From the book Hebrew Studies, 1977
By Prof. David Rudavsky, New York University
Abraham Regelson is one of the few remaining Mohicans among
the American Hebrew poets of our time. The American Jewish milieu failed to
produce its own creative Hebrew writers or to nurture a Hebrew readership,
despite its vast network of Jewish educational and cultural institutions
fostering Hebraic learning. Regelson, like his colleagues, with perhaps the
single exception of the late Reuven Avinoam, was an immigrant. He was born in
Helusk, a town near Minsk, capital of White Russia, in 1896. When he came to
America at the age of nine (1905), he settled with his family in New York City,
on the lower East Side, where he attended the Jacob Joseph Yeshiva. Later he
joined the teacher training classes conducted by the renowned Jewish
nationalistic Hebrew poet, author and educator, Hayyim Abraham Friedland, known
affectionately in his circle as “Het Aleph”, a charismatic and inspiring
personality, who imbued young Regelson with his own spiritual elation, as he had
succeeded in doing with others of his disciples.
In America Regelson devoted a number of years to Hebrew
teaching. His formal schooling was not at all extensive; he was in the main an
autodidact who acquired his extensive knowledge of Hebrew and Anglo-American
literature, poetry and philosophy from his own wide reading and diligent study.
After World War 1 he started to write Hebrew poetry. From 1933-1936 he lived in
what was then Palestine, the Jewish homeland, where he worked as a journalist
for Davar and contributed also to Davar L’yeladim, a children’s
publication. He then returned to America, but shortly after the establishment
of the Jewish state in 1948, he settled there permanently.
One may become acquainted with Regelson’s Hebrew verse from
the volume called by the rather odd name of its title poem, “Hakukot
Otiyotaich,” (Thy Letters Are Carved). This poem, unique in style and content,
is an ode to the Hebrew language the poet admires as an ardent lover who praises
the virtues of his beloved in “utterances short of his feelings,” and overlooks
her faults. Regelson is true to the Jewish tradition of venerating Hebrew not
only as a medium of human speech, but also as the Leshon HaKodesh, the
hallowed language of Holy Writ. The rabbis regarded both the Hebrew word and
its letters – in fact their very pattern, as bearing ethical significance and
therefore also as sacred (Shab. 148a). These ideas the poet applies to Hebrew as
well as the grammar underlying its structure.
The dull Hebrew grammatical forms that to most people are
little more than tedious exercises, the noun and verb inflections and similar
patterns, are thus infused by the poet with an exalted meaning and are recounted
with fervor and excitement. One is highly impressed by his vast knowledge of
nature and his familiarity with the Hebrew names of the multitudinous species of
animals, plants and insects he enumerates. He extols the sublime biblical style
and glories in the major episodes of the Torah. “Through thee,” the poet says
to the Hebrew tongue, “I was initiated with love of the Patriarchs . . . With
thee,” he continues, “I sculpted on the Mountain the divine tablets for the
children of man . . . And thou hast also become for me the language of Creation,
the medium of Revelation and the idiom of the end of days.”
The very contour of the Hebrew letters and vowels fascinate
Regelson, who marvels at the flexibility of the Hebrew grammatical system with
its genders, stems, tenses, prefixes and suffixes. He speaks of the remarkable
propensities of the conversive vav, the properties of the binyanim,
the active and passive verb conjugations, the paradigms for word coinages and
the singular capacity of Hebrew to absorb Aramaic, Latin, Greek and other
foreign vocabulary including Judeo-German or Yiddish. In that language the
Tze'enah uRe'enah was composed, the highly popular compendium of legends and
explanations on the Pentateuch, designed for pious Jewish women. For several
centuries they had been drenching the pages of this work with their tears. The
Hebrew Bible is not only the depository of the Hebrew language and its
grammatical framework, but it is rich in so many other aspects. It is the
source of the distinguished and revered names of the biblical heroes: Ruth,
David, and Yedidyah, implying friendship and love, the last one of God. It
includes names such as Naomi connoting pleasantness in profusion: Sharona, the
gift of song, and Tamar, erect stature as the palm. Places with their
historical associations originate in the sacred book, among them: Yarden,
Carmel, Hermon, Gilead, Galil, Gerizim, Gilboa and of course Zion, the great
Messianic symbol. Hebrew in view of its numerous synonyms for light may also
said to be the language of illumination. These nouns Regelson skillfully weaves
into the texture of his verses, producing an intricate and delicately interlaced
fabric which is virtually untranslatable.
