Two months later.
The late afternoon sun that poured into the room, illuminating the peaceful scene, suddenly disappeared in the startling way it happens during Judea’s long summer. With the habit of a lifetime of teaching, Shemaya and Avtalion anticipated the exact moment it would happen, and finished the lesson just on time. The students rose from the floor, preparing to leave for the day. Hillel slowly extricated his mind from the absorbing glow of the studies, a process that for him was much like emerging from a deep sleep into the morning, through layer upon layer of consciousness.
The giant door keeper walked into the room. “A messenger left a letter for Hillel ben Gamaliel,” he declared, handed it to Shemaya, and left. He did not know any of the students by name, and refused to have any personal contact with them. Most of the students resented him, but Hillel felt that the giant did not want to befriend the people he might be asked to turn away if they did not pay.
Shemaya gave the scroll to Hillel, who looked at it for a long moment without breaking the seal. “It has my brother’s seal,” he said at last, rolling it between his hands. “I can see the small chip on the side of the letter…”
“Read it, my son,” said Shemaya, “it’s better to know than to fear.” Hillel nodded and broke the seal. Two separate sheets were rolled into the package. He took them to the side of the room, sat on the floor, quickly read both of them, and returned to Shemaya.
“The letters are from my wife and my brother,” he said to the teacher. “My wife insists on joining me, and my brother says he can bring her, and of course little Simeon too.”
The teacher smiled. “But these are good tidings, Hillel. Why do you look so disturbed?”
“I am very poor here, Master. How can I keep my wife and son?”
“Does she mind that?”
“No… she expects it. But she does not understand poverty, Master. She does not know what’s it’s like to look at our son and tell him that he can’t have all he wishes for. And in addition, I am not sure she realizes that life for a woman here is not the same as in Babylon. There, she can own property, engage in trade, study… here, she is subservient to men. I was surprised to find out how differently women are treated here; they are almost slaves.”
“Not exactly,” said Shemaya. “Yes, they are not as free as in Babylon, but they are respected.”
“She is so used to independence, Master. She is free, and a member of a well educated, wealthy family. How could she live like that? And worse, if we have daughters, how will she feel about their education, or their marriage prospects?”
“You can educate your daughters at home, and then bring them back to Babylon, to their uncles and aunts, before their time to be married comes. Also, you may very well return to Babylon someday. And she is your wife, Hillel. She knows that with you to help and protect her, all will be well. .”
“Yes, she says that... and mostly she is concerned that she is not fulfilling her own duties and obligations of being a wife and a mother; she is always so conscientious about duty, Master. She is worried that too much time will pass before she can have more children if she does not join me, and she also says… but this is sheer nonsense…”
“She fears that without her you are not protected from sin. Am I correct?”
“Yes, Master. That is what she said.”
“And she is right, my son. She wants to be by your side, she wants you to educate your son, and I suspect, she simply misses you as well. She is a good woman. Let her do as she wishes.”
Hillel laughed. “Let her? I suspect she is already overseeing the packing of the trunks.”
Shemaya smiled with the understanding and reason of old age. “I rarely mention God’s name in vain,” he said. “But in your case, I must. Let Him oversee everything, other than the packing of the trunks that we may safely leave to your wife. You see, unlike many others, I do not believe that God pays attention to the needs and wants of the individual man or woman. I maintain we must conduct our behavior and maintain our integrity without expecting reward or punishment… God is not a nursemaid. When I pray, I pray for the good of the entire nation. But sometimes, God might be watching people for whom He has far-reaching plans. I feel, Hillel, that He has a plan for you.”
“So I should just let everything fall into place, as always?” asked Hillel, too distraught to protest the idea that he mattered to God or man.
“Yes, this is exactly what you should do. Trust in the Plan. What does your brother say?”
“That he wants to see me, that he intends to do some business here with merchants he had been corresponding with for years, and that I should not make trouble if he decides to make some money arrangements,” said Hillel, and laughed. “He is such a good brother.”
“All shall be well, then,” said Shemaya. “I am sure of that. In the back room, you will find everything you need to write your answers to your good family. I’ll see to a messenger, and your letter will go with my usual correspondence with the teachers in Babylon.”