Lines in the sand: Torah portion Devarim

Forty years of desert wandering takes its toll. The price of watery knees in the face of giants, the reason for the added years in the wilderness. A brutal practice, every year at the Ninth of Av each refugee from Egyptian bondage was instructed to dig his or her own grave and sleep in it till sunrise, according to legend. Shivassana on steroids. And every year a portion of them would not arise in the morning. And so it was to go on each year until the year of their deliverance to the promised land. The one drawn from the river of humanity is the one who leads the tribes to the threshold of freedom. The cure for the trauma of enslavement is to be told once again the very story one has just lived through, every instruction resonant with another bone or sinew in the collective body. This week we face that fateful day once again and pray for a visionary Sabbath. The eighteenth century chassidic mystic Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev promised a vision of the future temple, the structure which arises from the rubble. Midweek finds us at the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, the man known worldwide for leading South African blacks out from under the yoke of the apartheid government. A relatively non-violent revolution paved the way for the twin blessings of truth and reconciliation, the eschewing of false gods and baseless hatred, the sine qua non of reconstruction.

Strangely enough, according to the story of the week, the Israelites were not the only people to have encountered fearsome giants holding the land they wished to settle. The Israelites called them Rephaim or Anakim. The Ammonites called them Zamzummim. The Moabites referred to them as Emim. The children of Esau exterminated the Horites. The Caphtorites killed off the Avim that dwelt in unwalled cities in Gaza. Along the path to cross the Jordan the Israelites dispatched the two kings whose names mean tempestuousness and scorn, wars of total annihilation. Slim justice in a brutal world, the king of scorn was said to be a remnant of the giants, his iron bed nine cubits by four, a host who rivaled Procrustes in his ill-treatment of guests in his land. The universal justification of the slaughter of strangers. Ancient Neanderthals,  ill-spoken barbarians, fallen angels, spirits of the dead? The central drama of the conquest of aborigines: Aryans versus Dravidians, Olympians versus Titans, Dorians versus Mycenaeans, cowboys versus Indians. That was then, or was it?

Metaphorical and literal. As the hero Beowulf conquered the deadly sin of Wrath, which the author notes had undone so many of the previous heroes of the Danes, in the person of the monster Grendel, so would the children of Israel conquer tempestuousness and scorn as represented by the kings Sihon and Og. Perhaps they are also geographic landmarks much in the same way that the figures in the Australian aboriginal songlines serve triple duty as characters in ritual, song and topography. Anakim means chain or necklace. The Judean Hills? A concrete way in which words are things in the world, the double meaning of devarim. But why all these monsters in the tale we tell of entering the land, that we tell at the year’s nadir? Monster stories to dispel the child-like fears of the fledgling nation. Archetypal fears. Fears of future desolations. Fears of the narrow bridge, existence itself. Annihilation, the most heartbreaking images of Tisha B’Av. It is written in our holy books and in the annals of the profane, a long series of murders, intrigues, wars and betrayals. The story of humanity. What words may we utter to each other, what trail follow, what ritual enact, that will trace consciousness in the face of the impossible. The main thing, the crucial thing, according to the Bratslaver Rebbe, is not to fear. Not to fear at all.

About the Author
Michael Diamond’s day job is as a psychiatrist and doctor of medical qigong in the Washington, DC area. He has published occasional verse, fiction and translation in Andrei Codrescu’s journal, The Exquisite Corpse; in the journal Shirim courtesy of Dryad Press; in the online journal for Akashic Press; and in The Journal of the American Medical Association. He lives in the suburbs with his wife, an artist and illuminator of Hebrew manuscripts, their dog, one cat, a cockatiel named Peaches and a tank of hyperactive fish. He has had a strong interest in Torah since first exposed to traditional stories as a child. Over the course of his life he has run the gamut of spiritual exploration of many world traditions of meditation and mythology. For the last several decades he has landed squarely in the traditional Jewish world. His writing is informed by all of this experience, by his curiosity about today's world and by his desire to mine the Jewish experience for its hidden and revealed wisdom. Torah Obscura, as in camera obscura, from Latin, meaning "dark room", also referred to as pinhole image, the optical phenomenon that occurs when an image of a scene at the other side of a screen is projected through a small hole in that screen into the chamber provided. A glimpse of an otherwise invisible world afforded by a small aperture for light. All materials herein copyright © 2018 Michael S. Diamond. All rights reserved.
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