Page 17 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 30

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— H
o l iness
a n d
isco nt ent s
Then Moses said to God: “What happened to this man, who
penetrated Torah beyond the reach even of Moses?” God replied,
“Take eight steps backward.” And Moses took eight steps back­
ward, step by step, passing days and weeks and then years and
then decades and then at last centuries, un til he came to Rabbi
Akiva. And there was Akiva in his martyrdom, bound before
his torturers, who were combing his flesh with iron combs. And
Moses cried to God, “Then was it all for nothing?” God answered:
“T h a t is the question that is not to be asked.”
And so I understood one thing at least: that the headmaster,
in choosing to make no comment bu t to resume the midrash,
had after all given his comment. The resumption was itself the
So we must resume; and it is the resumption that is the auda­
cious thing. For the one certainty we can count on the world
for is that it will interrupt us. The history of the Jews has always
been a history of interruptions—sometimes in the form of erup­
tions, the fiery stake or the fiery oven, but now and then, in milder
times, in the form of allure. Boys on bikes are more than a further
pockmark in the eternal plague of anti-Semitism: they are also
demonic disguises for voices in ourselves, those worldly voices
which stir us now and again to think, Oh, oh, if only I were well
out of this, if I too could be
not subject to the irrational
flaw endemic in the planet, well out of it, on the other side,
the plunderer rather than the keeper of the grass, the careless
cruel shouter rather than the man who barely escaped becoming
ash. I do not say that we necessarily desire to be persecutors; but
we desire to be free of the persecutor’s breath, as the persecutor
himself is free of his own breath, because he applies no conscious­
ness to his breath, he breathes as simply as the predatory birds
breathe upon living things.
And we want
to resume, but to go as simply and as freely
as a pair of boys on a pair of bikes, or like the predatory birds
who belong, after all, to the body of nature. At bottom what we
want is to become ourselves an aspect of the natural, to be
natural men and natural women—which (we know this intui­
tively) somehow feels different from being a Jew. To be natural:
that way lies ease, and an energetic and athletic sort of sloth
which is the worst sloth of all, and surrender, and, ultimately,
worldliness and sentimentality. Worldliness: the gullibility that
disbelieves everything. Sentimentality: the desire to escape history.
Sentimentality means the urge to cover over, to make excuses for,
to obscure with justification; it is a negative urge
not to clarify;
instead to choose an explanation that makes things seem easy
rather than clear. History and nature are not friends. Nature
offers ease: here you are, and what you need to be is only what