When the knock came to Shifra’s door, she wanted to shout that she was sleeping and to go away. When she opened the door and saw the dimwitted innkeeper’s daughter smiling at her, Shifra knew that the girl may have believed the ruse. Oh well, the door was open and there was the girl smiling at her. A knock at the door at this time of night could only mean one thing. A child was to be delivered. And if it was the innkeeper’s daughter, then the mother having the child was most likely from out of town. Would they have any form of payment for a midwife? The last foreigner had offered to pay in sand. Yes, sand that they claimed was from their home soil and brought fabulous luck. Shifra had gone hungry for days after that. Hunger. Tonight another small one would come to know that.
“So, another mouth to feed and another back to be broken under Roman tyranny,” Shifra said to the girl. The girl looked puzzled and seemed to consider. Then she smiled and nodded.
“And my old bones aching from the cold,” Shifra said and she turned and got her wrap. “I thought these summer months would be warm and pleasant. I’m sure that the sheep on the hills outside the town will freeze to death in this cold. And the shepherds watching over them… Ah, but I’m sure they don’t. The cold is sent to vex only me, Right girl?”
The girl was running her fingers over Shifra’s rough doorframe. She was about to shout to the girl to stop before she caused the whole little shack to fall to the ground. But the poor girl’s look of bliss was too much to quell.
Shifra had delivered this girl some 15 years back. The girl had come into the world backwards and blue. Usually, when that happened, Shifra gave it up. But this child had been strong and gurgled to life. But those minutes of blueness had taken their toll. The girl grew up not quite understanding most things. She spoke only rarely and always seemed happy. To be happy all the time, Shifra thought. That was a sure sign of something wrong.
Shifra knew that she herself made up for it in bitterness. The anger at the world, the resignation seemed to have grown over the years. Every year, another year of loneliness. Another year of children being born and handed over to parents to live in this sad world that had no hope. The promised messiah was just a story. The real world was without hope. Once Shifra accepted that, everything seemed so much easier. Of course she had suffered a lot years ago. That had robbed her of any joy she might have carried into her later years.
“Very well then girl,” Shifra said, pulling her cloak tight. “Perhaps at least your father will provide a bowl of broth for a poor old woman, yes?”
The girl smiled and nodded. Shifra was confident that Josiah the innkeeper would not want Shifra to leave without something to eat or some other form of compensation. The man was generous beyond belief, taking in lodgers until his rooms were full. Tonight there may even be people sleeping in corridors. The little town of Bethlehem had more people than ever. This mother in labor would have no privacy.
Shifra let the girl lead the way through the nighttime streets brilliant with moonlight. More people than usual were sleeping in the streets these days. It was that Roman censes. The Romans wished more taxes from everyone, regardless of whether or not they wished to live under Rome.
The girl began to wander away from the direction of her father’s inn toward the outside of town. Shifra stopped walking and watched the girl, but she didn’t turn around. She sighed.
“You’re going the wrong way, you silly girl,” she said. “Don’t you know where your home is?”
The girl turned around and smiled. “Yes,” she said softly.
Well, the girl had spoken. Yes, of course she knew where her home was. So why was she leading Shifra across a pasture to a stable?
“No. No,” Shifra called ahead of her and hurried to catch up. “You don’t fetch a midwife to deliver a cow. Animals can be born all by themselves.”
But the girl kept walking. Overhead, the moon was blazing like a brilliant white bonfire. Shifra paused and looked up. Then she stopped mid-step and almost fell forward. It wasn’t the moon. It was a star. It was a star such as she had never seen before. It looked to have more colors that the usual white. There were needle-like rays extending out that seemed to shine in almost rainbow colors.
She stood and stared until she felt her arm gently touched. Shifra started at the girl standing by her. The girl too, was looking at the star. The baffling thing was that when she did, her dimwitted smile was replaced by a smile of knowing. The girl’s mouth had closed and her eyes narrowed as her head titled up to look. Then she looked back to Shifra with the same look of understanding. They both looked at each other for a moment and then Shifra shook off the wonder.
“Let’s see this mother in need,” she said. And they both started off for the stable.
There were the sounds of animals stirring, disturbed from their sleep. Shifra could smell them too. How nice, she thought. A child born amongst animals, surrounded by their noise and smell. What kind of life would this baby grow into?
Walking into the stable, Shifra saw a man hunched down over a young woman. The woman was holding a small bundle. So the Hebrew women continued to be lively, it seemed. The child had arrived quickly. Shifra considered just turning and walking away. She could go home, back to her mat and blanket where she would lie all night and curse the darkness. No, best check the child over. Make sure the mother was alright. Maybe she would still, even now, receive some compensation.
