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Monday, 8 August 2016

"What Is Essential Is Invisible To The Eye"

‘The Little Prince’  (Le Petit Prince), by the French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, was published in 1943, a year before the author’s death  -  he was probably shot down during a reconnaissance mission for the French Air Force. It’s a poetic tale, simply told, in which a pilot stranded in the desert (desert settings are a staple of the Torah narratives too) meets a young prince who has fallen to Earth from a tiny asteroid.

The story is a philosophical allegory about the search for love, for relationships that matter, for inner peace – and about the complications that arise in all those human enterprises. One of the key ‘messages’ of the tale is uttered by a fox, who meets the young prince during his travels on Earth, and eventually tells him : "One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eyes."
Simplistic and sentimental as this may seem, we could call this a very ‘Jewish’ insight; or at least - Saint-Exupéry was not Jewish – an insight that resonates strongly with a Jewish religious and spiritual understanding. After all, this is how our storytellers in the Torah present the dilemma for the Hebrew people – a dilemma they faced from the wilderness days until today: if you have a God, a divine force, an energy that animates all being, that cannot be seen, cannot be pictured – except in words – then what is essential is indeed ‘invisible to the eyes’.
This text from ‘The Little Prince’ came to mind when I looked at the section of the Torah we were to read this week: Numbers 33. On the surface it seemed a rather dreary list of place names – there are 42 in the chapter – starting with Ramses in Egypt before the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, and finishing in Moab, at the edge of the Jordan river, opposite Jericho. But as we read the verses we notice that it isn’t a mere route map – in places we are given tiny vignettes that jog the historical memory. So Ramses isn’t just the start of the journey, it’s the place they left as the Egyptians are still burying their first-born (33:4), a poignant reminder of the cost of the Exodus in human lives, and a stern reminder that the God of Israel is not only a force for redemption and liberation but is also portrayed as  a destructive force as well - something the people came to discover to their own cost during their 40 years wandering. 
In addition, there’s the reminder that the people left Egypt defiantly, ‘high-handedly’ – b’yad rama (33:3) – and we realize that what is being recoded here for the next generation isn’t just a dry list, an itinerary of stops on a journey, but a series of reminiscences, memory-bursts of historical moments, triggered by the geographical locations.
And we know – though the text don’t mention it – that this is an historical and geographical record for a generation who weren’t there at the beginning of the journey. Only Joshua and Caleb of the previous generation survive the wilderness years. Once Moses dies, as he will before the people cross over the Jordan, those two are the only ones who hold the collective memory of the people, a people for whom ‘Egypt’ is already a mythic event.
And we realize that is this what happens in every generation – events in the past slip over the horizon of time behind us and disappear from active memory. This has happened recently to the First World War – we have film and diaries and letters, of course, but nobody who holds it inside themselves any more as a lived experience: ‘I was there, I saw this, I felt this’.  This will happen quite soon – 20 years or so? - to the Holocaust. What is essential becomes invisible to the eyes.
And so we have our list in chapter 33, each place bearing a memory, but most of the memories passed over in silence. Then suddenly a detail is added – Elim, we hear, is the place of 12 springs and 70 palm trees (33:9):  symbolically, one spring for each tribe and one palm tree for each of the 70 elders mentioned in the Torah texts (Exodus 24:1; Numbers 11:25). So these incidental details open up windows onto larger horizons of the people’s experience.
But for me what is most striking – and this takes us back to our quotation from  Saint-Exupéry – is what isn’t mentioned in this text which describes a written record of the desert journey being composed for posterity. An experience you might have thought was ‘essential’, but ‘invisible to the eye’. And that is what happened at Mt. Sinai. Between verse 15 and verse 16 there is a large narrative and experiential hole. ‘They set out from Rephidim and camped in the wilderness of Sinai and they set out from the wilderness of Sinai and camped at Kivroth-Hattavah’ (33: 15-16). 
The whole purpose of the Exodus, the whole focus of Israelite history, was not just to free a group of slaves and give them a place of their own in the sun, but to give them a vision and a purpose – to enact a moral and ethical and cultural and social way of being, inspired by principles of justice and compassion. They were to be a people with a spiritual destiny, a collective mission, to bring a blessing to humanity, to be a blessing. This is what the revelation at Sinai was about: Torah, teaching, a way of life, a purpose to be lived out, striven for, from generation to generation.
And what do we hear about it in this detailed listing of the desert journeying? ‘They set out from Rephidim and camped in the wilderness of Sinai and they set out from the wilderness of Sinai and camped at Kivroth-Hattavah’. Nothing. Not a murmur. Silence. How come?
I couldn’t find a single traditional commentator who questions this, or even comments on it. Even the great medieval commentator Rashi is silent. Modern commentators sometimes note it but have almost nothing to say about it: the doyen of Biblical scholars Robert Alter acknowledges it, saying it is ‘surprising’ (‘The Five Books of Moses’, p.853) – but he doesn’t offer any insight into why it isn’t mentioned. 
The commentary in the American Conservative Movement’s Etz Hayim chumash offers this considered view (p.955): ‘The narrative omits the war with Amalek at Rephidim as well as the manna at Sin, the revelation at Sinai, and other notable events of the wilderness trek. These events were so well known that they did not need to be repeated’ (my italics added). Are we prepared to be satisfied by that?  The American Reform Torah commentary says something almost identical: ‘Perhaps these events were so well known they did not need a special note’(p.1234). Not just inelegantly phrased but, along with the Conservative version, one of the weakest so-called ‘explanations’ you will ever hear for such a significant puzzle in the Torah.
We need to keep this question alive. Why is the revelation at Sinai passed over in silence? As if it hadn’t happened. As if it is a secret wound. As if it were better to avert one’s gaze. As if there is nothing to be said. As if there’s nothing to be done. As if darkness were preferable to light. As if silence was more comforting that knowledge.  As if what is essential must remain invisible to the eye. As if the heart knows something that the mind represses, refuses to grasp.  As if revelation is too painful. As if the word of God cannot be borne. As if Torah is trauma.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry disappeared over the Mediterranean in July 1944. I said earlier that he was probably shot down, by the Luftwaffe, but nobody knows for certain. He just disappeared, his body was never found. Fifty four years later, in September 1998, a fisherman found a silver identity bracelet off the coast of Marseille, bearing the name of Saint-Exupéry and his wife. Puzzlingly, it was far from his intended flight path. Two years later, parts of his plane were discovered on the sea-bed nearby and three years later the French government allowed the plane’s remnants to be recovered and put on display.  But what actually happened to this aviator-storyteller nobody knows, or will ever know. What we have, and can know, are his words.  His mysterious death exemplifies those tantalizing words : "One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eyes."
We will never know about the mystery of Sinai. What happened. Whether anything happened. Whether the silence of Numbers 33 contains a profound truth about an event that exists only in words, in story, in the heart of the Jewish people. As if it were a dream, where we see clearly, but on awakening realize that what we have seen cannot bear the light of day. That we cannot bear it in the light of day.
Something was revealed - and our lives depend on it. Something was revealed, invisible to the eyes, and we go on speaking about it - though it is lost forever. The Torah - like the identity-bracelet, like the relics of a crashed plane - is all we have left, as an aide-mémoireaide-mémoire. The Torah reminds us: something can be too painful, or awesome, to keep in mind. For better, or worse, "What is essential is invisible to the eyes."

[loosely based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, August 6th, 2016]