Bialik’s “On the Slaughter” is informed by the categories of biblical lament. To the extent that we do not understand biblical lament, we will not understand his prayer. It also works the other way. To the extent that we understand his prayer, we will understand biblical lament, including psalm 137.
Truth be told, Bialik appropriates trope after trope from the Bible. The only way for the poem to hit you with full force is if you know the Hebrew Bible very well.
A number of bloggers are onto the richness of the spirituality of the psalms, the book of Job, the prophets, and apocalyptic literature. For too long this literature has not disturbed the sleep of the faithful. It is of the essence of this strand of biblical tradition to challenge God and urge him to take action. This spirituality, of course, will not mean anything to those who think we live in the best of all possible worlds. But it will mean everything to those who, like the virgins who are trimming the wicks in the man in black’s swan song, wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the break of dawn.
Eclexia has a beautiful post on lament as an expression of faith. She builds on observations by Thomas Adams, whose blog I discovered through Eclexia. Thomas provides some perceptive quotes from what looks like an excellent book by Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer. Thomas's own observations are also sharp. Here is a sample:
Faith allows space for lamentation, but comprehensive systems do not.
It is a hard thing for me to say, because I love systematic thinking, but I think it is very important, when all is said and done, to be an anti-systematic thinker. Whenever I see the witness of scripture forced into comprehensive systems, my sympathy lies completely with the ragged edges and hard sayings and outright contradictions found in scripture. Find one contradiction in scripture, is my motto, and therein you will find more truth than in the most accomplished piece of systematic theology.
Or, as Oswald Bayer puts it,
Faith does not conduct a debate about God and God's righteousness, as does the natural, the redeemed, or the presumably already glorified reason before its own forum. It conducts a dispute with God in prayer and lament.
Bialik’s prayer consists of 4 stanzas. Each stanza follows an abbacdc rhyme scheme, and contains exactly seven lines and two exclamation marks. Here is the first stanza:
שָׁמַיִם, בַּקְּשׁוּ רַחֲמִים עָלָי!
אִם-יֵשׁ בָּכֶם אֵל וְלָאֵל בָּכֶם נָתִיב –
וַאֲנִי לֹא מְצָאתִיו –
הִתְפַּלְּלוּ אַתֶּם עָלָי!
אֲנִי – לִבִּי מֵת וְאֵין עוֹד תְּפִלָּה בִּשְׂפָתָי,
וּכְבָר אָזְלַת יָד אַף-אֵין תִּקְוָה עוֹד –
עַד-מָתַי, עַד-אָנָה, עַד-מָתָי?
Heaven, plead mercy on my behalf!
If there is a God in you, and a path in you to God –
yet I have not found it –
may you pray on my behalf!
As for me – my heart is dead, prayer no longer on my lips,
already strength is gone, and hope no more –
how long, until when, how long?
Rabbi Alexandra Wright in a recent essay seeks to lay bare the biblical and Talmudic strands woven together in the fabric of Bialik’s prayer. I place “AW” in parentheses in those instances in which I depend on her prospecting in the recovery of the texts and tropes Bialik weaves into his prayer.
The first principle of biblical lament is that God accepts and even requires that we defend ourselves in his presence. Indeed, it is expected that we cross-examine him. The same principle underlies the practice of intercessory prayer. Put another way, the willingness to be questioned and challenged is of the essence of the God of the Bible.
Questioning God’s existence as Bialik does is fully in accord with biblical precedent, even if, in the Bible, the one who faithfully contends with God questions the propriety of God’s actions in a specific situation, or God’s justice in general, not his existence per se.
Still, there is no essential difference. After all, if God is not just, God does not exist in any meaningful sense, and it would be better if he did not exist at all. To be sure, the completely disenchanted world in which many moderns live was inconceivable in antiquity. For the ancients the world is obviously charged with numinous realities. The only question was: are they, or the one in charge of them all, imbued with hostile or friendly intent.
What about the first line of the prayer, in which Bialik calls on heaven to be an intermediary between the “I” of the poem (a personification, also, of the Jewish people) and God who in heaven is presumed to be? Heaven and earth are described as witnesses in the Bible to what transpires in the world. In Jer 2:12, the prophet calls on heaven to express its horror at Israel’s unfaithfulness. In Deut 4:26, 30:19; 31:28, God calls on heaven and earth to be ready to testify against Israel should Israel be unfaithful to him. But now, given what heaven has seen (the pogrom which is the occasion of the prayer), it’s about time that heaven take the side of the innocent, and testify for Israel, not against it, as would otherwise be the case.
The words of the prayer echo that of the amazing story of R. Eleazar ben Dordia recounted in b. Avodah Zarah 17a (AW). The rabbi was famous for his frequentation of prostitutes, and after crossing seven rivers in order to embrace one of them, she tells him he will never be received in repentance (אין מקבלין אותו בתשובה). Appalled, he sits between two hills and calls on the hills and mountains to plead mercy for him. They answer that they cannot, for they themselves stand in need of prayer, and they quote Isa 54:10 to prove it. Then this:
שמים וארץ בקשו עלי רחמים
עד שאנו מבקשים עליך
נבקש על עצמנו
כי שמים כעשן נמלחו והארץ כבגד תבלה
Heaven and earth, plead mercy on my behalf!
We cannot plead on your behalf.
We must plead for ourselves,
as it is said:
“though the heavens dissipate like smoke
and the earth wear out like a garment (Isa 51:6).”
He tries with the sun, the moon, and the stars, but they answer likewise, for they also know themselves to be subject to God’s judgment. Rabbi Eleazar discovers that the entire universe, not just he, stands in need of prayer and healing. He has exhausted all possible avenues of recourse. Then this:
אין הדבר תלוי אלא בי
הניח ראשו בין ברכיו
וגעה בבכיה עד שיצתה נשמתו
The matter depends on no one but myself.
He laid his head between his knees,
And he moaned with sobbing until his life-breath departed.
Bialik, insofar as he alludes to this passage from the Talmud, alludes also to his awareness that heaven itself is guilty before God, and in no position to plead mercy on behalf of the Jewish people. Bialik’s prayer is doomed from the start, and he knows it. Even so, he prays just the same. In this he imitates Job, who despairs over and over again of obtaining a hearing from God, but in the very act of expressing his lack of hope before God, proves that hope against hope continues to define his being.
With the phrase, ‘if there is in you a path to God,’ Bialik alludes to Job 28:7, 12-13. In Job 28, it is emphasized that humanity has no path to God’s wisdom, the wisdom by which God rules the universe. A fortiori, God himself is wholly out of reach to humanity. If there be a path in heaven to him, man in any case is barred from taking it.
The phrases which follow all derive from the Bible (Deut 32:36 (AW); Ezekiel 37:11; Isa 6:11; Ps 13). In each and every case, they are expressions of despair which in context give way to expressions of hope. Hope, deliberately and completely submerged in this prayer, is nevertheless its true subtext.