The mother was young, Shifra observed. The husband, a little older looked up with a smile.
“You’ve come to see,” he said.
Shifra raised her eyebrows. “I’m the midwife,” she said. “I see that the child is come already. Do you want me to look him over and see to his health?”
Then the mother looked up into Shifra’s eyes. Shifra was stunned at this girl’s expression of peace and knowing. Why should a young mother who had just experienced childbirth look this way? She looked as if she had married a wealthy merchant and would never know hunger. But no. Shifra looked more at the young mother. That wasn’t the giddy look of a bride on her wedding day. No, it was the look of someone who knew that they were safe from something, like fear or hunger. But this young mother had a new mouth to feed. The same mouth would howl all night and deprive her of sleep and eventually her beauty too. The child would go on to break her heart. Perhaps he would be walking at night and never return and this mother would never know if her child was alive or dead.
Shifra shuddered at the feelings in her. This was not time to reflect on how she felt. This new mother was exhausted. The look of calm relief was that the pain and pushing were done. She walked closer to the mother and child and tried to ignore the look of hope the mother had.
“Let’s have a look,” she said. “A little boy?”
The mother nodded and turned the bundle in her arm. She had done well wrapping the baby up. She saw his face, red and wrinkled. His eyes were closed and his mouth moved in smacking motions.
Shifra felt her heart soften. “We’ll leave him wrapped up for a while,” she said. “He’ll be awake soon enough. You both can rest.”
She became aware of someone next to her. It was the innkeeper’s daughter. She had gotten on her knees, as if in prayer and was looking at the child. Her face wasn’t the empty smile now. There was almost a look of apprehension.
“The baby is fine, girl,” Shifra said. “Everything is fine. Oh my…”
Shifra shuddered as the girl held her hands out to the baby and the mother, not much older, handed the child over with a smile.
“Careful,” Shifra said. “Hold his head, yes, that’s the way. There you go.”
And then the silly young girl was holding the baby and had the same look on her face. This was a look of someone who had heard good news. Shifra looked at the father and saw the same thing. Everyone looked to this child as if he were some king who would bring peace and prosperity to the land. But it was just a helpless child. A child who would someday feel the crush of the world just like everyone else.
“Well,” Shifra said. “The child seems well, perhaps I will just be on my way then.” She stood and waited for someone to at least look in her direction. But everyone was looking at the newborn boy. She looked at him again. He was no different, she thought. But why then, did something feel different? Did that star in the sky put some kind of spell on this night?
She would get no compensation. The innkeeper’s daughter handed the child back and went to the feeding trough. She would find her own way home. Shifra turned and headed to the stable door, but gasped in surprise. The door was blocked by a group of dirty men. Bandits, surely. They had come to steal the animals and would carry off the young women too.
Shifra opened her mouth to shriek, but then recognized the man in the front, and her heart went from fearful to hard anger.
“Hello Berel,” she said.
“Hello,” whispered the biggest of the men in a soft voice. He hadn’t even noticed who spoke to him. He too was ignoring Shifra and looking at the baby boy.
“What are you doing here?” Shifra hissed at the man. “Get your dirty band of shepherds out of this place. There is a newborn child. You don’t belong…”
She stopped as the group of men stepped around her. Then they got to their knees, just like the innkeeper’s daughter. They had on that same look of wonder, of reverence even. What was it? What had enchanted all of these people? The child? Well, she wasn’t impressed.
Shifra watched as the young mother got up and placed the child into the hay of the feeding trough. Then she joined the others in gathering around the manger, kneeling as if in prayer or worship. Even Berel and his shepherds knelt with heads bowed.
Shifra looked at the baby in the manger and then to everyone gathered around. What could this possibly mean other than perhaps she was still back on her mat asleep and shivering in the cold? But at this moment she didn’t feel cold. She felt more than warmth. The wonder and joy of those gathered in the stable seemed to spread to her. Shifra felt the warmth of it all. She began to relax and took a step toward the manger.
Berel knelt in front of her staring at the child in the manger. Shifra felt her heart grow tense. How could he be here revering a child? Had he lost his mind to the drink again? He didn’t belong in this peaceful place. She nudged him with her foot. He looked up at her with the bliss almost like the dim innkeeper’s daughter. Then he recognized her. He smiled even more broadly at that. Shifra felt her face harden into a glare and Berel’s face turned confused.
“Who did you leave behind this time?” Shifra hissed at him. Berel rose slowly to his feet and took her by the arm.
