The Talmud Student

Still, in some hidden towns of our Dispersion,
There smoulders on, concealed, our ancient light,
In cities where our God a remnant spared,
As 'twere a glowing coal amid the ashes,
Where, like a plucked-out fire-brand, faintly smoke
Weak human lives, poor souls of small account,
Who live without a life and early wither
Like blades of grass upon a thirsty land.
And sometimes, when you walk abroad by night,
In some such little city blest, while stars
Twinkle above your head, and all around
The grasses whisper and the winds tell tales —
You hear the distant murmur of a voice,
And see behind a pane a distant gleam,
And then a figure like a corpse's shade,
That rocks and wavers, bending up and down,
With moaning chant — a rush of broken thoughts
Is borne to you upon the waves of silence.
A Talmud Student, prisoned in a Kläus
And keeping nightly vigil, you behold.
Within those walls, not one day, but six years,
Have watched his toil — his childhood ripened there
Too soon, his youth matured there ere its time,
His eyes were darkened and his face grew white.
Not one day, but six years, have passed since first
He turned him to the wall in that dark spot.
No sunshine has he looked on, only cobwebs,
Only the wall, daubed with untempered clay.
Hunger and vigils, leanness and decay —
What are they, that his mind should dwell on these?
He surely knows how students lived of old,
He surely knows his day of fame will come.
Time, in six years, visits with news of change
Even that stagnant quagmire, a Yeshibah!
Its children too have longing human hearts
And dance upon two feast-days in the year.
The building's very walls rock in the wind,
Benches are taken, benches are fetched again,
And students leave and other students come.
Some go to spend the Solemn Days at home,
Some spread to neighbouring villages and there,
Delivered from the dread Superior's eye,
Disport themselves beneath the kindly roof,
Where pride and pity wait such learned guests.
And some have been expelled and leave in haste
And sadly to their fathers these return.
But one remains, stuck faster than a nail!
Events and years pass him behind — unseen
Before him there is nought, save evermore
The same blank wall, his corner and his books.

Since first he took his place there, no recluse,
No scholar yet, has seen him come or go.
The beadle even has not marked the time
At which he comes, at which he makes for home.
The morning star, the moon, the gloom of night,
They only know his hours, for e'en the sun
Knows nothing of his ways, nor e'er beheld.
And early, early, ere one may define
'wixt bluish thread and white, " 'twixt wolf and dog, "
And when from out the soundless depths of night
The latter stars in mustered myriads shine,
What time the townsfolk sleep their closing sleep,
Before a cock-crow even breaks their rest,
Ere even those most pious Jews arise,
The last watch who forestall, to serve the Lord,
When all creation speechlessly awaits
The rising to new life, as though it dreamed
Its closing dream and hid beneath its wings
Secrets and charms, the while its sleeping face
Is veiled in silence, all emotion hid
Beneath the dusky folds, the " Mathmid " wakes
And straightway rises from a brief repose,
And dresses in the dark and seeks his corner.
The roving winds alone have heard his step,
His hasty step along the garden path
That leads to the Yeshibah, while above
The stars keep sentinel along the way.

Then it may happen, that the frolic wind
That blows light-hearted out of heaven's blue,
Tempts him with Satan's blandishments, uncurls
His earlocks, whispers, fills his head with fancies.
The young man's eyelids cling and seem to beg:
" Have pity, brother, on your two dim eyes
That spoil beneath us! we are tired, have spent
Ourselves for thee, for thou hast made us toil
All day, a summer's day! and then throughout
A night-watch — brother, we are done to death!
Turn back, lie down, rest, and let us rest too,
E'en ere thou sleepest, we shall be renewed. " —
But suddenly he passes his thin hands
Across the clinging lids, as though to brush
Such thoughts away, and down the empty street
Resounds once more the echo of his tread.
Then the wind lights upon the garden grass,
Whispers, entices with its murmuring sound:
" Behold, fair youth, how verdant is my bed.
Enjoy, before thy breath dissolve away! " —
" We also sleep, " the grasses and the herbs
Lisp dreaming round him, and the stars above
Take up the tale: " We sleep — with open eyes. "
And from the pleasant hay-fields comes a scent
That steals into his nostrils, makes him drunk.
A wave of air comes flooding to his lips,
Enters — a lightness fills his throat and breast,
He opes his mouth, inhales the air, makes loose
The shirt unfastened round about his neck,
Like some poor quarryman distraught with toil,
His inmost being begs and prays for rest.
He stretches to the wind his helpless hands
As crying: " Take me, carry me away!
Hence let us flee and we shall both find rest.
Here I am cramped for room, and I am tired! "
But sudden contact with the garden hedge
Tells him his feet have strayed and he recalls
His duty and his corner, and as one
Who flees from sin, he hastes to the Yeshibah. . . .
Within, a holy stillness fills the space
Empty as yet, and he first drinks it in.
His comrades three await him in his place,
They, who have been his friends since first he came:
The burning light, the desk, his Talmud text.
He hastes to join them, like to one who hoards
The nimble seconds, and begins to learn.
Once at his desk — the nail is hammered in!
All day and half the night he'll stay, and there
For very hunger, swallow his black bread.
O flint and iron! when the Jewish boy
Has taken to the Torah, where are you?