But to live, Hebrew must be the common medium of speech in
the mouths of little ones. This thought brings to the poet’s mind the
heartrending, appalling and crushing memory of the three million Jewish children
lost to their parents, their people and to the holy tongue when they were
barbarically slaughtered in the Nazi Holocaust. Hebrew, the poet might have
observed, could have been well characterized as the language of lamentation, not
only illumination. The poet, therefore, summons it to mourn for the young
martyr whose childish ears will never hear the fascinating tales of the Bible;
whose sweet voices will never utter the Modeh Ani each morning, or the
Four Questions on the night of Pesach. Hebrew, too, should weep for the
perished potential of Ahad Ha’ams and Mendeles who might have emerged from the
ranks of these Nazi victims. The poet bewails the cruel massacre of these
Woe to the pure eyes of Hebrew children extinguished by
The sweet mouths designed to chirp thy syllables, writhing
in death seizures,
Strangled the slim throats from which thy melodies might
have rung out;
These hallowed bodies left to decay,
Heaps upon heaps on piles of rubbish in wayside pits without
name or mark.
But “who can ascend the mount of thy glory?” the poet
inquires of the Hebrew tongue in the Psalmist’s idiom (14.2). The poet
responds rhetorically, enumerating the prime ethical and intellectual
qualifications of one who seeks this kind of eminence. He must be steeped in
the Hebrew classics of all ages, their major commentaries such as Rashi, their
moral insights and gems of wisdom. He must also be conversant with the works of
Maimonides; and “each night dip into the Mishna and Midrashim, and make the Book
of Books his daily fare.” Besides, he must be at home in the philosophy of a
Nachman Krochmal, the halachic history of rabbinic literature such as that of an
Isaac Hirsch Weiss, and similar writings. Only with equipment of this nature
could one attain Hebraic eminence.
With this passionate attachment to Hebrew, there is little
wonder that our poet, who might have devoted his talents to English writing,
preferred Hebrew, or as he had expressed it: “Hebrew preferred him.” He
concludes his poem with a plea to the Hebrew language and homeland to be
permitted to join its builders and toilers. These lines, however, are obscured
with complex and rather obscure metaphors:
Inscribe me on thy tablet with the well-diggers and
With the plower, planter, weeder and hoer,
With him who blasts the rocks, and furrows the seas and
pierces the air
With the workers in cotton and wool, lime and mortar,
bromium and potash
In wood, iron and precious stones –
And cut in thy border paths to the hiddenmost goals of man
By which God reveals and conceals Himself and the world
exalts and deifies itself.
In his moving elegy on the foremost figure in modern Hebrew
poetry, Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934), entitled, “The Man of The Stars,”
Regelson speaks of him as “the heart of a nation – a heart who walked among us.
. . his wrinkles of sadness kindled with a smile . . . and bearing on his
shoulders the burden of generations . . . whose love was free to all in need of
it.” This man, burning with a prophetic fire was genuine, unfeigning and
forthright. The poet accordingly beseeches his mourners:
Place no wreath on his casket,
No flag or Talith,
He was a plain man,
Far from vain adornments, or pious ornaments.
And in his simplicity
Lower him into the soil he knew.
The earth embracing the body of this spiritual giant speaks
of him with reverence:
His thought encompassed eternity;
Compressed in his brain,
Time, space and nature at themselves wondered,
Revelled in their own beauty;
And he was at one with the insect and clump of grass
With the moon tugging at the seas, and the silent song of
In this excerpt Regelson alludes to his metaphysical
doctrine of cosmic unity. A single all-pervading principle governs the whole of
creation. The earth, too, affirms that “man and the races of man and the whole
animal and plant family constitutes only a chapter in my interlacing scrolls.”
