Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Goodbye to Numbers

I’m finding it harder than usual to say goodbye.
 Part of it is time: Numbers has taken me significantly longer  than the other Chumashim. Between the learning and the drawing and the writing and the posting, the average turnover  has become three days instead than one. On the one hand, this means I’ve been immersed in Numbers longer than the other books; on the other hand, it has been a more diffuse l connection. I don’t , as I usually do, have an intense feel of the themes coming together as I approach the closing. Instead, I have a sense of pattern, but find it harder to trace the central development of this book. And so feel I need to go back, review, hold on before I can move on.
More significant is the process that I feel my work has undergone throughput this book: I started Numbers with a clear sense of where the drawings were going. I was using ink to force me to become more decisive, rather than dithering and redrawing; the pen and nib (or quill) were going to lead to a more linear, calligraphic approach. These plans lasted for the first few drawings. Then the transformations began. It seemed almost by accident. A bit of water there. Dripped ink here. Without thinking, I spread to the second side of the paper. The drawings doubled in size, and became horizontal rather than vertical. Suddenly the medial line gained significance. When I closed the book on wet ink, interesting patterns emerged. The drawings began to take on a life on their own.
Initially, I resisted it. I thought I was being undisciplined. Why couldn’t I stick to my plan? I didn’t want discontinuities in the drawing styles.  But the work was so much more alive and exciting,  I followed it in spite of myself.
Now, looking back, I realize this change in the drawing style actually is a perfect reflection of the changes in the Book of Numbers itself. Numbers begins with order and structure. A census, exact placement, a perfect encampment. Everything is defined. Yet after the dramatic sounding of the trumpets to depart, everything begins to unravel, disintegrate, and take on a life of its own.
This unravelling is initiated by speech. In response to the people’s “complaining” Moses laments, in one of his longest monologues. This in turn initiates a proliferation of prophecy: Eldad and Meidad “prophecy in the camp.” Joshua understands that this unbridled prophecy implies the unraveling of authority. “My lord Moses, stop them!” he demands. Moses, however, revels in the diffusion of “his light”: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets,” he says.
Yet Joshua is correct in his intuition. The very next chapter begins with Aaron and Miriam’s attack on Moses: “Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? hath he not spoken also by us?” This is an attack within the family, centered around domestic issues. But soon, wit h Korah’s rebellion,  it becomes an attack on the very idea of leadership (with Aaron now aligned with Moses): “all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of the Lord?”
From the very beginning, narrative was placed at the center of the exodus story, which revolves around the “story you shall tell your children.” We depart Egypt from the “mouth of freedom” (pi ha-hirot).  Yet it is only at the entrance to the Promised Land that we begin to deal with language qua language. And it is a challenge that Israel fails. The spies “bring back words” , which “made all the congregation murmur against [God] … by bringing up a slander upon the land.” The murmuring complaint is thematic—Numbers recreates scene after scene from Exodus, refocusing them around this issue. “Murmuring” is the fatal flaw that leads to death in the desert, Ba-midbar. The Hebrew name of this book “in the desert” also plays on the word for speech (dabar): Israel dies ba-medaber, “in the speaker.”
It is not only Israel, but Moses that fails. “Speak to the rock” God tells Moses. Once again, there is a recreation of a scene from Exodus, with a refocus on speech. This time, instead of using the force of the magical staff, Moses—who is “not a man of words”—must use language. Moses, like his people, fails; and so Moses like his people, must die in the “desert / speaker”.
Only after 40 years do Moses and Israel at last begin to grow into language. The approach to the Promised Land is a lesson in words: parley, poetry, story-telling. The issue is brought to the fore with the story of Balaam, master of speech. Balaam, in contrast to Moses, is a “man of words”: those who he curses are cursed, those whom he blesses are blessed. This phrase takes us back to Genesis, and God’s blessing to Abraham: Balaam’s power is meant to be Israel’s power. Will he “curse” those who are “blessed”, or will Israel finally grow into their heritage?
It is not Moses, but God, who counters Balaam. God protects Israel again and again, and in doing so places limits on the power of human speech.Just as the ass can speak if God opens her mouth, so Balaam ultimately must  say what God “places in his mouth.” Yet even though Balaam cannot “curse where God does not curse,” his ill wishing gaze triggers breakdown. (That he is an integral part of the story becomes clear when his name is listed among the dead in the punitive strike against Midian: “and Balaam the magician they killed by the sword.”). Language, from its inception in Eden, is bound up in relationship and woman. Adam “calls names” as he searches for “a helpmeet.” His first poem, in which he names himself, is spoken upon meeting Woman. Not for nothing is it Miriam who initiates the focus on speech (and by focusing on Moses’ relationship to the “Cushite woman”!). Balaam cannot destroy Israel directly though speech; but after he leaves, Israel fails through speech’s very foundations: through the relationship to women.

