Yochanan, the youngest of his disciples, the one who gave me the name by which I was to be forever known after that day, Ari, had given me the instruction to do the impossible. On the Master’s orders, to find and buy a large leavened loaf and bring it before sunset to our upper room, where he would eat the Passover with his disciples. His exact words were, ‘The Master says, my time is near. It is at your house that I am keeping Passover with my disciples.’ I was standing right there when Yochanan delivered the message to my widowed mother. The Master to share the seder with his talmidim at my house? I was stunned, but not for long. Yochanan took me aside and gave me his astonishing instructions.
‘Where am I to find unleavened bread on a day like this?’ I protested. ‘We just burned every last bit of chametz we had in the house, and no baker will have anything but unleavened matzah on the first day of Unleavened Bread!’
‘Ari Shim’on! Come on, I’ll go with you. If the Master has instructed us to do the impossible, we can do the impossible. He never sets anything before us we can’t handle.’ I always marveled at Yochanan. No matter what Jesus asked of him, he always rose to the task with a confidence I wish were mine. The other disciples, well, they might sometimes doubt, some of them, but never Yochanan, and never me, either. He’d never let me. As the youngest disciple of Jesus, the others wouldn’t listen to him, but I was even younger than he, and scrawny and timid at that. Yochanan had noticed me following them all at a distance whenever they were in my street, and one day he took me by surprise and cornered me. I thought I was in for a beating. That was the story of my life.
My father—may he rest in the peace of Hashem—died before I was old enough for him to teach me how to defend myself, and in my boyhood, brotherless, there were many who mocked and even beat me. One day—may the name of Hashem be forever blessed—I was following after the talmidim of the man from Nazareth, and one of his disciples broke ranks and approached me. ‘Who are you? And why do you keep tagging along behind us? If you want to be with us, just join in!’ Instead of running away, which is what I wanted to do, I stammered, ‘Sh-shim’on, I am called Shim’on.’ Yochanan suddenly laughed. ‘Here it comes,’ I thought to myself, ‘he’s going to mock me for not even being able to say my name.’
‘Ari! Ari’el! God’s little lion, that’s the name for you! Look at that head of hair, like a lion’s mane! I bet you can really roar, and take down a whole gang of elilim that came against you!’ And he grabbed me by the shoulders, looked me squarely in the eye, and said, ‘Brother, I like you! Come on, join us!’ I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears, but here was a boy just a few years older than me, like all the others, energetic, handsome, confident, only he wasn’t shaking me and then knocking me to the ground with a cruel guffaw. It was at that moment, that my constant feeling of dread vanished, and the world suddenly looked new and different to me. I liked him. No, I loved him, even then, and now, years later, even more.
These memories always assail me when the year comes round to the days before Pesach, the Passover. From that first encounter with my new brother, the one I never had, my life began to change. It wasn’t just having Yochanan as my friend, my special friend, but watching how the Master’s love for him, he passed on to me in exactly the same way. My father and mother loved me as best as they could, but the love that Jesus and his disciples had for each other, and for me, was different. It wasn’t a sour kind of love, always judging, always bossy, hateful of the stranger, bullying. No, it wasn’t that kind of love at all. In fact, I never knew what love really was, until I saw how the talmidim of Jesus from Nazareth loved each other, and how he loved them.
But it is getting close to the Passover, and my heart is full of dread. Remembering that day when I was sent on the errand to find the impossible, at the time full of wonder, ‘What’s he going to do with that? It’s the Day of Unleavened Bread!’ I didn’t understand, but I did it, we did it, anyway, we did what Jesus commanded. I can’t even remember where we found that loaf, but Yochanan made me promise to bring it safely home and place it on the seder table that my mother was getting ready. He had to run, no doubt, to fulfill a mitzvah that the Master gave him. Jesus was always full of love for us, but mitzvot, commandments, too.
My heart is full of dread, not remembering that night—what happened after the seder is too awful for the eyes of my mind to look upon. My heart is full of dread, remembering the Master’s eyes and voice, after he raised his friend Lazarus from the tomb. At the supper that Martha prepared to celebrate her brother’s resurrection, Jesus should have been full of joy, but the same look he had when, seeing the tomb of his dear friend, he wept, never quite left him from that moment. I could sense, though I did not understand, that there was some dark cloud advancing towards him, and toward us. Once again, as it was with me before I met Yochanan and Jesus, there was dread.
Yochanan is the only one remaining of the Twelve now, though he left to follow the Lord Jesus to Ephesos in the north, to follow him in a land far from our home in Jerusalem. The world is changed forever after what happened the third day after that strange seder. At least, it changed forever for me. Yochanan did not abandon me. His love for me is as secure and true as Jesus’ love for him. He joked with me that day I saw him off at Joppa, when he took ship with Miryam of Nazareth, to follow her son beyond Galilee of the Gentiles, to the Greeklands.
‘You know, Ari, how the Lord’—yes, now we call him not only Master, but Lord, for that He was proven to be by his rising from the dead—‘you know how the Lord told big Shim’on’—that’s Kephas. With so many named Shim’on among his followers, we all had nicknames—‘you know how he told Shim’on “Feed my lambs”? Well, brother, I will tell you a little secret. He may have told Kephas to feed the little lambs, but he told Yochanan to feed his little lion—and that is you! Remember, brother, that wherever I go, I will always love you and feed you by my prayers, because Jesus said so, and because he loves us, always, and for ever.’ And after sealing me with the love of God, and with his own love, he thus departed.
And remembering that love, the dread that dismayed me
too has departed.
Chag Pesach Sameach
to all the brethren of the house of Yisra’el
who are celebrating the Passover.