Sunday, July 26, 2015

Vaetchanan: Meet Kai, a real-life Egyptian Scribe from 2450 BCE

Vaetchanan

            In the Musee du Louvre, the world-famous art museum in Paris, France, there stands—or, rather, sits—a statue dating from Egypt, in 2450 BCE (Old Kingdom, Fifth Dynasty). It is not a dramatically tall depiction of a rampant Pharaoh, striding forward boldly with spear and shield in hand; neither is it a scarab-beetle, or dragon-like crocodilian of the River Nile. It depicts a scribe named Kai, a government official of some importance in his time—he was sufficiently well-off to commission both the statue of himself doing his job, and a tomb to house both his earthly and heavenly remains, though we know nothing more of him than his statue tells us.
           
Kai’s statue is composed of painted limestone, standing (or sitting) a respectable, but not ostentatious, one foot, nine inches high. The scribe sits, cross-legged, on the ground, holding a long-ago-lost reed pen in his right hand, and a papyrus roll in his left, on which he is writing. His kilt, customary dress for Egyptian men, is stretched over his thighs as he sits Indian-style, and it serves him well as a portable writing surface.

Kai’s facial expression is alert and attentive, eyes wide open, ready to take dictation from whichever High Officer or Pharaoh should need his services. Unlike other Egyptian sculptures, which nearly all conform to an identical style, Kai’s likeness is individual and unique: he appears to be a man of intelligence, a mere civil servant, true, but a man confident in his abilities and functions as part of the Egyptian Body Politic. We may assume that his statue was made in the same workshops which turned out royal sculptures, giving it an importance, indeed gravitas, that it does not loudly proclaim (10,000 Years of Art, NY: Phaidon Press, 2009, p. 29).
           
Why do I use the image of this workaday scribe to illustrate this parsha/Torah reading? This is where Moses (1393?-1273?BCE) orates about the desert wanderings of our people and describes the theophany at Sinai:

“Face-to-face did God speak with you on the mountain, from the midst of the fire; I stood at that time between you and God, to tell you the Word of God, for you were fearful of the fire, and did not ascend the mountain” (Deut. 5: 4-5; translation mine). And Moses, the Great Teacher and Rabbi, follows this stirring introduction by again reciting the Ten Commandments.

After the smoke, thunder, and lightning vanished into the tribal memory of our ancestors—indeed, after they themselves died, being doomed by God to perish in the wilderness as punishment for sinning with the Golden Calf—what remained?

Only the power of the Divine Word, as transcribed by Moses. One could do worse than be a scribe to Royalty, whether Kai of Egypt or Moses of Israel. Growing up as a young man in Pharaoh’s palace (whether that of Ramses II, Merneptah, or even the woman pharaoh, Hatshepsut—we will never know for certain), possibly being groomed for a role in the Egyptian regime, Moses may well have known and appreciated the worth of men like Kai, and certainly learned to respect the power of the Recorded Word. It served him, and us, well.

Fast-forward to generations of scholars—gentiles and Jews among them—carrying handwritten scrolls, printed books, and now, electronic tablets, which serve the same purpose, only using light-strokes within glass panels, rather than ink-dots on animal-skin, vellum, leather, or paper. Such is the power of the Word, to transform Thought. If I tell you a story, and you like it enough to tell someone else, it is no longer my story, or that of Moses, Shakespeare, or even God: it has become Your Story. If enough people from the same tribal background tell it and believe in it, it becomes their own, common linkage, their own heritage.
That is what we Jews do. Years ago, a Christian minister friend paid me, and our people, the highest compliment:

“If you ask a Christian minister a theological question,” he told me, “he’ll give you a theological answer. If you ask a rabbi, the rabbi will tell you a story.”

Yes: it is the stories that keep us alive. And, as I write these lines, somewhere on earth, another baby is being born, whose parents will decide what faith to raise their child in, or no faith at all:

“When she is old enough enough, she will choose her faith,” they may say.

This is folly: the child will be, for many years, too young to choose a pair of socks, and it takes far more planning to decide on a faith. As you, her parents, would make certain to clothe her warmly from the world’s cold, would you not fortify her with a particular belief in both a God and her own, personal history? She is a member of a people; she has a past; she must contribute to their future. It is her fortune, her burden, and her destiny.
           
Regardless of how we envision God, this is what remains to us today: we are the People of the Book. Although many of us never read beyond the Chumash/Five Books of Moses, and neglect the study of the remainder of the Tanach/Bible (which is a shame), it remains our people’s gift to the world, and we should pledge ourselves to its study and practice. Torah may not be logical; it may be self-contradictory; parts of it may not have aged as well as we might like—but it is still our heritage, our legacy. Moses, Kai, and all other recorders of pre-history and history would have had it no other way.