I was just minding my own business, paddling my kayak on Walden Pond a few days ago, when this other, apparently empty boat started following me. Painted blue and green — color of the sky, color of the water — this thing was exactly like the wooden dory that Henry David Thoreau and his brother John rowed from Concord, MA, to Concord, NH, back in 1839. Exactly.
John died a few years after the trip, in 1842. In 1845, Henry went to “live deliberately” in the woods at Walden Pond for a couple of years, where he wrote an account of their journey, a sort of tribute to his late beloved brother, which became his first published book: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.
Later he wrote Walden, “Civil Disobedience,” and many other works, as well as countless journal entries over the course of his life (d. 1862). The world of H.D. Thoreau’s writing is enchanting and boundless. We would all do well to read as much of it as we can.
What is less known is Thoreau’s secret pursuit of Biblical Hebrew, conducted mostly during his stay at Walden Pond. None of his biographers mention it. His 19th-century reference materials — Hebrew dictionaries, lexicons, conjugation tables, which went permanently “missing” from Harvard’s Widener Library not long after Thoreau graduated, in 1837 — are buried so deeply beneath the site of his Walden cabin that no one has succeeded in unearthing them. But his spirit, his immortal soul, continues to yearn after the Aleph Bet, the mystical letters with which the universe was created. “It is worth the expense of youthful days and costly hours,” Thoreau writes in Walden (1854), “if you learn only some words of an ancient language.”
It is easy to understand why Thoreau was so attracted to Hebrew. Ever since I first began studying the Aleph Bet myself, at Harvard and in Israel, the Hebrew letters have mysteriously drawn me to themselves, just as they have been doing eternally to all who expend those costly hours. Teaching the Aleph Bet to others sharpens the air. The atmosphere around me and my students starts to vibrate, I get goose bumps, there’s some kind of shifting of consciousness or something. This doesn’t last forever — people have worldly responsibilities to resume, and eventually the cell phones must be turned on again — but the stream of ancient energy, or whatever it is, touches us almost every time.
Some of my students have noted a “flow” of Hebrew, straight from the ether into their brains, when I’m in the room. Others believe I can read their minds. One student told me, in 2007, that I could “make even a dead person learn Hebrew.” I’m not sure what to think of these comments. Maybe it’s just the “contact high” of my own love for the Aleph Bet that affects people this way? I’ve never actually taught Hebrew to a dead person before.