A tremor and current in my sea of life
One moment projected from within me
Then swallowed up in me.
In the stillness of the night when the noises of the city
are muffled, the poet holds an imaginary conversation with a reddish clod of
turf from Bialik’s grave. He poses the psalmist’s query: “What is man that Thou
rememberest him?” (8:5-6) Is there no more “remains” of even a Bialik save his
dust? Yet he discerns a common core linking all existence:
Is this all there is to man, a little ashes and a little
And what to him is the profundity hewn in his books,
And what of all the beauty crowning his thoughts,
What to him is all the praise and lament after he is gone?
And lo, I saw the mass of soil extending,
Merging with the whole globe,
And the earth beneath me sang and danced,
The stars wondered . . .
To Regelson there is accordingly no plurality. All is one,
even birth and death; both are products of the same destiny and fate. They are
twin poles of the same axis, as he observes in his “Yechiel and Dumah.” As for
Bialik, who gave utterance to Jewish longings, his people could gather him unto
the shrine of his immortal visionaries where he could be among the stars. For
himself, our bard craves ultimate reunion with the undying spirit of the great
Let the sea carry me where it will,
To an alien shore.
Some nights I shall glitter in my decay,
Until the merciful clay will cover me,
But through the massive giant sphere,
Through primitive layers and lavas recalling the sun’s
Through rivers’ arteries beneath hidden mountain roots,
Will flutter a throb and temor,
A shiver will convulse between the ashes of my body
And the dust of yours.
* * * * * * *
And with the earth’s rigorous logic and the calculus of the
Beyond all my mire,
I shall know thy light as one of thy children of eternity.
Regelson’s superior skill as a lyricist is evidenced
particularly in his autobiographical verse typified by “Kindling the Light,”
which is the story of the poet’s birth. His father, Judah Velvel, was a
yeshivah bachur, whose marriage to Rachel, age fifteen, had been arranged by
a shadchen or matchmaker, as was the custom in the shtetl of those
days. His father-in-law had seen in him both a suitable husband for his
daughter, as well as a carpenter’s apprentice in his building ventures. Our
poet Abraham was one of six surviving children from this union. He was born and
reared in the most wretched poverty.
The lyric opens with a reflection on the process of human
reproduction, the generation,
Of a spark in the maternal shelter,
Glowing secretly for nine months of bliss, nine months of
Until it emerges into the air, blazing impassionately,
A wavering light, raging light, fickle light and forlorn
The much longer lyrical poem, “The Sacrifice of Shlemyahu,”
recounts the great tragedy that befell the poet and his family when his youngest
offspring, Shlemyahu in the poem, born in mandatory Palestine, died during the
difficult three years they spent there in the thirties. His death was evidently
due to the lack of proper medical care in the country at the time, when it was
crowded with Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, for whose reception the
Yishuv was not adequately prepared. Shlemyahu’s father, Or in the poem,
harbored a guilt feeling since he had permitted himself to be lured away from
his son’s bedside by an adventure with a young married woman.
The poet describes the grim events following the child’s
death. On Friday afternoon he had visited the hospital morgue to view the
youngster’s body. The next evening, after the Sabbath ended, the funeral
cortege consisting of the members of the family and the Hevrah Kadisha,
or burial society, rode on the hospital bus to the cemetery. The bus also
served as the hearse and carried the remains of the little boy, wrapped in a
black cloth, together with the corpse of an adult. During the trip the members
of the Hevrah Kadisha chanted appropriate psalms. At the graveside
before the burial, the child’s face was bared, “it appeared pale, cold and calm
against the trembling light of the stars.” Then a stirring scene was enacted as
the bereaved mother knelt at the open grave and delivered herself of the
characteristic self castigating Jewish mother’s dirge:
What a bed had I prepared for thee, my sweet?
What a lullaby have I sung to you to put thee to sleep, my
What a mother was I to have abandoned thee to strangers.
