November 1, 2013

The Book of Tobit…

Category: News — Ira @ 6:56 pm


He had known all the grief, the peril and the labor such a man
could know; he had grown seamed and weathered in his loyal
service, and now, schooled by the qualities of faith and courage
and humbleness that attended his labor, he had grown old, and
had the grandeur and wisdom these men have.

—Thomas Wolfe

Well, it’s that time of year again. I’ve grumbled about it before here on the blog. Or maybe muttered would be a better word. It’s wedding season around here again. I never knew of anything like a “wedding season” growing up. But this being Lancaster County, they have to be all blue blood and do it like no one else does. Like they’ve always done it. They have to cram the vast majority of their weddings into a short span of about eight weeks. And not just on any day during those weeks, either. Tuesdays and Thursdays are wedding days. And this place is so big that they have a few hundred every year. And things get all jammed up, everywhere you look.

It starts right after Big Church in early October. And stretches through to early December. And you can always tell in the morning, getting to work. You come flying over a hill, bleary-eyed and chugging coffee to wake up, and there in front of you is a blinking buggy. And in front of that one, another. They often travel in convoys for some reason. I don’t think it’s planned that way, the first buggy in line probably just has the slowest horse, which is still a wild and crazy beast compared to the ones I saw growing up. Whatever makes it happen, they bunch up. And they’re coming at you as well as going your way. You have to dodge around one, and dodge in behind another. And then do it all over again. And again. Take all the regular traffic that you see around here every morning anyway and mix it up with that, and it’s just one big mess.

I’m not grumbling. Just saying. And I do think about it sometimes, when I see all those buggies out there, going to all those weddings. Somewhere, there’s a young couple who will always remember this day. I got troubles, just getting to work. But this day is special and important to that couple, because the roads are so clogged. And that’s about as gracious as I’m gonna get, about all that. And even that little sliver can be balanced out a bit with what I’ve said before, a few times. Those buggies just flat out aren’t safe on those roads that early in the morning. Not in numbers like that. Not even when local drivers are looking out for them. Which we are.

And this season was different for me than most are. And that’s probably why this stuff is all just jumbling around in my head like it is. I got invited to an Amish wedding, here. Some good friends of mine, their youngest daughter was getting married. Not only was I told to come, I even got an official printed invitation. That’s a rare thing for me, to get invited to any local weddings. This was the third one, I think, in all the time I’ve lived here. Maybe the fourth. And I told my friends what I always say when I’m invited to a place where there will be crowds like that, people I mostly don’t know. I’ll come for supper. Not during the day. I can’t see sitting on those hard benches for three hours, and then mingling with a whole house full of strangers. I’ll come for supper. And I’ll take a little bit of that Roasht you had for the noon meal home, if there’s any left by that time. And I felt free to say that, that it wouldn’t be offensive. If you know me well enough to invite me to your daughter’s wedding, don’t be offended if I only come for supper.

And I saw firsthand how it all works around here, as a wedding approaches. Pretty much like it was where I grew up, except it’s just a little more intense. And there is a lot of work to do, for a long time. The Amish take weddings seriously. Things are cleaned up outside and in. Starting months ago. You could hear all the talk about the plans, the food, the eck, all the little details, and get a grasp of how much planning such a thing actually takes. And the big old barn was painted just a month or so back. A beautiful dark red on the sides. Shiny silver paint coated the old metal roof.

The day approached, then, and arrived. On Tuesday, I thought of it a few times. But we’re pretty hectic at work, and I really didn’t have time to take the whole day off. I left early, though. Supper would be at five, they’d told me. After getting home and changing into good clothes, I headed on over. Parked Big Blue in the field across the road, and wandered in. Small knots of men stood about, visiting. No one seemed in any particular hurry to head in to eat. I shook hands with a few friends, and told them. It’s almost five. I got here just in time, I guess. They looked at me as if I’d said something strange. “Five? Oh, weddings run on slow time. We’re eating at six, not five. Six is five, slow time.” I was pretty horrified. I’ve grumbled at my friends before, many times. Nobody ever tells me anything. I guess they had a lot going on. But still. You think you’re getting somewhere just in time to eat, and all of a sudden, a whole hour looms right up like a wall. You have to kill it, somehow. Ah, boy. Well, I said. I guess I know enough people that I can visit for that time.

