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Rabbi David Wolpe

Rabbi David Wolpe

Posted: October 7, 2009 04:09 PM

The Sacred Word

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A book by one John Wilkins in 1641 tells the following story: a slave was sent by his master with a letter and a basket of figs. Along the way the slave ate some of the figs. Upon receipt of the letter and what remained of the fruit, the man who received the goods accused the slave of eating them. He denied it, despite the testimony of the letter. He was sent back with another basket and another letter. This time he hid the letter under a rock before eating from the basket. Again upon delivery he was accused and, in Wilkins' words, "he confessed the fault, admiring the Divinity of the paper."

In his amazement at how the paper spied on him, the slave is closer to the truth about words that those of use who deploy them thoughtlessly each day. Words are wonders, magical, tossing thoughts from one mind to another. Alongside the wonder of words are the conveyances they ride -- pages, books, and now, screens?

This column will look at the sacred side of words in novels, non-fiction, memoirs. The sacred side of life is the ineffable -- that is, the side not susceptible to description. But when people have powerful experiences, experiences that dance around the edges of the sacred -- whether they are romantic, ecstatic, tragic or ritualistic -- they seek for words to encapsulate the experience that cannot be described. Think of Levin at the end of Anna Karenina, or Balzac's short story "A Passion in the Desert" ("he listened to the solitary music of the skies. Solitude taught him to unroll the treasures of dreams.") Each seeks to capture in words that which cannot be said in words.

Can such a transcendent experience happen in a virtual world? Is there sanctity on screens? Screens can now hold and present words in a simulacrum of a book. This extends the reach of the most powerful tool for human communication. For with its detail, its ability to bring us into a character, the truths of a book are the most comprehensive that human artistry or craft can create.

A picture may indeed be worth a thousands words, but a respectable book is over 50,000, which covers a lot of pictures. And although good acting can reveal something of what the character thinks, a skillful author can tell you, unobtrusively, exactly what a character feels. To take a very simple example, a few days ago I read the teen book Twilight that my daughter had been urging on me for weeks. Many of the teenagers in my school are reading it and I thought I ought to keep up. As with every successful love story, there is a powerful, almost insurmountable obstacle to the coupling of two who desire one another (the improbable fact that one is human and one is a vampire is adequately accounted for, if not adequately explained.) But the palpable erotic yearning is explored in a way no two hour movie can match. Underneath is the religious impulse at work once again: a world in which the everyday is an illusion, a flat, magic-free world to those who are insensitive to the vibrations of enchantment. The gifted see beneath the quotidian to the sparkle that lies underneath.

The enchantment that exists like netting beneath the narrative, holds most of the stories we love together. It begins in the very act of story telling: here are marks on the page which animate lives, first created in the mind of the narrator; they are doubly unreal: they are made up and they exist only in marks on a page. Yet some characters are more real than the people you meet in the elevator. They are more powerful than the explicit declarations by which we live our lives. "'Thou shalt not' might reach the head," as Phillip Pullman put it, "but it takes 'once upon a time' to reach the heart."

There is a good reason why sacred scriptures are filled with stories. Stories are by their very nature magic. And for all the dazzle of modernity the simple, stolid book is still the best way to tell an elaborate, imbricated, enchanted tale. Here on the Huffington Post we will turn in our religious meditations on books, our pious pixels, our awe at the miracle of stories.