Gift of the Desert

In memory of my father, Avraham ben Shlomo Zalman, Z”L

Screen Shot 2016-07-17 at 8.47.34 PMThe chapter of the Bible called Chukat [“Statutes”] is disastrous, filled with confoundment, contradiction, and despair. It begins with the brain-bending formula for cleansing us from touching a dead body, the red heifer, for which there has never been a rational explanation. Then come calamity after calamity. In this one chapter, Miriam and Aaron, Moses’ sister and brother, two of the greatest prophets, die. This is a national calamity for the Israelites but an inconceivable personal tragedy for Moses, whose grief must have been enormous but is not even mentioned. I have one brother and one sister. I can only imagine what Moses felt at losing both his. Yet, in the same chapter, God delivers what is also tantamount to Moses’ own death sentence: he will die before entering the Promised Land.

Chukat also tells how the well which sustained Israel in their wandering in the desert dries up when Miriam dies. The children of Israel protest their thirst and Moses loses his patience. “You rebels!” he yells at them and strikes a rock. Although water gushes forth, and we can imagine the stress Moses was under in his grief and after forty years of facing rebellion, Moses has failed God, who commanded him merely to talk to the rock.

The wanderings of the Children of Israel intensify as they look for access to the Promised Land through the Edomites, the Amalekites, Sihon and Moab, but they are met at every turn with denial, opposition, and refusal. The Kings of Sihon and Arad even wage war against them.

Poisonous snakes arise out of nowhere and attack and kill them.

In short, from start to finish, Chukat is a hard and dispiriting slog through the wasteland. More than any other parsha, it communicates the despair and pessimism of wandering the desert, dispossessed, besieged by enemies from without, plagued by rebellion within, tortured by private despair and grief, and perhaps worst of all, confounded by God’s incomprehensible commandments.

The Sages are troubled both by Chukat’s lack of internal consistency and its lack of narrative logic following the events of Korach, the preceding chapter. Korach is a desperate, parched story that climaxes when the earth swallows Korach and 250 of his mutinous followers.

But if we look closely, there is a counter-theme which courses and babbles and carves a redemptive stream through the story in Chukat and reveals a hidden depth and a surprising counter-narrative. The central scene is emblematic of this percolating idea: Moses strikes the rock twice and water miraculously gushes forth.

Mayim, water, is mentioned 22 times in the course of the parsha. (Rabbi Jonathan Neril, sees this as a sign of the Torah’s ecological consciousness in Further, this is in stark contrast to the parched parshiot (chapters) directly before and after, Korach, and Balak. Water is mentioned zero times in Korach. (The symbol of that parsha is fire: Aaron shows his superiority to Korach with a test of firepans; Aaron is commanded to expiate Israel by offering incense on the firepan; fire erupts from the earth and swallows 14,500 of Korach’s followers. Korach’s rebellion burns with the heat of a mob.) Water is mentioned only three times in Balak, and then only in one sentence in Bilaam’s extended blessing of Israel.

Chukat by contrast is a veritable narrative oasis. Indeed, the imagery of water and actions related to it flow throughout. The section of the red heifer tells us to bathe, cleanse, wash, sprinkle, and dip. There are wells, rivers, brooks, springs, tributaries, and wadis. As if to identify the Israelites with water, when Moses begs the kings of Edom and Sihon for peaceful passage through their territories, he promises them that neither the Israelites nor their cattle will drink their water.

The chapter ends with the Children of Israel poised within view of the salvation for which they have thirsted for forty years, at the east bank of the Jordan River.

So which is it? Is Chukat a dispiriting narrative of defeat, death, and despair? Or is it a tale of thirst slaked and pilgrims rewarded? Is it meant to afflict us with the feeling of wandering desolated wasteland, or is it fertile with flowing waters, mayim chaim, ‘living water’ as the Torah calls it here?

The answer of course is both, but if we read the calculus of themes correctly, I believe the Torah tells us – even commands us with the force of a transcendent and mystifying statute – to trust in and celebrate the water of life. Or to put it more plainly, to see the cup at least as half full, if not overrunning, with life.

Towards the end of Chukat, the Torah celebrates water:

…Beer; that is the Well whereof Hashem spoke unto Moshe, Gather the people together, and I will give them mayimThen Israel sang this song: 

Spring up, O well

sing ye unto it.

The princes dug the well,

the nobles of the people dug it,

by the direction of the Lawgiver,

with their rods.

And from the desert it is a gift.

Num 21:16-18

The Torah uses the imperative: “Sing, O Israel”! And although this isn’t one of the 613 commandments (mitzvot), it should be the 614th, or maybe the zeroth, because it is essential, the premise for all the others. To sing in praise of water is the ultimate chok, springing from rocky sources beyond rational inspection. In fact, it is confluent with the mystery of the red heifer, whose message seems to be to dissolve the clear line between the tamei (contamination) of death and tahor (purity) of life. The line between life and death described in the ritual of the red heifer isn’t a solid barrier, effected and erected through a mechanical ritual. It is a paradoxical flow spilling over and effacing boundaries: We live with death.

Life is filled with want and strife and contradiction. Babies wail. Wells dry up. Our paths to quench our thirst are blocked. We try to get by, but enemies wage war on us. Danger, like poison snakes, emerge out of the blue. Innocents die. We fail ourselves and those we’re responsible for, flaring in anger when quiet patience will do. Loved ones pass away, and at the end of the day, we’re left to mourn by ourselves. Though we try to keep the faith, how can we when we can’t even comprehend the rules for rejoining the community after death contaminates us? The world is senseless and violent. If God is so wonderful and perfect, why did He even invent death, let alone slaughter hundreds, thousands, millions of us at a time throughout history?

