1/20/2005

Bialik's 'Al Saf Beis HaMidrash'

This poem came up twice in conversation this week - once during a discussion about what the word 'saf' means in last week's parsha: bowl or threshhold (turns out it's a machloket between R' Akiva and R' Yishmael in the Mechilta - ayen sham, and see the Netziv who has a nice explanation of the machloket). The second time was on another blog (Hirhurim, actually).
So it's on my mind. And here's why this is one of my favorite poems.

First of all, the symbolism is intense. His own disillusionment with the enlightened world, his feelings of nostalgia and at the same time alienation from the religion of his youth, and his vision of 'renovating' it, is beautifully portrayed in the image of an old yeshiva bachur who finds his way back to his abandoned beit midrash. There's little doubt that Bialik himself identifies with this returning alumnus, though at some point in the poem the 'narrator' seems to begin to speak for all of Israel. His own ambivalence toward traditional Judaism is reflected in some of his phrases (like 'Mikdash El Neurai' - does 'ne'urai' modify 'Mikdash' or 'El'?) as well as some of his suggested 'renovations', specifically sweeping out the cobwebs and 'tearing' new windows.

Second of all, a close reading of the poem yields that much of the imagery and terminology of the first part of the poem comes directly from the book of Eicha. he's linking the desolation of his beit midrash to the desolation of Jerusalem and the destruction of the BH"M is itself stark. he's not talking about physical destruction - this is well before the Sho'ah - rather the collapse of the traditional Eastern European modes of Jewish living.

Thirdly, the second half of the poem, which is forward looking and optimistic, borrows HEAVILY from the imagery of Isaiah 41 - Haftarat Nachamu. The everlasting quality of God's Word, the transience of evil, the strong messianic faith of a brighter tomorrow - all there, all completely modern in their application and yet totally rooted in Yeshayahu's vision. Chaim Nachman, nechamtanu. Chaim Nachman, nechamtanu.

And then there's the final touch - the epigraph marks the occasion of the composition of this poem: Tisha B'av 5654 (1894). The themes of the poem and the themes of the day seems to be completely intertwined in his mind - the destruction of the Temple and the desolation of his old Beit Midrash are manifestations of the same pain, the same insecurity, the same Exile.
Perhaps not insignificantly, Bialik's own old Beit Midrash of Volozhin closed its doors in January of 1892.

SHR






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