07 September 2010

Rosh Hashanah

The High Holidays season begins this week. Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah this Thursday and Friday; Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year occurs next Friday-Saturday, and the following week begins the festival of Sukkot. For me during these next several weeks time seems to stand frozen as each day brings a holiday and long periods of time in prayer and contemplation. The services vary but the structure stays the same and I seek the same seat. And yet time appears to rush forward as I proceed from holiday to holiday and from celebration to celebration. Each day impels me into the next and suddenly I know that Fall has begun. It used to be that the Holidays signaled the arrival of the World Series, but it is a long time since I concerned myself with baseball—not since the Mets won the World Series in 1969. This year Rosh Hashanah falls on the first day of classes, and for the first time in forty years, I will not be in attendance.

In Bava Bathra, a tractate of the Babylonian Talmud, the Rabbis discuss the size and contents of the ark that the Israelites carried about in the wilderness. Now, we are told that the tablets Moses brought down from Sinai were placed in the ark and carried about the wilderness during the forty years of wandering, but I guess that the Rabbis wonder from where the Torah scroll so sacred to Judaism derived and was kept during the years of wandering. We know that Moses wrote the words down, but where were they kept? Obviously, the scroll must have been kept in the ark, though there is no explicit mention of its presence.

Since the tablets Moses returned from Sinai with were placed in the ark, and these tablets were said to be six handbreadths in length, six in breadth, and three in thickness, they must have been placed lengthwise in the ark, which was itself two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. A cubit is between 18-20 inches, and a hands-breadth about three inches. Regardless of the exact dimensions, there was room left in the ark after the tablets were placed there. Now, since there is no mention of the Torah scroll being in the ark, and yet the Rabbis insist that it existed, they have to discover its presence. And they do in a remarkable way: they go to I Kings VIII, 9 which reads, “There was nothing in the ark save the two tables of stone which Moses put there.”

The Rabbis say that 'nothing' is a limitation. This appears obvious: nothing declares that the ark was empty—the word classifies as a limitation because nothing announces an absence—if absence can, in fact, be a limitation, and then the Rabbis say that 'save' is a limitation because it announces that nothing was in the ark except the two tablets; I suppose this means that what was in the ark was limited by the word ‘save,’ and otherwise, in the ark there was nothing, the limitation already explicated. And the Rabbis argue that a limitation following a limitation intimates the presence of something that is not mentioned (!), and that something in this case is the scroll of the Law that was deposited in the ark.

No questions asked. Two limitations make a presence. Two absences make a presence. During these holidays, I will be absent from the diurnal and the academic world and I will seek my presence.


Post a Comment

<< Home