Ode to Shavuos

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Poetry stirs the soul. For better or worse, my favorite mood-setter before Matan Torah is not a particular story, mashal, or medrash. It is a poem, authored by someone who first learned in Volozhin, struggled with the tension between his love for learning and his difficulty with what he felt was the narrowness of the life it spelled out for him, broke with halachic practice, and lived to mourn that so many others had also departed from an appreciation of tradition that he was not sure whether there was anything to which he could return. Reportedly, he did resume putting tefilin on each day.

I once had the privilege of reading parts of the poem in Knesset. (Not the large hall, but in one of the downstairs conference rooms, as part of an Agudah delegation and its presentation to a secular MK.) The poem asks a number of questions. Would you like to know the source-spring from which Jewish martyrs drew the strength to offer themselves up with the Shema on their lips? Would you like to know the source from which oppressed Jews found, in the worst of times, comfort, bitachon, courage, patience, and an iron-willed determination to survive hardship? Would you like to learn of the lap into which poured the tears of a people, accompanied by the cries that could move Satan himself – but not the hearts of our oppressors? Would you like to know the place that our people took refuge, where its soul would be preserved – nay, elevated? Would you like to know the compassionate Mother gathered the tears of her children, and treasured them? It then answers all these. If you wish to know, then go to the Bais Medrash. Understand that you walk past the threshold of the House of Jewish Life, and you what you contemplate is the treasure-house of our national soul. If Hashem has not taken from you all sense of His holy spirit, once inside you will understand that what you observe is a tiny spark of a once enormous flame. That flame was fired up by the sacrifice of our ancestors. Who knows if it was not their tears and their tefilos that brought us all to the present, and whose dying instructions taught us about life – the life of eternity.

The poem is far better and more moving than the synopsis. The author was the poet laureate of modern Hebrew, Chaim Nachman Bialik.

אִם-יֵשׁ אֶת-נַפְשְׁךָ לָדַעַת אֶת-הַמַּעְיָן
מִמֶּנּוּ שָׁאֲבוּ אַחֶיךָ הַמּוּמָתִים
בִּימֵי הָרָעָה עֹז כָּזֶה, תַּעֲצוּמוֹת נָפֶשׁ,
צֵאת שְׂמֵחִים לִקְרַאת מָוֶת, לִפְשֹׁט אֶת-הַצַּוָּאר
אֶל-כָּל-מַאֲכֶלֶת מְרוּטָה, אֶל-כָּל-קַרְדֹּם נָטוּי,
לַעֲלוֹת עַל-הַמּוֹקֵד, לִקְפֹּץ אֶל-הַמְּדוּרָה,
וּבְ”אֶחָד” לָמוּת מוֹת קְדוֹשִׁים –

אִם-יֵשׁ אֶת-נַפְשְׁךָ לָדַעַת אֶת-הַמַּעְיָן
מִמֶּנּוּ שָׁאֲבוּ אַחֶיךָ הַמְדֻכָּאִים
בֵּין מְצָרֵי שְׁאוֹל וּמְצוּקוֹת שַׁחַת, בֵּין עַקְרַבִּים –
תַּנְחוּמוֹת אֵל, בִּטָּחוֹן, עָצְמָה, אֹרֶךְ רוּחַ
וְכֹחַ בַּרְזֶל לָשֵׂאת יַד כָּל-עָמָל, שֶׁכֶם
הַנָּטוּי לִסְבֹּל חַיֵּי סְחִי וּמָאֹס, לִסְבֹּל
בְּלִי קֵץ, בְּלִי גְבוּל, בְּלִי אַחֲרִית –

אִם-תֹּאבֶה לִרְאוֹת אֶת-הַחֵיק אֵלָיו נִשְׁפָּכוּ
כָּל-דִּמְעוֹת עַמְּךָ, לִבּוֹ, נַפְשׁוֹ וּמְרֵרָתוֹ –
מְקוֹם כַּמַּיִם נִתְּכוּ, פָּרְצוּ שַׁאֲגוֹתָיו,
שְׁאָגוֹת הַמַּרְגִּיזוֹת בֶּטֶן שְׁאוֹל תַּחְתִּיּוֹת,
אֲנָחוֹת שֶׁמִּפַּחְדָּן סָמַר גַּם-הַשָּׂטָן,
נְהִי מְפוֹצֵץ צוּר, אַךְ לֹא קְשִׁי לֵב הָאוֹיֵב
הָעַז מִצּוּר, הַקָּשֶׁה מִן-הַשָּׂטָן –

