Sunday, January 25, 2015

Deuteronomy: Chapter 5

The extended presence
here and not here

distance or death

In a world of consummation
who will stand between
and leave a space within?

[For full chapter, click here,
Beginning again, Moses once again recounts the story of the covenant at Sinai/Horeb. This chapter continues, develops, and departs from the previous one. The keywords remain the same: an emphasis on sight and sound (re'eh, eynayim, sh'm'a). "Voice" "kol", "come close" (k'r'v); and "guard, keep" (sh'm'r). Now, however,  another root gains prominence:  "life / alive" (hayim). 
If the previous chapter revolved around the dangerous power of direct perception--and so focused on the Second Commandment's prohibition on graven images--this chapter focuses on the aftermath of that perception. It lists the full Ten Pronouncements, but as told over by Moses, highlighting his part. If the previous chapter dealt with the danger of translating an overwhelming experience into a limited pictorial form, this chapter deals with the danger of overwhelming experience itself: 
when you heard the voice from the midst of the darkness, while the mountain blazed in fire, you came near me…and said: ‘…We have seen this day that God speaks with a human, and he may live.  Now why should we die? For this great fire will consume us; if we keep hearing the voice of God our Lord more, we will die.”  

The consummation of a relationship with the Divine is literal consummation. Nothing is left from the conflagration of sound and sight. Give me distance, or give me death, Israel demands: "You go close and hear all that God our Lord will say, and tell us…” The text enacts this transformation of Moses transition into a living translator between the people and God: “Then God heard the voice of your words when you spoke to me, and God said to me: ‘I have heard the voice of the words of this people which they have spoken to you. They have spoken rightly..'” The people speak to Moses and God responds, Moses a transparent membrane between.

This chapter is about the value of distance. Moses' position as intermediary translates the divine word into human terms that can be "taught" (l’m’d, another key word of this chapter). The generation of direct perception indeed “die.” This generation of the “living” is still branded by the fires of Horeb, but at a remove. They are virtually both there and not there, both face-to -face and separated:
“God our Lord made a covenant with us in Horeb. …not with our fathers, but with us, those who are here today, all of us who are living.  God talked with you face to face on the mountain from the midst of the fire. I stood between God and you…”
 God’s command to return to the private spaces of “your tents” creates a protective space for human continuity.  Moses, who remained “standing with Me” alone on the mountain,  still remains alone on the mount of Nebo, never to truly come down. He is not one of the “living” but remains in the liminal space between the living and the dead, between the land and the wilderness, between the human and the divine.]

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