The Hebrew word for ‘orchard’ is ‘pardes’. The word ‘pardes’ immediately brings to my mind the orchard which my grandparents cultivated beside their house in Israel. It was a real orchard, with neat lines of mature orange, grapefruit and pomelo trees. I clearly remember visiting them, as a little girl, and going out to the orchard with a long, metal contraption which had a hook at the end so as to reach the fruit.
The ‘pardes’ is often used in Biblical study as an acronym. ‘P’ is for ‘pshat’ – this refers to the simple/literal reading of a text. ‘R’ is for ‘remez’ – the first hint discovered by a reader that the text has another level of meaning. ‘D’ is for ‘drash’ – the next level of interpretation of the text as an allegory or extended metaphor. Finally, ‘S’ is ‘sod’ – the secret, this is the secret truth which lies beyond and behind any metaphor, always shrouded in mystery. Jewish Mysticism and the study of all literature both concern themselves with the journey towards this ‘sod’.
I first learnt of the ‘pardes’ acronym when I was studying the short stories of S.Y. Agnon in University. S.Y. stands for this Hebrew writer’s first names Shmuel Yosef, and in Hebrew he is known as ‘Shai’ Agnon (pronounced like shy). ‘Shai’ in Hebrew means ‘a gift,’ a fitting name for the man who was to become the first Hebrew writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (1966). I have been thinking quite a bit about Agnon lately because two of his houses were destroyed by fire, and this is something which is on the mind of all Australians at the moment. The burning of his personal library containing his manuscripts and his collection of rare and valuable Hebrew books was to become a recurring theme in many of his works.
This last week I have been walking through a personal orchard not unlike Esti’s forbidding magical forest, and I have felt fearful and lost. My grandfather is unwell and my mother has travelled to New York to care for him until the end. I am left here in my grandfather’s library, pacing, pacing, and occasionally choosing a book to take down from the shelf. It seems that I am searching for that elusive ‘sod,’ for things are never what they seem, and words are never just ‘pshat.’ In my anger at my grandfather’s mortality, in a moment of terrible bitterness, I felt that if only I had a match I would set each and every book alight. The texts in my library can never take me back to that first orchard of my childhood, that ‘pardes’ which I visited with my grandparents.
But then I remembered.
Esti’s magical forest eventually reveals a circle of women in its midst, and it is to this circle that I return yet again, dear readers. A few days ago I read Frogdancer’s post about a young man whose beloved library was destroyed by the bushfires. I found some comfort in the fact that this young man was rebuilding his library with the help of our mysterious women’s circle of the magical forest. I wonder what Agnon would have felt if, following the destruction of his library, he had received a hundred packages in the mail, each with a book from a stranger -a hundred presents to help him replant his orchard? I wonder what my grandfather would feel if he were to truly realise how many lives he has touched with his wit and poetry and books?