What We Do When We Study the Rosy-fingered Word

I heard them talking as they walked by the window where we were waiting to begin study. I heard them talking before they got into the door and I swear I heard them parsing the name of the place, Neve, by mentioning the use as a verb in Exodus 15, the song of the sea, Exodus 15:2, this is my G*d and I will – what – beautify? This is my G*d and I will beautify: Zeh Eili v’an-vei-hu, from the root n-v-h–Onkelos, I swear I heard him mention Onkelos, had it meaning a habitation, as in Isaiah a dwelling place of serenity [33:20]. It’s a place where animals are flocked.

Flocked? I’m thinking am I eavesdropping on this correctly?

Then these guys two of them come into the room where we were sitting and one of them is still talking and he’s wearing this big floppy hat-like thing on his head — it’s something I’ve never seen – there’s no equalizer like a goofy hat and I wear plenty of them myself so the two guys they sit down and I look at one of them and I say by way of introduction: nice hat.

Thank you my man, he says to me in some sort of accent I can’t place, sounds like one of my accents, but I’m thinking this guy knows his Torah and just his discourse on Neve was deep and beautiful tracing the word as Rashi did to its use in Exodus 15:2 as verb and lifting that up to mean both beauteous and a dwelling place for animals. Flocks. Flocking. Fantastic.

I notice his clothes are made of some kind of burlap or hemp-like material, he is wearing what I would call a hassock, coarse, he isn’t dressed as we dress, neither of them but I am wearing a funny sweat shirt from one of my schools that I sort of reconfigured and a cowboy kerchief around my neck so I am thinking I probably look a little funny too and I also have a big floppy hat on my head that someone gave me in two shades of complementary blue that rises at least six inches above hair level so we are a sight all of us looking at each other. I keep my mouth shut and we launch into the text.

We begin with a piece to honor Zohar taken from Rav Kook, a beautiful piece that ends with what I think is a citation but I couldn’t locate it because my wife had swiped my Concordantzia and hid it away in her office [as if she is you know using it all the time] but I have a Concordantzia on the shelf where we were studying so I grab it and look up the use of this phrase at the end of the piece:

Pouring oil in the
oasis of wisdom [shemen bin’vei chakham].

Sure enough it’s from Proverbs, 21:20, another use of Neve in this sense the oasis of wisdom that endures as against resources that are weak and diminished. Nice, I mention. Oil of wisdom, Neve Chakham, good name for a tree house. We push on. We are in a tree house here at this outpost hidden away at the north end of the settlement, all the languages I have heard spoken just that morning including the mystery dialogue of the strangers who have joined us recall that. Behold these educated strangers who discourse while walking talking about Rashi and Onkelos wearing floppy hats and hemp clothes, oasis of wisdom.

The man with the floppy hat opens with the verse where Moses is story-telling 18:8 to his father-in-law everything that happened with Pharaoh in Egypt.

Love these verbs, he says, here he is telling the story. It’s the story, it’s the story, he says getting excited, look what happens to Yitro – he comes together over it, 18:9. Yitro listens and comes together. Va-yi-chad. There’s a verb for you. Or you could read it as a pey-hey verb, you know, he rejoices but I love the pey-yud: he comes together over it. Who is this guy.

I am wondering if he is quoting the Beatles now; he certainly does not look like someone who would quote Onkelos in one conversation and in the next the Beatles but I don’t ask just love the insight.

He comes together over the story, don’t you love that? Someone else in the circle says I do, I do love that. Love that the most. Then Yitro begins to make the blessings and he comes to some sort of understanding that brings him fully into our circle.

Note that he is Yitro father-in-law of Moses, it’s his epithet like in the Homeric poems it’s the ox-eyed Hera, this is Yitro’s epithet: Moses’ father in law. It’s not an epithet of description, it’s an epithet of relation as if they are defined in some way by their relationship to each other. Don’t you love that?

I am loving this conversation and even more when someone mentions that when they are eating together in verse 12 — before G*d — that when you are eating with heavies the glow of the Shekhinah is present. I think he is quoting a story from the Talmud, I look it up it’s Brakhot 64a that Rashi is referring to and for the first time I am feeling a little suspicious about this guy with the floppy hat and how he knows so much Rashi.

Then it’s Moses who does the listening and because he does he changes his entire style of life.

Don’t you love the changes that are happening in this story because one listens to the other, hears something right, takes it home takes it inside and changes everything? I do, I do love that, I say.

And look, floppy-hat says, we have these verbs in chapter 19, verse two, the root n-g-d for the word in the next verse: this is what you will tell to the rest of them. The same root in Haggadah, n-g-d, from to be across from, or corresponding to, as if in the telling is always the correspondence between language and the thing itself, but it’s the story, it’s the word it’s not the thing itself so the root is n-g-d in the telling making the correspondence between what you say and what it is. There is always that space that distance between language — all language — and symbol and the thing itself what is symbol-ed we are trying to make that correspondence and that’s why our language is so elastic. Don’t you love it? He says I do, I do love it and who is this guy?

Well, we had more, I’ll get to it later, we hadn’t ended, phew there’s a lot more story. You’ll read it and it’ll change everything. Maybe I won’t write it after all; when you see me ask me and I’ll tell it. Yeah, that’s what I’ll do that’s better.

jsg, usa