Lo. The Israelites, recently fled from Pharaoh and his evil hordes, gather beneath Mount Sinai – a ponderous crag of skeletal stone wreathed in the black mists of God. Moses, their enigmatic leader, scaled the precipice thirty-nine days ago and hath not been sighted since. Famished, disillusioned, and heartsick, hundreds of thousands of Israelites huddle together as night descends and the Lord sunders the sky with lightning and thunder. He shalt deliver the Ten Commandments unto Man before break of dawn. Aaron, the acting leader, despairs as his people grow impatient and rowdy.
Israelite the First: Aaron! Where is Moses? We have been waiting for these thirty-nine days, and still have no word!
Aaron: Would that I knew, young one, I would be a happy man again. For without my brother I have no one to speak for, so my eloquent words gild shallow thoughts. Indeed, I can feel the rusts of complacency weighing ever-heavily on my somber soul…
Israelite the First: Well… what are we supposed to do? Just sit here and mope, waiting for Moses to relay the Word of God (may he be praised for ever and ever)?
Israelite the Second: I know! Let’s have a party!! WOOOO!!!!!
Aaron: Oh shit…
Lo. Israelite the Second, an experienced welder, fashions a Golden Calf out of baubles, necklaces, pinky rings, shackles, teeth, belt buckles, dung, and mud. The Israelites, pleased by the Golden Calf’s shiny and voluptuous features, idolize it as the party begins. Manna is served with crackers, Vermont cheddar, and mud. Someone brings forth board games, and a round of charades commences upon the indomitable earth.
Israelite the Second: (Hiding behind a rock) Who am I?
Israelite the Third: I don’t know! Who?
Israelite the First: Who are you, Israelite the Second?!
Israelite the Second: (Still behind the rock) Moses! The Leader Who Left! (He climbs on top of the rock and throws up his hands) Bah! The Burning Bush! (Leaping down, he genuflects, facing the rock) The Name of the Lord! Y-A-H…
Aaron: This is outrageous! To party and mock at a time like this!
Voice from Afar the First: Did someone say party?
Lo. The confused sound of lyres and citharas mixes with the storm’s din. The sea of partying Israelites parts, exposing an incoming band of scantily clad Greeks. Wastrels and derelicts, their tattered togas flay about as they arrive reckless from the desert sudden as stepping through lightning. Twelve in number, a Mediterranean wind precedes them, along with the unmistakable stench of sour wine. The Israelites gape at the men, who are each exceptionally attractive – aside from the oldest, whom it must be said was surely struck with the proverbial Ugly Stick until the damn thing broke. This man is Socrates, the renowned philosopher. Also in the company: Alcibiades (traitor, unrequited lover), Agathon (forgotten playwright), and Aristophanes. The Greeks strut straight up to Aaron, Hellenizing the hell out of the place.
Aaron: (stepping forward, maintaining composure) Noble gentlemen. May I ask whom thou art?
Alcibiades: (sizing Aaron up disapprovingly) Well, well, I don’t know if I want to stay at this party, gentlemen.
Agathon: (circling Aaron, who is growing disconcerted) Oh, I don’t know, Alcibiades, I think we could teach him a few tricks. We’re experienced. We’re used to taking the lead.
Agathon looks at Alcibiades, and they both start laughing. Aristophanes vomits. Aaron cannot communicate his horror and revulsion as the vomiting continues. Socrates, serene as the Sphinx, approaches Aaron apologetically.
Socrates: Please pardon my compatriots. They are drunk, as you can plainly see. I would restrain them, but have no skill for such things – or anything, for that matter.
Aaron: (flabbergasted) Who are you?
Socrates: We are rational animals, I’m afraid.
Aaron: (bamboozled) Well, that wasn’t much of an answer.
Socrates: If you are looking for answers, I can give you none. But I will gladly complicate your questions with more questions.
Aaron: (flabbergasted and bamboozled) … What?
Israelite the Second: Where are you guys from?
Aristophanes: (clutching his stomach, sitting) Exposition!
Israelite the First: Wow, that was incredible backstory!
Israelite the Third: I was informed and entertained!
Aaron: Yes, I will acquiesce that your tale was extraordinary, and delivered with splendid elocution.
Socrates: And who, by Zeus, are you?
Israelite the First: “Zeus”?
Aaron: We are Israelites, the Chosen People of God. We hath been waiting these thirty-nine days and nights for my brother Moses to return from the mount on high and bring the Word of our Lord.
Socrates: Wait, wait – what? Alcibiades, do you hear this madness?
