4.37. Yiẓḥak Oren, short story ‘The Monument of the Resurrection’ (1962)

In many of the discussed works of art, the shofar refers to the coming of the Messiah as an event to take place in the more or less far future. There are only two exceptions: the shofar in Kurt Weill’s oratorio The Eternal Road *Chapter 4.21 announces the Messiah, or more precisely the Angel of the end of days, who saves the Jewish congregation from persecution and death, whereas a shofar-like mechanical device in Yiẓḥak Oren’s short story ʾAndartat ha-tḥiyah (“The Monument of the Resurrection”) proclaims the coming of the Messiah, who as we shall see, does not resemble any traditional messianic representation.

The protagonist of The Monument of the Resurrection by the Israeli author Yiẓḥak Oren (1918-2007) is given a task in a top-secret mission. From the beginning, it is clear that this meticulously planned and executed operation has to do with the coming of the Messiah, though both the protagonist and the reader understand only gradually—and in different ways—what is going to happen. The story begins with a flashback:

I am not an expert in the complexities of the various sciences that have the audacity to predict the future. Therefore, I do not know whether it was the astronomers or the astrologers, the physicists or the statisticians, the psychologists or the sociologists who predicted that the Messiah would come on the date, the hour, the minute, and the second that they determined. All I know, and even that knowledge is no more than conjecture, is that someone forecast and calculated and predicted, raised a supposition, proved it to the point of scientific certainty, and transmitted the information to his superiors. *Oren, The Monument of the Resurrection 370.

In the above select company of experts, the rabbis and theologians are missing. Equally remarkable is the nondescriptness of Mr. Karni, the protagonist, who can be considered as the prototype of the ordinary little man. He works for a military company in a room without windows, with the sole task of observing the liquid level in a transparent tube; when this level reaches a maximum, he must pull on a rope. He knows nothing of the production process hidden behind this, and it interests him as little as the events in either the company or in society. As the story will reveal, the protagonist has a telling name: Karni means “(made of) horn” and is related to keren, “horn,” a word sometimes used in the Bible, for example in Josh. 6:5, to indicate the shofar; furthermore, baʿal karnayim (“horned man”) means “deceived husband.”

One day, Mr. Karni is called before the Management for a briefing by two people he does not know, but who know him and even seem able to read his thoughts. One of them reminds Karni of Lot’s wife, after Sodom and Gomorrah. *The Monument of the Resurrection 377. A reference to Gen. 19:26, where Lot’s wife looks back to the destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah and turns into a pillar of salt. Though he has not said anything, this man corrects him: “Not Lot’s wife but the Monument of the Resurrection and not the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorrah but a fateful upheaval in the history of the human species and all of creation, and not after the upheaval but before it.” While Karni wonders what the second man means by this, the first makes the announcement that tomorrow, before daybreak, at “oh four hundred hours,” the Messiah will come, and that he, Mr. Karni, is to fulfill a highly secret task in this comprehensive operation.

“I supposed, Mr. Karni, that you have heard that the coming of the Messiah is accompanied by the resurrection of the dead. Naturally, the addition of such a large number of people to the planet (we estimate the number of candidates for resurrection at several billion, based on the report of our intelligence service, which considers that the rebirth order will apply to all persons irrespective of creed, race, nationality or views—everyone who was ever born will come to life, the just and the wicked alike), the addition of such a large population is liable to produce innumerable problems, particularly in the realms of food and housing. Therefore, all the requisite arrangements have been made to fly those who come to life—immediately after they rise from their graves—to the moon, to the planets, and perhaps to other celestial bodies as well. The facilities that are needed and their crews are on standby. As for the secrecy, it is essential in order to prevent panic among the inhabitants of the planet. . . . At the same time, we are determined to commemorate the event by building a monument, the Monument of the Resurrection. The mission of setting it up—or, more accurately, of raising it—has been assigned to you.” *The Monument of the Resurrection 377-8.

There is a shocking contrast between the traditional concept of the resurrection of the dead, which arouses hope and stirs imagination, and the cold and calculating approach of the Management. The identity of these people, of Karni’s boss and the intelligence agency, remains unclear. The Messiah’s mission, however, is evident: to revive everybody who has ever lived. Here, the story differs from the biblical one in Dan. 12:2-3:

Many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, others to reproaches, to everlasting abhorrence. 3 And the knowledgeable will be radiant like the bright expanse of sky, and those who lead the many to righteousness will be like the stars forever and ever.

