Until this week, I wasn’t familiar with the word “prolix,” an adjective meaning “tediously lengthy.” (I was familiar with the concept; just not the word.) Then I stumbled on it twice in one day. Once was while reading about the 2011 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which invites submissions of the worst possible opening sentence to a novel. This year’s winner was Sue Fondrie, a professor from Wisconsin, whose 26-word sentence was the shortest winner in contest history; as the Bulwer-Lytton folks noted, “proving that bad writing need not be prolix, or even very wordy.”
The second time I saw this word was in Rambam’s Moreh Nevukhim, the Guide to the Perplexed, when he mentioned this week’s Torah portion, Mas’ei. The parashah is named for Israel’s wilderness travel itinerary, which is described in great detail–“great” used here in terms of size, not of quality. Why so much? Do you really want to know everything I did on vacation? When we ask each other, “How was your summer,” we’re not asking for a day-by-day, hour-by-hour report! Is the Torah guilty of bad writing? Did Moses go prolix?
Here’s how Rambam explains this and other wordy passages in the Torah:
“You should also understand that the status of things that are set down in writing is not the same as the status of happenings that one sees. For in happenings that one sees, there are particulars that bring about necessary consequences of great importance, which cannot be mentioned except in a prolix (!) manner. Accordingly, when narrations concerning these happenings are considered, the individual who reflects thinks that such narrations are too long or repetitious. If, however, he had seen what is narrated, he would know the necessity of what is recounted. Hence when you see narrations in the Torah that do not belong to the Law and think that it was not necessary to set down such and such a narration or that it is too long or repetitious, the reason for this is that you have not seen the particulars that necessitated that the story be told in the manner it is. (Moreh Nevukim 3:50)
How does this relate to our parashah? Well, I could go on here, but so as to avoid being prolix, we’ll continue the conversation Shabbat morning in shul. See you there!