Friday, November 30, 2018

Rock of Ages

Any of my readers who hear me preach at Shelter Rock regularly know that one of the themes I return to over and over is the mystery of things, of stuff. Three hundred years ago, in 1718, the world was a different place in many ways. New Orleans had just been founded in what was then called New France. Spain, a naval superpower, was at war simultaneously with the Holy Roman Empire, the U.K., France, and Holland. The potato had just been brought to the New World, more specifically to New England, where it not only flourished but quickly became a staple of the North American diet. Coffee beans were new too, brought in that year for the first time to the New World (more specifically, to Surinam in South America) as well. So, at least at year’s beginning: no French roast, no French fries, and no French Quarter! But the world was full of people—more than 600 million of them by most estimates. (Some were French, obviously.) And all of them had stuff.
Jewish people also had stuff in 1718, and a lot of it. There were something like 7 million Jews in the world as the eighteenth century dawned. All the married couples had k’tubbot. All the wives had wedding bands. All the men—or surely lots of them—owned t’fillin. Each synagogue had an aron kodesh filled with Torah scrolls. Every community owned a m’gillah from which it read on Purim. In each home, or surely in most, was a seder plate. Each community—and with no exceptions at all—kept a record of births and deaths, a list of who was buried in which grave in the cemetery they maintained, a ledger of contributions solicited, received, and acknowledged, and a record of circumcisions and marriages.

Some of this stuff survived. There are, for example, many Jewish communal record books in the manuscript and rare book libraries of the world. And some of it simply was not built to last and, in fact, did not survive into the modern day. But what about the rest of everything? That’s the question that continues to fascinate. It’s unimaginable—and truly so—that anyone would throw out his or her parents’ k’tubbah after their deaths.  But even less conceivable is the image of anyone not wishing to keep a beloved mother’s wedding band or the veil she wore at her wedding or her own mother’s ring or veil. But if that is the case—which, speaking realistically, it surely must be—then where is all that stuff?
I’m a good example. I know where my mother’s wedding band is. (It is on the ring finger of Joan’s left hand.) But where is my parents’ k’tubbah? And where are their own parents’ k’tubbot? And where are my grandmothers’ wedding bands? I had two grandmothers when I was born, one of whom, my father’s mother, died when I was only four years old. But my other grandma, my mother’s mother, I remember well…and I remember her wearing a wedding band, a plain gold band that she wore for decades after my grandfather died. (She gave me my first piano lessons, and I can still see her hands at the keyboard.) Was she buried wearing it? I suppose she might have been, although generally speaking that isn’t our custom. But if she’s not wearing it, then who is?  I can’t see my mother or her sister, my grandmother’s only two children, selling their mother’s wedding band for a few dollars! Nor did either of them wear it, not my aunt and definitely not my mother. So where exactly is it?  That’s the question that occupies me.

Einstein famously once wrote that the distinction between the past, present, and future is “just a stubbornly persistent illusion.” I’m sure I don’t fully understand what he meant—the difference between the past and the future feels pretty non-illusory to me—but whatever of that thought I can process is related to these other ideas I’ve been writing about. The present feels so real, so permanent, so solid. Is that sturdiness an illusion that dissolves easily in the flow of moments so that all the things of this world are simply present in the here and now but specifically not guaranteed by their existence in that mode to survive into the future? I wrote before about 1718, but I could also have written about 1018, a full thousand years ago. The Vikings were in their fullest flower back then, raiding Scotland and the north German coast with relative impunity. But there were Jewish communities even then all across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. And the wives in those communities also had wedding bands and k’tubbot. You see where I’m going with this. Did Prince have it right back in the ’90s when he sung that “life is just a party…and parties aren’t made to last”? I wasn’t much of a fan, but maybe I should have been!
But some things do manage to last. And when they do, they become symbols—at least in my mind—of the way the apparently terminal ephemerality of things need not point to the conclusion that history itself is mere midrash, that that fact that the things of the past seem destined to vanish does not make of history itself something that also only exists in the recollective consciousness of humankind rather than as part of real, if absent, reality.

A tiny stone has surfaced that speaks directly to this set of issues…and also directly to me personally. 

It’s just a tiny thing, a pebble really. But because it was found in Jerusalem by archeologists working under the supervision of the Israel Antiquities Authority in dirt taken from beneath Robinson’s Arch (a site adjacent to the Western Wall, in 2013 and only now finally fully sifted) and because it has one single word etched into it, this mere pebble steps out of the flow of moments to speak to us and to remind us that, as Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun, the past is not only not dead and gone, it’s never even really past at all.

The word is the Hebrew beka, the name of a specific weight. The first letter, the bet, is written backwards. Also, even more mysteriously, the letters are written from left to right rather than from right to left. Was the engraver dyslexic? Or was he (or she!) perhaps illiterate, thus someone merely copying letters without being able personally to read them and not doing too good a job? Or—given that there are several personal seals that have survived from the First Temple period that feature an analogous kind of mirror script— was the left-to-right thing intentional? To none of these questions is there an answer, nor ever will there be. What a beka itself was, though, isn’t hard at all to know: the measure is mentioned in the Torah twice, once to describe the specific amount of gold in the nose ring that Abraham’s man Eliezer offered to Rebecca when he first encountered her and realized that she was destined to be Isaac’s wife, and once in the context of the half-shekel annual tax that served as an annual count of adult Israelites: [you shall pay] one beka per head, [that is,] half a shekel…for each person over twenty years of age counted in the census.”
Eli Shukron, the lead archeologist on the site, explains the system clearly: “When the half-shekel tax was brought to the Temple during the First Temple period, there were no coins, so they used silver ingots. In order to calculate the weight of these silver pieces, they would put them on one side of the scales and on the other side they would place the beka weight. The beka was equivalent to the half-shekel, which every person from the age of twenty and up was required to bring to the Temple.” It appears, he goes on to say precisely, that the biblical shekel, a weight rather than a coin in the modern sense, weighed exactly 11.33 grams.

When I look at this coin, I really do get what Faulkner meant as this thing from ancient times surfaces in our own day to remind us that the past isn’t some sort of midrash on present-day reality invented by moderns to explain why things in the world are the way they appear to be, but an actual record of what once was.
When people debate the status of Jerusalem as though it somehow wasn’t the capital of Israel in ancient times, as though the Temple Mount somehow wasn’t the site of not one but two different Temples that served in their respective eras as the spiritual center of all Jewish enterprise, or as though the relationship of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel is some sort of colonialist fantasy as little rooted in reality as the Belgians’ claim to the Congo or the British claim to India—words somehow fail me as I feel overwhelmed by some unholy amalgam of contempt, irritation, and anger towards people for whom history really is whatever you wish it to be. And then support comes, as Scripture says it always does, from some unexpected corner of the universe. A stone—really just a pebble—appears in the world. It’s tiny. It weighs almost nothing. Its inscription was either intentionally or unintentionally written contrary to the normal rules of written Hebrew, or what we moderns suppose they must have been in First Temple times. It languished under a mountain of dirt not for centuries but for millennia. And then, out of nowhere, it rolls out onto centerstage and says its sole word: beka. And packed into those two ancient syllables are several things: the courage of my own convictions, the undeniable evidence of history confirmed, and no little amount of hope for the future. Not bad for something so tiny it is dwarfed by an average-sized human hand in the photograph above and, at the end of the day, has a vocabulary that consists of a single word. Not bad at all!

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