אִם-יֵשׁ אֶת-נַפְשְׁךָ לָדַעַת אֶת-הַמָּעֹז
אֶל-רֹאשׁוֹ מִלְּטוּ אֲבוֹתֶיךָ מַשְׂאַת נַפְשָׁם,
תּוֹרָתָם, קָדְשֵׁי קָדְשֵׁיהֶם – וַיַּצִּילוּם;
אִם-תֹּאבֶה דַעַת אֶת-הַמַּחֲבֵא בּוֹ נִשְׁמָרָה –
וּבְעֶצֶם טָהֳרָהּ – רוּחַ עַמְּךָ הַכַּבִּירָה,
שֶׁגַּם בְּשָׂבְעָהּ חַיֵּי חֶרְפָּה, רֹק וּכְלִמָּה
שֵׂיבָתָהּ לֹא-הוֹבִישָׁה חֶמְדַּת נְעוּרֶיהָ –

אִם-תֹּאבֶה דַעַת אֶת-הָאֵם הָרַחֲמָנִיָּה,
הָאֵם הַזְּקֵנָה, הָאֹהֶבֶת, הַנֶּאֱמָנָה,
שֶׁבְּרַחֲמִים רַבִּים אָסְפָה דִמְעוֹת בְּנָהּ הָאֹבֵד,
וּבְחֶמְלָה גְדוֹלָה כּוֹנְנָה כָל-אֲשׁוּרָיו,
וּמִדֵּי שׁוּבוֹ נִכְלָם, עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ
אֶל-תַּחַת צֵל קוֹרָתָהּ תִּמַח אֶת-דִּמְעָתוֹ,
תְּכַסֵּהוּ בְּצֵל כְּנָפֶיהָ, תְּיַשְּׁנֵהוּ עַל-בִּרְכֶּיהָ –

הוי, אָח נַעֲנֶה! אִם לֹא-תֵדַע לְךָ כָּל-אֵלֶּה –
אֶל – בֵּ י ת הַ מִּ דְ רָ שׁ סוּר, הַיָּשָׁן וְהַנּוֹשָׁן,
בְּלֵילֵי טֵבֵת הָאֲרֻכִּים, הַשּׁוֹמֵמִים,
בְּימֵי הַתַּמּוּז הַבֹּעֲרִים, הַלֹּהֲטִים,
כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם, בַּשַּׁחַר אוֹ בְנֶשֶׁף לָיְלָה,
וְאִם-עוֹד הוֹתִיר אֵל לִפְלֵיטָה שָׂרִיד מִצְעָר –
אָז אוּלַי גַּם-כַּיּוֹם תִּרְאֶינָה בוֹ עֵינֶיךָ
בְּשִׁפְעַת צִלְלֵי קִירוֹתָיו, בָּעֲרָפֶל,
בְּאַחַת זָוִיּוֹתָיו אוֹ עַל-יַד-תַּנּוּרוֹ
שִׁבֳּלִים בּוֹדְדוֹת, כְּצֵל מִמַּה-שֶּׁאָבַד,
יְהוּדִים קֹדְרִים, פָּנִים צֹמְקִים וּמְצֹרָרִים,
יְהוּדִים בְּנֵי הַגָּלוּת, מֹשְׁכֵי כֹּבֶד עֻלָּהּ,
הַמְנַשִּׁים אֶת-עֲמָלָם בְּדַף שֶׁל-גְּמָרָא בָלָה,
מַשְׁכִּיחִים רִישָׁם בְּמִדְרַשׁ שִׂיחוֹת מִנִּי קֶדֶם
וּמְשׂיחִים אֶת-דַּאֲגָתָם בְּמִזְמוֹרֵי תְהִלִּים –
(אֲהָהּ! מַה-נִּקְלָה וַעֲלוּבָה זֹה הַמַּרְאָה
בְּעֵינֵי זָר לֹא-יָבִין!) אָז יַגֵּדְךָ לִבְּךָ,
כִּי רַגְלְךָ עַל-מִפְתַּן בֵּית חַיֵּינוּ תִּדְרֹךְ,
וְעֵינְךָ תִרְאֶה אוֹצַר נִשְׁמָתֵנוּ.

