My translation from Ruth Calderon's
Hashuk, Habayit, VeHalev: Aggadot Talmudiot (Keter, 2002)
The lepers were sitting at the entrance to the bathhouse. Some were scratching themselves with their fingernails and others with pottery shards or clumps of earth they had found. Groups of children would look at them and then run away, excited and repelled by their ugliness. They would linger beside one old man who used to expose a hole in the skin of his leg to awaken the mercy of passersby.
It was impossible to know whom the terrible disease would strike, and rumors would circulate in the city about ways of avoiding contagion. Most of the lepers were beggars, including one who came from afar; but even in the newer neighborhoods where the wealthiest families lived, there were people with suspicious open wounds. No one dared approach the infected, and in synagogue they used to quote Rabbi Yochanan, who said that one should stay away even from the flies that came near them.
Those who frequented the bathhouse left red-faced and perfumed with the fresh scent of almond and rose. They rushed past the horrific display, anxious to avoid infection. Many would toss a coin into a jar as they passed, thinking to themselves "Charity saves from death" (Proverbs 10:2) as they hurried off. Righteous women would bring bread or stew once or twice a week, but of the sages, only Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi would come close enough to sit among them. Ben Levi would come to the synagogue at sunrise for the morning prayers, and afterwards he would return to the street and sit on a mat next to the entrance to the bathhouse, between the lepers and shady alley where lumps of soap and dry rags were distributed. The bath attendant, a rotund, pleasant man, always knew when Ben Levi was due to arrive, and would prepare him a cup of hot tea. Within an hour the sound of his learning could be heard, calming the sleepy sick who were still wrapped in filthy blankets like great cocoons. When they awoke to his chanting, they would file out one after another to greet the new day. Ben Levi would learn until noon, and then he would return to the study house to join the small circle of learners in prayer. And then again in the afternoon, until just before evening, he could be found beside the lepers, learning and reviewing, sometimes answering passersby with words of Torah. "You're not afraid of getting sick?" they would wonder. And his wife would wail angrily and worriedly, "Aren't you afraid of dying?" He would smile at her and answer with the verse, "A loving doe, a graceful mountain goat," which he would then interpret. "If Torah has graced me such that you agreed to be my wife, will it be so difficult for Torah to save me from illness?"
Years later, when it became time for Ben Levi to die, those responsible for him said to the Angel of Death, "Go do his will. Give him a pleasant death." The Angel of Death knew from experience that leading Torah scholars to their death, whether they were still in their prime or had reached ripe old age, was not a difficult task. Torah scholars were always ready for him, as if they were expecting him; they were not shocked and startled by his arrival like other men. With Torah scholars, the Angel of Death was spared the routine crying and pleading and paralyzed looks. Perhaps that tiny trace of pride inside them countered the fear of death, overcoming that momentary pain when the soul escapes the body. Perhaps they were consoled by the fact that the Torah they had learned in their lifetimes would merit them a place in heaven. In any case, the Angel of Death interacted politely with Torah scholars, according to the protocol of manners that governs the relationship between a person of status and his equals.
This time the Angel of Death chose to come dressed like a beggar who knocks at doorways with open palms; this was one of his favorite costumes for escorting men to their deaths. The order he had received, to act in accordance with Ben Levi's will, deprived him of the little authority he had. He muttered to himself unconsciously and set out on his way at daybreak.
That morning, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi woke up earlier than usual, long before the other worshippers, and arrived at his place in the study house before dawn. The Angel of Death and Yehoshua ben Levi stood opposite one another in the dim early morning, in that hour when it is impossible to distinguish a dog from a wolf. It was difficult to see clearly with all the shadows, but Ben Levi's white clothing, his hair still wet from his ritual immersion, and the scent of soap that clung to him all signaled to the Angel of Death that this man knew that his time had come, and was prepared.
Ben Levi was not a man of many words. The Angel of Death, too, preferred to remain silent – he simply took off his cloak and drew his knife, which he would raise as a sign above the heads of those destined to die. The look in Ben Levi's eyes confirmed that he accepted the fate that awaited him.
