They Mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls

By Donna Jacobs Sife

It felt momentous and I’m not sure why. Its a mystery. I arrived late for the event. It was early in the morning, and bleary-eyed, I silently slid into an empty seat and sighed into the heavenly Gregorian chant of the Chorus Sine Nomine. I lamented missing the Traditional spiritual cleansing offered by Aboriginal songman Matthew Doyle, and the Jewish Medieval songs of Kim Cunio and Heather Lee. However, I did hear the marvellous Islamic Sacred song of Walid Lbibi; the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Islamic blessings; and the eloquent address of Rabbi Apple, looking majestic in his voluminous tallit, engendering, in me at least, a full sense of pride.

The event was at the Art Gallery of NSW, and was simply called “The Dead Sea Scrolls”. The Ecumenical blessing set the tone that continued throughout the day, as the crowd, evenly divided between Christians and Jews and a smattering of Moslems, viewed the truly exquisite fragments of Sacred text. The brown, torn and melted parchment, inscribed with Hebrew. Samples of scrolls that have lay hidden, silent, waiting for two thousand years. “The talisman of our sensibilities,” as they were referred to by one of the eminent speakers. I felt a sense of awe.

“Isn’t this extraordinary” one woman said to me, with tears in her eyes. “Why is it so extraordinary to you?” I asked her. And the tears flowed freely as she struggled to articulate that which was actually a mystery. Something about her love for Jesus, something about an answer, about being completed. Later, after the day of lectures, I thought about her. Because what she had come to hear, I suspect was not said.

By the end of the day, there was absolutely no doubt that these were Jewish scrolls. The main focus in fact, was to clarify the source of the scrolls - how they were found, where they were found, in what historical, social and religious context they were written, how they were being preserved, what their fate has been to this point, and the plans for them in the future. Hardly a word was said of content - what it implied, the message, the significance.

The little I did glean with regard to content was fascinating. Prayers that include “ingathering of exiles”, writings on predestiny, persecution, misfortune, messianism. Two thousand years have passed, and we still resonate with the same themes. One can’t help but reflect on the timelessness of Jewish experience. It is a mystery.

And that’s not all. Did you know that the first scrolls were found in a cave by a young Beduin on the eve of the War of Independence? Or that the scrolls were being sold at the very same moment that the United Nations were deciding upon Israel’s future? What can such syncronicities mean?

The caves in which they were found seemed so inaccessible, in such inhospitable landscape, one could not help but wonder - how did anyone get into those caves? How is it possible that in two thousand years they remained undiscovered until the eve the fulfillment of Biblical prophesy? It’s a mystery.

That they have survived is a story in itself. One by one the scrolls have been discovered, over several decades. One Beduin, it was said, saw a dove flying out of a cave and was drawn to explore it. Two other Beduins removed a huge rock covering the entrance of a cave and found in it six large jars. Four were empty, one was filled with soil, and the last contained a complete scroll. Throughout the day, fragments of story emerged. One scroll was hidden from authorities under someone’s arm, the sweat causing havoc with the ink. Other fragments kept under a bed in a shoebox; others were stuck together with sticky tape.

Fifteen thousand fragments have been recovered.... each one being categorized into colour, size, letter, shape, material, age. Great hunks of the scrolls are missing. The task is to put together what they can, imagine what is missing, and pray, I guess, for Divine guidance. I reflected on that when Rabbi Schiffman, the Chassidic scholar from New York ... of neurotic energy and barbed wit, almost in passing, said that the “mystery scrolls” make it clear that we “must teach the mysteries”. The problem is, he said, that the mysteries are missing.

“These are the days of miracle and wonder.” Paul Simon wrote. The Rebbe said much the same. We have certainly been privileged to witness extraordinary things in our lifetime. The creation of the State of Israel. The return of Jerusalem. The discovery of ancient Sacred texts. And, Please God, may we see peace in our own time. The significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls is yet to be revealed. As I gazed last night into the great red eclipsing moon, hidden by the earth’s shadow, I could only ponder the Mystery of things. Perhaps we should give up the desire to know, and just be grateful when we have the opportunity to witness a tiny fragment of it.