It is obvious that the “knowledge” and “righteousness” in the above passage from the Bible book are missing in Oren’s short story. In technical respect, however, the story goes further than the book of Daniel: instead of being compared to the stars, the living will be transported to the stars. In the continuation of the briefing, a comical effect is produced by the contrast between the omniscient and efficient Management on the one hand, expressed in the repeated “Exactly!” and on the other hand, the beliefs of the rest of the world:

“Tomorrow at two fifteen a.m., you get up, leave your house, and walk along the road that leads to Ramallah. Some believe it is Beit-El, the place where Jacob’s ladder was situated at the time and its top reached into heaven. Exactly! You will go on foot. When you reach the barrier at the border, turn left and keep going until you see the end of a rope sticking out of the ground. Lower yourself onto the ground near that place and wait until the time is oh four hundred. At oh four hundred you will hear a sound—something between a trumpet and a siren. Know that this is not an air-raid siren but the blast of the Messiah’s shofar. As soon as you hear the shofar, pull on the rope. Exactly! Do not wait until the end of the blast, pull it when the first sounds are heard. That is all. Now go home and lie down. Rest is a very important element in the operation, and should be seen as the first stage in the execution of your mission. Remember: not a word to any other person!” *Ibid. 378.

Karni’s mission can be linked to a biblical story, to a passage from rabbinical literature, and to a modern shofar tradition. First, the briefing by the Management suggests a connection with elements from Gen. 28:12, where Jacob, after his dream of a stairway to the sky, sets up a stone as a pillar. Karni’s mission is to erect the Monument of the Resurrection, whereafter the resurrected will be flown to the celestial bodies. Second, his mission is in accordance with Saʿadiah Gaon’s “Ten reasons why the Creator . . . commanded us to blow the ram’s horn on Rosh Ha-Shanah.” *In Agnon, Days of Awe 70-2. The tenth reason is to remind us of the revival of the dead; moreover, Saʿadiah refers to Isa. 18:3, “All you who live in the world / And inhabit the earth, / When a flag is raised in the hills, take note! / When a ram’s horn is blown, give heed!” The raising of this flag could be compared to the erection of the monument in Oren’s story. Third, the sound of the shofar in the story: “something between a trumpet and a siren,” seems much like the sirens announcing the beginning of shabbat and the two-minute silence on Remembrance Day in the State of Israel. In Oren’s story, the transfer of the traditional shofar blast to modern technology, together with the elimination of the accompanying emotions, is an example of Bakhtinian parodic stylization.

After the briefing, Karni goes home, according to his mission; however, nothing comes of the planned rest. His daughter has fallen ill and the nursery school has taken her to the neighbor, who brings her to Karni now; his son comes home from school with dirty and torn clothes; his wife asks how he can be home so early, and because he must keep silent about his secret mission, he says he has been fired. When Dr. Tamir, the family doctor, has arrived, Karni—a baʿal karnayim (“horned man”) is a “deceived husband”— realizes that his wife is having an affair with Dr. Tamir. At this moment he decides to murder both of them, knowing that they will rise from the dead to be flown to a celestial body next morning. However, thoughts of his children keep him from the murder. Karni tells his wife that he will be leaving home at 2:50 a.m., but instead of asking why, she chases him out of the house, whereupon he sits out his time in the park.

At the appointed time and place, Karni hears a sound “something between a trumpet and a siren.” When he carries out his order by pulling on the rope, he feels himself gradually sinking into the earth, while before him the statue is erected. When he has progressed so far in his “sacred task” that only his head and right hand protrude above the ground, he can finally see the Monument of the Resurrection. It is

nothing more than the image of a girl whose brown hair was clipped like a boy’s, the slit of her blue eyes slightly mongoloid, her teeth protruding a bit, her nose delicate and narrow, and her face radiant with a smile in which innocence and insight, love and security were fused in supreme perfection. *The Monument of the Resurrection 386.

According to Karni’s briefing, “the rebirth order will apply to all persons irrespective of creed, race, nationality or views.” *Ibid. 378. This could be an explanation of the androgynous appearance of the charismatic statue with the figure of a woman and the hairstyle of a boy, its Asian as well as European features, and its ecumenical nature with the smile of Buddha, the sweet innocence of the Christian Virgin Mary, the radiant face of the Jewish Moses, and the monumentality of Lot’s wife. Instead of a particular Jewish character, Oren’s Messiah has an explicitly universal character.

