Clouds Over the Land: Sunset Song – Numbers 10:9

Clouds Over the Land: Sunset Song – Numbers 10:9

by

Howard Adelman

If you go to war in your land against an adversary that oppresses you, you shall blow a teruah with the trumpets and be remembered before the Lord your God, and thus be saved from your enemies.   טוְכִי תָבֹאוּ מִלְחָמָה בְּאַרְצְכֶם עַל הַצַּר הַצֹּרֵר אֶתְכֶם וַהֲרֵעֹתֶם בַּחֲצֹצְרֹת וְנִזְכַּרְתֶּם לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וְנוֹשַׁעְתֶּם מֵאֹיְבֵיכֶם:

וְכִֽי־תָבֹ֨אוּ מִלְחָמָ֜ה בְּאַרְצְכֶ֗ם עַל־הַצַּר֙ הַצֹּרֵ֣ר אֶתְכֶ֔ם וַהֲרֵעֹתֶ֖ם בַּחֲצֹצְר֑וֹת וֲנִזְכַּרְתֶּ֗ם לִפְנֵי֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם וְנוֹשַׁעְתֶּ֖ם מֵאֹיְבֵיכֶֽם׃

When you are at war in your land against an aggressor who attacks you, you shall sound short blasts on the trumpets, that you may be remembered before the LORD your God and be delivered from your enemies.

The Israelites are in the wilderness. Why are they getting commandments about blowing a trumpet in a certain way when they are defending their land against an aggressor? The Israelites had no land to defend. This is the only mention of the land in this section. There are verses on the cloud settling in over the Tabernacle and remaining there. There are verses on the cloud lifting from the Tabernacle and once again permitting the Israelites to go forward. There is the fire on the altar; when the cloud rests over the Tabernacle, and then the latter had the likeness of fire. (9:15) However long the cloud settled in over the Tabernacle, the Israelites remained encamped, unmoving and unable to move.

There may be fire, there may be water in the form of a mist, and there is always the harsh land, but what is noticeable is the absence of any mention of ruah, the divine spirit that animates things. Sometimes ruah is identified with the breath of life and with the soul, the only thing that remains when the physical body melts away with death. Earth, water – sometimes in torrents rather than as simply a mist – and fire, but no ruah.

The setting is described at the beginning of Numbers in the opening of verse 9:1-2. “The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, on the first new moon of the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying (2) Let the people offer the Passover sacrifice at its set time.” Some take this as a message to hold a second Passover when you were unable to celebrate the first, when the family was unclean because someone had just died. But it is a description of a second Passover, as horrid a period as when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt when God was killing the first-born in every Egyptian family.

On the first anniversary of the exodus, when the nostalgia for what has been lost sets in, when the Israelites are in the desert, when the casualties of the trek through the desert can be counted, they are told that they are suffering a very different misery. This misery too shall pass. The cloud of despondency will lift and they will be able to move on with their lives. But when death lies in their midst, they are unclean. And once again they must eat bitter herbs and consume unleavened bread, the bread of affliction.

On the anniversary of the exodus, on the New Year, on Rosh Hashanah, otherwise known as Yom Teruah (Numbers 29:1), Tekiah is sounded, a long blast, when the people are assembled. Then, when they are attacked, when they are at war with themselves and, thus, with others, the Israelites sound the Teruah, the series of nine very short staccato notes, and the Shevarim, three medium length blasts following each Teruah section of three notes. The community is called to leave behind its misery, leave behind self-pity and get on the move to fight the enemies that assault them.

If you want to comprehend this section of the Torah, I suggest you watch Terence Davies’ movie, Sunset Song. It is a long film. (two hours and fifteen minutes) It is also a slow film. But it deserves your patience, if only to view the gorgeous but harsh Scottish countryside and the main character, Chris Guthrie played by Agyness Deyn. Chris is a bonnie lass and one of the greatest, if not the greatest character, in Scottish fiction. The film is an adaptation by the director of the first 1932 volume of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy, A Scots Quair, set in the north-east in the Scottish village or estate of Kinraddie and largely located in the farm, Blawearie, the meaning of which is found in its very sound – blah and weary.

The farm stands in stark contrast to the name of the larger community, Kinraddie, which means whistling away to oneself when the day shines bright before one and the sun is shining. The film oscillates between these two opposite moods. As Gibbon wrote, “there were more than nine bit places [like the very short blasts of Teruah] left in the Kinraddie estate.” Blawearie is one of those bit places. The film ends with the Sunset Song, the Flower Song, in an elegiac reference to the passing of loved ones and the passing of an old order, the passing of an age of innocence, but also of horror that receives its ultimate global expression in the muddy trenches of World War I.

