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

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