* * * * * * *
And the earth gathered thee up, and forever and ever
You will be a baby, poor and sweet, neither a lad, nor man,
And for all time my joy will be with thee in the pit, robbed
* * * * * * *
Earth will caress thee, not my arms.
Farewell my beloved! Farewell!
The grave was soon sealed. Nature too mourned. But death
breeds new life.
That very moment the stars were swallowed up; the first rain
of the season descended quaveringly
Soft drops, light and gentle –
A kiss on man’s cheeks, a tap on the earth
The clouds shed their drips and departed,
As if bestowing their blessings on a new seed, just buried
As a promise of new life.
There is still another hope for the departed Shlemyahu. In
a dramatic monologue, “Bialik and My Little Brother,” the child’s sister
entrusts him to the care of the celebrated poet who had died two months
earlier. The childless Bialik loved children, and now that he resides among the
stars he will await and welcome the little boy cheerfully. He will clasp him in
his arms and will reveal to him many secrets: why the sun burns with so radiant
a flame, what is beyond the stars, and why disease and death. Of course the
little one will also learn to write verse, and sometimes, when his mother sits
in the garden, there will flash in her mind like a fulgent leaf, a poem composed
by the youngster. This very human idea appeals to Regelson who gives it
expression through the lips of his daughter.
The poet digresses from his primary theme about Shlemyahu to
a totally unrelated episode that occurred at the United Nations more than a
decade later – the 1947 partition plan, reluctantly accepted by the Jewish
community of the Jewish homeland but peremptorily rejected by the Arabs. This
excursus exemplifies the Talmudic epigram of “beginning with a pitcher and
ending with a barrel” (BK 27a). One can perhaps think also of the analogy of
the proverbial cathedral united chiefly by its complexity. The poet echoes here
the view of the skeptic who sees little meaning in the creation of 1948 of a
shrivelled Jewish state, “severed on all sides, its area small and enemies
mighty.” To which the poet, the “trumpet of salvation” responds:
Since when is Sinai the highest of mountains
And Yeshurun the giant among people?
Not in dimension is greatness
See, who were our ancestors:
A minor Sheik, our Father Abraham, yet he was the prince of
Isaac – as great as his pile of wood, as the intensity of
his readiness for sacrifice;
Jacob’s whole kingdom – rock crumpled under his head
And to him, that was the cradle of the dream and the
promise, his sanctuary.
And from them – the burning bush and Tablets of Law, the
trumpets of Jericho –
The resurrection of the dry bones, Meir and Akiva
A divine balance of the laws of creation and human ethics .
The poet concludes with the hope that the Arab people will
ultimately unite with the Jews in an Abrahamitic fraternity of the great nations
descended from Shem and Ever (Gen. 10:21ff).
One of Regelson’s long homilies in verse, the “Shir
Hatikkun,” a title which could be rendered as the “Song of Restoration,”
incorporates his principal ideas. The concept of tikkun in rabbinic lore
suggests the idea of setting the world aright or improving the social order, as
in tikkun haolam. In the Zohar and Kabbalah it has a different meaning,
connoting the restoration of the original state of the unity of the Godhead or
the cosmos, prevailing before Creation, a return to which is tantamount to
geulah or redemption. It is in this latter sense that Regelson employs this
term. Underlying it is the mystical assumption that the divine unity was
disrupted at Creation when it was splintered into the numerous species of life
and matter. Before that, man was part of the original single entity, but he was
afterward set apart from the luminous whole and became an “abandoned spark,” or
a “secluded drop,” rather than a sea. Early man bitterly deplores this
development and wonders:
. . . How was I cast
Into a fixed form, a shape escaped from a womb, with groping
And the whole world became for me a buffer and barrier?
my foes a clod and stone
The cold assailed me, spikes of hunger gored my entrails,
And from the jungle, beastly claws are poised to rip me
Who splintered, who severed the unity of all, and I became;
A fragment among fragments, a stranger unknown? How my
divine nature was drained
And who will relieve my oppressive loneliness?
