The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt


(Context: Numbers 26:46.)

They all died at sixty, all of them.

Those of us whose ages were greater than sixty when we crossed the Sea of Reeds did not immediately die: we lived as long as we would have lived otherwise, dying suddenly or gradually, in pain or in senescence, by injury, by disease, or by the silent decisions of our bodies that their lives had been long enough. But at sixty, the rest of them all died.

Now only the two of us old ones are left, Moses and I, here atop this mountain. He is one hundred twenty years old. I have lost count of my years, but they seem to exceed four hundred.

Moses lies here on a flat rock, sheltered from the sun and wind that assault this desert, this mountain top. I sit beside him, playing softly on my harp. This has been my role over these generations, to play the harp, bringing comfort when people receive hard news, both news of sadness, and, as with my grandfather Jacob, news of joy that they might find as difficult as tears.

Those who lived most of their years in the desert came to accept death gracefully. When, in the first year, on the ninth day after the first full moon of midsummer, all those who had recently turned sixty died, the people were enraged, furious at God, imagining that a plague had struck. But Moses spoke to them gently, reminding them that all those who had died had died in their sleep, in peace. The people returned to their homes to mourn, but with less of the anger that they had originally felt.

Then on the same day of the following year, all those who had turned sixty in the preceding year also died, all in peace, all in their sleep. And again the people were angry, but less so, and more accepting of the sudden deaths.

In the third year, as the day approached, the anger began to build beforehand. But some of those who had just turned sixty gathered together and decided on a different course. On the eighth day of the month they had a party, with music, with dancing, with joyful recollections of their lives so far. As night fell and it became the ninth day, they sent their families away and slept in a group, there in a tent on a silent plain. They talked for a while, prayed for a while, then, one by one, fell asleep, the sound of human voices being gradually replaced by the voices of the creatures of the desert, by the voices of the wind.

In the morning, none awoke.

And, over that year, all accepted that this was our fate, that all would die peacefully on the same day of the same month of the year that they turned sixty. And traditions grew over the forty years that we rested here in the desert, here outside the outpost of Kadesh.

At first, all those about to die gathered for a party of remembrance on that day and died that night, and the survivors gathered to dig graves for them the next day. Then one of the suggested, mostly as a joke, that it might be more useful to dig the graves during the party, as people might built a settlement together, so that the mourners needed only to fill them in at the burials the next day.

And so, each year, we have gathered, and celebrated the lives of those about to leave us. Those in good health had helped to dig their own graves, and others sat and watched and directed as their friends and families dug them. If any were seen to be working alone, others from the community came to them and dug the graves for them.

When all the graves were dug and twilight approached, those about to die arose and dressed themselves in funeral shrouds of white linen. They placed in the graves mementos of their lives, things that they would want to bring with them if they were to be brought into some sort of future life. And those who were saying goodbye to them also gave them gifts to be placed in the graves, gifts by which those about to die would remember them. Then the families and friends would leave, and those that remained would lie down together, each in his own grave, and one by one would silently pass into death.

So it had been for forty years. But this year, everything changed. As always, we held the party; as always, we dug and decorated the graves. I was in my place, as had become the custom, at the center of the new section of the cemetery outside Kadesh, playing the harp for the community. Occasionally, some would come and sing the tones that I was playing. The rhythm of the digging mixed with the waves of voices as, at one point or another, almost all of the people would sing the tones.

Then the time of the last watch arrived. Those who were to lie down in the graves lay down. The others dispersed.

Then, when the sun arose and the roosters crowed, the sleepers awoke. All were confused, concerned. Expecting death, they were baffled by their continuing life. Some arose and walked around, not knowing where to go. Others continued to lie in their graves. Some of their families returned to the cemetery to fill in the graves, but, seeing people walking around, none came close, fearing contact with what they believed must be the walking dead.

For years, my tent had been at the edge of Kadesh. I rarely went into the center of the camp. People would come to me, to hear my music, to speak with me. Since I had lived for all these centuries, I suppose, people had come to believe that I had accumulated wisdom. Perhaps it was simply that, having a more relaxed relationship with time, I had developed a willingness to listen to them without needing to speak more than needed to be said. When they would come, they would bring me manna that they had gathered for me, would bring me clothing that I needed or that they believed would suit me well.