The final chapters of the book are set "by the crossings of Moab", at the cusp of the Promised Land. Here, at the cusp of transition, these three themes--language, the relationship to women, and the ability to inherit the Land-- merge into an indivisible whole. The relationship to the land depends on language, on how we speak of her; the relationship between man and woman is defined by men controlling women’speech; women define the inheritance of the land by “speaking”; the limits on a woman’s marriage is defined by inheritance (a merging that works symbolically, but that grates on me, as a woman).
All this serves as a perfect lead in to "The Book of Words"--Davarim, the Hebrew name for Deuteronomy

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Numbers 36: In Writing

The rising hills
and the sinking hollows

fill cavernous veins, rest
in her caress,

With eyes wide, choose
but limit your liking

What you take must return
to the cleaved earth

Come close you said
I tried.
Can you return
when the horn cries?

Notan of yay and nay
give and gather

You fill my orbed
eyes. I wrap in your web

The disappearing pieces
gouged from my skin

wrinkling the road
 we follow, a hollow

Rupturing the smooth globe
ripening fruit

Hanging above
my outstretched palm, ready

to fall. Yes, you say
Eliding nos

Softening the
sharp edge of en.  Dizzy

ing spin. Cleave to the earth.
Root  your fingers

in fatty loam
dig your feet deep to where

you come, long trailing roots
breaking the rock

Call me by name
the rivers of passage

Where I am
neither here nor there
and they are also another

Numbers: Chapter 36

What is added

What is taken

Married to the earth

Bound in its embrace

For full chapter, click here
This final chapter completes the laws of inheritance given at the liminal "passages of Moab"--a place already defined by the Promised Land's Jericho, and yet still over the Jordan.
It is a closing on many levels. First, it offers a chiastic framework to the detailed laws of inheritance that began when "the daughters of Zelophehad came close" (k'r'b) to demand an inheritance so that "their father's name be not lost." Now the leaders of their tribe "come close" (k'r'b) to demand that their inheritance "not be lost" to another tribe. The two scenes are paralleled to each other, In both, the petitioner "comes close"; in both they stand "before" Moses and the leaders of the tribes; in both the key words are "give" (n't'n); lose (g'r'a); in both cases, God responds with a simple affirmation of the act of speech: "ken--yes, the daughters of Zelophehad / the tribe of Joseph speak"
Yet there cannot be unlimited yes. The second affirmation changes and limits the first. No longer are the daughters of Zelophehad to simply inherit; now their inheritance is accompanied by a limitation on whom they can marry. The chapter is constructed around this tension between affirmation and taking away. It's key words (repeated obsessively) are "to add, gather" (a's'f, a play on the name of the tribe, Yosef) and "to take" (g'r'a): "And when the jubilee of the children of Israel shall be, then will their inheritance be added (yosef) unto the inheritance of the tribe whereunto they shall belong; so will their inheritance be taken away (yigara) from the inheritance of the tribe of our fathers.'
The tension is encapsulated in the double, nearly contradictory, injunction given to the daughters of Zelophehad: "This is the thing which God commanded the daughters of Zelophehad, saying: Let them be married to whom is pleasing to their eyes; But only into the family of the tribe of their father shall they be married."
The initial "yes" remains, but limited by the second "yes" --"But only into the family of the tribe of their father."
The focus on speech acts brings to the fore another of this book's central themes--the growing power of language. This is a power that this book has intertwined (as  in the primal setting of Genesis) with the relationship to women. The focus on language begins with Miriam, and her punishment for "speaking" of Moses; the encounter with the great speaker, Balaam, closes with a sexual orgy with the "daughters of Moab." The laws of vows revolve around limiting the validity of women's words. Now, "coming close" to demand a response from God is initiated by women, and in an attempt to counter the response to women.
The final intertwining of marriage and inheritance is the culmination of the growing intimacy with the Land. The description of the borders of the Promised Land was replete with feminized imagery. Now this chapter sets up a virtual monogamy between tribe and inheritance: "So shall no inheritance of the children of Israel remove from tribe to tribe; for the children of Israel shall cleave (davak) every one to the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers." Davak-cleave is a powerful word, sending us back to the primal creation of humanity in Eden: "Therefor shall man leave his father and mother and cleave (davak) to his wife, and they shall be one flesh." The relationship to land here subsumes the relationship of marriage: "who is pleasing in their eyes" is defined by the laws of inheritance; the relationship to land is the relationship to wife.
This returns us to the daughters of Zelphehad's original petition, where they seek to preserve "the name" of their father   through inheriting his land. The focus on "name" returns us to levirate marriage, which "seeks to raise the name of the dead on his inheritance." Land, marriage, inheritance, memory and speech become painfully intertwined in this closing to the Book of the Desert (Ba-Midbar), which is also the Book of Speech (Ba-Midaber)]

