Updated: Apr 23, 2020
“I'm coming to synagogue today,” Orpah said determinedly from her mat. Everyone else froze.
Her son, Joshua, caught his wife's eye and they shared a look.
Mariam finished wiping her son's dirty face and cleared her throat gently. “Are you sure that's wise? It's quite a walk.”
“And the service is so long . . .” Joshua added, his tone even but his eyes searching for a way out.
Orpah pressed her lips together. She knew her son and daughter-in-law meant well, though they didn't always show it in the kindest ways. They never said it aloud, but she knew they suspected that she had brought this illness on herself through some sin, and they resented her for it. Her needs wore on the family, and she knew they were trying to be patient. She swallowed hard. She, who had once carried this family, was now a burden.
She smoothed her dress over her bony frame and could hardly recognize the feel of herself. Once she had been vital and strong. Years ago, when Joshua had been a fussy baby, she had carried him in a sling on her back for hours while doing her chores. She had strode confidently with a full water jug balanced on her head.
Now . . . well, now she was relegated to simple tasks that she could do on her mat without straining her already aching body. Usually she did her best not to put the family out, but they seemed to forget that she required spiritual nurturing as well as physical. Today she needed this. She hadn't been to synagogue in years because of her crippling illness, but today she craved it like a deer panting for streams of water.
“I'm going,” Orpah said, and reached for her staff.
Joshua murmured under his breath, but hastened forward to help her rise. Orpah drew a sharp breath when she was finally on her feet but ignored her son's frown.
“Ruthie,” Orpah called her eight-year-old granddaughter. “Fetch my sandals and shawl.” Ruthie hastened to obey. Orpah lifted her foot so the little girl could slide the sandal into place. She winced as shooting pains shot down her back and into her seat. Orpah awkwardly draped her shawl around her silver hair and nodded at the staring family. “Well, let's go then.”
Doubt hit her the moment she stepped outside. The air was close and hot without a breath of wind to stir it, and the morning sun was already beating fiercely down. The children skipped happily ahead and Orpah's stomach tightened with longing at their agility. Leaning on her staff, she began to take little steps down what was once a familiar road. Things looked different to her now. Once she would have thrown back her hair and looked with ease at the collection of houses with their tidy garden plots. Now her view was comprised mostly of the dirt road. She tentatively tried to raise herself to look up at what she knew must be a cloudless blue sky, but her body wouldn't obey. She sighed.
Joshua heard her. “Are you tired?” he said, too solicitous for her liking. “Do you want to go back?”
“Are you trying to get rid of me?” she snapped.
Joshua fell silent and Orpah sighed again. She knew she looked odd walking as she did. For the past eighteen years she had been unable to stand up straight. She walked bending forward at the waist as if leaning over to pluck herbs from the garden. She could lie flat as a board on her mat, but as soon as she rose to her feet her back pushed itself forward. The physicians couldn't explain what caused it, but they said it could come on with age. She sniffed. Age! She wasn't even thirty-five when her strange sickness began. First tremors in her hand, then she found herself unable to keep up to her usual pace when working. Then her back had begun to bow. However, she'd rather people blame her age than something more . . . sinister.
She rolled her shoulders, shifting her damp tunic against her baking back. They weren't even halfway there, and already she was exhausted. She pushed away thoughts of her mat in the cool shade of the house. She was where she needed to be. She wasn't sure what made her decide to go to synagogue today, but the yearning had been undeniable.
She heard an angry noise and turned her head. Her neighbor was scowling, murmuring a rote prayer and s