On the night that followed that morning, as I sat outside, listening to the wind, to the sand, and speaking with the stars, I heard sounds from the cemetery nearby, voices of confusion, voices of surprise and pain. I arose, answering what I felt to be a call. I had little fear, having played the souls of the dead into their next stages many times before.

This time, however, I found not the dead but the living. They asked me how this could have happened, how they could be alive, what they should do. I had no grand answers, but was willing to serve for them as a focus of listening.

In time, one of those in the field, one who had studied astronomy as a child with magicians who had come to visit Egypt from the city of Ur, spoke: “Perhaps our calendars are wrong,” he said. “Our study of the stars is inexact. We have seen, over the years, the times that the sun has lost pace with the moon, when we have needed to intervene and redefine the days so that they meet again. Perhaps we have lost track of the days, and last night was not truly the ninth of the month.”

I sat silently, then asked everyone, “Truth?” One by one, the people nodded and echoed, “Truth.”

Then another person spoke: “I will lie down again. Perhaps tonight is truly the last night.” And he went to his grave and lay down.

I watched as others did the same. Then I picked up my harp, played a chord slowly, repeatedly, and sang a tone from it. Others joined, breathing the same tone, a tone of release, a tone of acceptance and peace. Then, one by one, all lay down. I played them to sleep.

But again, in the morning, they awoke. Most were surprised, again, and even more surprised to find themselves hungry and thirsty. When friends came to my tent, bearing manna and water for me, I asked them to gather more and to bring them to the new cemetery.

“You wish us to bring food and water to the dead?” they asked.

“They may not be dead,” I said, “or do not believe themselves to be dead. Something new may be happening, something wonderful. We do not yet understand. But maybe we do not need to understand.”

And thus it happened for a third day, a fourth, a fifth, a sixth.

Then, on the seventh night after they first lay down, the full moon rose, unmistakably, inarguably. It was the fifteenth day of the seventh month. The pattern had been broken.

They came to me for answers, but I had none. But we knew that they were alive.

Together, we all walked to the center of the camp, to the tabernacle. I had put on the colored tunic that I wore when approaching the officially sacred. The rest walked alongside me, all dressed in their linen shrouds, all smiling, singing. The people of the camp came out to see our procession. They stood by the side of the road, letting us pass, uncertain of what was happening, but knowing that it was a moment of joy.

When we got to the tabernacle, the priests could tell us nothing. Even the high priest had no idea that we would be coming, had no idea what had become of the pattern that we knew.

So we went to Moses. When we got to the tent, he had already come out to meet us. “I have awaited this day. The time for which we had hoped has come. It is time for us to return to the land of our fathers, to Canaan.”

At the end of a year of preparation, a year of celebration, Moses stood before the people. He reminded them of all that we had experienced, all that we had learned. He let us knew what we might find, what we must do, and what we must not do. And he told us that his work was done, that he would not be leading us into the land that had been promised to us.

And on that night, this night, as I lay in my tent on the edge of sleep, I heard Moses’s voice calling to me from outside. “I am leaving tonight. Will you journey to the mountain with me?”

I rose, stepped outside, and looked at him. “A journey? And you are not bringing anything?”

He opened his arms wide. “I have everything that I need.”

I took my harp and walked with him, along the road, out of the camp, up the gentle path on the less-steep side of the mountain.

We came around to the cliff side overlooking Canaan. “Here we are,” he said.

“And now we sit?” I asked.

“And now we sit.”

We sat alongside each other silently for much of the night. Then, as the morning star rose, he asked me to play.

Now we sit. His head rests his head on my shoulder as he listens. With each note that I play, I feel him tremble gently, a different quiet shivering with each tone.

As the morning light grows, I feel his own light fade. He is speaking softly, saying things that I cannot remember, that I cannot understand. Some are words in the language of our people, some in the language of those who oppressed us, of those with whom he was raised. He speaks words of his brother and sister, of his mother, of dreams of rebirth, of dreams of reunion.

Now the sun is rising above the horizon. As the direct rays shine on Moses, rays of light emerge from his face to meet them. He has stopped speaking. He is gasping, repeatedly, slowly, shallowly.

“Moses?” I ask.

“My name is not Moses,” he says, in a high voice, a child’s voice.

“What is your name?” I ask.

The light from his face grows richer, brighter. “My name is –” he says. Then he sings a pure, high note, a note with the sound, the color of the rays of the sun.

