Parsha Va-etchanan by David Hartley Mark

In the Musee du Louvre, the world-famous art museum in Paris, France, there stands—or, rather, sits—a statue dating from Egypt, in 2450 BCE (Old Kingdom, Fifth Dynasty). It is not a dramatically tall depiction of a rampant pharaoh, striding forward boldly with spear and shield in hand; neither is it a scarab-beetle, or dragon-like crocodilian of the Nile River. It depicts a scribe named Kai, a government official of some importance in his time—he was sufficiently well-off to commission both the statue of himself doing his job, and a tomb to house both his earthly and heavenly remains, though we know nothing more of him than the statue tells us.

The statue is of painted limestone, standing (or sitting) one foot, nine inches high. Kai sits, cross-legged, on the ground, holding a long-ago-lost reed pen in his right hand, and a papyrus roll in his left, on which he is writing. His kilt, customary dress for Egyptian men, is stretched over his thighs as he sits Indian-style, and it serves well as a writing surface. His facial expression is alert and attentive, eyes wide open, ready to take dictation from whichever high officer or pharaoh should need his services. Unlike other Egyptian sculptures, which nearly all conform to an identical style, Kai’s likeness is individual: he appears to be a man of intelligence, a civil servant whose importance is hinted at, rather than trumpeted. We may assume that this statue was made in the same workshops which turned out royal sculptures, giving it an importance it does not loudly proclaim (10,000 Years of Art, NY: Phaidon Press, 2009, p. 29).

Why do I use the image of this workaday scribe to illustrate this parsha/Torah reading? This is where Moses (1393?-1273?BCE) orates about the desert wanderings of our people and describes the theophany at Sinai: “Face-to-face did God speak with you on the mountain, from the midst of the fire; I stood at that time between you and God, to tell you the Word of God, for you were fearful of the fire, and did not ascend the mountain” (Deut. 5: 4-5; translation mine)—followed by the second recitation of the Ten Commandments. After the smoke, thunder, and lightning vanished into the tribal memory of our ancestors—indeed, after they themselves died, being doomed by God to perish in the wilderness as punishment for sinning with the Golden Calf—what remained? Only the power of the Divine Word, as transcribed by Moses. One could do worse than be a scribe to royalty, whether Kai or Moses. Growing up as a young man in Pharaoh’s palace (whether that of Ramses II, Merneptah, or even the woman pharaoh, Hatshepsut—we will never know for certain), possibly being groomed for a role in the Egyptian regime, Moses may well have known and appreciated the worth of men like Kai, and certainly learned to respect the power of the recorded word. It served him, and us, well.

And that is what remains to us today: we are the People of the Book. Although many of us never read beyond the Chumash/Five Books of Moses, and neglect the study of the remainder of the Tanach/Bible (which is a shame), it remains our people’s gift to the world, and we should pledge ourselves to its study. It may not be logical; it may be self-contradictory; parts of it may not have aged as well as we might like—but it is still our heritage, our legacy. Moses, Kai, and all other recorders of history would have had it no other way.

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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