ז׳ באב ה׳תשע״ג (July 14, 2013)
To an archaeologist the short expression “Linear B,” containing just one word and one letter, encompasses within it a three thousand year old mystery, a secret code, and the dedicated individuals who deciphered it.
In spring of 1900 a set of clay tablets was discovered on a dig at Knossos, Europe’s oldest city, on the island of Crete.
The tablets, written by royal scribes at the palace, were written in a script never seen before, made up of pictograms such as horses’ heads and swords, along with many other cryptic characters.
Arthur Evans, the archaeologist who made the discovery, spent forty years trying to decipher the code, but when he died at the age of 90 he had only managed to crack one single word. Next to try was Alice Kober, daughter of Hungarian immigrants to New York, and professor of classics at Brooklyn University. Kober spent tens of thousands of hours, from 1928 to 1950, struggling to untangle the code, but passed away young at age 43, leaving behind 180,000 index cards of painstaking work for others to peruse.
It was these cards that helped the final character in the Linear B saga to crack the code. Using her system, and his own ingenuity, in 1952 a young architect called Michael Ventris announced to the world that he had cracked the code. The tablets turned out to be accounting lists for the royal palace, giving a snapshot of life at that time. There are lists of numbers of animals reared, of quantities of olive oil used, and of various differently coloured cloths, red purple and white.
Although the cracking of the code was remarkable, a testament to the perseverance and tenacity of those who never gave up against incredible odds, many scholars found the contents of the tablets disappointing. This was not philosophy or poetry, it was simply a list of food and animals, not really scintillating stuff. Linear B was solved, and laid quietly to rest.
In the Torah portions we read weekly (le’havdil), quite often we come across these types of lists of animals, materials, etc. especially in relation to the building of the Mishkan. Every amount of every material is specifically listed, as each played a small but valuable role in forming the holy building in the desert where G-d would now focus His presence.
Interestingly, the Knossos tablets were engraved around the time that a more famous set of Tablets was engraved by G-d, and handed over to the Jewish people. Three thousand years later, we have no doubt or mystery about the content of those Tablets, nor of the Torah which accompanied them. Every single letter of the Torah is exact and clear, a textbook for our lives, and our physical and spiritual behaviour. For thousands of years the Jewish people have followed the mitzvot given to us at Sinai, and Jews across the globe all share exactly the same text and the same 613 mitzvot.
The mystery doesn’t lie there … the mystery lies in our relationship with G‑d. Over those three thousand years we have alternately been close to G-d or distant, obedient or rebellious, meek or stiff-necked. Despite incredible miracles in Egypt and the desert, the Jews constantly rebelled against G-d, and refused to obey. They even forfeited their generation’s right to enter the Land of Israel as a result.
G-d’s response to us is equally mysterious. We are His children, loved and protected, yet we have undergone incredible pain and suffering; we are his Chosen People, yet we have been decimated and ravaged throughout history; we are the ones He gave the Holy Land as an inheritance, yet we have been exiled from it for two thousand years. How do we reconcile these ideas?
That is the mystery of the Jewish people, for which we have not yet cracked the code.
This week we will fast on Tisha Be’Av, the Fast of the 9th of Av, a day which encompasses the suffering of all those years of Jewish history; the expulsions, pogroms, the Shoah and of course the destruction of our Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple) twice, our spiritual focal point on this world. On this day (Monday night this year), we sit in shul as mourners, reading the mournful descriptions of the destruction of those holy buildings. We think about the past glory, and the mundane physical objects which were part of the daily service; the animals for offerings, the golden utensils, the vivid colours of the clothing of the Kohanim (priests), the sounds and smells of bustling Jerusalem life.
And we pray that we too will decipher the mystery of the Tablets, and one day understand why so many of us continue to stray from the path G-d wishes us to follow; we pray to understand why a loving and benevolent G-d wants his Chosen People to suffer so much and for so long. The day we decipher that mystery, is the day that Mashiach will arrive, and we will finally understand … we will understand the beauty of G-d’s master-plan.
As we read in the haftarah this week, Shabbat Chazon, may we merit to the fulfillment of G-d promise: “I will restore your judges as at first and your counsellors as in the beginning; afterwards you shall be called City of Righteousness, a Faithful City.”
Rabbi Zalman Lent
If you’re planning to read Eicha in your shul this year and need a bit of help on your Hebrew pronunciation or want to brush up on a tune, the Virtual Cantor – Josh Sharfman – has recorded the entire Eicha in mp3 format and put in online so that you can listen to it anytime on your iPhone (just tap on links below or visit website Virtual Cantor).
(the third chapter was recorded twice to reflect a choice between two different cantillation traditions for the third chapter)
COMMENTS ON THIS POST