Bialik’s Radical Subversion
The overture to the book of Numbers is decidedly upbeat. All appears in order for a quick journey through the wilderness. We are at the start of the fourteenth month since the exodus from Egypt. A month before Moses had erected the Tabernacle, commemorating the first anniversary of Israel’s freedom. Just three months after its redemption, Israel experienced God’s revelation at Mount Sinai. The opening chapters convey an aura of invincibility. With exactly 603,550 fighting men above the age of twenty, Israel is arrayed around the Tabernacle in military formation with four tribes on each side. The ultimate power of this force is spiritual, for the Tabernacle at its center protected by the Levites, is not only the repository of the tablets of the covenant, but also the abode of God on earth. As a shrine, it serves as an earthly microcosm of God’s cosmic dwelling.
But all to no avail! Numbers is an unrelievedly dismal book of human failure, a series of narrative fragments that prove beyond a doubt that miracles are not the stuff of enduring faith. In the end, human nature remains unalterable. Though freed, the generation born in slavery never overcomes the psychological defects of its origins and is finally fated to die in the wilderness. Thus, what should have been a journey of a few months extends into a forty-year ordeal.
The Israelites who perished in the wilderness did not attract much attention in later rabbinic discourse. An isolated tale by an inveterate teller of tall tales suggests that they shared a common hidden burial site. Rabbah bar bar Hanah (a fourth century Babylonian sage) recounted that he was once traveling in the wilderness in the company of an experienced Arab guide who offered to show him “the desert’s dead” (meitei midbar). When they came upon the site, the corpses lay on top of the ground in a kind of drunken stupor with their faces toward the sky. The knee of one of them was held erect and high enough for the Arab guide to ride beneath it on his camel with spear aloft. Rabbah bar bar Hanah removed the blue thread on the fringes of one of the dead, immediately, immobilizing all the members of his party. The guide had him return it, for to take anything away from this place was forbidden. Though the editors of this passage regarded Rabbah bar bar Hanah as a fool, they preserved the specimen of folklore (BT Bava Batra 73b-74a). Clearly, the folk imagination was tantalized by the fate of the desert’s dead.
In the spring of 1902, a young and gifted Hebrew poet by the name of Hayyim Nahman Bialik, then living in Odessa, the intellectual capital of Russian Jewry, seized on this hoary legend to author an epic that repudiated the core values of the ultra-Orthodox religious establishment. Unlike Herzl, Bialik was an insider who fomented rebellion from within by turning to the margins of Jewish culture to uproot its moorings. His flawless poem, “The Desert’s Dead” (witness the retention of the name meitei midbar) refashioned sinners into warriors. The gigantic but inert lineaments of the legend have been imbued with action and suspense and an utterly alien spirit.
The poem opens with a richly detailed description of an encampment of warriors, by their tents, embalmed by the dryness and stillness of the desert. Still bearing their weapons, the large bodies lay face-up. Their bared chests and burnished faces reveal the scars of countless battles. The passage of time and the sands of the desert have concealed these men of extraordinary might in a world of impenetrable isolation.
What shatters the silence on this occasion is the approach of nature’s most fearsome creatures: first an eagle, then a cobra and finally a lion. Each one is set to pounce and feast on the outstretched cadavers, but is arrested and affrighted by the awesomeness of the spectacle. Even in death, these stilled warriors aglow with dormant strength, can repel the onslaught of the mightiest beasts. Bialik heightens the drama of these episodes with an unprecedented display of the literary power of modern Hebrew, a language still very much in formation at the time. While the meter approximates Greek hexameter, the biblical vocabulary, which is wholly recast, captures the sights and sounds of the natural world with romantic immediacy.
On yet another occasion, the desert itself erupts against its maker. In the midst of a whirlwind its entombed dead suddenly find their voices. Nature and man join to rebel against God’s will. Buried in this forsaken spot are the Israelites who defied God’s death sentence after the debacle of the ten spies by daring to take Canaan without God’s blessing, only to meet their death at the hands of the Amalekites and Canaanites (Numbers 14:39-45).
We are the mighty ones! [they now proclaim]
The last generation of slaves and the first to be free!
Our hand alone, our strong hand tore the heavy yoke from our proud neck.
We lifted our heads to the sky but found it confining in our eyes –
So we took to the desert and declared the parched soil “our mother!”
Atop mountains amid cloud covers, we imbibed freedom at its source with the eagles on high.
Who is our lord?
Even now, though a vengeful God has entombed us in the desert, a song of strength and revolt stirs us and we rise!
To our swords and spears. Assemble! March!
Behold we are ready to scale the heavens and their wrath in a storm!
But the storm expires, the uprising subsides and the desert sinks back into its eternal silence. Eons later, an Arab horseman from a passing caravan happens upon this mass graveyard. Agitated, he recounts to his kinsman the macabre, yet, soulful sight. An aged sage in their group provides the commentary. Your eyes beheld the desert’s dead, a godly camp of ancient, courageous and comely warriors who betrayed their prophet and fought with their God. In response, He imprisoned them for eternity in the remote confines of the desert. Moreover, Allah ordered His faithful never to touch the fringes of their garments. And, when once an Arab lifted a tassel, he was drained of life till he restored it.. “They were the very ancestors of the people of the written word.”
The genealogical coda culminates Bialik’s pervasive tone of bitter irony. Untold promise gave way to abject passivity. A nation of warriors sank into a congregation of worshipers. What a triumphant Islam had once lionized in Judaism, namely its veneration of literacy and learning, now loomed as the greatest obstacle to its revitalization. At the dawn of a new century freighted with ancient hatred, Jews desperately needed to take control of their own destiny.
In delivering this call for action, Bialik brilliantly inverted traditional building blocks. The wilderness symbolized the unending exile of an impoverished nation. Only another exodus would redeem it from its self-inflicted paralysis, though this time not from above, but from within. Auto-emancipation was the mantra of the moment. While omitting almost nothing from the tale of Rabba bar bar Hanah, Bialik shifted the tone from fantasia to myth. A tradition susceptible of such radical revision bore the seeds of its own salvation.