Alcibiades: (scoffing) I certainly do. A god on a mountain? Have we stumbled into the pages of Homer?
Aristophanes: (with sudden terror) The wine! Where is the wine!?
Agathon: (surmising the Israelites) I don’t even know where to begin. For the “Chosen People” they sound like a bunch of idiots.
Aaron: (seething with anger) How dare you! Blasphemer!!
Lo. Aaron, the Israelites’ champion, staggers toward Alcibiades with unflinching righteousness, raising his elderly fists with priestly fury. The blow lands on Alcibiades’ cheek with all the force of a lamb’s fart. Israelite the First, Second and Third rush forward to restrain their leader, who clasps his broken wrist with muffled pain as Alcibiades looks on with unfeeling astonishment. For two seconds, nothing happens. The surrounding crowd of Israelites, until then thronging to see the scene, becomes stone still. Even the Lord’s rage thundercrashing on high ceases, the clouds black as ever yet pausing, too, to turn from their rage and watch man’s below. Until –
Aristophanes: (lunging forward, fists clenched) GRRRAAHHHH!!!!
Voice from Afar the Second: ENOUGH. LO AND BEHOLD THE AWESOME POWER OF THE LORD.
Behold. Midstride, lightning explodes Aristophanes. His innards splatter everywhere – especially on Aaron. Bands of trumpeting Angels pull the black clouds back, exposing Sinai’s obelisk peak and the blinding Sun raging directly behind. The crowd of Israelites and Greeks becomes a wheeling maelstrom of terror and heartbreak as massive rents open in the Earth, swallowing thousands into the abysmal maw. Cecil B. DeMille, corpulent in a Panama hat, wails at all the injustice of Creation as he plummets backward into a crevasse, his entire camera crew pulled down with him. Survivors crawl blindly like maggots, groping for safety under the Sun’s microwave rays. Socrates, after exchanging a glance with Agathon that says, “I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Athens anymore,” looks up to see a lone figure standing on the exposed peak.
This is Moses. At last, after forty days and forty nights, he hath returned at the midnight hour to bring forth the Word of the Lord unto Man on two hefty yet nonetheless transportable stone tablets. The incomprehensible power and fury of the storm is bound up in his livid gaze, the bedrock rectitude of Sinai itself transubstantiated into his very body. Moses leaps, throwing himself into space at an impossible height, suspended aloft seemingly forever by his flowing robes before plummeting meteor-screaming back into Time and the Realm of Man wielding terrible wisdom – landing, a crater at his feet, to raise his head yes like a god incarnate, and the Greeks certainly think so, though none dare speak. None could be the first to speak after such a Bowie-esque entrance aside from Moses himself, who scans the crowd with constrained fury, at last saying,
Moses: Where is my brother, Aaron?
Aaron: (pushed out of the crowd, stricken) M-Moses! My prodigal brother, cast to the vicissitudes of… umm – It’s so good to see you! (moves toward him)
Moses: (raises his hand with iron rage) Do not come any closer, brother. Thou shalt be thankful for life on this Day of Judgment, and thankful that I deign to lay mine eyes upon thee –
Aaron: (groveling) I am thankful, my brother! I am thankful!
Moses: Get up. (Aaron rises) You are even more pathetic than before. To think, I am gone but forty days – answering the call of the Lord – and you built this, this thing (gesturing to the Golden Calf), an idol of worship unfit even for the Egyptians! And this partying!
Aaron: I can explain! I was pressured, it was only temporary – I was lying in wait, as it were, until you would return –
Moses: (thundering) I WILL HEAR NO MORE OF YOUR FOOLISHNESS. BE GONE FROM HERE AT ONCE, YOU INSOLENT ROGUE. (Aaron flees past the Golden Calf as Moses hurls the Ten Commandments at the idol, ducking as it crumples like papier-mâché beneath their weight. Hysterical with despair, Aaron disappears into the desert night. Moses looks around, bewildered, before taking a breath and continuing) He shall return, and soon. But I will need a new man to speak for me, now that Aaron has fled with his golden tongue.
Maimonides: (crawling out of a crag, brushing brimstone off his robes, he extends his arms to feel the breeze) Free at last, free at last! Thank God Al- (seeing Moses, he gasps) Ah! (quickly falls on his knees) Lo, that I am so blessed as to see Moses – the great, the wonderful, the stupendous Moses!
Agathon: (aside, to Alcibiades) Why are all of these Israelites so hideous?