I join and sing the note with him, clearly, joyously. Although it is impossible, every one of the strings of my harp resonates with this pitch and vibrates with it, a chord of every note that we know, shifting and shimmering with the slightest difference in the music, in our breaths, in the wind.

Then, from all around the mountain, we hear voices, thousands of voices, singing with us. We look down and see all the people who had died in the desert over all these years, their souls taking of the form of the bodies in which they once were clothed.

One by one, the souls rise from the ground until they are at our level, surrounding us, floating in the air. Moses looks at them and stands, as strong as he had been as a youth, glowing with rays so bright as to be almost unbearable. “No, we will not be entering the promised land. But all here may join me in traveling to the world to come!”

He walks forward, off the edge of the cliff, but he does not fall. Walking through the air, he embraces the soul directly in front of us, wrapping his arms around her and whispering in her ear. The soul moves even closer to him, merges with him, until it comes to share the body with Moses’s own soul.

The next soul moves toward Moses. Moses embraces that soul, too, whispers to it, and merges with it. Then the next comes forward, and the next, and the next, all the thousands of souls embracing Moses, becoming one with him. He shines ever brighter with each merging soul, the note that they were singing becoming purer, clearer, more powerful.

Then, again, we are alone. He turns, stepped back onto the cliff, and again opened his arms. “Will you join me?” he asks.

“Must I?”

“You may do so if you would like,” he says. “But it is not required.”

“I will stay, then,” I say. “I believe that I will know when it is time for me to leave. It is not yet that time.”

Moses nods. “Goodbye, Serah. Our souls will meet again, in time.”

Then he throws his head back and sings the one pure note, not just with his voice but with the voice of all whom he has embraced, all whom he has touched, has taught, has led. The brightness of his glowing, the power of his voice grow ever stronger, until I must shade my eyes and block my ears.

Then, suddenly, his light and his song have vanished, though I can hear fading echoes of his voice reverberating from other mountains nearby.

Moses is gone. The ground on which he stood, the mountain wall in front of which he stood, have all melted, run, frozen, turned to the sheerest sheets of mirror glass.

I look into the glass and see myself reflected. But I do not only see myself as I now am. Visions of myself as I was, as I will be, join my current image in a dance that spreads out in more directions than those for which we have names. There I am, an infant, crawling across the carpet in the tent of my grandfather, Jacob. There I am, receiving the harp from my great-uncle Esau, who says that he got it from a temple to Ashtoreth. I am playing the harp to still my grandfather’s confusion as he learns that my uncle Joseph is alive, to accompany the family as they move from Canaan to Goshen, to bless houses, to comfort the younger ones as their money fails and they are forced to live as slaves. And I play for so many births, and for so many, so very many deaths.

And then I have crossed the Sea of Reeds and am dancing with Miriam, then I am spending the years at my tent at Kadesh, then I am playing for those about to die, for those who do not die, and then I am here with Moses, here without Moses.

But the images do not end here. I see myself as I will be in the years to come: returning to the land of Canaan, playing the harp for Deborah, for Hannah, teaching my music to the school of women in the lavish caves in a valley among mountains, giving my harp away to a young shepherd in the fields of Benjamin. He touches it and immediately draws forth from it music finer than my own.

And that is all that I see. I do not know if that means that that moment is when I will die, or if I will carry on even longer. I will accept whatever happens. As long as I live, I will live. When I die, I will die. I am not eager to leave this life, but I have lived far more than most. When death comes, I will be ready.

The sun is now fully risen. As I travel around the edge of the mountain, I see that the cemetery is gone. Where it had been is now an oasis, rich and green, contrasting with the rest of the desert. I will walk through there on my way home. I may stop to pluck some olives and almonds from the trees.

And then I will come home, sit at the entrance of my tent, and hold my harp gently. I will listen for whatever might come next.

(Next: Elisheva (Closing).)

April 10, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. Wow.

    Is this a standard midrash, or one you made up?

    It makes me think of “The Sixty” from Asimov’s Pebble in the Sky, where the Earth is radioactive and can’t support too many people, so everyone is killed at 60. (Infanticide would be more logical.)

    Comment by John Cowan | April 10, 2009 | Reply

  2. It’s a standard midrash. I heard it from the rabbi at the Chabad House in Austin in 1989. Here is a slightly different version.

    Comment by bookofvoices | April 10, 2009 | Reply

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