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