Chukat prescribes the cure to nihilism and despair. It commands us to sing our joy and celebration in and by and of water. Though we are left poised, in suspense, at the end of our journey, on the expectant side of the River Jordan, there it is, the water of promise and redemption. And here we are alive against all odds, ready. It’s still too early to have lost all hope.

At the end of his life, 120-year-old Moses begs God for more life. If anyone earned the right to rest from conflict and dismay and disappointment, it is Moses. But he knows God invented the prospect of death to make life sweeter. It is the gift of the desert.

L’mayim chaim!

Literature, Letterature, Liturgy

When the Hebrew Bible was first transcribed, the Jews used the newly-invented alphabet to write it. No matter whether you believe it was simply the Ten Commandments or the entire Five Books written in fire on stone by the Finger of God that Moses brought down from Sinai, or even if its core was fabricated by a bunch of authors in the 13th-8th centuries BCE, the medium must have been the alphabet.

Screen Shot 2016-07-07 at 6.20.09 PMEarliest archeological evidence, like the stone idol from Serabit el-Khadem, places the origin of the alphabet in the South Sinai (!) about sixty miles north of Mount Sinai, around the 15th-14th C BCE (!), just when tradition places the Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt.

Hebrew for about four centuries after remained a primitive alphabet, lacking vowels, or spaces between words, or punctuation of any kind. It was scrawled boustrophedon – as the ox plows the field – that is, left to right until the end of the line, then right to left, and so on.

In short, the Torah that Moses brought to the Children of Israel was one long, breathless, written word. It awaited an oral enunciation to  place the cuts between words and determine their meaning.

To quickly illustrate this, how would you read the following letters?


It would take some puzzling and context and familiarity to recognize this as

“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.”

But lacking complete authority and assurance – nothing short of playing telepathy with the author – any reading would admit of several competing interpretations, including some that may seem at first nonsensical but may hide lurking messages if you stare at them too long:

In the big, no-nagged court doth have nine, death, or thee.

Hebrew readers to this day read texts without vowels and have to disambiguate individual words either by familiarity, or context, or memorizing them with the aid of another text with vowels. Consider the word in Hebrew דבר – DBR.  The consonants could mean dvar (word), dever (plague), davar (thing), daber (speak), dibbur (speech), and others besides.

In short, even individual words in Hebrew invite – even demand – that the reader play this puzzling game. This is the sort of game English students come into contact with in literature classes when they are asked to interpret opaque or dense poetry (John Donne’s works are my favorite) or literature filled with word play and deliberate punning, like Joyce’s Ulysses.


But I would draw a nuanced distinction and say because Hebrew words lack vowels, they are not -yet-words. This is true even when we consider the words as instructions for speech: consonants are the hard sounds stuck in the mouth that await the explosive of a vowel to be pronounced. Try to pronounce ‘T’. All you have is the instruction for placing the tongue at the top of the mouth, behind the upper teeth, waiting for a vowel for it to burst forth.

Because all words in Hebrew are to some extent not-yet-words, lambent with meanings that are always becoming, emergent, not-yet-utterable, then all Hebrew texts written without vowels – even a grocery list (see A Canticle for Liebowitz, for instance) – are a form of literarature, one might even say poetry: difficult, opaque, demanding interpretations.

Compared to the ideal of clarity we inherited from the Greeks, who perfected the alphabet by adding vowels, Hebrew without vowels is a hopeless muddle. When the eminent Yale scholar of the transition from orality to literacy in ancient Greece, Eric Havelock, declared that the ancient Hebrews could not hope to create a true (read “Greek”) literature, he was right, though for the wrong reasons. His assumption was that the primitiveness of the Hebrew mind and social organization, and the impoverishment of its alphabetic script, could not allow for the elevated thinking, clarity, and expressiveness of classical Greek.

Yet, armed with our understanding of the essential ambiguity-generating early Hebrew script, we can see that vowelless Hebrew is already a form of literature, inviting interpretation of almost every word. Indeed, the question What is literary? makes no sense as we try to apply a Greek understanding to a Hebrew communications technology and textuality. We need a whole new word for the kind of discourse engendered by these letters which form words that are never-quite-words.

Letterature… and prayer

In reading Hebrew, I propose that we are perpetually reading a kind of letterature, where sense is suspended between our decoding of the letter and our reading of the word, as we shuttle back and forth in interpretive suspense attempting, often vainly, to be sure of the intended meaning. This is really literary reading tending not towards clarity but dyslexia. As Amos Oz quipped, “There is no word in Hebrew for fiction.”

Perhaps even the truth value of any text is suspended between the ever-threatening catastrophe of  ever-promulgating interpretations that at the first reading defeats the illusion of telepathy – clearly understanding what’s in the Mind of the Author, but at another opens hailing frequencies to a very animated and dynamic metaphysical and cognitive plane.

I don’t know about how you take your literature (or should I say, how your literature takes you), but this sure feels how I take and am seized by mine, in all its debilitating pleasure and transporting joy. A good poem or a dense novel exiles us for a time to an inward realm. We read and get lost somewhere in the wilderness between multiple competing possibles and mutually-enriching meanings. If we linger there long enough and if we climb the mountain, then perhaps revelation will come.

Reading Hebrew thus becomes the Ur-type of literary reading: a devotional, a form of prayer, and the engagement with its letterature a form of liturgy.