The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt

Jeremiah

(Context: Jeremiah 20:7)

Voices, hands, the shuffling of feet and the scent of people are guiding me as I move along these halls. I see so much that I am blind. I look at an almond branch and see the word of the Lord written in flame. I look at a boiling pot and see a cloud of evil swarming toward us from the north.

I did not ask for this vision, for these visions. When I dove into the glory of the Lord, I was immersed in its waves, in its flames, not thinking, not knowing what I would find. And now I feel what flows from the heart of the Lord more strongly that I feel what flows from my own heart. What pleases the Lord I feel as more joy than this body can stand. What angers the Lord I feel as inconsolable rage that makes me scream, makes me lash out, makes me berate and attack whoever surrounds me. When I feel an evil action happening, if only the gust of a breeze from a young person pushing past an old man walking slowly ahead of him, I feel an urge to strike that person and shriek toward him the litany of punishment that he will endure if he does not change his ways. When I sense a passing gentleness, if only that of a person saying hello to a lonely other person on the street, my heart erupts in such overwhelming joy that I can hardly walk.

I was angry, lost, and lonely when I stumbled into this vision. As so often before, I was in Jerusalem, with my family of priests who traveled there from Anathoth three times a year for the festivals. And as so often before, my mother had disappeared from our camp, reappearing late at night, once again disheveled, once again drunk, once again (as I heard my father bellow) smelling of strange men and of the incense offered to Ashtoreth, the supposed queen of heaven. And as so often before, I heard my mother and father shouting and heard the shattering of pots, the breaking of furniture.

But this time, now that thirteen years had passed since I was born, I had been allowed to go with the adult priests during the day to help them offer the sacrifices at the temple. I studied the path, memorized each footstep that led me there, recorded each action that we made in slaughtering and burning the animals upon the altars. I spoke to the animals to calm them before they were led to the altars, offering my gratitude that they were helping to bring us closer to the Lord, hiding my envy that the smoke from their bodies would reach the Lord sooner and more effectively than I could.

Late that night, when I heard my parents fighting, when the illusion of my comfortable life, my happy family finally dissolved and I was left with the image of a miserable future in a house of destruction and strife, I slipped out of our camp and ran toward the temple mount. I do not know what I saw, what I heard, what textures my feet encountered as I ran. All that I recall is the pain that propelled me, the desire to no longer see this world, to no longer be alone in it that pulled me toward the temple, toward the holiest of the holy. I screamed aloud to the Lord that I wanted to explode beyond this body, beyond this world, to see his creation through his eyes and feel it with his heart, to sacrifice myself on the altar of his wisdom and be one with the greater world as he knew it must be.

Then suddenly I felt the world disappear from around me, felt my soul being pulled away from me in some direction that I could not name. A blinding, bitter, acrid, sharp-cornered howl contorted my senses, and suddenly I was confronted, consumed by the heart of the Lord. And in that timeless moment, I realized that God, too, was angry, lonely, dismayed by the way that people would not listen to him, needing a person, a vessel through which he could pour his words. I opened my soul to him and he invaded it, making connections across the walls between people, across the walls of time.

Then I was suddenly back in the city, running and stumbling, trying not to collide with things that were there, trying not to flinch from colliding with things that were not yet there. A panoply of future Jerusalems was laid out in my path, all visible at once: those most likely to happen or that would happen soon the clearest, nearest, those less likely or more distant in time more hazy, farther away. The clearest futures of this city all howled of destruction and smelled of death. Icons, symbols embedded within the future visions no longer meant to me what the objects once did; all were overladen with metaphors and meanings that glowed more clearly than the mundane objects themselves. And the people that I saw were not simple people but many-bodied, many-armed specters, displaying in apparent flesh all their thoughts and desires, all the things that they might think, feel, and do in an infinite tree of futures.

I ran up to a couple walking in the night and tried to tell them of the futures that they bore, the evils that they would create if they did not change their ways. But the words that I heard emerge from my mouth were scrambled, unintelligible, as I tried to say many sentences at once. They tore away from me, frightened, leaving trails of where they might have been and where they might go in their wake. And as I spun about trying to determine which image of them to follow, I felt the ground slide from under my feet, felt all the noise turn to merciful darkness, to blessed silence.

Then, in the silence, I felt hands touching me, lifting me, ten hands or more, gentle, careful, carrying me from that place. I felt myself being placed in a wagon, heard a slow mule pulling the wagon a long way, away from the temple, out of Jerusalem, across parched steep hills and into a quiet valley. Time passed, and I awoke in a cool room, perhaps underground. When I opened my eyes, I saw hazes of people standing around me, visions (far less clear by now) of these people’s lives and future. They spoke to me, but I heard their soft voices as a blur of all the things that they might have said. Only their touch was clear: Twelve hands placed atop my head, on my brow, on my heart, chest, arms, legs, and loins, drawing lines of power between them, channeling the chaos within my body, my soul, into the pattern of a jeweled tree.

The people spoke in unison, their words, spoken together, now clear against the echoes of what had not been said. “You are safe,” they said. “You are in pain, for you have touched God, and God has touched you too closely. You will always bear this connection, but we can help you ease the pain. Listen to us, learn from us, and we will guide you in the ways of the prophet.” Then they stepped away and left me to fall into a sleep deeper than I had felt in years.

And so they talked to me, and so they taught me, and I learned their secrets from their voices, from their hands. I only ever saw the face of one, an ancient woman, when her cowl slid off her head as she reached down to touch my forehead. “Who are you?” I asked. “Who are you all?”

