Poetry: “To The Aggadah”, and, “If Thou Wouldst Know” (Chaim N. Bialik)

Complete Poetic Works of Hayyim Nahman Bialik
Translated from The Hebrew
Edited with Introduction by Israel Efros (Illustrations by Lionel S. Reiss)
The Histadruth Ivrith of America, Inc.
New York, 1948


To The Aggadah

IN you, my worn, motheaten Talmud-leaves,
Dwell ancient legends, captivating tales;
In you, my soul finds soothing from its woes,
To you I come whenever grief assails.

Deep in a cranny or a pit of sand,
The worm, in shielded darkness, lives and grows;
Thus in your shelter, from the tyrant’s wrath,
My sorrow-laden soul finds its repose.

And in the vale of gloom whene’er I walk,
You open wide the gates of heaven for me;
And through the mist into my anguished soul
A new supernal light streams ceaselessly.

Then I refrain from seeking alien shades,
And only in your shade I long to rest;
For you appease my sorely battered soul,
Solace I draw from the Aggadah’s breast.

Alas, the nations of the earth disdain me,
Deny me even the relief of tears;
Did they but let me cry my fill, I’d cry
Until my soul took flight to other spheres.

I had a harp, I hanged it on the willows
Beside the stream where I sat long ago;
Yea, sat and wept, my tears in torrents gushing,
Then cast my harp into the tide below.

O harp that sang sweet songs of Israel!
Whose strings two mighty monarchs once did smite!
With you the shepherd-king saw sights divine,
And Shlomo wooed his dove-eyed Shulamite.

But kings no longer reign in Israel,
There are no kings, and harp and flute are gone;
Naught but a wailing sound remains, a sigh,
A dovelike moan by the stream of Babylon.

And yet, in Babylon there were of yore
Heroic, noble spirits who played well,
Who understood each sad and plaintive note,
The harp’s soft murmur and its loudest swell.

Who knew their nation’s heart, and told its thoughts
In days of triumph or of grief’s persistence;
They caught the sounds which from the harp-strings burst,
And thus Aggadah came into existence.

Since then whene’er my spirit is distressed,
In the Aggadah is the harp retrieved;
And into it I pour our trials all
And all our dreams and hopes, and feel relieved.

And then I see my people’s head — how strong
And towering high where clouds of glory trail!
I know that in the end this worm-like folk
Will strive with giants and will yet prevail.


If Thou Wouldst Know

IF thou wouldst know the mystic fount from whence
Thy brethren going to their slaughter drew
In evil days the strength and fortitude
To meet grim death with joy, and bare the neck
To every sharpened blade and lifted axe,
Or, pyres ascending, leap into the flame
And saintlike die with Ehad on their lips;

If thou wouldst know the mystic fount from whence
Thy stricken brethren crushed and overcome
By hellish pains and fangs of scorpions,
Drew patience, firmness, trust, and heaven’s comfort,
And iron might to bear relentless toil,
With shoulders stooped to bear a loathsome life,
And endlessly to suffer and endure;

If thou wouldst know the bosom whither streamed
Thy nation’s tears, its heart and soul and gall,
Whither like water flowed its gushing moans,

The moans that moved the nethermost abyss,
And plaints whose terror bristled even Satan,
Rock-splitting plaints, though vain to crush the foe’s
Steeled heart, more adamant than rock and Satan;

If thou wouldst know the fortress whither bore
Thy sires to havens safe their Torah Scrolls,
The sacred treasures of their yearning souls…
If thou wouldst know the shelter where preserved,
Immaculate, thy nation’s spirit was,
Whose hoary age, though sate with shameful life,
Did not disgrace its gracious lovely youth;

If thou wouldst know the mother merciful,
The aged loyal mother love-abounding,
Who saved her lost son’s tears with tenderness,
And steadied lovingly his falt’ring steps,
And when fatigued and shamed he would return
‘Neath her roof’s umbrage, she would wipe his tears
And lull him to sweet sleep upon her knees;

If thou wouldst know, O humble brother mine, –
Go to the house of prayer grown old, decayed,
In the long nights of Tebeth desolate,
Or in the scorching, blazing Tammuz days,
In noonday heat, at morn or eventide…
If God has left there still a remnant small,
Thine eyes shall even to this day behold

Through sombre shadows cast by darkened walls,
In isolated nooks or by the stove,
Stray, lonely Jews, like shades from eras past,
Dark, mournful Jews with faces lean and wan;
Yea, Jews who bear the weighty Galuth yoke,
Forgetting toil in Talmud pages worn,
And poverty in tales of bygone days;
Who rout their cares with blessed psalmody
(Alas, how lowly, trivial the sight
To alien eyes!).  Thy heart will tell thee then
That thy feet tread the marge of our life’s fount,
That thine eyes view the treasures of our soul.

If with God’s spirit thou art still imbued,
If still His solace whispers in thy heart,
And if a spark of hope for better days
Illumines yet thy darkness great and deep,
Mark well and hearken, humble brother mine:
This house is but a little spark, a remnant
Saved by a miracle, from that great fire,
Kept by thy fathers always on their altars.
Who knows, perchance the torrents of their tears
Ferried us safely, hither bringing us?
Perchance with their prayers they asked us of the Lord,
And in their deaths bequeathed to us a life,
A life that will endure for evermore!