Shelach: A Path to Follow

The portion “Shelach” [“Send out”] — Bamidbar/Numbers 13:1 – 15:41 — contains the famous story of the spies sent out to scout the land of Israel and the aftermath, resulting in most Israelites doomed to death in the desert. It also includes the passage about wearing of fringes [tzitzit] (Bamidbar/Numbers 15:38), well-known as the final portion of the Shema reading in most prayerbooks.

Less known is the story of those Israelites who respond to God’s decree by endeavoring to take the land by force, dying in the attempt (Bamidbar/Numbers 14:39-45). The Hebrew poem, “Dead of the Desert,” published in 1902, offers a powerful retrospective look at this “mere whispered song of defiance and revolt.”

The author, Haim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934) — also transliterated as Hayyim or Chaim and cited as “H.N.,” “C.N.” or “Ch.N.” — is considered one of the pioneers of modern Hebrew literature.

A copy of the original Hebrew poem is available through the Ben Yehuda project. Ruth Nevo’s English translation is available on-line. Both are available in the 2006 bilingual publication Chaim Nachman Bialik: Selected Poems.

If 234 lines seem daunting, zero in on the portion which quotes the rebels:

“We are the brave!
Last of the enslaved!
First to be free! With our own strong hand,
our hand alone,
we tore from our neck
the heavy yoke…
To arms, comrades!
….
…arise, ascend!”

Explore more about this incident and Bialik’s poem in Robert Alter’s Canon and Creativity: Modern Writing and the Authority of Scripture (Yale Univ. Press, 2000). This series of essays, based in part on lectures given at Yale University in 1999, is definitely an academic text. It includes references that some readers may find obtuse, and it employs longer sentences (70-words or more is not uncommon) and more many-syllabic words than the latest mystery, for instance:

“This is a style that harks back to the seventeenth-century prose of Robert Burton and Thomas Browne….” (p.13), for example, was meaningless to me, I confess, without the help of Wikipedia, which has articles on both authors; reference to poetic styles — “strophic poems, in contradistinction to his hexameter idylls,” e.g. — left me wondering if I’d slept through too many long-ago literature classes.

On the other hand, once I adjusted my reading pace to suit his writing, I found that each sentence conveys a great deal about the texts he’s elucidating, and his language is often a treat in itself:

What informs the whole spooky evocation of the desert is a profound sense of the menacing incommensurateness of the world to the grasp of the human imagination. The desert — Bialik uses here a high-poetic term for it, yeshimon — wavers in the play of black and pale white between revelation and concealment, stretching out in the vast expanses (miley milin shel chol) that are the equivalent in spatial extension to the temporal extension into the unending eons troublingly invoked in the poet’s refrains. (p.139)

…any writer of genius and sufficiently embracing perspective can lay claim through the imaginative power of the writing to a kind of canonical authority: here in my work, the writer implies, is a way of seeing the world that will make you cast aside your comforting preconceptions and look hard with newly opened eyes into the knotted nexus of human life and eternity. From one perspective, Bialik’s project in effect restores to the modern age the urgency of the writer’s act in the early centuries of the first millennium B.C.E. , when the resources of Hebrew literary art, against competing visions, were used to address audiences in just such an imperative way. (pp.148-9)

Two odd notes: 1) Fans of Yehuda Amichai might be interested to note that this book is dedicated to the poet, “with abiding affection” (although I don’t believe he is mentioned in the text itself). 2) The volume’s format is an unusual 4-3/4 by 7-3/4 inches — in other words, hand-sized — making for easy carrying and reading on the subway or bus.

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