With writing, words lose the vitality they may have had in speech – the spontaneity, the presence of the speaker. But only then can it survive the revolutions of time; and later, others will come and find its ‘face,’ they will renew and bring life to the words with their own spirit.
For all our discussion of the qualities of speech and text, the stories of Rav Nachman themselves are read from a text, and the words that appear here are the written records of words once said out loud. Despite our praise of the story and the spoken word, there is also a need for balance, for a complex relationship between speech and writing. This dynamic affects the reading of Rav Nachman’s stories, as well as the recording of his lessons.
Much has already been written and said on the difference between speech and writing. For me, it’s the same difference between chiddushim of the present - from the energy and being of that moment - and a Torah learning that is preserved over a long period of time. In general, my tendency is to follow the Rav Nachman Torah about “teaching a child”(הלומד ילד) , to prefer the living word, born and emergent from exile. This is a Torah that grows from the meeting with a present-tense reality, the illumination of time. My daily activity in Torah study is to transform the written Torah into the oral one, to seek ways to enliven Torah through its translation into the language of life. This is also Rav Kook’s classical move: to bring the Torah to Israel, to tie it to the reality of our lives. This is very important wok, and the written Torah granted to us demands this.
But perhaps there is also room for a different kind of shift. It is a movement with a haredi element - though it does not come close to the far edge of diasporic thinking. I am speaking of a haredi-ness as a gesture of conservation and protection, an approach which assumes that the Torah has a face that is directed towards the distant future, a face which looks beyond the horizon of the present. From this perspective, there is a need for a creativity that is not reactive to the present reality, a creativity that is destined to withstand the trials of time and open up new, future directions. And the balance between the two must be found.
For me, this is the meaning behind writing. To write is to prepare for a long journey, one that requires an entirely different form of ‘packing’ than any of the short trips I know. You can’t take fresh fruits for a long journey: you must dry out the grapes to make raisins, you must salt and smoke the meat. Much is lost in the process, but what remains has a long-term durability. So too with writing: words lose the vitality they may have had in speech - the spontaneity, the presence of the speaker. There is a light in speech that can’t shine through in writing, and it’s pointless to try containing it. When one writes, things must come from the ‘legs,’ not the ‘head’: one must refrain from trying to over-explain or insert too much of the moment. We must give permission for writing to be ‘irrelevant,’ imbue a quality of opacity and ambiguity. Only then can it survive the revolutions of time; and later, others will come and find its ‘face,’ they will renew and bring life to the words with their own spirit.
I come to this position from my thoughts on old age and my path in this world. To a certain extent, the path is always farther than the horizon of one life - it continues into eternity. That’s what we mean by “The nation of eternity isn’t afraid of the long way.” Not only the nation, but the person, too, has his own long road - the pull that goes beyond any immediate meaning and demands a greater direction. Chaza”l wrote, “Old age - at sixty, ” and connected it to “You will come to the grave in ripe old age, As shocks of grain are taken away in their season” (תבוא בכלח אלי קבר, כעלות גדיש בעתו, Job 5:26) - the gematria value of בכלח (‘in old age’) is 60. According to our Sages, at sixty you already have one foot in the grave. But I’d like to point out another thing: it is a time to bury the Torah, to cover it, to wrap it up in its burial dressings so that it can withstand the upheavals of the way. Like the old man in the story of Honi the Circlemaker, a person plants his carob tree knowing that it will only give fruit in 70 years. This action must come from a selfless place. It requires a perspective that understands one to be part of a much longer process that cannot be grasped from the present. This applies to both a personal view - of recognizing that a life time cannot be predicted - and also more broadly, that one is a link in a chain of transmission that has goes on for generations.
At the end of the day, this is what we receive from our ancestors: written books. There is a place for us, too, to do our part along this path, to create writing that is intended for the ‘long way.’ There are also in-between sorts: speech that is text, writing with the qualities of speech, writing that is the consequence of uttered words. There are permutations here too, in an open, experimental stretch between the uttered and the written, the vitality of the present and the spaces left between the words. The writing here is also directed at that kind of space.