The film begins in Kinraddie, in the local school, where a tall and thin and precocious red-headed lass, Chris Guthrie, is singled out for her excellent pronunciation of French, her ability to whistle as the instructor says, without making the whistling sound. The film ends by repeating the refrain, “The Land endures.” “Only the land endures.” And Chris discovers that she is the land. Otherwise, “there were lovely things in the world, lovely that didn’t endure, and the lovelier for that… Nothing endures.” But the land! The land endures even as the song, “Flowers of thee Forest” is sung.

I’ve hear them liltin’, at the ewe milkin,’
Lasses a-liltin’ before dawn of day.
Now there’s a moanin’, on ilka green loanin’.
The flowers of the forest are a’ wede away.
As boughs in the mornin’, nae blithe lads are scornin’,
Lasses are lonely and dowie and wae.
Nae daffin’, nae gabbin’, but sighin’ and sobbin’,
Ilk ane lifts her leglin, and hies her away.
At e’en in the gloamin’, nae swankies are roamin’,
‘Bout stacks wi’ the lasses at bogle to play.
But ilk maid sits drearie, lamentin’ her dearie,
The flowers of the forest are a’ wede away.
In har’st at the shearin’ nae youths now are jeerin’
Bandsters are runkled, and lyart, or grey.
At fair or at preachin’, nae wooin’, nae fleecin’,
The flowers of the forest are a’ wede away.
Dool for the order sent our lads to the Border,
the English for ance by guile wan the day.
The flowers of the forest, that fought aye the foremost,
The prime of our land lie cauld in the clay.
We’ll hae nae mair liltin’, at the ewe milkin’,
Women and bairns are heartless and wae.
Sighin’ and moanin’ on ilka green loanin’,
The flowers of the forest are all wede away.

How does that harsh land endure? How does it survive the harsh winds and pouring rain, the heavy snows of winter? Through fire. The constant flame throughout the film is the family altar, the big stove in the kitchen ever burning. And life is renewed when Chris falls in love with Ewan Tavendale (James Grant) and they blow out the candle to have sex in the dark, not only when they are first married when Chris is still seventeen and approaching her eighteenth birthday, but on each occasion afterwards. Except when Ewen returns from WWI on leave.

Ewen went to war to fight for king and country, urged to do so by his Presbyterian pastor to fight Kaiser as the anti-Christ and lest he be regarded as a coward. War transformed him from a loving and sensitive man into a brute who rapes his wife without turning out the candle. The scene is even more horrific than it reads. However, his ostensible cowardice was truly an act of bravery, for the spark of love within him, the ruah in the film, made him seek out the “white feather” treatment by the military; he was shot as a deserter in the three short blasts of the shofar, the Teruah, in the final act of the film.

The flowers of the forest are all wede away. They go mad. They rage. They rave. As Chris does when Ewen, her dear and loving lad turned into a monster by a war he did not want to fight, by the English who “by guile wan the day” “for the order sent our lads to the Border,” is shot as a deserter, his self-sacrifice lest he condemn Chris to a life of abuse as her mother, Jean, had been before she took her own life and that of her baby twins.

However, that is not where the film begins. We will soon learn about the harsh unforgiving reality of the hardscrabble land of these Scottish farmers, but Chris leaves the class with which the film opens with her best friend. They skip playfully through the forest in one of the many moments of pure bliss in a scene of sheer pastoral beauty, like the many scenes of golden fields of grain and green pastures.

Sunset Song, in the end, is not a lament for a past that will be no more, though it is that, with all its vices and virtues, but it is about the renewal of spirit, the renewal of life, just when you begin to think that life cannot get any worse. We know from the narrator of the film, Chris herself, who will go to renew her love of books, her love of life, her love of what I would call Torah rather than the harsh prescriptions in the biblical text that become the sole focus of tyrannical men and fathers who will mistreat their sons and even long for incest with their daughters. Peter Mullan plays John Guthrie with the same mastery that he lights his pipe in the few moments when he sits content with himself and with the world. At other times, he straps Chris’ brother Will (Jack Greenlees) across the back. One suspects that Chris became a writer as well as a teacher, for poetry suffuses a movie of tragic loss and despair.

