Words & things
Gang, hard to believe, but this coming Shabbat we begin the 5th book of Torah, Devarim, “words” or “things” in Hebrew (more on that shortly) and otherwise known as Deuteronomy, a particularly weird name for anything, let alone something Jewish. It comes from the Greek Δευτερονόμιον, “second law,” referring to a mistranslation of verses in chapter 17, that are – near as I can tell – fairly insignificant. It does not refer to the obvious: this book is mostly a re-telling of the entire story of books 2, 3, & 4 — from enslavement up until the moment of the crossing over into Canaan after 40 years. The review unfolds in a series of speeches by Moses, and with a fair amount of I told you so and oh no you didn’t, as well as some last minute editorial changes.
Anyway, back to the Hebrew. I love that the same word means word (especially spoken) and thing; that there is this linguistic overlap between a physical object and the letters we combine to represent it. If I’m telling a “story,” there’s the thing itself (a beginning, middle, end) and also the sounds I use to tell it. I love that words can become things in our imaginations, that we can picture the world in a particular way by the choice of someone’s words. A dog is not the same thing as the stringy-haired, overfed, yapping brute outside my window at 2 a.m.
This is why I particularly love the prayer (here transliterated into the feminine), Brucha she’amrah v’haya ha’olam, Blessed is the One who spoke and the world was.
Words create things. Worlds. Reality. They make the invisible and hard-to-grasp more solid. Philosophers can argue amongst themselves if a thing and the representation of that thing in glyphs and syllables are one and the same — I’m just saying that they are intimately related. As far as I’m concerned, each is a chicken and each an egg.
As for this week’s poem, History, it’s about words and the art of telling and re-telling a story. It starts with a Sunday afternoon in 1981 when my father, then only a month away from death and having one of his last days of lucidity, recounted the high points of his life to my sister Joan & I, then 24 & 26. Like Moses, my father was dealing with a slightly anxious audience. He wanted to make sure that we got the important stuff, though perhaps neither he nor we knew exactly what that stuff was. Unlike Moses, there were no scribes – divine or otherwise – getting all the words down, a particular irony as my father was a typesetter his entire working life. Like my uncle (stenographer), sister (dictionary editor), and me (writer/political organizer), words were his bread & butter – and real as a pitcher of water.