And thus the youth keeps steadfast to his seat
From break of morn till midnight, for his day
Has four divisions, whereof only one
Is for himself, while three are for the TORAH.
As one alone, cut off from friends, and tied
Fast to his corner, white-faced, wrinkle-browed,
A lifelong captive of his own accord,
On the Gemara still he shapes his soul.

" Oi, oi! " the Rabbis taught: " ...if I shall offer
Body and life upon the Torah's altar,
I shall be heard, maybe, from out my corner,
And see my fame shine forth across the land. . . . "
" Oi, oi! " the Rabbis taught: " ...Rabbi Akiba
Was simple and unlettered forty years,
Then entered a Yeshibah and became
A glory of his folk, and I — am young!
My God, take what Thou wilt, my flesh and blood!
I've sworn by Thee and by Thy holy Law
My lips shall move, my voice shall cry, I will not
Stir from my place, my corner, and my heart
Shall know no rest, my eyes no sleep, until
Thy word has quenched my thirst, the Morning Star
Shall wake me, midnight lull me, till I know
The Talmud and am learned in the Torah! "
So, once more: Raba said ... the Student's voice
Borne by a strength sublime, rings out anew. . . .
Methought that high above the Ark there shone
A transient gleam, as though a Saint should smile.
The Holy Presence in the Scholar's breath
Delights ... or else, she mocks the sacrifice
Of buried lives, that in a narrow prison
Deny themselves; heroic, for her sake?
And now the sun has sunk into the night,
The light above the Ark is upward caught,
And voices fall yet lower, till they seem
More like the hum of bees, the buzz of flies. . . .
At last the beadle comes, and calls to prayer. . . .

Minchah is quickly ended, and the lads
Disperse into the street, they seek the fields.
The youthful limbs, youthful in name alone,
Cry out, they seek the valley, wherein grow
The ruddy apples and the ruddier maids.
The heart o'erflows with joy, the lungs expand,
The wind is low and cools with gentle touch,
And dries the sweat from creased and saddened brow.
Within is silence, the Yeshibah's walls
Are sunk in gloom and stillness, and of all
Her scholars, only two recluses pale
Remain behind to talk of trivial things.
And now, a voice has broken forth again,
A turtle-dove coos loudly in his corner. . . .
What is the sore heart crying now? And what
The burden of his melancholy strain?
Maybe he now recalls his dear, good mother,
His needy father, pines and feels the heart
Throb like a captive bird within his breast
For longing to behold their face again,
As day by day, afar, they in their prayers
Repeat his name, and hope for him and wait
As for Messiah, till he come indeed,
The Torah's diadem about his brow. . . .
The wrestlings of a boy's heart who can tell?
But ever, when the pious pass that way,
And bend an ear and stand, the while his voice
Pierces the severing wall with ringing tones —
The old ones linger and commend his choice,
And pray within their heart a silent prayer:
" Happy the son who gives him to the Torah,
And happy those who nurtured such a son!... "

" Oi, oi, " said Raba: " ...and thou hearest not,
Even in whispers, what the living voices
Are crying round thee, boy, their speech to thee
Is meaningless as thou wert deaf and dumb. "
" Oi, oi! " said Raba: " ...and the soul, that cries
Daily through thy hoarse throat against the wrong
Done to the budding of its manly strength,
The sapping of its youth, thou hearest not,
Stoppest thine ears and shuttest out its prayer,
Each needful craving crushing out for good,
Stifling the germ of every humblest wish,
Uprooting every flowerlike aspiration,
Till, tired at last with its own weary cry,
With thirst unquenched and unfulfilled desires,
It fall asleep, a starved and withered thing,
That never was beloved and never loved. "

And those two eyes of thine, for seeing made,
That might have viewed the earth and all her wealth.
Are spent and darkened, have as yet seen nothing,
Have nothing wished to see, and fade already,
And spiderlike, along forsaken paths —
And shadowlike, among the dead, thou gropest. . . .
For what were they created all in vain,
And why in vain shall they be lost, these souls?