But primitive man, endowed with the attribute of love, was
redeemed from his dreary isolation when Hubalah appeared in these cold, gloomy
surroundings as a sort of twin sister. Her coming in her erotic charm was like
that of spring banishing winter. At first it was only carnal lust that lured
him to her lair, but later it grew into a loftier human sentiment.
In time, we witness another drama. Now Yuval, a name
suggested by the Genesis story (4:21) makes his debut. His affection for his
mate Helah has matured into a noble, tender passion, kindled by the balmy air of
Spring, the fresh buds and flowers. The poet sings to the revival of nature at
that time of the year:
The buried and interred
In the damp earth, in its layers of darkness,
The rain prods them, warmth from the air,
And a slumbering spark of life is enflamed, an essence
To deepen its roots and lift the stem!
* * * * * * *
Sprouts gallop forth!
And the bent mulberry, with bristling, serrated veined
And the patched sycamore – with its leaves: small feather
From their midst stretch branches,
As if the earth, a dear,
Grows powerful, divided horns
To gore the pure heaven.
And ho my birds, ho my insects!
Denizens of the grass and tenants of the bush,
Twittering, fluttering, wrangling, adoring
So fertile and blind is earth’s belly
So intoxicated by fragrance and bedazzled by sun,
What does it know of form?
Helah suddenly dies and leaves Yuval in a state of
consuming, inconsolable grief. To protect her dead body from falling prey to
predatory beasts, Yuval hid it in a deep cavern. After a long and tragic winter
of aimless longing and wandering, his spirit was regenerated by the summer sun.
He visited the corpse of his beloved Helah and was cruelly disillusioned. The
blooming beauty he knew was gone; in her stead he found a shrivelled skeleton.
The glistening eyes that had been welcoming him were extinguished in their bony
sockets. Relentless and unyielding agony and anguish gnawing at his heart,
aroused the artistic spirit within him, as if it were heeding an inner call.
From the withered entrails of the corpse, he fashioned a bow and strings and
with these improvised instruments, he poured forth an avalanche of song and
melody which gave vent to his sorrow and grief. Enraptured by his own
melancholy song, he soon conjured up the image of Helah in its irresistible
charm and grace. He kissed it and was seized with a “delight beyond pain,” and
“a pain beyond delight.” Yuval thus mastered the secret of “snatching far-off
treasures and ancient fortunes, harnessing the vile and loathsome to the chariot
of splendor, and from the dead bones and decay to exact joy, beauty and
vitality,” to lift his depressed spirit.
The whole of Creation, even the inhabitants of the marshes
responded to the music:
And the primeval monsters roared and trumpeted in their
The faulty foundations of the earth were bared and
And the primordial chaos loitering at the door of existence
That stretched its arms to confuse the course of the stars
and disarray the life of man
Was smitten, conquered and reduced to the rhythm of song.
Thus was love and melody established in the world.
Generations later, they unfolded into a vision that spread upon the earth, to
unite all life and beings from the highest to the lowest. This was the ideal
proclaimed by Moses, father of the prophets, who is portrayed in a tableau as
standing perched at sunset atop a lofty peak, bearing in his arms the symbolic
young male-goat of Hebrew legend, whose thirst he quenched with the sweet waters
of a brook gushing forth from a rock. At his feet was the slender but firm
bush, the roots of which had ploughed through the rock and embedded themselves
in the soil, rising upwards like a Jacob’s ladder bridging earth and heaven.
The bush ignited by the flaming sun illuminated everything above it, lighting up
the fringes of the sky with a red hue, which merged with the harmony of
Creation. In this striking scene Moses revealed the mystery of the unity of the
cosmos, which filled him with compassion and sympathy for all life and nature.
But though this vision soon vanished, it yet survived in his heart. Moses
assumed it as his mission to disseminate it among his people, for “if it will be
mine alone, it will not even be mine, since it emerged simultaneously from the
yearning of all creatures for the mighty God lodged within them.” This ideal
the poet rendered in humanistic terms, “to bind soul with soul, to reduce the
callousness of heart, narrowness of mind, and turning the back by one brother
towards another.” Eventually too, all species of animal, plant, and soil will
be included in this goal, together with man.
