotesque scenario of the Siege any longer, many killed themselves, jumping off the walls and plummeting into the hands of the waiting victors. We were all dead inside.

The Romans eventually penetrated the fortress and desecrated the city of Jerusalem until total obliteration. The years they had spent burrowing under the walls had been effective. I could feel the city crumble, smell it burn and hear it whimper. A feeble last stand was the final act of those Jews still capable of resistance, but they were butchered as if made of straw. The Siege ended the following week in a blaze of orange and gray.

My mother was already dead by the time a Roman guard found me. I don’t remember what happened next, but when I awoke several days later, I was in the arms of a strange woman. She had a smile on her face, but I never got to know her, I was only alive for a few more hours.

Courtesy: Flavius Josephus.

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