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Numbers 35: In Writing

It will have blood
the red-rust earth
that runs in your veins
It will have blood

Wall yourself in
a world of stone. 
In sky-blocking towers
flee from her face

The waters, the wind
whisper your name.
Behind your fingers
you hear her say

Slayer. Spiller of 
red sea within
the undulating 
hill turns her back.

sticky stench sucks
at your shoes, drips
from branches. The stones
are wet with it.

Iron hisses, trees
stalk. How lightly,
easily, they could drop.
World is weapon.

You have no blood,
a hollow waste.
anemic wraith that
haunts the place be-

tween. Within your 
bones, he lies 
in wait, the one whose 
place you cannot take.

Numbers: Chapter 35

Measure the space

the beaten boundary

Where the land is not yours

And your blood does not
beat within it

[For full chapter, click here
As per the pattern of Numbers, every account of Israel is followed by a different, more intimate account of the Levites. The opening census was two-pronged: the tribes, by "their father's house", from the age of twenty and up; fthe comes a count of the Levites, by their families, from the age of one month.
The closing account of apportioning the Land follows the same  pattern. Whereas the previous chapter delineated the boundaries of the tribes, this chapter defines the cities that are to be given to the Levites. The key word is "give" (n't), reverberating with the initial account of the "doubly given (neturnim netunim)" Levites.
The "command" (tzav) of the Levites inheritance is both a continuation of the previous chapter's "command" (tzav) of the other tribes' inheritance, and also a radical departure. On the one hand, it continues the focus on "boundaries" (gvul); on "inheritance" (nahala); and on the four directions. It even repeats certain phrases, such as "pe'at negev"--the side of the south. But on the other hand, whereas the previous chapter focused on the specific contours of the Land--its rise and falls, cliffs, mountains, and waters--this chapter focuses only on 'measurements" (middot). The cities of the Levites are defined by numbers, not by the specific terrain. There are to be 48, they must be ssurroundedwith 1000 cubits to each side. Other than that, they can be anywhere. They are to some extent extraneous to the intimate landscape defined by the previous chapter. They are mini-encampments within the Land, to be placed wherever the tribes decide to designate them. 
This is emphasized by the conflation of the cities of the Levites with the cities of refuge set aside for the protection of a man-slaughterer.  The involuntary murderer is protected from the "blood avenger" by escaping into the city of refuge. Yet by the same token, the "city of refuge" protects the Land from the murderer: "you shall not take a ransom for one that flees to a city of refuge, that he may dwell in the Land... for blood pollutes the Land and no expiation shall be made to the Land for the blood  shed within except the blood of he who shed it." The intimacy between  nation and land is so deep, that murder is a crime against the Land--not only against humanity.  The involuntary murderer who  cannot expatiate for the blood he has shed, must be quarantined. The city of refuge--which is also a city of Levites-- functions as that  separate space, divided from the land. The blood does not flow through its membrane. And an involuntary muderer who leaves its bounds, suggestively has "no blood."]

