Because his cadre of kohanim had drawn this particular week to perform the priestly functions, Josef ben Josef would be the one to discover the body. Had he remained by the Altar of Sacrifice where he’d been assigned, had his curiosity not willed his feet across the porch and into the Holy Place, had he not paused and looked at the Great Veil, he might not have been the one to raise the alarm and cause the high priest’s face to turn as red as Moses. Also, he would not have lost his place on the roster of kohanim and ended his days in Bethlehem herding goats and sheep instead of remaining a priest in the service of Ha Shem. He had one glorious moment as a priest in the city of David, in the Temple, and then—finished.
There could be no doubt about the body, although it had yet to be brought into view. A heavy cord of elaborate construction snaked out from under the Veil and, indeed, provided the only evidence of its existence, but what else could be attached to its other end? Josef ’s cries of alarm at the edges of the Holy of Holies brought his colleagues scurrying into the most sacred area of Herod’s Temple. The steps of Nicanor Gate, which lead from the Court of the Priests into the Holy Place, the antechamber to the Holy of Holies, seemed to be as far as they dared go. There they gathered, wailed, and seemed incapable of moving one way or the other. Instead, they stood like the pillars of salt one sees down by the Great Salt Sea, like Lot’s wife. Even after being joined by the high priest, Caiaphas himself, they remained inert, in a state of fearful confusion. That is until the rabban of the Sanhedrin arrived. His presence seemed to restore a small measure of order and calm. He paused, seeming to measure the mood of the moment, studied Josef, the other five priests, the high priest, and then asked for an explanation. Josef stammered his story as best he could.
“Has anyone determined with certainty that there is, in fact, a body attached to the end of this cord? Pulled on it, perhaps?” the Rabban asked. The men glanced at one another and shuffled their feet, embarrassed. “No? Then doesn’t it seem reasonable to do so?”
The kohanim turned to the high priest for confirmation. Holy Writ did not prescribe the lashing of a cord to the ankle of anyone entering the Holy of Holies, although there had been talk about it for years and many assumed it was part of Temple protocol. In any case, there could be no accompanying instructions as what one was to do if the worst actually happened, that is if some unclean person did, in fact, dare to enter the Holy of Holies, approach the Name-That-May-Not-Be-Spoken, and been struck down for his impiety.
The high priest put his fists against his ears, clenched his teeth, and growled something in Aramaic that Josef did not catch. The rabban, on the other hand, had a half smile on his face that he did not attempt to hide. Did this most honorable man find this awful situation amusing? Perhaps his enjoyment derived from the high priest’s discomfort. Josef had heard talk. He had not paid it any mind at the time, but now he wished he had.
“High Priest,” the Rabban said, “you will have to bring this dead person to light sooner or later. Let’s have it done now.”
The high priest nodded. There were no precedents for this.
How could there be?
“And let us hope that it is, indeed, a man at the end of that rope and not one of your sacrificial animals gone astray.”
An animal from the pens that held the bulls and rams: was that even possible? Again, it seemed to Josef that the rabban took some perverse pleasure in the high priest’s discomfort.
“Or perhaps this is some pagan’s idea of sacrilege and he turned swine loose in there.”
The image of a dead pig lying behind the Veil with the other end of the cord tied to its leg caused Josef ’s stomach to turn over. He swallowed the vomit that formed in his throat. It would not do to add to the desecration by being sick, not now. He took a deep breath and forced the blasphemous image from his mind. The rabban, he saw, stood with his head cocked to one side, apparently waiting on the high priest. Time ground to a halt. Whatever lurked behind the Veil was too appalling for any of them to contemplate. But contemplate it they must.
“Impossible, Rabban. What a thought!” Finally, it seemed, the high priest had found his voice. Turning to the priests he added, “All of you will go to the Laver and wash. Sacrifice an unspotted ram and dip your hands in its blood and sprinkle it on your tunic. You must pray the prayer of consecration as you do so. When you have done all these things assemble in the Holy Place and await my direction. You, Nathan, you climb into the observation room. It is early, but there may be enough light for you to see what lies at the end of this cord.”
The priests hurried off to do as they had been directed. Surely Caiaphas would know what needed to be done. Had he not served as high priest longer than anyone in memory—recent memory at least? He had. Josef refused to listen to the talk in the streets of his corruption and political maneuvering. Caiaphas stood last in the line of Aaron, the one man closest to the Lord. Even Gamaliel, the rabban, did not sit so close as that.
Josef rushed to catch up with his co-workers and begin the rite of purification the high priest decreed.