Humor in the Desert


Humor in the Desert


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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- producing incident.

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 chisel.

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 Nile. ”

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 attention.

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 maneuvers?”

“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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