And that’s what I did. Someone took me into the large shop where the service had been held. And now a long U table was set up to eat. Probably seated more than a hundred people. And my friend Esther sought me out. She had been assigned to get me some leftover Roasht from the noon meal. It was sitting out in the cooler in a large tub. We walked into where the women were preparing supper, and Esther found the stack of big Styrofoam takeout containers. She took the top one, but I stopped her. How much Roasht is left? “Well, there’s some on the bottom of the tub,” she said. I want two containers full, I said. “Now, now,” she chided. “Don’t be greedy.” Well, let’s see how much is there, but we’re taking two containers, just in case. And we walked out to the rented cooler trailer. Food was sitting there on the shelves. On the floor a large, and I mean large, tub. I gaped. It rippled with a good four inches of delicious Roasht at the bottom, looked like. All left over from the noon meal. I want to fill both these containers, I told her. And I mean, heap them full. She shook her head and scolded me good-naturedly. But she did it, and we set them on a shelf for me to pick up on my way out. And I didn’t feel one bit guilty. There is no shame at all in begging, not when it comes to Roasht. There is no greed, either.

Soon it was time to be seated for supper, and I was directed to the little table off to the side. Around here, they usually have a table off to the side somewhere, for the ones who had been members and left. And for the odd English guest. Mostly, though, the table is set up for the ones they can’t eat with, at least not in public. Except for down at the south end, maybe. There, they’d be more likely not to have such people at their weddings at all. But here, around me, they do invite such people.

I’ve heard a lot of stories over the years about how offensive that is, to be seated off to the side like that. Like common sinners not good enough to be seated as honored guests at the main table. But I’ve mulled it through, in my mind. And to me, it’s a long way from offensive. Hey, you were invited to come, invited to celebrate this important day. Sometimes by unspoken invitation, sure. I know all about how that is, too. But you were invited. Or they wouldn’t have set any table for you. Be grateful for that gift. Be grateful for that relationship, whatever it is. Why are you grasping to yourself more honor than that? Stop fussing about where you were seated to eat. Feast and be merry and eat. You can always choose to have a grateful heart in pretty much any situation like that, I figure.

It was less than a table full, that little group that night. I knew most of them quite well, as in old friends for a long time. I probably wouldn’t have been invited, had I been a stranger to that table. And we all had a really good time. Just chattering and talking. It’s kind of startling, when everything goes quiet, all at once in that setting. And you’re still talking. You look around and realize everyone is bowing their heads in silent prayer. And it’s the same way, when they’re done eating. All of a sudden, it’s just quiet. Anyway, we had a loud, large time, the little side table people. Feasting and laughing. Real chicken pie (NOT chicken pot pie, but real chicken baked into a real pie), salad, and noodles. Then cake and ice cream for dessert. And all of a sudden, the room just went quiet again. The married people had to eat fast and get done, so the next table could be seated. At our little table, there was no second seating. So after the people at the large table had prayed the second time and got up, we just went right back to finishing our meal. It was a good evening, and a pleasant one.

I stood around, just visiting, for a while then. Soon the big U table was reset, and the youth filed in, coupled up, boys and girls. I walked around to the back of the eck, where the bride and groom were seated. They smiled in welcome. We chatted, and I congratulated them. I’ll bring your gift once you’re settled in your home, I told them. I have no idea what it’ll be. Guess I’ll have to ask around, with the family, and get them something they actually need and can use. And shortly after eight, I took my leave. Slipped out to the cooler, and picked up my two precious containers of Roasht. I would feast well on that, for the next week or so. It really is one of the better Amish dishes I’ve ever tasted. And I didn’t even grow up with it. The blue bloods actually came up with a recipe that matches the Daivess food of my childhood.