The ritual raising of the knife was accomplished without fanfare. And then with total serenity, Ben Levi said to the Angel of Death, "Show me my place in the world to come," as if he were engaged in a business transaction and wanted to see the quality of the merchandise he would be receiving. The Angel of Death answered him with something like "fine" or "so be it," and the two of them set out on their way. They passed farther and farther beyond the roads of the city and its houses, whose shuttered windows resembled closed eyes. The Angel of Death knew that this journey should be a silent one, and he respected his companion's right to his own private thoughts. He was surprised when Ben Levi suddenly turned and asked him for his knife, "lest you frighten me along the way."
Frighten you? The Angel of Death was taken aback. He squinted his many eyes to peer at Ben Levi, who didn't seem frightened at all. Still, perhaps because the Angel had been given explicit instructions to do his will, which had never been fully detailed, or perhaps simply in order to avoid unnecessary delays, he agreed to give Ben Levi his knife. After all, he had received far more unusual requests from those he had escorted in the past. It was a strange feeling for the Angel to walk empty-handed; without his knife, it was easier to walk freely. He felt like a young angel in training, and even thought about humming to himself as he walked.
When they reached the wall of heaven, they stood beside a section of the wall that was a bit lower than the rest. The Angel of Death lifted up Ben Levi and showed him what lay on the other side. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi looked beyond the wall and saw the portion assigned to the Torah scholars – spacious, airy, and open on all four sides. Just steps away was a hut made from the skin of the Leviathan sea monster, where righteous men passed to and fro.
Ben Levi looked to his left and right and then jumped, suddenly, to the other side – a living man inside of heaven! The Angel of Death, overcome with fright, grabbed him by the corner of his garment and cried out, "Come back! Get out of there!"
Ben Levi, from the other side of the wall, was still dressed in the clothing of this world, his soul still inside his body. Without any concern for propriety, he waved dismissively at the angel, as if to say that he would not exit. "What will you do to me now," he seemed to be taunting. The Angel's face tightened like a baby on the verge of tears, his hand clutching the corner of his garment. He turned to seek help from the chief angel responsible for sending him on this mission.
The chief angel dispatched one of his novices to find out what had happened. The young angel came back distraught and recounted what he had seen. Groups of angels gathered around, seating themselves atop the clouds so they could peer down at the argument that had broken out across the wall of heaven. The righteous, bored by the monotony of their pious afterlives, peeked at the other side of heaven. Eventually the rumor reached the Holy One Blessed Be He, who declared: "If Ben Levi ever asked to have one of his vows nullified, he must return; if not, then he need not return." Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi heard the words of the Holy One Blessed Be He and flashed a small smile at the Angel of Death.
The Angel of Death said to him, "Hand over my knife." His voice was loud and petulant, without any trace of respect or civility. Ben Levi ignored him. In spite of the hour—it was time for the afternoon rest—throngs began to assemble at the wall of heaven. It was time for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to return from the study house, and the chief angel did not want any more trouble. A voice from heaven called out, "Give him the knife, because it is needed for those still living."
Something in the tone of this voice, almost maternal in its softness, calmed everyone down. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi threw the knife over the wall, the Angel of Death headed back the way he had come, and a sweet afternoon rest spread across the expanse of heaven.
This story is based on a sugya from Ketubot 77b, translated here:
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi clung to them [the lepers] and studied Torah.
How did he interpret the verse: "A loving doe, a graceful mountain goat" (Proverbs 5:19)?
If the Torah graces those who learn it, will it not also protect me?
When he was about to die, they said to the Angel of Death: Go and do Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi's will [and let him die as he wishes]. The Angel of Death went and appeared before him.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to him: Show me my place [in the world to come].
The Angel of Death said to him: "Yes, by my life."
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to him: "Give me your knife, lest you frighten me with it on the way."
The Angel of Death gave it to him.
When they got there [to the wall of heaven] he lifted him and showed him [his place in the world to come]. He asked him, "Lift me a bit more," and he lifted him. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi jumped and fell to the other side.
The Angel of Death grabbed him by the corner of his garment.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to him: I swear I won't leave this place.
The Holy One Blessed Be He said: If he [Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi] ever asked to have one of his vows nullified, he must return; if not, then he need not return.
The Angel of Death said to him: "Return my knife."
He did not return it.
A voice from above called out: "Give it to him because it is needed for those still living."