In the opening, Chis intones about herself: “So that was Chris and her reading and schooling, two Chrises there were that fought for her heart and tormented her. You hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk and learning was brave and fine one day; and the next you’d waken with the peewits crying across the hills, deep and deep, crying in the heart of you and the smell of the earth in your face, almost you’d cry for that, the beauty of it and the sweetness of the Scottish land and skies.” The schizophrenia was only resolved when, after many tests akin to those Job suffered, she discovered that she was the land.

The Israelites were wandering in the wilderness. They had yet to learn that they were the land, that they were at one with the land, and that they would repeatedly betray that land as they betrayed their harsh and unforgiving God.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Advertisements

The Divine is in the Details

Parashat Pekudei (Exodus 38:21 – 40:38) 

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday evening at our synagogue, we were treated to a dialogical discussion about specific biblical texts and commentaries – eight were offered and four were actually discussed – between Rabbi Mark Fishman from Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Montreal, an orthodox rabbi, and Rabbi Yael Splansky, our Reform rabbi. They have been having these dialogues once a month in the Canadian Jewish News and Yoni Goldstein, the editor of the paper, chaired yesterday evening’s session. Fishman is a very personable rabbi and feels quite relaxed addressing any Jewish audience. He does not seem to have any trouble or qualms about addressing a Reform congregation. He even went further in an angular response to a congregant who wanted the differences between Orthodox and Reform brought into sharp focus and discussion. As Fishman responded, he was interpreting text as a rabbi, not as a representative of orthodoxy. He presumed that and respected Rabbi Splansky for doing precisely the same thing. I hope I can offer due respect for what they said since I did not take notes and have had to rely on my memory.

One of the texts discussed last night was Genesis 43:29-33 and, more specifically, verse 32 that reads, “They served him separately and the Egyptian who usually ate with him separately.” The verse occurs in the context of the return of his brothers to Egypt for the second time, this time with Benjamin in tow as commanded. The brothers still do not recognize Joseph, the top government official in Egypt.

26 When Joseph came home, they presented to him the gifts they had brought into the house, and they bowed down before him to the ground.27 He asked them how they were, and then he said, “How is your aged father you told me about? Is he still living?”

28 They replied, “Your servant our father is still alive and well.” And they bowed down, prostrating themselves before him.

29 As he looked about and saw his brother Benjamin, his own mother’s son, he asked, “Is this your youngest brother, the one you told me about?” And he said, “God be gracious to you, my son.” 30 Deeply moved at the sight of his brother, Joseph hurried out and looked for a place to weep. He went into his private room and wept there.

31 After he had washed his face, he came out and, controlling himself, said, “Serve the food.”

32 They served him by himself, the brothers by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because Egyptians could not eat with Hebrews, for that is detestable to Egyptians. 33 The men had been seated before him in the order of their ages, from the firstborn to the youngest; and they looked at each other in astonishment. 34 When portions were served to them from Joseph’s table, Benjamin’s portion was five times as much as anyone else’s. So they feasted and drank freely with him.

What did it mean that Joseph ate alone? Rabbi Splansky suggested that it meant that, although Joseph had reached the heights of success in the Diaspora, without being amongst his own people as well, he was utterly alone. Without explicitly referring to E.M. Forster’s Passage to India, she cited a dominant expression from that text – “only connect.”

Rabbi Fishman, if I remember correctly, focused more on the fact that the passage described how Joseph, who usually ate together with the Egyptians, then chose to eat alone. And we are told that, for the Egyptians, eating with the Hebrews was an abomination. The implication was that he was caught betwixt and between, for he could not eat with his brothers or the Egyptians would have been appalled. But if he ate with them, he would have effectively joined the group that Egyptians found it vile to eat with, the Hebrews, and then what would happen to the esteem in which they held him? In that sense, loneliness, just when you are supposed to break bread together, was his only option. One interpretation focused on Joseph’s emotional state while the other focused on the politics of the situation.

I myself had a third interpretation, more in line with Fishman’s, but with a twist. Joseph chose to eat alone because he wanted to send a clue to his brothers that he was not an Egyptian. It was not simply that he was being forced between two unacceptable choices and choosing a third as the least bad of the three options. The choice he made was a positive one consistent with his playing with his brothers prior to revealing himself, as he clearly longed to do as indicated when he went off alone to weep profusely at the sight of his younger brother, Benjamin. The issue was not primarily about incompatible political and moral choices nor about an existential crisis of loneliness, but about playful politics.