Monday, December 8, 2014

Numbers 34: In Writing

Toe-trace the contours
of  tender ribs and veins,
as she rises and falls beneath you.

The slope of her shoulders,
her undulating  mane,
plunge down to drown your heart  in grave blue.

For you, she whispers,
for you. The supple plains,
the hard packed bounds your fingers drew. 

Mine, mine, you conjure,
over bucking waves,
across the hills you try to subdue,

where you are stopped, dropped
as she rolls infinitely on...

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Numbers: Chapter 34

Mark for yourself

The boundaries of home

The sloping shoulder
The flowing hair 

[For full chapter, click here
This chapter continues the focus on space. From tracing the nomadic journeys through the desert, we now “draw the contour” (tit-ar) around the future borders of Israel.
The key word of this chapter is “for you”—la-khem. A simple word that holds within it the opposing ambiances  of this chapter. On the one hand, intense intimacy. The borders seem almost alive, “rising” “falling” “turning,” “leaving” “passing” with an anthropomorphized “shoulder”  and an ambiguous “side” that is also “hair” (pe’ah). They are all personal, “for you” , as you “draw the line” from one point to another.

On the other hand, a sense of the arbitrary. This is the land that “falls” (nafal) to you. You draw the line, which is for you. The land itself remains unchanged. The lines drawn belong fully in the human realm.  There is an intense relationship between you and land, but the land is always itself. ]

Monday, December 1, 2014

Numbers 33: In Writing

write with your feet
your weight on the world
a trace of place

where you left
way you walked
relics of your wake

where you come from
where you go to
the earth embrace

Out through the egress
and give a name
a write of passage
earth-shift to your shape

Litany of losses
catalog of stops
the winding coil

contourting who you are

Numbers: Chapter 33

Trace your journey 
on the earth 
that holds you 

The writing in the  

remnants of passage

[For full chapter, click here
As we approach the closing of this "Book of Wilderness," the aspect of recap and recreation is highlighted. As Moses' prepares to be "gathered to his fathers," it seems that the book is "gathering" its strands together.  If the previous chapter focused on recapping the narrative path, here we trace the literal , physical passage: the list of "departures and going" in the forty years wandering through the wilderness. 
This is the first time since Sinai that the act of writing is emphasized: "and Moses wrote their goings forth and their passage. according to God's command." For the first time, we find out that the story has been recorded since the initial "going forth" from Egypt. If at Sinai, Moses engraved God's words "into stone", here it seems that the act of walking engraves the earth, so that the land itself holds the story of the passage. 
Here, more important than any act is the character of the land. We say nothing of revelation, but must know that "Etham is in the edge of the wilderness" and that there were "twelve fountains of water and seventy palm trees" in Elim.  
The underlying motif connecting this journey from Egypt to the fords of Moab is the deepest, most primal connection to the earth: burial (k'b'r). We begin the journey as the Egyptians bury the dead from the Plague of the Firstborn; the journey to the "wilderness of Sinai" is punctuated by the "graves (kibroth) of lust"; we close the first part of the journey at Hor haHar, the site of Aaron's death; the journey ends at Nebo, the future site of Moses' death and burial.    
This catalog of forty years journey traces and celebrates the long way that Israel has come since they set forth from the "mouth of freedom".  Yet it is also filled with the aura of endings as we prepare for the "passage" into the new beginning in the Promised Land. This chapter is both a farewell to the desert, and an introduction to the Land, highlighting the deep connection to the earth.]