וְאִם לֹא-לָקַח אֵל מִמְּךָ כָּל-רוּחַ קָדְשׁוֹ
וַיּוֹתֶר עוֹד מִתַּנְחוּמוֹתָיו בִּלְבָבֶךָ,
וּשְׁבִיב תּוֹחֶלֶת אֱמֶת לְיָמִים טוֹבִים מֵאֵלֶּה
יַגִּיהַּ עוֹד לִפְעָמִים מִפְלְשֵׂי מַחֲשַׁכָּיו –
אָז דַּע לְךָ וּשְׁמַע, הָהּ, אָחִי הַנַּעֲנֶה!
כִּי רַק זִיק מֻצָּל הוּא, רַק נִיצוֹץ פְּלֵיטָה קָטָן,
אֲשֶׁר בְּנֵס הִתְמַלֵּט מִן-הָאֵשׁ הַגְּדוֹלָה
הֵאִירוּ אֲבוֹתֶיךָ עַל-מִזְבְּחָם תָּמִיד.
וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ אִם לֹא-נַחֲלֵי דִמְעוֹתֵיהֶם
הֶעֱבִירוּנוּ וַיְבִיאוּנוּ עַד-הֲלֹם
וּבִתְפִלָּתָם מֵאֵת אֲדֹנָי שְׁאֵלוּנוּ;
וּבְמוֹתָם צִוּוּ לָנוּ אֶת-הַחַיִּים –
הַחַיִּים עַד-הָעוֹלָם!

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12 Responses

  1. Chareidi Leumi says:

    >Just for curiosity, did Rav Kook know Bialik from Volozhin?

    No, their times there did not overlap.

  2. Nachum says:

    Charedi Leumi, the story about Shabbat was (also) told by R’ Ahron Soloveichik. Bialik set up a Seuda Shlishit group that would meet every Shabbat, learn, eat, and then say Maariv and Havdala. Religious or not, everyone (every man, I suppose) had to cover their heads. They ran well past Shabbat, of course, and once, about a half hour after Shabbat was over, someone lit up a cigarette. Bialik stood up and shouted, “Menuval, tze min habayit!”*

    According to R’ Ahron, Bialik tried to have Tchnernikovsky (one of the relative few in that “group” of poets who was specifically anti-religious, and who was married to a non-Jew) thrown out of Israel, but only Ussishkin supported him. The point of that part of R’ Ahron’s essay (written to defend the honor of his late brother after he had been attacked) was that many (most?) of the people widely attacked by the “velt” were a lot frummer than we think.

    *It was probably “bayis.” I know an elderly gentleman who has lived in Rechavia his whole life who’s told me about the time Bialik came to visit his class and was upset that they were studying his poems in Sepharadit, as they were written, and actually “work,” in AshkenNUzis. My father, who majored in Hebrew in YU, agrees.

  3. Reb Yid says:

    Thanks for bringing back a lot of memories…I first read this in school in 7th grade. A Bialik classic.

  4. Chaim Wolfson says:

    [YA – Maybe. Maybe not. Elazar ben Durdaya got the R. in front of his name when he did teshuvah, although he didn’t live very long in that state. I was taught that Bialik did teshuvah, and put on tefilin every day after that. Maybe that entitled him to the R. for the years he had spent learning when younger.]

    Its funny, but after I sent in my comment I had the same thougt about R’ Elazar ben Durdaya. But I always understood that he earned the “R.” because by his example he taught the power of teshuvah, so in that sense he was indeed a “Rebbi” to all of Klal Yisrael. Perhaps the same could be said of Bialik, but for that you’ll have to do a better job of publicizing his teshuvah [without sounding triumphalist, of course :)].

  5. Chaim Wolfson says:

    Just for curiosity, did Rav Kook know Bialik from Volozhin?

  6. michoel halberstam says:

    Where I come from R means Reb and applies to everyone. I first read this poem in 1965 I have never forgotten it. It is good to know there are4 others who appreciate it as well thanks.