Now none of these three positions are incompatible with one another. Unlike the possibilities of Joseph eating with his brothers, eating with the Egyptians or eating alone, which are mutually exclusive choices, the above three interpretations are all possibly true at one and the same time, but the emphasis shifts from existential angst, to moral politics to manipulative politics.

A second passage for discussion was offered by Rabbi Fishman, the famous passage in which Adam and Eve had just eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and God goes looking for Adam who has gone into hiding. When God come across him, Adam explains that he hid because he was naked and afraid. The passage given to us followed: “And He [God] said, ‘Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?’ And the man said: ‘The woman whom Thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree and I did eat.’”

In Fishman’s interpretation, God was testing Adam and Adam failed the test. Instead of accepting responsibility for what he had done, he blamed what he had done on Eve and, indirectly on God Himself for it was God’s idea to give Eve to him as a helpmeet. I tried to remember whether Rabbi Splansky had a different take on this, but I could not recall. I do recall one person in the audience raising the question of the counterfactual – what if Adam had passed the test and owned up to what he had done? Fishman offered an interesting answer. There were two possibilities. In one, Adam and Eve in the company of God could have returned to enjoy the pleasures of paradise. But he suggested that this was unlikely, because God wanted them to leave the garden.

I confess that I found the discussion disappointing. For this is one of the most iconic and important portions of Torah text and is about something even more fundamental than the message about accepting responsibility and not projecting blame onto another, though it is surely about that. What was the original command? Do not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil for if you do you will surely die. Note the following:

  • Neither Adam nor Eve dies, though they certainly now know they are mortal; just because he was made in the image of God, Adam has now come to recognize that he cannot be God whose essential character was that He was disembodied and could not die
  • The command was not a categorical moral commandment but a conditional one – If you do x, y will follow.
  • As Fishman said, the other tree was the Tree of Life; why was there a fear that Adam and Eve could have eaten of it and achieved immortality? Why did they not eat of that tree?
  • Eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil meant Adam and Eve had sex and sex introduced both to a radically different kind of knowledge than knowing and naming objects; it was about coming to know another person and, in the process, thereby coming to know oneself, seeing oneself in a mirror as it were and seeing oneself as embodied.

The issue was not that Adam felt ashamed because he had no clothes on, but that he now clearly and unequivocally saw himself as embodied and thereby knew that eating of the Tree of Life was a fantasy. In effect, psychologically and intellectually, he was no longer in the garden of innocence and now had to go on the voyage of discovery of learning what it meant to be an embodied creature, what it meant to make moral choices, what it meant to now really experience the knowledge of what was good and evil. If the first lesson of that voyage of discovery was accepting one’s embodied and non-divine form, the second lesson had to entail assuming responsibility for your actions and not displacing them onto another.

My dissatisfaction was not with the lesson Fishman took out of the passage, but how the form of the discussion had impoverished the potential metaphysical richness beyond it. The divine and the devil are both in the details.

Fishman had offered another passage, Genesis 37:21. “And Reuben heard it, and delivered him out of their hand; and said: ‘Let us not take his [Joseph’s] life.’” According to Fishman, this is the only time that the Torah tells a clear lie. For the brothers had thrown Joseph into a pit to be left to die. Travelers came by, heard his cries, rescued him and took him off to Egypt. Reuben, having felt guilty, went back to save Joseph’s life and sell him into slavery. But Joseph was no longer in the pit. So he retroactively made up a story and rewrote history in terms of his intentions and not in terms of what actually took place.

What unites all three passages is that they are each about accepting responsibility – the first being about Joseph accepting responsibility, not only for the well-being of his brothers, but for himself as a Hebrew with responsibilities for and to his people.

Before I turn to this week’s parsha. I want to discuss the fourth passage of commentary discussed last evening from Genesis Rabbah about a man traveling from place to place who saw a palace aglow/in flames (birah doleket). Did the passage mean that the travelers were appalled that the palace was on fire and the world that is God’s glory was on the verge of extinction, or is it a vision of fireworks, of a celebration of the palace that is God’s world in all its glory? These are two very opposed meanings, but again, they are both possible.

Perhaps trivializing the passage too much, it is seeing the glass half full  –  the fireworks from the palace of God celebrating the glories of this world – or, on the other hand, the glass half empty as we contemplate radical climate change because of human hands and the potential destruction of the world as we know it.

What has all this to do with this week’s parsha? First of all, it is about my own dissatisfaction with the discussion that skipped from one item to another without probing anyone of them in much greater depth. That is probably just my problem. But it is definitely related to this week’s text which is about details and depth.

