Once there was a Queen. She was a wise and kindly Queen, and she loved her subjects. Saddened at the pain and suffering of her people she decided to send messengers to help them in their lives.
To each messenger she said: “You are my chosen messenger and the message I shall give to you is a special message. The future peace and happiness of my land and its people depends upon you. My message is simple and complex; timely and timeless; personal and universal. Guard my message; never forget it; teach it to your children, lest anything happen to you and my message be lost.”
The Queen gave roughly the same message to each messenger; but she met with each messenger individually, and inevitably the Queen would vary the message slightly each time. To be honest, we don’t know whether this was deliberate or accidental. Perhaps she felt that it would be dangerous to entrust the entirety of his message to just one person. Perhaps she really wanted to transmit messages that were slightly different from each other, thinking from the very beginning that each messenger and each message would contribute something unique to the welfare of her people. Or perhaps the very opposite – perhaps she really meant to give identical messages and didn’t realize how slight differences of nuance in her delivery would cause havoc later on.
Anyway: the Queen called in each of the messengers and told them their message. To one messenger she especially stressed truth; to another, beauty; to the third, kindness to strangers; to the fourth, love of family; to the fifth, gentleness with all living creatures; to the sixth, the redeeming power of love. The messengers listened attentively, bowed, withdrew, mounted their horses and set off across the country.
To one of the messengers. Shelach, the Queen especially stressed the messenger’s chosenness. This was how Shelach remembered the Queen’s message:”Never forget,” said the Queen, “how special you are, how important your message is, and how vitally the future redemption of my people depends upon your protecting and transmitting my message. Guard my message, and see that its wisdom prevails. Speak of it with your children, speak of it when you go to sleep and when you get up in the morning, if needs be bind parts of it upon your arm or upon your forehead. If you guard my message, and transmit it faithfully, then all will be well, and my message will bring good to the world. But be aware that, if you ignore my message, awful things may happen, for redemption depends upon my message and upon you, my messenger.”
Shelach had almost fainted upon hearing all this. He was overwhelmed to have been invited to be a messenger of the Queen, overwhelmed again actually to be within the palace compound. His mind was all aflutter – he felt pride at the honor of being chosen as a messenger, trepidation lest he misunderstand the message, fear for the people lest he forget and cause awful things to happen. He stammered his acknowledgment, withdrew from the Queen’s chamber, and went to bed for three days without speaking a word even to his wife, whom he loved very much.
Meanwhile, the messengers traveled into the country. It was quite a responsibility to be the Queen’s messenger. Some were a little haughty; some were rather scared. One messenger was riding one day and, daydreaming, simply rode too close to the side of the cliff: her horse lost its footing and horse, messenger and message, all were lost. To this day we don’t know what that message contained.
In another part of the land, two messengers bumped into each other in a small town that was famous until then only for its truffles. Each began to proclaim the Queen’s message to the local people; and though, to be honest, the messages were really quite similar, you know what people are sometimes like – each messenger stressed the differences in his respective message, and each was sure that he, and only he, was the Queen’s true messenger, and pretty soon bottles were flying and a terrible fight had broken out. One messenger broke his arm in the melee, and the other was concussed, and for years afterward the town was divided between supporters of the first messenger and supporters of the second.
It was especially sad because, to be honest, the Queen had told each of the messengers to behave well towards other people. Each messenger usually remembered to transmit this part of the message, but sometimes without much emphasis, and too many of them tended to forget that the other messengers were people even before they were messengers – in their irritation that there were other messengers abroad in the land, and other messages slightly different from their own, they got awfully huffy and, as in the truffle town, fights and even vendettas sometimes ensued.
Time passed, and the messengers began to marry and have children. They passed their message on to their children, and the children to their children’s children. As we know of families, some prospered and some foundered. One family traveled far and wide, whilst a second farmed the same piece of land for generations. In one family there seemed a strange preponderance of boys, whilst another was unusual in the number of twins who were born.
