If the writers of the world were ever to unite, if they were ever to get together at the foothills of some mountain and attempt to fashion the Ten Commandments of their craft, this would be my suggestion for commandment number one: thou shalt not piss off thy reader.
It’s a big one, this. I still remember how furious I felt watching David Lynch’s twisted feat of television, Twin Peaks; at some point in the second season, when a conservatively dressed giant materializes and warns the show’s protagonist that “the owls are not what they seem,” I turned off the set. There was a limit, I told myself at the time, to how far I was willing to go to indulge some author’s inane and incoherent plot.
I still tell myself the same thing on occasion, watching, for example, the fourth season of Lost, the results of the recent elections in Israel, or any other convoluted drama that is impossible to follow over time and that pits one shady and unlikable bunch of boobs against another. Making a living telling tales, I’m adamant about this one small thing: a story is only worth my time if it delivers—subtly or bluntly, sooner or later, with a bang or with a whimper—a sensation or an idea. Keep the suspense going for too long, give me too little satisfaction, promise too much and deliver not enough and I lose interest, be it in Lost‘s John Locke, Lynch’s Leland Palmer, or Kadima’s Tzipi Livni.
But the Bible? That’s a different story.
Reading this week’s parasha, I was seized by a note of sour sentimentality, remembering my first encounter with the Good Book’s seminal moment, that moment in Sinai in which God finally reveals His divine plan.
I was in the third grade, and had spent the previous years following the story from Adam and Eve to Joseph and his scheming siblings. As a child, it was just that to me, a story, a strange narrative that seemed to skip and jump through time and bring up all sorts of awkward and icky bits—all that stuff about daughters sleeping with fathers and naked fathers being shamed by their sons—that made little sense to my prepubescent mind. And since I was one of those children who knew from a very young age that the only thing they wanted to do in life was be a writer, I was looking forward to the story of the Exodus. It was there, the older and better-informed dudes of the fourth grade told me, that the story comes together and God tells the Israelites what it’s all about.
And then came the big moment. I was sitting in class, with my teacher, Tzipi, presiding. The Jews, she said sweetly, were the chosen people. How do we know? The Lord says so himself. Here: “And now, if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples, for Mine is the entire earth. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation.” And with that, Tzipi slammed her Bible shut, smiling victoriously. She asked if there were any questions.
I raised my hand.
“Chosen for what?” I asked.
“Just chosen,” said Tzipi.
“And then?” I insisted.
“Nothing,” said Tzipi. “And then nothing.”
“So what does it mean, a holy nation?” I demanded.
“It means we’re chosen,” Tzipi said. “We’re special. Now let’s all sing a song.”
It went on, with me insisting and her obfuscating, me inquiring and her dodging the questions. I walked home that day pissed off. It was supposed to be the climax of the story, I thought, and all it says is that we’re a holy nation. No explanation, no word on why the Jews were chosen, or on how we were supposed to act now that we were divinely elected, with the exception, of course, of those rather general-sounding commandments, which, with pearls like “Thou shalt not kill,” seemed relevant to the entire universe, Jews and gentiles alike. The fourth graders were wrong, I muttered angrily; this story sucks.
It took me two decades and ample rereadings to learn this important lesson: The Lord is no David Lynch. He may imbue his work with plenty of bizarre occurrences and surreal characters, but when it comes to making a point, there’ll be no mysterious giants whispering cryptic catchphrases. He says what he means, straight and to the point. He’s an author supreme.
What does it all mean, then? How does one answer all these questions posed above? Why were we chosen, and what were we chosen for? Herein lies the magic: No matter how hard you stare at the page, no matter how much you try to decipher the meaning of this seemingly simple sentence, “a kingdom of princes and a holy nation,” you will never come close. Rabbis have been sparring for millennia, ideologies and sects have risen and fallen. All because God said precisely what he meant, and what he meant was to be as vague as possible. What’s a kingdom of princes? Whatever you make of it. What must we do to be deserving of the holiness of our nation? Whatever we think may make us holy.
Anything else, and the moment in Sinai would’ve been robbed of its magic, would’ve turned into an uninteresting case of deity barking down orders and mortals obeying. And God, to be sure, gave us his commandments alright, but when it came to the moment of truth, the moment of the covenant between us and Him, He was ambiguous. “You figure it out,” He told us, “it’s your story now.”
This being the case, let us remember the first rule of good authorship: as we write our own life into being, as we do our best to interpret this vague voice telling us that we’re princes all of us and holy every one, let’s do our best to be as clear and bold and forthcoming as we can. Otherwise, we’ll piss off our readers. And that never ends well.