Alcibiades: (inspecting manna) It’s the food.
Moses: This cannot be right. This man… he looks… he just crawled out of the ground!
Maimonides: (rising) I’m a heretic that God likes. Well, not yet, really – I’m not born for several more millennia. But neither are those guys (gesturing to the Greeks) so this desert seems to occupy some strange nether geography… (smiling) on the border of myth and dream. And I have been sent on a mission from God: to orchestrate, once and for all, a synthesis between Greek and Judaic mystical thought.
Alcibiades: (finishing the last of his wine) This party sucks.
Maimonides: (to Moses) I will prove myself to you, Moses. (to the Greeks) You must be the Greeks. It feels good to have something of the Mediterranean here, amongst all of this desolation. Reminds me of home…
Socrates: And where, I ask, are you from?
Maimonides: I hail from the lush city of Córdoba, and in my time travelled all across the Mediterranean. You, I take it, must be Socrates, the wise old man whom I have read so much about in the works of Plato.
Socrates: (smirking) You read about me in Plato? Alas, then I fear you hardly know me, at all. Plato may be my finest pupil, it is true, and an even better writer than I, but the man has his own agenda, and is very antisocial…
Alcibiades: (laughing) Yes, that’s one word for him. You could also say insecure, pretentious, weak…
Agathon: Oh Alcibiades, don’t be so cruel to our quiet friend. He has always admired you.
Alcibiades: (glancing at Socrates) Yes, unfortunately Plato has always admired me a great deal…
Maimonides: I’m not a fan of Plato, either. While I find some genius in his Phaedrus, the rest of his works reflect the mind of a lazy thinker. The man had only one thought in his entire life: I’ve thought this before.
Agathon: Oh, surely you find some merit, at least, in his Symposium?
Maimonides: (grimaces) The Symposium? That cesspool of degeneracy and filth? (Alcibiades’ eyes widen) Even if there were real philosophy in there, I doubt it would be worth all of the cheap outrage and shock that one must labor through to find it.
Socrates: Now, now, no use writing it off simply because you find it disagreeable…
Maimonides: My dear Socrates, I am not easily offended. I have been chased out of my home by crusaders, lived to see my saintly brother perish in the sea, and been forced to convert to Islam. Furthermore, I have read plenty of texts that I have found “disagreeable”: I pride myself on my familiarity with almost every heretic text known to man. But your pupil’s Symposium presents a way of life that is, in my opinion, in no way conducive to a mystical quest for God.
Moses: “Maimonides”, is it? What sayest this text about God? How is He described?
Maimonides: Well surely you don’t have to ask such a question, Moses! Thou art the most perfect man and philosopher ever to walk the Earth, and can commune with us terra firma while contemplating Him, and his Works. Why, you have seen the face of God!
Moses: (reserved) Your words are flattering, but false. When I received the Ten Commandments, just now up there (gestures to Sinai), I hid my face, for I was afraid to look upon the Lord. His brilliance is limitless, which is far too much for the human mind to contain.
Maimonides: (deeply disturbed) But no, no! It can’t be. Surely you are in constant communion with the Lord, and even as I speak reveling in the ecstasy of God’s love?
Moses: (agitated) You don’t know me. You don’t know my life.
Alcibiades: Which God are we talking about, here? Aphrodite? Poseidon? Helios?
Moses: The God of the Israelites, of course. And He is to be worshipped above all other gods.
Moses: “Why?” Because he is the strongest, and the best. He freed His Chosen People, the Israelites, from slavery under the Egyptians through the display of Great Works, including plagues, floods, parting the Red Sea…
Alcibiades: Yes, yes, that’s all well and good, but what does “He” look like?
Moses: Well, I don’t know, as I said I have not looked on his face…
Maimonides: (with wounded pride) He is noncorporeal, and eternal. Beyond that, one cannot begin to describe the Lord, for any positive attributes we could attempt to garland Him with would fall utterly short of the unending awesomeness of his true being. But we can speak of what he is not. For example, He does not have a body, as evidenced by the fact that we cannot garnish Him with any positive attributes.
Moses: (taken aback) Well.
Socrates: I believe that my fellow Athenians and I have a word for what you are describing: Fate. It is a mysterious thing, which none can describe, that hangs over gods and mortals alike, steering all of our actions. But I do not understand Fate to be something that men attempt to apprehend, or connect with. Then again, I understand nothing at all. How does one go about understanding this “God” you speak of?