And I got home, and just chilled. Got to chatting on Facebook with a few friends. I was invited to an Amish wedding today, but just went for the evening, I told them. And my friend Vern Herschberger asked incredulously. “What? You didn’t want to go for the service today, and hear the Tobias story again?” Nah, I wrote back. I’ve heard that story many times, way back. I didn’t feel like sitting there for as long as it takes to hear it again. But it got me to thinking about things, that little exchange we had right there.

It may or may not be a well-known fact out there that it’s an old Amish tradition to tell the Tobias story at their weddings. (Or Tobit, which I prefer, because it has better rhythm. Besides, that’s the name of his book.) It’s a book in the Apocrypha section of Catholic Bibles. I’ve never heard any real explanation as to where the practice comes from, that the Amish preach this tale at their weddings. One of my friends claims it’s because Tobit has the only written scene of someone actually getting married. Makes sense to me. And, of course, there’s lots of nice little moral lessons to be learned, too. It’s plain that the Tobit tradition is a direct link back to the Catholics. The Catholics hold high the Apocrypha books, as truths straight from God. And near as I can tell from what I’ve heard from those who came from there, Catholic guilt and Amish guilt are pretty much twin models. Couple of random thoughts there, but the connection works for me.

I remember well the Tobias story being preached at weddings. It was always a good thing when it came, because it meant the service was winding down. And soon there would be food. Depending on where you are, you’ll hear the whole story, down to the last excruciating little detail. Anymore, though, Tobias has fallen from favor a good deal in many communities. The plainer and more conservative the community, the more details you’ll hear about Tobias. In some of the more progressive settlements, the poor man hardly gets mentioned at all. I don’t feel particularly strongly about it, one way or the other. If you want to preach the story, if that’s the tradition where you are, preach it. If it isn’t, then don’t.

It’s a rambling little tale, almost assuredly made up at some point way back there. Parts of it actually happened, probably. Who knows? It really doesn’t matter that much to me, because some of it is good stuff. Old Tobit suffered misfortunes second in number only to Job, I think. Everything fell in on him. And he lost everything. And if that wasn’t bad enough, while he was resting outside the city walls one day, a bird flew over and pooped (or “spitzed,” as the Amish preachers said) into his eyes. Poor Tobit went blind, right there on the spot. And he turned into a pious old rambling man, spouting lots of platitudes. I seem to remember that his wife got irked at him a lot, just like Job’s wife got irked at him because of his steadfastness in the face of despair and doom.

It’s all kind of a mushed up memory in my mind, how they told what all went on with Tobit, except that he went blind and that his son, young Tobit, set out on a quest to reclaim his father’s fortune and good name. He traveled to a far country to call in a loan Tobit had made years before. Old Tobit gave him a handscript, or note, to make his claim. Young Tobit, a fine specimen of a man, I’m sure, met up with a stranger who offered to travel with him. The stranger turned out to be an angel. And the two of them set out with their staffs and young Tobit’s dog. And they walked forward, head on, into all kinds of wild adventures that came at them, as you’d expect. But the biggest one awaited them at their destination. The man who owed old Tobit money had a beautiful but deeply devastated daughter. Of course, there has to be a woman stuck in the plot, somewhere. And the most beautiful woman anyone ever saw in those parts, of course, too.

This poor girl, sadly, was cursed. She’d been married seven times, and every time on the wedding night, just as the marriage was about to be consummated, a vile demon swooped in and killed her husband. So she was pretty much freaked out. And she cried with her voice from her heart to God. Who could imagine that kind of grief? All that she’d lost, and now all the young men around her were too petrified to get anywhere close to her, however much they might have wanted to. And you can guess the rest. Young Tobit was enamored, and with the angel’s help and advice, he courted and asked for the hand of the beautiful wounded girl. And together, with magical potions concocted of fish guts and such, he and the angel defeated the demon. He married the lady, and survived the wedding night. Everyone was astounded and overjoyed, especially the girl, one would think. And everything wraps up all nicely at the end, as it always does in such stories. Old Tobit got his fortune back, his eyesight was restored by the angel’s magical potion, and his wife quit nagging him. At long last, peace reigned again in old Tobit’s home.