Karni continues pulling the rope, in order to erect the Monument of the Resurrection, and eventually he tries to evaluate the event:

And although the earth covered my eyelids, my ears were not sealed from hearing, and the sound of the Messiah’s shofar reached them.

My arm was still thrust out of the ground, but my palm was paralysed and my fingers turned to stone. I ceased pulling on the rope.

When I ceased pulling on the rope the sound of the Messiah’s shofar faded and in its place arose a great din. I well knew that the resurrected were being flown to the celestial bodies.

And me? Now that I am buried in the earth, am I not one of them? Should I not be treated as they are?

It is a matter of doubt that requires clarification. What requires no clarification is the certainty that my wife and my children and Dr Tamir remained on the earth.

Were it not for the layer of earth that has sealed my mouth and hindered my breathing, I would burst out laughing. *Ibid. 386.

Though the ending of the story offers some details about Karni’s physical situation, many questions remain unanswered, such as: what will happen to him? Why will his wife and children and Dr. Tamir remain on the earth? Are not all the resurrected flown to the celestial bodies? Has there been a judgment, and, if so, who has judged? Though the coming of the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead appear as an eschatological event, the name of God is mentioned only once in the whole story, and moreover, not in an overly positive way: “Apparently I was unable to direct my heart properly to the Day of God that was approaching like a thief in the night, but at least I was able to divert my mind from everything that was going on around me.” *Ibid. 383. According to the literary historian Glenda Abramson, Yiẓḥak Oren believed “that the ‘repair of the world’ can be attained through knowledge and reason, rather than myth and religion. Science . . . is able to correct the cosmic error and physics has defeated theology.” *Abramson, “Yitzhak Oren’s Fantastic Science” 7. This belief, in which the religious Past is altered by the scientific Present, dominates The Monument of the Resurrection. Tikkun ʿOlam, the “repair of the world,” is achieved through science and planning; the traditional Jewish Messiah is replaced by a universal fusion Messiah; and the ancient shofar is converted to “something between a trumpet and a siren.” Overpopulation, a seldom-mentioned consequence of the resurrection of the dead, is solved by transportation of the resurrected to celestial bodies. On the other hand, Abramson stresses the satirical character of Oren’s philosophy: “his ‘science’ is a parody of scientific reason; despite his pseudo-technological language, it is either metaphorical or simply absurd, paradoxical and fantastic.” *Ibid. 7.

Though one has to be careful in adducing facts from Oren’s biography in the interpretation of his work, considering life in the country in which he grew up could be helpful in the understanding of his short story. Oren was born in Ulan-Ude in Siberia in 1918. In 1924, his father was banned and the family settled in Harbin, a Russian enclave in Manchuria with a large Jewish minority, where Oren attended the Russian high school. The family emigrated to Palestine in 1936. *Farhi, “A Profile of Yitzhak Oren” 13. The Management in The Monument of the Resurrection shows similarities with the almighty party apparatus and secret service in the Soviet Union, with which Oren was confronted as a Soviet citizen, a Jew and the son of a refugee. The many large-scale deportations and resettlements in the Soviet Union *Cf. Polian, Against their Will: The History and Geography of Forced Migrations in the USSR may have supplied material for the short story with the transport of the resurrected to the celestial bodies. The Soviet cult of technology and the fantastic megaprojects to correct nature may have been a source of inspiration, as well as the success of the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who made the first flight by a human into space in 1961, one year before Oren’s short story was published. The more so, as Gagarin’s flight played a role in the conflict between religion on the one hand and on the other hand, atheism as the official ideology of the Soviet Union. Many newspapers proclaimed that Gagarin did not see God in heaven, and the sociologist Paul Froese states that “[h]is statement was well-known to Soviet citizens and sharply conveyed the idea that technology helps humans to discard their otherworldly dreams.” *Froese, The Plot to Kill God: Findings from the Soviet Experiment in Secularization 105. Just as absurd is Karni’s narrow, technical view on the resurrection, which is determined by his jealousy of his rival, and moreover, his cold description of the beginning of this world-shattering event. When he simply ceases pulling on the rope, the sound of the Messiah’s shofar fades and the resurrected are being flown to the celestial bodies.

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