A sort of Chinese whispers played strange tricks with some of the messages: for instance, the family of the one to whom the Queen had first stressed hospitality to strangers became famous for its chain of inns and hotels, but over time every other part of the original message gradually withered. In another case, one of the original messengers had been wearing a beautiful purple robe on the day the Queen summoned him; in his family, for generations after, his descendants always wore a similar robe. One of the original messengers was very musical, and he took to singing parts of the Queen’s message; to this day his descendants sing the Queen’s message, sometimes with beautiful harmonies and sometimes – on days of special celebration – with remarkable drumming and dancing.
Some of the descendants of the families began to marry each other, and this caused one or two problems. Whose message should be passed on to the children? In olden days, the tradition arose that the bride should defer to the groom, and the children should carry the groom’s family’s message; but most of the original messengers were women, and in some of their families the tradition was that the message was especially carried down the female line. So more fights broke out, once famously at the wedding feast itself, and on another occasion the wedding sadly was canceled on account of the problem of the two different messages of the Queen.
Some people, as we know, have rotten memories – I do myself, to be honest, – and some of the messengers began to write down the message, lest they forget it in their dotage. This may or may not have been a mistake. On the one hand, it tended to stop the process of Chinese whispers; the text of the message didn’t change so much from generation to generation. But language changes meaning, and questions arose. When the message spoke of love, for instance – what love was meant? The Greeks and the Persians, the Victorians and the Singaporeans, the people in Peoria and the people in Puntamona – they had very different ideas about love, and they understood different things when they read of it.
One version of the message stressed a ritual about a particular tree and its fruit, but the messengers traveled far from the original country and the tree was lost. In one family, this hadn’t mattered – the grandchildren of the original messenger thought it was the tree in their garden and so the message retained its meaning even as the original tree was lost. But in another family, where the original story had been written down and the scroll was passed from parent to child – why there, the loss of the original tree was painful indeed, so much so that, in the end, they gave up on the message and had it nicely framed and placed upon the dining room wall. The Queen would have been sad, I think, to have seen her message so prettified and ignored.
Shelach had a particularly difficult time of it. In fairness to him, it must be said that he was sincere and loyal. He had been overwhelmed by the honor which the Queen showed to him; perhaps in retrospect it may have been unfortunate that the Queen stressed chosenness. Shelach never forgot that he had been chosen by the Queen, and perhaps that fact alone accounted for the extraordinary loyalty across generations which he and his descendants showed to the Queen’s message.
After his initial shock, Shelach took his message and his role as messenger very seriously indeed. He traveled far and wide, and wherever he went he proclaimed the Queen’s message. Well, at least in the beginning he did. He had expected that he would be acclaimed everywhere he went. “I am the messenger of the Queen,” he thought, “and my message is about the very redemption of the land and of its people. Surely I will be received with great honor, people will listen closely and carefully to my message.”
Well – that’s not how people are, is it? A few people listened to him respectfully, but most didn’t. Some people ignored him – they were the kind ones. Some threw refuse at him from their windows. In the mountains he was attacked by robbers; when he protested that he was the Queen’s chosen messenger they just laughed at him. A man with a bear laughed at him; a group of teenagers threw stones at him. Many people simply didn’t believe him in the first place. In fairness all of the messengers had a hard time, and a few of them had a far harder time than Shelach did. Several of them were murdered before they were able to transmit their message, and now their message is simply lost to the world. But Shelach was a little unlucky. The Queen had mentioned to all the messengers that they were specially chosen, but when Shelach was present she had emphasized this fact and Shelach, who had been dozing during parts of the Queen’s message, had woken with a start just as the Queen was saying how special he was. So this became a really central part of Shelach’s message and it was one which, sadly, didn’t endear him to others.
Shelach was sad at what happened. If nobody else would listen to him, he could at least teach the message to his own family – and this is what he did. He taught the Queen’s message to his children, and to them he stressed how very important the message was, and how special they were to have been chosen by the Queen. He made it clear to them that they must remember the Queen’s message at all times, and that if he, Shelach, were to die before the message was delivered or the country was redeemed then they would be obligated to transmit the message faithfully. He repeated this over and over to them, stressed again and again how vital the message was, how important they were.