“No, I’m not one of your sheep,” Shifra whispered as he led her out the stable door. Once they were outside she turned on him. He held his hands up to her.
“Shifra, be calm I implore you,” he said. “This is not the night for anger and bitterness. Let’s be at peace just for now?”
“Why are you here?” she asked him. “Who did you leave alone on a hillside this time to be eaten by wild beast or disappear, never to be seen again? What mother will mourn the loss of a son tonight?” Shifra realized her voice was breaking and she covered her face. Too late. She felt the tears wetting her palms.
“Shifra,” Berel said almost in a whisper. “I will lament the loss of your son for the rest of my life. I was a fool back then to leave him while I went for drink. You have every reason to hate me forever. But for tonight, I ask that you set that aside.”
“I can’t,” Shifra croaked.
“Shifra,” Berel said. “Look.”
Shifra uncovered her face. There outside the stable were almost a hundred sheep. Most had settled to the ground and all of them seemed content.
“Berel,” Shifra said. “Why are you here?”
And Berel told her.
“A messenger of God came to us,” he said. “I was never more frightened in my life. But as soon as he spoke, I wasn’t afraid anymore. In fact he told us to not be afraid. He told us that he brought us good news for everyone. That a child was born that was The Savior.”
Shifra looked at his face. This wasn’t the face of someone on the drink. Was he speaking the truth? This was not the Berel that blustered and fought. He had tried to make peace with her. What had come over this man to change him so?
“The messenger told us that we would find the child here. We came and it is just as we were told. The child is wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger Shifra, exactly as we were told.”
Shifra tried to hush Berel, but he continued.
“Once the messenger told us were to find The Child Christ,” he said even louder. “The sky lit up as if it was dawn with a thousand suns. Yet, we weren’t blinded. We all saw the sky full of these messengers of God. They all were singing praises. Singing glory to God and on Earth peace. Shifra, we said to each other that we must go see this and we came. The sheep followed and we came here and… yes. We were told the truth. It is just as the angel said. And the angel said it was the savior of us all. This child is The Christ.”
“The messiah?” Shifra said. “This is a baby.”
“Jesus,” whispered a voice. Shifra turned and saw the innkeeper’s daughter.
“What did you say?” Shifra asked her.
“His name… Jesus,” the girl said. “He is Christ, the Lord.”
Shifra stared at the innkeeper’s daughter. She still had on the same smile as when she looked at the star.
“The mother shall name him Jesus?” Shifra asked. The girl nodded. “And the mother also told you he is The Christ?”
The girl nodded again. She extended her hand to Shifra. “Come see,” she said.
Shifra looked at Berel. The man had a soft, but huge smile on his face. He nodded to her.
Shifra took the girl’s hand and let herself be led back into the stable. It was still quiet. She shepherds still knelt in reverence. The mother sat by the manger looking at the child. Shifra carefully stepped up to the manger and looked down at the child.
“He is well,” the mother said.
Indeed, the baby was awake and looking around. His eyes of course wouldn’t focus on anything just yet. But he still seemed to be very much aware of everything around him.
“He will be hungry soon,” Shifra said.
She didn’t take her eyes off him. The reverence of everyone around was overwhelming. Even the animals seemed to sense the wonder. Shifra couldn’t deny the awe that she felt.
The look on the mother’s face as if her baby would someday save her. Everyone in the stable kneeling as if in worship, the shepherds, even. And then Berel says he has seen messengers from God who say that this is the promised messiah? This was a baby. He was just a baby boy born in a stable lying in a manger.
This was just as the angel had told Berel. Berel, who had been responsible for the loss of her son. Berel whom she hated. She must not believe him.
She wanted to believe him. She wanted the peace that the mother had.
And she looked at the child at that moment, his eyes fixed on her. His mouth twitched. Newborns didn’t smile. This was nothing. But at that moment, Shifra so wished that it was a real smile. Oh, to have the messiah smile at her. And then she sank to her knees. It was still painful to lower herself, but she didn’t care. She felt in her the desire, the need for this child that looked at her to be just what Berel said.
If this was truly so, the messiah born tonight, how wonderful would that be? Berel had been so heartbroken at the loss of her son. And tonight he was so filled with peace and joy. Shifra wanted that. Would believing bring her that feeling?
The boy began to shake his head back and forth. He was looking. Before Shifra could prompt, the mother lifted the baby and brought him to her. Yes, he would be fine.
And that night in the stable among the animals and shepherds, next to the smiling innkeeper’s daughter, Shifra felt something for the first time in oh so many years. She thought how Berel had described a sky full of angels of God. And that was what she felt in her heart. When the tears came this time, they were of joy.