We all know the expression that the devil is in the details. It has a mirror expression. In Gustave Flaubert’s words, “Le bon Dieu est dans le detail.” (The good God is in the detail.) Is it God or the devil in the detail – or is it details? Surely, it cannot be both. But why not? Don’t the two versions express the same thing, just as the term “detail” can both be a singular and a plural? The divine is in the detail because attention to particulars is critical to the success of any project. If one is to do something right, it has to be done thoroughly with meticulous attention to every detail. For if not, the devil is in the details. Miss out on one crucial item and, instead of the construction of a building of exquisite beauty and engineering, we get a balagan.

Do the divine and the devil both being in the detail point out two sides of the same homily? – if you want something exquisite, pay attention to the detail. If you do not, one detail left out can cause devilish destruction. Aspiration and caution are two sides of the same message. Attending to every small item is critical in accomplishing an important task. Of course, the same expression is cited when offered as an excuse for a delay. ‘It took longer than I thought because I had to pay so much attention to each step of the way.’

But the uses of the expression and the expression itself may be varied, but the meaning is constant. Attention to detail matters. So in this week’s portion we now have the accountant’s summary to add to the architectural and design detail of the mikshan. For accountability means not only taking responsibility for one’s action, but entails transparency and auditing of what took place. The world needs accountants as well as architects, engineers, and set designers. Further, after the architects, after the accountants, then the political leaders have to follow the exact details of their divine instructions. Only then, the Book of Exodus ends with the following:

When Moses had finished the work, 34 the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. 35 Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. 36 When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys; 37 but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. 38 For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Lord rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.

We return to the depiction of the divine as a cloud where the divine presence so fills the mishkan that there is no room for Moses. But when the cloud lifted, once again the Israelites could continue their journey, a journey that must have continued at night led by a torch for “a cloud of the Lord rested (on the mishkan) by day.” If there is anything where it is virtually impossible to grasp details, it is in a cloud or in fire. So we are faced with a paradox – a section of the Torah that has been all about details of architectural detail and the refined design of the artefacts, about construction details and detailed rules about usage, we are back to an old theme, God as a cloud by day and a fire by night, of resting by day and moving by night.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described the details of Jewish ritual, particularly on shabat when we are commanded to rest, to be near the Tabernacle – not in it – when it is filled with the cloud of divine presence. Each of us, as Heschel said, is called to accept responsibility for being the architect of sacred time while the divine fills up sacred space. So when the detailed work was done, when the accounting was all completed, when the instructions on use were followed in all their detail, God as a cloud gets to occupy the space and there is not even room for Moses, the leader of the people. How can that be? How is it that the community is brought together as one nation, not in a space shared with God, with God’s presence being felt and experienced, but when the divine cloud takes up all of sacred space and the Israelites are left to cope with sacred time?

Often we are told that Judaism encourages communal more than individual worship, such as when we recite the kaddish. But I would attend to the other aspect of this depiction of the divine in the midst of His people, a depiction of the people outside the Tabernacle when it is filled with the cloud of the divine presence – the message of exclusion rather than inclusion, the vision of Joseph sitting and eating by himself while his brothers eat at another table, and his Egyptian friends and companions eat at a third.

God in the Torah is a God of frozen ice and fiery lightning that reigns down on the Egyptians. (Exodus 9:23-24). When the Israelites had escaped from Egypt, they were accompanied by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. (Exodus 13:21-22) Once the mishkan is constructed, the pillar of cloud no longer leads the Israelites, but fills the Tabernacle so that the Israelites cannot move forward. In my interpretation, they must probe through the haze and confusion and figure out their next step and who they want to become. They must decide who should be the next president of the United States. That, only they can do, not God.

Of the items included in the mishkan, including rare gems and fine linens, the most important may be the mirrors of copper, at once artefacts of vanity and narcissism of self-obsession, of self-confidence and self-consciousness – among birds, only magpies can recognize themselves in a mirror. As Rabbi Fishman told us last night, when we read the Torah, we are holding a mirror up to our own souls. For the Torah is not just a text about history but a sacred text about who we are now and where we should be going, about our taking responsibility for oneself, but doing so in communion with others, about seeking and following a pillar of fire. As palace of sparkling fireworks with the glorious future beckoning and a palace on fire in which we face an apocalypse, about reconciling our best of intentions with our actual behaviour as we go forth from our land in search of a better world.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman