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Moses and the Camel Squad
By Martin Lindauer
I confronted Moses as he was about to ascend Mount Sinai for his
daily consultation with God. "Excuse me, Sir, I have a
suggestion....” Moses interrupted with a glare, a familiar mode of
communication. I understood his disdain--an attitude well-practiced
by our Teacher--for I was only a scruffy camel-herder from the
unheralded and unluckily numbered Thirteenth Tribe.
Nonetheless, I ignored the brush-off, for I fervently believed that
my idea of a camel squad would revolutionize our people’s efforts to
overcome the Philistines and Canaanites. Such a victory would add a
worthy addendum to the untitled book Moses was rumored to be writing.
"Look, boychik,” our Leader said authoritatively, a tone of voice
well known to us, usually accompanied by a dismissive wave of an
arm. “The Lord saith 'Spears and arrows shall smite thine enemies.'
Not hump-backed beasts of burden.” Moses broke off his tirade, a
favorite style of address, as the clouds in the heavens darkened. He
blinked, an unusual sight, and quickly corrected himself, a rare
occurrence. “Eh, knives are okay,” he whispered,
uncharacteristically lowering his voice. “But call them short
spears.” Moses was not for nothing called the Great Interpreter.
He glanced warily--an unusual posture--at the roiling dark clouds,
shuddered at the sound of the claps of thunder, and winced with each
peal of lightning. “I gotta’ go. Da Boss is calling." During
moments of stress, Moss talked like the rest of us.
"But, Moses," I persisted. "You haven't always been subservient to
the Lord. Remember the water shortage when you lifted your staff....
" Oops, wrong example, Moses’ well-rehearsed glower signaled I was
in trouble. "Cease your blasphemy," Moses shouted, his
characteristic vocalization. The Prophet had never overcome his
aggravation at God’s overreaction to the rock-striking/spring-
He directed his well-known steely gaze at me. “Any so-called
disagreements with the Lord are hearsay. Our conversations are
strictly private--except for the notes I’ve cut into stone
tablets.” Moses stomped away, his distinctive mode of locomotion.
It was said in the markets that the Lawgiver was working on an
elaborate transcription of his tête-à-têtes with the Holy One.
Progress was delayed, we heard, by the constant sharpening of his
Later that day Moses returned from his chat-session with the Heavenly
One to the meeting tent for the daily kvetch assembly, an occasion
for public complaining that followed the prayer service. I sat at
the back and made plans to present my case to Moses and his generals
when they discussed the next day’s military excursion.
“Who’s heading the lads with the bows and arrows?" Moses demanded,
his chief form of interrogation.
I raised my hand tentatively. “Excuse me, Sir. I have a plan.”
“Silence,” the Master Teacher thundered, his normal level of speaking.
I bowed my head to signal submission and checked the ground beneath
me, remembering well the earth-swallowing debacle following the late
Korach’s misfortunate disagreement with Moses.
Joshua, the bravest of Moses’ generals, leaned over and confided,
"Number One grows more prickly with each passing day we spend mucking
about in the desert. ‘Looking for a sign,’ he says, as if trails in
the desert are well marked.”
“I keep telling him, ‘Ask for directions, already,’” Moses’s sister
Miriam interjected, “but he’s too proud to ask. He’s never gotten
over his early experience of drifting aimlessly in a basket on the
Aaron took me aside. “Try to be understanding,” he advised, in
keeping with his reputation as the Great Compromiser. “My brother is
under a great deal of pressure to add more flavors to the manna supply.”
“I would be cranky, too,” Joshua said, “if I knew that God would never
let me enter the Promised Land."
"Nu, can we continue?” Moses stormed, his preferred way of getting
I sat back on my haunches and waited for a suitable moment to speak
while recalling how the notion of a camel squad had come to me. I
was taking a break from Sabbath services on Thursday, a day that
somehow seemed wrong for prayer--but who was I to challenge the deal
worked out between competing astrologers who favored a calendar based
on the sun and those who favored the moon?-- and was watching the
Ammonites racing their camels in honor of their god of
transportation, Treif. (The unholy association between the goyem and
camels, I believe, accounts for their forbidden status.) Our tribe,
unfortunately, was assigned the non-kosher task of herding the
accursed beasts in case an emergency water supply was needed. Who
can predict if the King of Kings, Blessed Be He, might fail to
provide when in a vengeful mood? The camels, despite their lowly
status, were our backup. Our tribe’s questionable occupation, alas,
accounts for us not being grouped with the other 12.
The inspiration for a camel squad, I recalled, was born at the race
track. I pictured the ungainly creatures charging enemy lines and
throwing the accursed idolaters into disorder, thereby facilitating
plundering, pillaging, and slaughtering. A few dramatic breakthroughs, I imagined, and we could arrive
in the Promised Land much sooner than the 40 years prophesized by
Moses. The circuitous route, some of the irreligious camp followers
believed, was a ruse by the Pathfinder, to provide him with
additional opportunities to stumble across a land less barren that
the Dead Sea region, said to be our final destination.
My role in promoting the camel squad, I secretly hoped, might be
cryptically alluded to--as worldly interventions must be in the
nature of holy chronicles--in the draft of our journey that Moses was
reported to be working on.
Over the next few weeks, under the guise of exercising our tribe’s
herd of camels, I practiced a few useful battle commands: “Heel!”
“Stay!” “Go!” “Oy!” (in case of retreat).
I broke off my recollections when the military briefing finally ended
and the meeting was opened for audience participation. Moses
reluctantly—his favorite delaying tactic--recognized my raised hand.
“If camels accompanied our troops, sir," I said respectfully, “the
beasts could transport their bows and arrows." I had cleverly
disguised my proposal as a solution to a logistical problem. Before
Moses could raise an objection—his typical first response--about the
smelly camels tainting our kosher food supply, I quickly pointed out
another advantage. “If the soldiers’ hands were free from the burden
of armaments they could shlep copies of Our King’s Commandments
(unabridged)." Slyly, I had calculated that the troops would favor
my argument, relieved at not having to haul cuneiform tablets of clay.
Moses sagely pondered my proposal, his primary manner of
reflecting. If my proposal was accepted, I planned to run the
camels through the “Heel” and other commands (excluding the morale-
shattering “Oy!”). Moses and his generals, I was confident, would
recognize the camels’ strategic usefulness and promote their
inclusion into our ranks on the field of battle.
The voice of Moses rose to the piercing pitch we have grown
accustomed to. “Will there be room on the camels, may their
descendants be damned, to carry shofars for sounding orders during
“Of course,” I replied humbly. “There’ll be room for the Ark, too.”
Oops, an unnecessary addendum. Sparks flew from our Prophet’s eyes,
a prominent feature of his face. I had forgotten that no mortal was
permitted to be in close proximity to the reputed draft of his opus
(in progress). I apologized and backed away.
Mount Horab suddenly loomed over the encampment. The people
trembled. The Mighty One was approaching. Moses scurried to meet
The Unnamable, a gait saved for those rare self-effacing occasions
when he met the Lord.
With Moses gone, I mulled over how I might demonstrate the
acceptability of my team of camels in God’s eyes. Perhaps by
displaying their piety, I reasoned, their unholy reputation would be
erased, their meat would be removed from the list of taboo foods, and
God would permit them to march with the Israelites. Shrewdly, I also
hoped that He, in revising history, would add our forgotten tribe to
the names of Joseph’s brothers. But in order for this sacred
revision of the camels’ reputation to take place, I needed the
support of the Levites, the tribe in charge of religious matters.
I meekly approached the priests after the morning sacrifice. “Your
excellencies. Perhaps you would be interested in enhancing the
splendor of your liturgical duties?” Interested, the priests stopped
reading animal entrails, and nodded. I approached with “Baal,” my
cleverest camel. I lowered my hand majestically in front of the
creature, bowed my head reverentially, and pointed dramatically to
the ground. “Kneel!” I commanded.
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from the June 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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