Sometimes the student wonders at himself,
Disgusted at his toil and seized with anger.
In winter, when the cold and tempest reign,
When heaven is like a smoke and earth is dull,
When faint, dark clouds trail weeping o'er the sky,
" Oh, that the sun would but light up her face
One little moment, if she would but make
A slender offering of pallid light! "

From somewhere a green spider comes, to pitch
Her tent within the corner, where the gloom
Is doubled, and the chambers of his soul
Are filled with chill and trembling. Then the youth
Feels in himself despoiled, forgot, forsook,
Feels that his strength is weak and weary grown,
The flame that burnt within him nearly spent.
His voice is like the sighing of a soul
That droops to death, the moaning of a heart
Trampled upon like grass, that only heaves
With bitterness and Prayers of Supplication.
His recitation is a bitter plaint,
Art thou in love, dear child, with pain and grief?
Unhappy boy, dost thou not know thy state?
Unhappy? why unhappy? Who can prove
That man was born to comfort? On what plea
Is he to quarrel with his wretched corner
Where he has standing-room?
The Torah, wide and shining, still illumes
The dark, sad regions she has ever sought.
God's hand from out the darkness took and gave her,
A heritage of light, from age to age.
In caves, on roof-toops, sat our children, there
They learned by stealth, until from out the caves
Came guides to light our path and from the roofs
Descended Sages — this, because the Torah
Is fathomed only by a life of grief,
And by afflictions have we been sustained.
Why should the youth regret it, that to him
The earth and all its fullness is denied?
Two whole Sedarim, ordered well and kept
Upon his lips — just think, two whole Sedarim!
The other students envy him, they have
A presage of his better days to be.
Two whole Sedarim — oh, how blest his lot!
And shall he not rejoice? He holds already
The guerdon of his toil, by all around
The Mathmid and 'Ilui he is called.
The priestly brow bore but one golden plate,
The ruler wears one crown of finest gold,
One wreath beseems the hero and the poet,
While on our Student's head there shine two crowns!
The Mathmid, the 'llui both are rungs
High on the stairway of the Torah set,
But few steps higher the Geonim stand.
How many have been worthy of such fame?
And he hopes on, for still the bloom of hope
Has secretly refreshed his downcast spirit,
And compensation showed for stolen youth,
And knit the Student's heart to love his corner.
Like one who, sharpening iron, sways and bends
'Mid flying sparks, above the whirling stone,
So whetteth he his brain in yonder corner
Upon the stony problems of the Talmud.
On winter evenings, when, in likely mood,
With some dark passage wrestling he prevails
That wrought oppressive on his fevered brain,
He sees again the day that brings him home,
The Ordination safe within his pocket,
Authorities and Talmud in his head,
His fame there spread abroad, his parents' joy,
The envy of his comrades and his friends
Unto this day dissembled, and his name,
A lightning flash from Mir to Volozhin
While he is blest and praised as a Gaon.
He a Gaon? The prophecies come true?
Well, then: said Raba... " Oi, oi, " Raba said.

" The more he dreams, the dearer to his heart
His narrow corner and the broad Gemara,
His toil and pain and hunger, and his voice
Breaks out with might — yet whence the bitter note,
The suffocated sigh that wrings the heart,
Hidden and twined in the Gemara song?
No one, but he who passes the Yeshibah
At night, or in the stillness of the dawn,
Who sees the lighted window and who hears
The lonely voice, the wakeful Mathmid's chant,
That pours out low before the hidden spirit
All its sweet bitterness, its bitter sweetness...
He only knows with what a fiery dart
It wounds and rankles, that Gemara song! "

I also in my youth have heard these voices,
Have watched these toilers, seen the wrinkled brows,
The heavy eyes, the pallid face that seemed
To beg for mercy — and each look and line
Told me of stifled feeling, sparks crushed-out,
Each look and wrinkle stirred the best within me
And rent my heart and wrung my inmost soul ...
But when I call to mind their voice, their voice,
That wails like that of wounded men forgotten,
Lord of the world! I cry within myself,
On what were all these lives, these powers spent?

My fate hath not so willed that I with you,
Unhappy ones, should lose myself — I parted
From out your company, transgressed for bread,
And walked and lost myself in other paths.
The times have changed, and far now from your border
My altar-stone is reared, my tent-pole set,
And still I think of you, each one, each one!
Your forms are with me, clinging to my heart,
Recalling still how vigorous the seed
Hidden within your luckless plot of ground,
And what the treasure which it might have brought
Had but a ray of sunlight warmed the soil,
What sheaves we might have reaped, had but a gust
Of generous air blown o'er you — had the road
Which leads toward the Torah, which we so
Neglected and despised, been cleared and plain!
How pitiful and bitter is your end!
Oh, woe is me for you, my hapless folk.
How parched the lot, and blasted how the portion,
Wherein such grain could moulder and decay!
Author of original: 
Hayyim Nahman Bialik
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