The Orchard

By Yochi Brandes, Translated by Daniel Libenson

Several of my class readings and discussions this semester brought up religion, and Judaism popped up again and again as a religious tradition that is deeply intertwined with law, but not all that interested in the will of a deity. One of my professors recommended this book as a way to familiarize myself with some of the important Jewish stories. During the first part of the book, I thought I understood the lessons that were being communicated, especially about the power of women in society, the usefulness of forging one’s own path, and the contrasting strengths of interpreting texts through renewal while also understanding texts and the world within the context of historical patterns that repeat themselves.

But the last act was crushingly sad, and muddled my understanding. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to understand that G-d is punishing the Jewish people for abandoning him, or if He doesn’t care, or if He does or doesn’t really have power to control anything, or how everything can be foretold and yet people still have free will. And more than that, I don’t understand why the Jewish people uphold their traditions under such a cruel deity. If I understand correctly, when Akiva, Elisha, and the two Simeon’s enter the orchard, they see the future of the Jewish people, including all the cruelty and death they will suffer, all the way up to the Holocaust. The visions kill one Simeon, drive another mad, and cause Elisha—the kindest of them all—to turn away from Judaism, but why does Akiva stay? The book ends on, I think, a hopeful note, with Rachel prophesying the rise of Miraim’s son Judah as the next Nasi, but I don’t understand why Rachel is keeping her faith in this specific deity after all that has happened. Knowing what is to come in the future, why is she not like Elisha?

I wish I could talk to a Rabbi about this, but I have no clue how to approach one, and am constantly nervous that I’m being rude if I bring all my questions up with just a random Jewish person I know. I don’t want to question someone’s faith in an aggressive or rude way, but I do with I understood this tradition better, because it resonates with me in a way I don’t fully understand.