And that’s the Book of Tobit, pretty much, from what I remember. I didn’t just now go read it again, so I won’t claim to be accurate in every little detail. When I felt this blog coming on, I did chat about Tobit with some local friends who know the story. But mostly, I tried to reach back through the fog of years and listen to the voices of those old preachers from my childhood. It’s a little tough, for something as obscure as this story was. And their voices are a bit jumbled, now, from where I am. But I did draw out a few details from the cobwebs, from a long tale that wearied me a number of times, back when I heard it. Because I’d been sitting on a hard bench for three hours already, when it was told. But looking back at what was told and what I heard, there’s one part of the story that has stuck with me through all these years, a thing that stood out above all the rest. And it happened way early in the telling, a thing that triggered all the hardships that came after.

Old Tobit lived in Ninevah, an evil foreign city. I don’t know how he got there, whether or not he was born there. But he was in exile, either way. And he owned a good bit of property, gold and houses and such. The heathen king of Ninevah had a habit of murdering Tobit’s people and throwing them outside the city walls. It was forbidden that anyone should bury those corpses. They were to rot into the ground, on their own. It was absolutely forbidden to bury them, on pain of severe and arbitrary retribution.

Tobit buried those people anyway. Snuck around at night and dug holes in the ground. I mean, think about that. Not just the courage it took, but also the brutal physical work it was. You’re out there in the dark, digging holes, and burying your own people in them. There’s no way any of us, at least here in the West, could get anywhere close to imagining that.

He did it because it was the right thing to do. Didn’t matter who told him not to. Didn’t matter what the “law” was. Didn’t matter the penalty, if he got caught.

Which he eventually was, of course. Some sniveling little rat turned him in. Told the king, probably for a huge reward. That’s your man, right there, who’s making all those bodies disappear. That you had decreed would rot into the earth where they were thrown. Tobit’s the one.

And he went into hiding. And when that got too hot, he fled the city. All his property was seized by the state. But that’s not the main reason he’s talked about in any sermon, anywhere in the Amish world. The lessons are mostly about trusting God in extreme adversity. It all seems kind of plastic to a child who hears such a thing recited in a sermon. The thing I’ve realized since is, except for the angel, they were just people, all the characters in the story. Including the father of the possessed girl young Tobit courted and married. The night before the wedding, the father snuck out and dug a grave for his eighth son-in-law. Because of what he knew was coming. The demon would kill young Tobit, just like he’d killed all his daughter’s seven previous husbands on their wedding nights. So he dug the grave to get ready for the inevitable. Later, when it didn’t happen, he proclaimed a great feast and quickly sent his servants out to cover up the hole. He had dug it because his faith was just like ours is, often, when it came right down to it. He knew what he knew, because the angel had clearly told him. But he still had a little backup plan. I don’t judge his actions. I would have done the same thing. If you claim you wouldn’t have, you’re probably lying to yourself. He’d seen some wild stuff, and he just walked along, I think, like most of us do. They all did, in all those old stories. Slogged through the tough parts, not quite daring to believe, but still clinging to some small shred of faith, way down there in their hearts. And marveling when that little shred of faith was honored as God had promised.

Bottom line to me is this, though, because it made the greatest impression on me from the time I heard it told. Tobit was destitute, because he did the right thing and defied the evil that was the state. Very few of us have ever seen what it is to do the right thing at such horrendous cost. I sure never have. I do what I have to, to stay out of a cage. But I don’t respect the coercive force that makes me obey any law. I despise and detest it as the monstrous false god it is. We are created to walk free, not enslaved by the chains of any law. And some brave few among us have actually been pushed to the wall, like Tobit was, and lost everything, including their freedom. Because they did what was right. Insisted on doing it. Some few out there have stood tall and faced and endured all of that. If you are one of those few, I salute you. I never want to be where you are. But if such a thing ever comes at me, I hope I’ll have the strength that you had.

We are living in such times as Tobit lived in. In exile, like he was, that’s plain to those who have eyes to see. It’s a cycle of history. The state will always see to it that such a time comes again. And Tobit is a model of how to walk free when it does.

That’s the “nice little moral lesson” the Book of Tobit teaches me.