2nd October 1998
Daydreams that will not disappear..
Memory is extraordinary. Trivial thoughts can wander through our minds, and return forty years later laden with meaning.
I was reading the Torah on Rosh Hashanah, a year ago, and a childhood daydream came back to me that was born of boredom then. Now it fills my head with wonder.
The trigger was a long catalogue of ritual sacrifices in Numbers. For verse after verse, Moses is told what animals shall be slain, and which shall be offered as meals, and how they must be cooked. The same phrases are echoed and re-echoed, in an almost endless combination.
To an adult, who has spent years studying the hypnotic force of words, this is one of the most fascinating passages of the Bible. To a child, it was interminable. When I began to read it aloud in my garden, I remembered a scratchy, droning, male voice reciting the same verses. I believe the rabbi was an old man, who addressed my school occasionally on days of great significance. You could stare straight into his face, because he never looked up at us, and I found this interesting because most grown-ups would let me gaze at them for only so long before flashing a stare back at me.
The verses meant little then. They were just a holy shopping list. And I remember thinking, “How did Moses remember them? This list is so long, and its changes are so minute and so precise.”
The rabbi was reading, “On the tenth day of the same seventh month you shall observe a sacred occasion when you shall practice self denial. You shall do no work. You shall present to the Lord a burnt offering of pleasing odour: one bull of the herd, one ram, seven yearling lambs; see that they are without blemish. The meal offering with them – of choice flour with oil mixed in – shall be: three tenths of a measure for a bull, two tenths for the one ram, one-tenth for each of the seven lambs. And there shall be one goat for a sin offering …”
And so the old rabbi talked on – one day thirteen bulls, another fourteen yearling lambs, another two rams – until he concluded: “So Moses spoke to the Israelites just as the Lord had commanded Moses.”
Impious thoughts come easily to children, and the one buzzing in my brain was: “How could Moses be certain? Even if he was taking notes, was he absolutely sure he’d got every detail right? Because he couldn’t go back to God and ask, ‘Sixth day, seventh month, is that fourteen bulls or eight?'”
These are not the sort of daydreams a child should reveal to the rabbi, unless he wants his ears boxed.
But in my garden last year, I was struck again by the question. Even admitting that Moses must have been right in every detail, how could all the priests through all the centuries keep the list perfect and uncorrupted?
The answer, like the answers to many difficult questions, came at Yom Kippur. At the afternoon service at a London synagogue, the rabbi began the short version of the Vidui: “Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu …”
For the first time I was struck by the alphabetic sequence of the words. The pattern was beautifully woven, from alef-bet-gimel, without ever becoming forced or contorted. When I looked at the long version, I was dazzled – that too followed the alphabet, in a form which crossword solvers call ‘acrostic’.
These words were written thousands of years before crossword compilers began their word games. Why would God play with words? For fun? That was a science fiction thought – the Tanakh as a divine doodle, drawn up over cups of celestial coffee.
There had to be a serious reason for the wordplay. And, since I’ve spent much of my life teaching people to supercharge their brains, the reason was clear – memory power.
We remember patterns. A jumble of words is easily memorised if arranged in any kind of order. The memory wizards who stand on stage and reel off packs of shuffled cards in sequence have learned to impose patterns on any kind of chaos. This knowledge is widely taught today, though few schools help pupils to use it – I’ve never understood why not. But in rabbi school, millennia ago, these same secrets were taught.
The recurring phrases are part of the pattern – “See that they are without blemish,” “Of choice flour with oil mixed in,” “One goat for a sin offering”. To the pious listener or the bored schoolboy, the rabbi’s memory appears miraculous. When the technique is revealed, the miracle is understood – and no less marvelous.
The professors of religious history generally agree that Judaism’s indestructibility dates from the invention of writing. The first words were recorded in the Middle East, and while the Egyptians were still combining pictures to capture their thoughts, the Israelites had a far more powerful tool – the alphabet.
Most people would never learn to read, of course, and the most sacred of texts were vulnerable to destruction. I believe writing was essential, but not alone, in preserving our religion.
Memory was the key. The ability to recall immense swathes of information – laws, histories, rituals, marvels. Word for word, without change. Memory meant survival. Ultimate mental tenacity.
To be Jewish is to be ultimate proof of the power of the mind.
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