Parsha Devarim by David Hartley Mark

Here it is, another baking-hot, desert day, around 1440 BCE (Before the Christian Era). Poor Old Moses has asked his disciple—more like a son, really—Joshua, to blow the shofar and summon us people from our tents to the central square around the Mishkan, the desert shrine where, they say, the Spirit of our invisible desert God hovers, both inside and outside of the tent, and all at once—I cannot fathom how.

“You young people were born in this wilderness,” Moses calls at the top of his voice—what voice? It’s old, and weak; it’s hard to hear him; the rooks cawing and the vultures circling are a distraction, as are the tumbling desert weeds which the hamseen, the dry wind, continually blows through the camp, and sand blasting into our faces, and so Joshua ends up repeating all that the Old Master speaks, and we bend our ears to him to listen—“And I will not be with you much longer; the God-Most-High has declared that I shall be gathered unto Him, but on such a day as I do not know. And so it is important, most important—“ Here, the old man is seized by a fit of coughing, which does not cease until Pinchas, one of the priests, fetches him a goatskin of watered wine mixt with cinnamon and honey, to soothe his throat—“That you hear what I have to say….” Hearing that, we sit down, for these discourses by the Old One can go on, even for hours, while Yerucham, the Rememberer, stares at Moses’s lips and moves his own, the better to remember, for cuneiform on clayey tablets, to bake, and carry along with us now.

The sun beats down, and we shift from ham to ham, trying to avoid the stings of the desert bugs and the evil scorpions which are our constant companions; we joke that they are “Honorary Israelites” whom the Mysterious One has, like us, freed from Egypt, along with the Mixed Multitude of necromancers, harlots, and ne’er-do-wells who have gotten us into so much trouble: the Rebellion of Korach, the Golden Calf, the Temptations of Ba’al Pe’or, and others….

As the day’s heat builds, and Moses’s voice creaks on, many of us begin to dream, to remember, past speeches: he told us once, how, although we had yet been born, the Mysterious One—Moses calls him “Lord,” and “Master God,” and other names—had freed us and our ancestors from Egyptian slavery, and how we rebelled, and wished to go back to that cursed land—but why should we? We have no memory of it, no indeed! All we have ever wished for is some variety, some respite, from the manna, that “What-is-It?” bread, which falls daily, and which we gather never-endingly, that white, flakey stuff that we’ve been eating all of our lives: it is a curse. The one time, only once! That we—not we, but our parents—rebelled, and asked for meat, some tiny bit of poultry, perhaps—how was Old Moses to fetch it for them? Was he to mount up to heaven, to beg the birds from the One Most High? But no: instead, the Mysterious One sent flocks, flocks of quail—at least, that is what my old mother and Uncle Ener told me, years before, when I was but a young lad—and, so Uncle Ener said, “We had caught a covey of quail, Young Enosh, and were sitting down to eat, when you know what happened?”

“No, what, my Uncle?” I asked, though I had heard the tale, so many times told, many times repeated.

“Why, He-Who-Is smote us with a harsh smiting, kicked us in the guts! We all scattered for the bushes, quickly enough, and moaned and groaned the whole night long—no more meat for us, not for a while!” And Uncle and Mother laughed about it, laughed until they cried, while I wondered at the thought: a God Who supplies His people with meat, but grudges them the eating of it—it doesn’t seem right, somehow—

But there, Old Moses is done: he is leaning on Joshua’s shoulder, and going into his goatskin tent. Poor Old Moses—and, now that I look at his back, Joshua is looking older, too, with some more gray hairs on his beard and back—what remains, O’ Mysterious One? What remains for us to see and conquer, with Your grudging help for Your rebellious children?

David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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