In an allied poem, “Moses on Mount Nebo,” the great teacher
recognizes that he could not communicate this lofty ideal represented by the
burning bush to his people in its pure state. Accordingly he acknowledges, “I
know full well that I beclouded with smoke the whiteness of the fiery bush so
that it dazzle not dim eyes. I sweetened the elements of my doctrines to adapt
to the pallets of slaves unable to sanctify truth.” His principles in their
pristine form, however, Moses entrusted to the prophets and seers of the future
who could separate the smoke from the fire, the dross from the gold, the Word of
God from Moses’ own precepts . . . “for as the cooled lava turns to stone on
the smoldering mountain, so the Word of the Lord is congealed in the tenets of
Until there erupts another rebellious stream of fire
To shatter the petrified precepts and obsolescent altars
And set up a new law upon their ruins.
Thus will man’s elevations rise to higher eminences.
And he shall lodge his shoulder as a prop for the stars
And shelter his head among the treasures of the Most High.
This was the faith that inspired Moses in his last moments,
not the expectation of a land flowing with milk and honey. This was the goal
that he transmitted “to generations yet to be born, epochs and dreams yet to be
projected like heights of blue, soaring towards the sky, ridge above ridge and
peak above peak until lost from view in the mists of eternity.” Accordingly
Moses, the great moral leader, cautioned his successors to ready themselves to
be iconoclasts in their turn, to destroy the older order, and on its foundations
to build the new. Yet one cannot but assume that this idea must not be applied
categorically, for later values are not necessarily superior to traditional
ones. In fact, is this not a major present day dilemma? It is even today too
tempting an inclination to replace true and tested standards of ethics with new
and experimental criteria. Such a tendency could, if carried far enough, lead
to moral chaos instead of progress.
While the Shir Hatikkun with its Kabbalistic overtone
exploits the notion of pre-mundane perfection, another poem, Aviel,
considers this idea in relation to the next world. The setting Aviel is
rather trite. The hero, Aviel, a love-lorn youth, abandons the city with its
phantom pleasures to seek peace and forgetfulness in the bosom of the autumnal
forest. Because of his frustration he becomes immersed in himself and isolated
from nature and its charms. But here
among the trees he plucks himself a
handful of leaves and soon meditates on the
mystery of life enshrined within them and
on the tiny granules which serve as channels for the streams of vitality, past
and present, and the enigma of the good apple that ever renews its sweetness.
Then, while Aviel lies down to rest in these surroundings of seasonal death and
decay, his deceased father appears to him from the Olam HaEmeth, the
World of Truth, as the great beyond is often referred to in Hebrew lore. The
parent explains that the reason for calling it so is that in that domain a
mortal is not hostile to his fellow nor does he see him as an impediment in his
path. It would thus seem that only death raises a soul above rivalry and
exploitation, and that only in the hereafter can it expose its underlying grace
and godliness. The youth therefore desires to enter this perfect realm, but his
father rejects the idea because as he says to his son:
I have bequeathed to thy soul the legacy of song
A charge to agonizing generations and visionaries
And divine blessings amidst the curses of a world of gloom.
* * * * * * *
To thee I have given a sensitive ear attuned to song,
And entrusted thee with unfulfilled hopes,
To flourish and thrive within thee
* * * * * * *
Will they wholly perish as if they never were?
* * * * * * *
Here are two weapons to arm thyself for life
To do battle with extinction: a craftsman’s plum,
To build thee an eternal epitaph with bricks of glory,
And man’s powerful impulse to bear progeny.
On awakening the youth turns to the earth with a challenge:
Is thy life as thy soil, black, mute –
And a creature descending to the grave;
perishes, is extinguished
A lonely flash of sorrow, and no more?
Or will it fall into thy flaming soul
And be bound up in thy vigorous life,
In which every man, fly and shrub
Is to thee like the wave of an eyelash or a hair’s ripple
Which you sustain in love when they blossom
And caress to thy heart when they wither?