“I have lost my name,” she replied. “I am only known as the daughter of my father. I have taught them, and we are teaching you. You, we, are prophets, and that is as much a burden as a gift. But you are learning to direct your gifts so that others may learn of God.” Then she adjusted her cowl so that it again covered her face, touched her fingers to my ears and her thumbs to my eyes, and I again fell into a learning trance.

I do not know how long I have been here. I know that I am taller, my voice deeper, with far more hair than when I arrived. I still see the baffling visions, speak in a babbling stream. But they tell me that after one more journey, I will be ready to leave.

And so the voices, the hands, the sounds and scents of my teachers are now guiding me down a long hallway from the room in which I have lived. I can hear the reverberations at the end of the hall grow nearer, and I can tell that I am at a pool of water in a massive room. “Farewell, Jeremiah,” the voices are saying. “Honor us with your work.”

The hands have removed my robe and are guiding me forward. In a burst of panic, I can feel my feet go over a ledge and try to grab their balance on rushing air. I am falling, farther, farther, hitting the surface of the pool and sinking farther still, thrashing and gasping as water fills my mouth, my lungs. My world has turned to black.

Reaching out to God to save me, I can feel his presence, as I did at the temple, but moving in reverse. I hear not words but knowledge, wisdom, flowing from the Lord. And I know that I will live, and I know that I will carry his words and visions for him.

And I also know that he is sorry for how he reached out to me, that he now knows that the human soul cannot handle so direct a touch, that he has learned not to contact a person in that way again. And I can feel, as though written in my skin, his solemn promise: that though I will see visions of horrors, though I will see people doing evil and will continue to feel his pain as they miss the mark of what they could achieve, still things will turn out well, and we will emerge into a world of light at the end of days.

But now his direct presence is fading, and I am again in the pool, gasping, near drowning, but rising steadily within it, through the surface and up to the air, and I feel a fresh breeze entering my nostrils, my mouth, returning me to life. Lying on my back. floating in the water, I am calm.

Slowly opening my eyes, looking upward, I can see a ceiling hewn from rock, with an opening through which rain can enter the pool. But no rain is entering now, just the warmth, the light of the sun. And I can see the light as it really is most clearly, with the spectres of what might be seen as a dimmer echo, further than the real light.

I drift to the edge of the pool and climb out of it. I am alone. As I stand in the shaft of light that shines down from above, my body dries in its warmth. I slowly put my robe back on. Turning, entering the hallway, I can see an open door that leads to the outside.

I look around at this place where I have been, and call out, looking and listening for any people, for my teachers. No one is here.

I walk up a long path and find myself on a road, where signs point the way to Jerusalem. I stop people and ask how I might get there, and I find that I can now speak to people without babbling, can see them without confusion with the alternate lives and trails that I still see emanate from them.

It is once again the day before the feast of Shavuot, and those who pass are pilgrims once again heading to the temple. I do not see my family among them, and do not care to see them.

I accept a ride into Jerusalem in a small wagon at the back of a herd of sheep. I speak to the sheep gently, thanking them for their efforts, my soul reaching out to them in resonance with their upcoming sacrifice.

But I will be leaving them, going not to the temple but to the palace. A hard night is now approaching, and I know what work I have to do.

(Next: Isaac.)

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July 21, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

2 Comments »

  1. This was one of the most difficult voices to approach. Jeremiah was already well-represented in the Bible by his own first-person monologues. Finding a space within which to write was a challenge that I had feared that I couldn’t figure out. It dawned on me, though, that there were periods in his life, especially between his call to being a prophet and his beginning his career, that were less well documented. When I got the image of the voices and hands leading him down a corridor, and saw how it might connect to narrative threads in earlier posts, I was able to begin.

    Jeremiah’s voice in the Bible is one of almost incessant complaint, and few listened to him. In reading his books (Jeremiah and Lamentations), I was struck by how vividly he saw possible futures. I also noticed that his mentions of women, either as people or metaphors, seemed to fixate on harlots and adulterers, and I looked for something in his past to which I could connect it.

    The context verse is translated in the Jewish Publication Society’s recent rendering, which I use for my research (though I link to an older version that, since it is older and in the public domain, is available online), as “You enticed me, O Lord, and I was enticed. You overpowered me and You prevailed…” Abraham J. Heschel, though, in his The Prophets translates it more forcefully and graphically as “O Lord, Thou hast seduced me and I am seduced; Thou hast raped me and I am overcome…” (p. 144), pointing out the specific uses of the verbs פתה and חזק elsewhere in the Bible. This gives a far different sense of the violence and violation that Jeremiah might have felt in being taken so forcefully.

    (I need to find a better way to type Hebrew letters on this Windows laptop with its American English keyboard. To put the two words in the previous paragraph, I ended up copying and pasting from an Israeli blog.)

    Comment by bookofvoices | July 21, 2007 | Reply

  2. Assuming you have Windows XP, step-by-step instructions for installing the standard Microsoft Hebrew keyboard are available at http://egarc.ku.edu/software/keyboards/HEBREW/israeli.htm . Warning: You will probably need a Windows CD to install right-to-left keyboard support unless it is already installed. That gets you a standard Israeli Hebrew keyboard, which is good for touch typipsts may not be the most intuitive for you.

    Or you can download the self-contained package fbhebrew from http://zsigri.tripod.com/fontboard/hebrew.html , which provides a keyboard layout intended to be intuitive to those who mostly use the U.S. keyboard.

    Comment by John Cowan | July 21, 2007 | Reply


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