From the very beginning this was hard for the children. Some of them loved it, of course, especially those who had a good memory. The original message had been beautiful and complex: as Shelach’s ancestors multiplied and spread about the world, they knew that it was vital to preserve the message, but they struggled as to what exactly it meant. Debates began; different interpretations; different schools of interpretation. Each was loyal to the original message, or at least intended to be, but as the generations wore on differences multiplied. Some believed that the message needed to be translated into the language of different lands, whilst others argued that the original language was holy and must not be tampered with – they resolved that argument by transmitting the original message and translating it. Some said that parts of the message needed to be altered to cope with changing circumstances – they resolved that argument by changing some things, retaining others, but at all times repeating to themselves and to each other that they were truly transmitting the Queen’s original message to Shelach – even if, by now, Shelach would have struggled to recognize parts of it.
The story of how Shelach’s message spread and evolved is fundamentally a happy story; the Queen would have been happy to see her message so loyally protected and conveyed, and as a creative Queen herself she knew that messages and stories change and grow; that too was understood by her from the start. What was unexpected was the response of other people. Shelach’s ancestors took to separating themselves from their neighbors. They passed the Queen’s message on to their own children, very faithfully: but how faithful was the message, really, when the Queen wanted them to help her people but instead they drew inwards. Can you be a faithful messenger, protect and pass on the message, but fail to heed some of its central tenets?
Today is a long time since Shelach’s first meeting with the Queen. A hundred generations have gone by, and the world has changed a great deal. The message has grown and multiplied: it is the same as it once was, but also very different. This has been a tough century for the children of Shelach, and I know this especially because I am one of them. I struggle with what this all means for me. The message is so big and demanding and complicated. It feels like a life’s work to get to understand it; yet the original message is quite clear about living it and acting on it, not just learning it. There are times when I feel I really understand Shelach’s message, and perhaps even the Queen’s original intent – but then I get scared and think I’m just fooling myself. Sometimes I feel that I understand the message, but I want to say “No! – I don’t want to be a messenger and I don’t want the message – I don’t want the responsibility, I don’t want the obligation, and I don’t like being so lonely.”
The loneliness is especially hard. The children of Shelach have multiplied (the Queen had said this would happen), but the children of the other messengers have multiplied by far more. Sometimes I’m sad that there are so few children of Shelach alive today; sometimes I’m sad that so many of them seem, to be honest, to have forgotten the message; and sometimes I’m especially sad that so many of those who actually do remember the message just don’t quite get it – they sort of do, but they don’t; and they don’t seem to remember that the descendants of other messengers, though the messages themselves today are somewhat different, are still ultimately conveying messages of the same Queen.
The world stands poised, as it always has, between optimism and pessimism. Intellectually I get sad at what we are doing to the Queen’s beautiful lands. We have done much that is creative and beautiful, but along the way we’ve done a lot of damage and we’ve left a lot of mess. Arnold Toynbee – of all people – once said that America was like a large dog in a small room – “every time it wags its tail,” he said, “it knocks something over. . .” But today we are all America, and the small room is all the Queen’s land. Those of us who are heirs to Shelach have good reason to be afraid of sharing the Queen’s message, for history has shown that doing so has its perils. But – friends, and fellow messengers, – I think it’s time we returned to our task. We have spent long enough attacking our attackers; or trying to defend ourselves; or worrying about punctuation within the message; or beautifying our message documents. Our parents and grandparents endured much that we might live in peace and prosperity; but now our children and grandchildren cry out that we use this oasis of time to focus upon what is truly important. Her people, her creatures, and her lands all cry out for her message. Will you help me figure out exactly what it is, and how we might begin to act upon it?
Nigel Savage Jerusalem –
New York Erev Tu b’Av 5759 – July 1999