Maimonides: If one wishes to approach closer to an apprehension of the Lord one must be completely devoted to study of Him, and His Works. I would recommend a cloistered, isolated existence, revolving strictly around study of Him. All of the world’s trappings – material possessions, earthly desires, even the love of one’s wife – ought to be put aside for the study of God…
Alcibiades: (drunk) That sounds miserable! (laughing) By Zeus, what kind of life is that?!
Maimonides: It is a life of passion, sir. Ecstatic, sincere, ceaseless passion, pursuing God’s love and light. To pore over the ancient texts, and by way of reasoning meditate on His Creation, is to immerse oneself in a thrilling quest – it is in the action, the constant attainment of greater vistas of understanding, where one lives the most.
Socrates: My friend, here, too, you are describing a Greek concept: Arête. That is to say, excellence. One fully achieves arête when one is fully absorbed in something, and doing it well – like the sprinter, for example, who is completely absorbed in the act of running, so much so that he does not even have to think about the act of running, but instead simply runs, runs faster than he ever thought his body could take him.
Alcibiades: (draping an arm over Agathon) Alright, so the guy who crawled out of the ground is saying that he likes reading. And reading and learning make him feel closer to God. And that’s great. But why can’t he have some fun, huh? (bumping his hip against Agathon, laughs) Why can’t we have passion and love for each other? Aren’t we all children of the gods? (looks at Israelite the Second) You, boy! Come here!
Alcibiades breaks away from Agathon and advances toward Israelite the Second, who is standing behind Moses. Israelite the Second staggers backward as the drunken soldier closes in on him, with Agathon following close behind. Moses and Maimonides look on, puzzled, as Alcibiades passes them and grabs Israelite the Second by the arm.
Israelite the Second: (trying to push Alcibiades away) What the – get your hands off me!!
Alcibiades: (struggling to kiss Israelite the Second) Oh, c’mon…
Agathon: (trying to pull Alcibiades off the boy) Get yourself together!
Moses: (stepping forward) Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s… (jaw drops, he moves towards the Golden Calf)
Agathon: (with great effort, wrenches Alcibiades backward, where they fall in the dirt) You drunk bastard!
Alcibiades: (laughing) You guys should all loosen up! I mean, it’s just a little fun… (starts to cry) Oh, I’ve had too much to drink.
Maimonides: (to Socrates) And you wonder why this doesn’t get you closer to the Lord?
Socrates: Oh, this isn’t fun, but it is love… (looking at Alcibiades) of the unrequited variety. Higher highs, lower lows – that’s passion for you. But real love, real passion for someone, or something… like you were saying, it is a form of arete, I suspect. (smiles) You know, it’s funny: when you get closer to God – whatever that is – you also undoubtedly get closer to yourself…
Alcibiades: (throwing himself at Socrates) I LOVE YOU.
Socrates: (deftly stepping aside, letting Alcibiades flail by to collapse yet again) Of course, I suspect that true love, of the variety you’re describing, needs reason as well. Intellect.
Maimonides: (enthusiastic) Yes, precisely. I still find the type of love you seem to indulge in abhorrent, but nonetheless you make a fascinating point: to approach God you must first approach yourself, know thyself. That is certainly in line with Aristotle – my favorite follower of yours – and his concept of Forms. That is to say, we each have a lesser Form within ourselves, and through understanding that Form we can better understand the higher Forms. Of course, I would use different language, but nonetheless that is an intriguing…
Aaron: (sprinting in from the crowd, crazed, carrying two jugs of water) Behold! This water sprang out of a rock! Salvation is at hand! (he pours the water on his head, laughing) My brother doesn’t love me, but I love myself!
Moses: (standing atop the crushed Golden Calf, brandishing the Ten Commandments over his head) DAMNIT, AARON. I AM DONE WITH YOU, AND ALL YOU FOOLS. GREAT ALMIGHTY GOD, DO THY WORK.
Moses throws the Ten Commandments at his brother, Aaron. The moment the stone tablets strike the waterlogged priest, a perfect circle of water expands from the event’s epicenter. In-between the incomprehensible infinities within a moment, all Creation is swept up in the surging yet perfectly serene Ocean of Existence. The dead live. The living are one with the dead. Time and space never passed, or were crossed. Then, soon as it never began, the vision ends. The same scene returns: the Israelites, Mount Sinai, the Athenians. All stand, flabbergasted, yet perfectly at ease.
Alcibiades: Okay, this is the best party ever.
Matthew Hennigar is an English teacher in Bangkok, Thailand, where he visits vomitoriums from time to time. He can be found @MatthewHennigar.