Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (Hukat)

Yesterday after school I was reading Ivy and Bean with Tagel – she is by far the most advanced English reader among our children, and while she’s not quite ready to read chapter books on her own, she often reads a few pages aloud to me. The series is about two American schoolgirls who are neighbors and kindred spirits, even though Bean is more of a tomboy whereas Ivy wears skirts and dabbles in magic. In the scene we were up to, Bean walks down the path beside Ivy’s house and is surprised to see her friend standing with her arms in the air. “Are you trying to fly?” she asks Ivy. Ivy explains that she is attempting to be perfectly calm in the hope that the birds will not be afraid to land on her arms. “Ivy’s arms were trembling,” read the next sentence, except that Tagel was unable to sound out “trembling,” not did she know what it meant. When I saw her stumbling over the word, I tried to explain. “Shaking,” I said. “Her arms were shaking from holding them up for so long.”

Tagel’s eyes lit up in recognition. “Oh,” she said. “Like Moshe when he had to hold up his hands when Bnei Yisrael were fighting.” My jaw dropped. I had been thinking the exact same thing – the image of Ivy with her trembling arms in the air recalled the scene of Moses raising his arms while the Israelites fought back against Amalek immediately after the exodus from Egypt. The Torah states that Moses’ hands grew heavy and he could no longer hold them up, so Aaron and Hur supported his hands from either side and thus they were stable [emunah] until the sun set. It was no surprise that the image of Moses came to my mind when I read about Ivy’s raised arms, but I was astonished to discover that Tagel had the same association. And at that moment I came to a realization about why I care so deeply about reading with my children and sharing certain books and texts with them. Ultimately, we cannot control what choices our children will make in life and who they will become. But we can try to furnish our children with the associations that matter to us. We can fill their minds with allusions, in the hope that their experiences will evoke the texts they have read, and those texts will in turn evoke other texts, such that the sweet birds of recognition will alight in the choirs of their arms. Or at least, like Ivy, we can try.

One of my favorite early memories as a parent is of bringing my oldest son Matan for his four-year-old check up to the pediatrician. In Israel the notion of a “well-visit” is relatively new; children generally don’t see a doctor unless they are sick. I wasn’t sure what to expect. The first part of the examination was just a physical – the doctor peered into my son’s ears with an otoscope and rapped his knees to check his reflexes. But then the second half of the visit was developmental. The doctor showed my son a series of cards, each of which depicted a scene. Matan had to answer questions about what he saw in the pictures. On one of the cards, a boy appeared to have just tripped and fallen and his cup of water was still spilling next to him. Behind him was a large pebble. The doctor pointed to the boy, the rock, and the puddle of spilled water and asked my sons to explain what he saw. My son shrugged his shoulders matter-of-factly – this one was easy. “That’s Moshe,” he told the doctor, pointing to the boy. “He was supposed to talk to that rock to make the water spill out, but instead he hit it.”

When I told that story to my mother, she shared with me that she had a similar memory from my first hearing test when I was a young child. Apparently the clinician told me to raise my right one arm if I heard a sound in my right ear, my left arm if I heard a sound in my left ear, and both arms if I heard a sound in both ears. The daughter of a Conservative pulpit rabbi, I had watched for years as my father signaled to the congregation to stand up by lifting both his arms into the air. And so the first time the clinician played sounds in both ears simultaneously, I did not lift my arms in the air, but simply said, “Please rise.”

Now all these memories of childhood associations—my son’s, my daughter’s, my own—have come to evoke one another, like the many instances of Moses raising his arms. In this week’s parsha, Hukat, Moses’ fate is sealed at Kadesh when he raises his arm to strike the rock instead of talking to it, as God had instructed him. God responds very harshly, telling Moses that he will not enter the promised land on account of his action. But one can understand Moses’ error, because decades earlier, at the beginning of the Israelites’ desert wanderings, he had a similar experience at Merivah, when God told him to strike the rock so that water would flow forth and the parched, ever-querulous Israelites might drink. It is likely that God’s instruction at Kadesh recalled God’s instructions at Merivah, and so Moses assumed that the second rock-water incident was merely a repeat of the first.

But the associations run even deeper, because the two parallel instances of Moses striking the rock recall a formative moment in Moses’ own development, when he left Pharaoh’s palace as a young man and “went out” among his brothers in Egypt. He sees an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew, and strikes down the Egyptian and buries him in the sand. The act seems to have no immediate repercussions, much like the striking of the rock at Merivah in the book of Exodus – for a short while, at least, the incident lies dormant under the desert sands. But then the next day, the episode nearly repeats itself when Moses encounters one Hebrew hitting another: “Why do you strike your fellow?” (Exodus 2:13). The Hebrew man responds harshly: “Who made you the chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me like you killed the Egyptian?” Moses realizes that his murder of the Egyptian is now publicly known, and so he runs for his life. As with the second incident of hitting the rock in our parsha, this second incident will critically shape Moses’ destiny: Moses will flee to Midian and encounter God at the burning bush, an experience that will launch him on his life’s mission. In essence, then, Moses’ mission begins and ends following a second “striking” incident – he becomes the leader of his people after nearly striking the Hebrew in Egypt, and he is told he will no longer merit to lead his people after he strikes the rock at Kadesh.

Moses’ hands, as Avivah Zornberg notes in her book Bewilderments, are infused with tremendous supernatural power. When he stands at the burning bush doubting whether the Israelites will believe him, God tells him to put his arm to his breast and witness as it emerges covered in leprous scales. He then holds out his arm, bearing his rod, and brings a series of ten plagues upon Egypt. I wonder if striking the rock at Kadesh reminded Moses of striking the rock at Merivah, which in turn recalled striking Egypt with plagues and striking the Egyptian when he was still a young man. Each time Moses lifts his arm—or, as in the case of the battle with Amalek, his arms—we are reminded of each prior instance of arm-raising, such that, as Zornberg puts it, the “earlier narrative becomes fraught with memory in the later moment.”

This series of associations may seem traumatic—surely it is difficult to move forwards healthily when every moment is haunted by prior ones. But this is how allusions work, and literary allusions are no different. The image of Ivy lifting her arms in the hope that the birds with mistake her for a tree reminds me not just of Moses, but also of Shakespeare’s “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang,” which in turn recalls Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet about the loss of love: “Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree / Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one / Yet knows its boughs more silent than before.” Was Millay referencing Shakespeare? I suspect so. It doesn’t really matter, though, because I cannot think of one poem without recollecting of the other, and thus each functions like a palimpsest revealing traces of the other beneath its surface.

For my daughter Tagel, the image of Ivy raising her trembling arms recalled Moses unable to support his heavy arms in the battle against Amalek. The Torah tells us that Moses’ arms were “emunah” until the sun came, a term that is generally translated as “stable” but is also the word for “faith.” And so I write these words with hope and faith that my children will learn to experience the pleasure of reading as uplifting. I hope they will come to recall not just the moments they trembled and stumbled over rocks and words, but also the stories that inspired them to grow like a tree with arms outstretched into the people they will someday become.

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