  7. Chareidi Leumi says:

    >As I heard it, Bialik had a close and complex relationship with Rav Kook. Rav Kook did not push him but at one point surprisingly exhorted him to consider teshuva. Within days he passed away. Many believe that the tzaddik Rav Kook did indeed influence Bialik to have hirhurei teshuva (thoughts of repentance) just before he died. The juxtaposition is inviting.<

    Bialik had a very positive relationship with Rav Kook zt"l but the story you cite is actually involving Eliezer ben Yehuda and not Bialik. It is printed in page 80 of "Malachim Kivnei Adam" by R' Simcha Raz. The source for the Story is Dr. Nachum Arieli, son of R' Yizchak Arieli zt"l – a long time Havruta of R' Kook. During one of their study sessions (which were practically the only time R' Kook ever locked the door to his study), they forgot to lock the door. Elizer ben Yehuda walked in and sat quietly in the corner (he often came to R' Kook to consult regarding etymologies and new word coinages). When R' Kook noticed him, they started conversing regarding technical linguistic matters. At a certain point, there was a pause in the conversation and R' Kook said to ben Yehuda: "אדון בן-יהודה, אולי הגיעה השעה שתשוב?" and ben Yehuda replied with one word "אולי", stood up and left the room. This happened on Friday afternoon, the second day of Hanukah תרפ"ג-1923 a few hours before ben Yehuda passed away. It was R' Arieli who interpereted ben Yehuda's answer as hirhurei teshuva. an אולי is quite an achievement for some who used to sign his letter with the pseudonym בן-בלי-דת.

  8. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    As I heard it, Bialik had a close and complex relationship with Rav Kook. Rav Kook did not push him but at one point surprisingly exhorted him to consider teshuva. Within days he passed away. Many believe that the tzaddik Rav Kook did indeed influence Bialik to have hirhurei teshuva (thoughts of repentence) just before he died. The juxtaposition is inviting.

  9. Chareidi Leumi says:

    Bialik once told R’ Zvi Yehuda (when R’ Avraham Yitzchak Kook was still alive) that he should tell his father that he should not be too upset with him since he is not an apikores leHachis but rather an apikores leTe’avon.

    Bialik was also a fierce advocate of Shabbat Observance in the public sphere. He would kick people out of his house during his weekly Shabbat poetry readings if they dared light a smoke.

    He also more than once convinced local tel-Aviv shopkeepers who felt they had to keep their stores open on Shabbat to close down.

    His Sefer HaAgada is one of the most wonderful compilations of Aggadot I have yet to see.

    I think it is fair to say that he saw himself as an ally – not an enemy – of tradition. The big tragedy about Bialik are not his person as much as the circumstances which led him to believe that he could not achieve true national/cultural rivival within the bounds of observance.

  10. Chaim Wolfson says:

    “R. Chaim N. Bialik was a unique, gentle and heartfelt poet.”

    “Al tadin es chaveircha ad she’tagia l’mekomo.” I would not presume to pass judgement on Bialik, who lived during an era of extraordinary challanges. But of one thing I am certain: He does not deserve an “R.” in front of his name.

    [YA – Maybe. Maybe not. Elazar ben Durdaya got the R. in front of his name when he did teshuvah, although he didn’t live very long in that state. I was taught that Bialik did teshuvah, and put on tefilin every day after that. Maybe that entitled him to the R. for the years he had spent learning when younger.]

  11. tzippi says:

    Bialik may have been the poet laureate of modern Hebrew, but I think this poem’s classical cadence may be a major factor in its being so moving.
    If I may share a brief quote from the Artscroll siddur, on Av Harachim, the memorial prayer said to martyrs throughout the year, and always after the memorial prayer Yizkor. It’s Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s commentary on the words, “May He exact retribution”:
    “We do not pray that we be strong enough to avenge our martyrs; Jews are not motivated by a lust to repay violence and murder with violence and murder. Rather we pray that G-d choose how and when to atone for the blood of His fallen martyrs. For the living, decency and integrity remain the primary goals of social life.”

  12. cvmay says:

    Thank you for the inspiring poem.
    R. Chaim N. Bialik was a unique, gentle and heartfelt poet.