A People Obsessed
Jews, geeks, and a haftorah of repetition and reason
Getting ready for Halloween, searching for an extra-large Ghostbuster outfit and something that could pass for a realistic proton pack, I found myself thinking about how the two major components of my identity—Jew and nerd—fit into remarkably similar patterns.
For starters, both groups spend an inordinate amount of time picking apart canonical texts. If you don’t believe that the talmudic fire burns bright among the pocket-protector set, try walking into Barcade—a New York mecca for video game and microbrew enthusiasts—and muttering “Han shot first.” Most likely, the conversation that follows would be intricate enough to put even the most meticulous yeshiva bocher to shame.
This kind of learning demands repetition. Like Jews, nerds engage with their sacred works, their sci-fi scripture, repeatedly and cyclically. This week, for example, I found myself commencing anew the masterpiece that is Battlestar Galactica, a space opera so rich with politics and theology that the United Nations summoned the show’s creators and stars to deliver a special panel on human rights and conflict resolution.
As much as I relished being reintroduced to one of my favorite television series, I watched the first few episodes with a growing sense of unease. The fresh-faced lieutenant, the grizzled commander facing retirement, the ailing minister of education—I know what’s about to happen to them all. As I watched Season One, the specters of Season Four danced around in my mind, informing every line of dialogue, forcing me to reconsider every scene in light of what I already knew.
This week’s haftorah operates on a similar principle. Read the Torah portion, and there’s a youthful Abram being promised blessings and offspring galore should he leave his home and walk to Canaan. Skip ahead to the haftorah, and there’s Isaiah, reassuring the people, Abram’s descendants, that the same God who once graced their ancestor has not, despite appearances, forsaken his chosen flock.
“Why sayest thou, O Jacob,” the prophet thunders, “and speakest, O Israel: ‘My way is hid from the Lord, and my right is passed over from my God’? Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary?”
It’s a rhetorical question. Isaiah knows better than anyone why the people of Israel claim to have been abandoned by the Lord. Even without the benefit of Blu Ray DVDs, he realized what any fanboy watching The Wrath of Khan for the 17th time understands instinctively: no matter how many times you’ve heard the story, every retelling eventually resonates as if it were the first. This is what happened to me: by the time Commander Adama discovered the first Cylon agent aboard the Galactica, I was as thrilled and surprised as I’d been when I saw the same episode for the very first time. And by the time the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III invaded Israel, the battered and divided people forgot all about the covenant between God and Abraham. And as men, mere mortals, inevitably see God in their own image, it occurred to the Israelites that it was God who forgot all about them, not the other way around. What else, they wailed, could explain their strife but divine neglect?
Isaiah has heard it all before. He assures the people that God is not the forgetful type. But being something of a savvy storyteller, he knows that it would do him no good to tell the people once again of Abraham, or to remind them that their history is nothing if not a train of trials and challenges. So he tells them a different tale, about God’s might and how it supports the very foundations of the earth and inspires the people to come together in praise and awe. And, like anyone else gripped by good drama, the people have no other time but now: the past, the future, both fade before the majesty and the urgency of the story.
The day after my reengagement with Battlestar Galactica, I told a friend that I intended to watch the entire series once again. He called me a dork. He may be right, but he’s missing the point: we watch the same show, or read the same book, or debate the same points because that’s the only way we can truly understand the many vast issues that lie outside our reach, just beyond our limited intellects and scarred souls. Each retelling is just like the first, yet with each one we may notice something small we haven’t seen before—a scene, a turn of phrase—and come that much closer to understanding.
In the meantime, whether we’re reading Isaiah or watching the Syfy channel, all we can do is marvel at events that happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.