Posted Sunday morning, March 11, 2018.
Illustration for the creation story in the St John Bible, courtesy of St John's Abbey.
When they were working out the logistics for the meeting at Yalta, Churchill was frustrated by Roosevelt’s insistence that the meeting should take place over no more than five or six days. Churchill thought they would need more time. He didn’t care much for the choice of the location for the meeting either, and to his aides he expressed his frustration with an allusion to the Book of Genesis…
Their last time together would be far from home. “We could not have found a worse place for a meeting if we had spent ten years on research,” Churchill grumbled to [Harry] Hopkins as the the Big Three prepared to meet at Yalta. He would get through it, he said, by bringing an adequate supply of whiskey” to find off the typhus and lice. “The P.M. remained in bed,’'” Jock Colville wrote of one morning in January 1945. “He is disgusted that the President should want to spend only five or six days at the coming meeting…and says that even the Almighty required seven to settle the world…”
Someone had the temerity to correct Churchill’s scripture knowledge. The Almighty created the world in six days, not seven, this brave soul pointed out. On the Seventh Day he rested. Jon Meacham, from whose “Franklin and Winston”, this anecdote comes, doesn’t report with what degree of grace Churchill accepted the correction. However gracefully he took it, he didn’t actually correct himself.
Churchill “ignored the scriptural hairsplitters around him,” writes Meacham, and repeated the inaccurate phrase in a cable to Roosevelt, “’I do not see any other way of realising our hopes about World Organization in five or six days. Even the Almighty took seven.’”
Of course it’s not just a colloquialism to say God created the world in seven days. The Creation story tells what happened over the course of seven days, including that on the seventh day God, done with the work of creating the universe, gave himself a day off, and that became the theological basis of the seven day week and remembering and keeping holy the Sabbath---or so the nuns taught us, and I imagine it was a Sunday School lesson when Churchill was a pup and it’s still standard fare in religious ed classes all over. And so even people who know their scripture will say God created the world in seven days even though on the seventh day he didn’t create anything.
Except that he did.
He created something important .
That’s what a seemingly crackpotted rabbi named Klausner in Nicole Krauss’ novel “Forest Dark” says.
Rest. Menucha. That’s the Hebrew word for rest, according to Rabbi Klausner. Menucha. Rest. The sort of rest God took on seventh day, at any rate.
At a fundraising event for a Jewish charity, the novel’s main character, Jules Epstein, a very rich New York businessman and philanthropist, finds himself at a sudden, inexplicable, and complete loss for words when it’s his turn to speak. Klausner, unasked, steps in to take over for Epstein, and uses the moment to deliver a sermon on the theological and existential importance of menucha, launching his lesson with an anecdote from his own long ago Hebrew School days.
“‘So what is the meaning of menucha?’ the rabbi asks us. A bunch of restless kids, staring out the window, whose only interest in the world is to be out playing ball. No one speaks. The rabbi waits, and when it becomes clear that he’s not going to give us the answer, a kid in the back of the room, the only one with polished shoes, who always goes straight home to his mother, the many-generations-removed progeny of the grizzled old scholar who carried within him the ancient wisdom of sitting in corners, opens his mouth. ‘Rest,’ he says. ‘Rest!’ the rabbi exclaims, spit spraying from his mouth as it does when he’s excited. ‘But not only! Because menucha doesn’t simply mean a pause from work. A break from exertion. It isn’t just the opposite of toil and labor. If it took a special act of creation to bring it into being, surely it must be something extraordinary. Not the negative of something that already existed, but a unique positive, without which the universe would be incomplete. No, not just rest,’ the rabbi says. ‘Tranquility! Serenity! Repose! Peace. A state in which there is no strife, and no fighting. No fear and distrust. Menucha. The state in which man lies still.’...”
...Klausner dropped his voice and adjusted the kippah tha had slipped to the back of his head--- “in that classroom of twelve year olds, not a single one of understood what the rabbi meant. But I ask you: Do any of us understand it any better? Understand that act of creation that stands alone among the others, the only one that didn’t establish something eternal? On the seventh day God created menucha. But he made it to be fragile, unable to last. Why? Why, when everything else he made is impervious to time?”
Klausner paused, sweeping his gaze across the room. His enormous forehead glistened with sweat, though otherwise he gave no sign of exterting himself. Epstein leaned forward, waiting.
“So that it falls to Man to re-create it over and over again,” Klausner said at last. “To re-create menucha so that he should know that he is not a bystander to the universe, but a participant. That without his actions, the universe God intended for us will remain incomplete.”
Sermon over. Mine and Rabbi Klausner’s. Schul is over. Mass has ended. Go get some rest, if you have the chance. Make some rest. Do a little to complete the universe.
“Forest Dark” by Nicole Krauss is available in hardcover and for kindle at Amazon and as an audiobook from Audible. “Franklin and Winston” by Jon Meacham is also available at Amazon, in paperback and for kindle, and as an audiobook from Audible.