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 Torah called Chukat [Numbers 19:1-22:1 – “Statutes”] is disastrous, filled with confusion, contradiction, and despair. It begins with a brain-bending formula for purification which no one has convincingly explained: the red heifer. It is followed by calamity after calamity.  Miriam and Aaron, Moses’ sister and brother, two of the greatest prophets, die. This is a national tragedy for the Israelites but an inconceivably painful personal loss for Moses. I have one brother and one sister. I can only imagine what Moses felt. Yet, his grief isn’t even mentioned, maybe because the story has to move on to a lot more dismal news for Moses. In the same chapter, God delivers what is tantamount to Moses’ own death sentence: he will die before entering the Promised Land.

Meanwhile, the well which sustained Israel in their thirty-eight years of prior wandering in the desert dries up when Miriam dies. When the people protest their thirst, Moses loses his patience. “You rebels!” he yells at them and strikes a rock. Although water gushes forth, and we can imagine the duress Moses was under in his grief not to mention after facing four decades of rebellion, God counts Moses’ anger as a failure: He commanded Moses merely to talk to the rock. Thus the death sentence. Seems like a petty infraction, right?

Wait, there’s more! The Israelites look for access to the Promised Land through the Edomites, the Amalekites, Sihon and Moab, but they are met at every turn with opposition and refusal. The Kings of Sihon and Arad even wage war against them.

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

In short, from start to finish, Chukat is a hard and dispiriting slog through the wasteland, especially after decades of wandering 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 like the Red Heifer. More than any other parsha, it communicates the despair and pessimism of the desert.

The Chukat Countercurrent of Water

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

Further, this is in stark contrast to the parched chapters directly before and after, Korach and Balak. The rabbis of the Talmud are troubled both by Chukat’s lack of internal consistency and its lack of narrative logic following the events of the preceding chapter Korach [Numbers 16:1-18:32]. Korach is a desperate, parched story that climaxes when the earth swallows the leader of a rebellion and 250 of his followers. 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 zero times in Korach.

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 like the rock from which water gushes forth. Water, mayim, is mentioned 22 times in the course of the parsha. 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.

The 614th Commandment: “Sing, O Israel!”

Towards the end of Chukat, the Torah celebrates water:

Gather the people together [at the Well of Be’er], and I will give them waterThen 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 the premise for all the others. To sing in praise of water would be the ultimate chok, springing from rocky sources beyond rational inspection like the red heifer formula. The red heifer seems to be dissolve the clear line between the tamei (contamination) of death and tahor (purity) of life, but the line between life and death described in the ritual of the red heifer isn’t a solid barrier, to be overcome by a mechanical ritual. It is a flow overspilling sacred boundaries and categories washed away by a torrent of paradox.

Life is filled with want and strife and contradiction. We fail ourselves and those we’re responsible for, flaring in anger when quiet patience will do. Babies wail. Wells dry up. Enemies block the paths to quench our thirst and reach our goals. We try to get by, but nations wage war on us. Danger, like poison snakes, emerge out of nowhere to torment us. Innocents and great people and loved ones die. 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  at a time?

But Chukat prescribes the cure to this nihilism and despair. It commands us to sing our joy and celebration in and by and of water even in the most parched desert. It is the gift of the desert. 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 life, promise, and redemption. And here we are alive against all odds, ready. It’s still too early to have lost all hope.

According to the Rabbinic tradition (Midrash On the Death of Moses, Petirat Moshe) Moses himself exemplifies this lesson. At the end of his turbulent life, 120 years old, you would think he would be reconciled, even ready, to succumb to death. If anyone has earned the right to rest from rocky conflict and dismay and disappointment, he has. Yet he is still defiant and begs God for more life.

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?

nthbgnnggdcrtdthhvnndthrth

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.

Not-yet-words

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.