Parashat Chukkat 5781

Rabbi Judith Rosen-Berry, 16 June 2021

The long way round (again):

And they journeyed from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.” (Numbers [b’midbar] 21:4)

‘K.’ the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s Das Schloss, never reaches his destination: his ‘way’ is obstructed or re-directed by a series unforeseen bureaucratic barriers that extend the distances between him and his destination. Not even the path, that he has been told will lead directly to the Castle, does so, it only takes him: ‘…close by, then veer’s off as if on purpose, and though it [doesn’t] lead any farther from the Castle, it [doesn’t] get any closer either’ (Franz Kafka, The Castle). Given K.’s description of this journey, it seems that the only way that it will ever end is – either randomly, or it will simply continue indefinitely, and in effect, it does – (both).

The Castle was Kafka’s last work but in an earlier short story: ‘Wedding Preparations in the Country’ we can already see – the unfolding of what will become a central trope in his later work: the fact of non-arrival. And brilliantly (although also paradoxically) it is in his most concise works, like ‘Wedding Preparations’ and ‘An Imperial Message,’ (which is barely a page long) that we find numerous examples of delaying distractions, of distances that cannot be crossed, un-navigable paths, and endless, or un-negotiable labyrinthine corridors. In ‘An Imperial Message’ the carrier of a letter, despite all his efforts, can make no progress in his task:

    ‘Still he is only making his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he get to the end of them; and if he succeeded in that nothing would be gained; he must next fight his way down the stair; and if he succeeded in that nothing would be gained; the courts would still have to be crossed…’ (Franz Kafka, ‘An Imperial Message’ in The Complete Short Stories).

And so on, and so forth: the messenger can get nowhere – years pass and the letter remains undelivered. This parable describes a ‘passage of time’ that has no end, that has no demarcations – the way is infinitely long, absurdly so, and of course it is without culmination, without meaning or conclusive insight.

In other of his short stories, Kafka continues to ‘show’ us how the expectation of reaching any destination, any end-point – is a foolishly unattainable one: an entire lifetime is not enough time to reach the next village, courtyards only open onto further courtyards, imagined centres are endlessly elusive, locations can never be absolutely determined, not even ‘the shores’ of death are reachable. These stories – obsessive and circular simply grind to a halt in quite literal incompleteness. In Kafka’s parabolic world, our ‘life’, our existence, is not a fact but a transitive state.

    “The Israelites marched on and camped at Ovot, they marched on from Ovot and camped at Iyyei Ha-avarim, in the wilderness that faces Moav. From there they set out and encamped at the wadi Zered. From there they set out an encamped beyond Arnon … and from there to Beer … and from Midbar (wilderness) – [to] Matanah, and from Matanah to Nahaliel to Bamoth, and from Bamoth to the valley, that is the country Moav, at the peak of Pigash, overlooking the wasteland” (Numbers [b’midbar] 21:10-13 …18-21).

Endless elusiveness is discouraging… and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.

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