The earth remained silent as of old, and guarded its
secret. It did, however, imbue Aviel with renewed courage, from its own spring
of valor. A new star, beckoned to him – the star of love, which shines with a
distant brilliance and speaks solace to anguished hearts.
In the dialogical poem, “Ahiya and Israel,” Israel
ben-Eliezer (Besht – Baal Shem Tov, 1700-1760), the founder of Hassidism, on an
occasion when he had divested himself of his corporeality, went on a tour of
heaven with Ahiya of Shiloh (I Kings 1:29), reputed in Jewish legend to have
survived throughout the centuries of Jewish history. To the Besht’s question as
to whether the celestial beauty and perfection he saw was real or merely a
passing illusion, Ahiyah replied with a rhetorical question: “What is the
mundane world in comparison with the majestic Essence of God?” One can almost
hear the exalted, rapturous intonation of the speaker who uttered these words in
wonderment. To which the Kabbalist Israel responded ecstatically: “A dream, an
illusion and a nullity!”
Ahiya then elaborated on his Kabbalistic doctrine in
mystical terms: “The soul is a mere garment or reflection of God, as the world
is to the soul. So are the upper and lower worlds – garments, and not the true
substance or core. In both realms, darkness overshadows the light, and the
insignificant gains priority over the significant.”
“There is, however, this distinction,” the Besht explained:
“In Eden, the kelipah or shell (betokening the forces of evil), which
hide the good, is transparent, while on earth the shell is thick and opaque.”
“Yet, Ahiyah pointed out, “Eden is built from the magnificence of the sinful
earth, where man must collaborate with the Divine in extracting the sacred
sparks from its mud and mire.”
Ahiya posed another question to Israel, before the latter
descended to earth: “What about Samael (Satan) and the lust of the flesh that
makes man an animal reproducing without abeyance?” In answer, Israel cited the
sages who declare (Ex. R9:7) that were it not for sex, man would neither marry
nor procreate. Thus even the biblical serpent has an affirmative role. True, a
world without the serpent would have been less depraved and closer to God, but
it would then have been overcome by His dazzling glory. In weaving the veil
that screens God from his creatures, Samael rendered a vital service to the
world, hence his name Samael, because he blinds our eyes (1) and shields
them from the Deity in His absolute unity. Accordingly:
God set a boundary to His truth; placing a limit upon His
And constricted them into illusory forms; had they overrun
Earth would kiss heaven and be lost in the union;
And I and thou would cease being separate and distinct.
In love; and a single flame would consume all colors and
And the world’s container full of the wine of His glory –
would melt in the wine.
In his magnificent didactic poem, “Cain and Abel,” the poet
combines a distinctive elegant style with grand scenario and profound social
insight. The thought pattern of this work requires explanation. As
Regelson indicates in his Notes, it is based on the Buddhist outlook as
interpreted by Arthur Schopenhauer (1778-1860) and his European disciples (2). The
main characters in this poem, the two brothers, Cain and Abel, symbolize
different ideas than those in the Genesis story. Cain (3) is the man of
enterprise, the energetic builder of cities and civilizations. He is prodded by
his passions to rule and dominate. Abel (4), however, is the
contemplative individual who sees futility in Cain’s activity and strives for
release from life’s ambitions and labors, in Nirvana. The opposing temperaments
of the two brothers lead to an inevitable clash. Cain soon complains to his
father, Adam, that Abel is sabotaging his efforts by spreading pernicious
propaganda among the masses employed in his ventures, but Adam refuses to
arbitrate the conflict between his sons. Cain then takes the law into his own
hands and slays Abel. Before his death however, Abel pronounces a dread
imprecation upon his assailant:
Streams of black night and thick darkness, curse Cain!
Ye gates of dawn and wickets of dusk, doom him.
Despise him ye corrals of clustering stars –
No solace to him from clouds, rain and arched mosaics –
And hold back thy blessings, O earth –
For he cut down Abel, thy comforter and redeemer!
Woe to Cain!
If his plow fertilizes the soil, for a time
May it give him of its vigor, but soon seal its womb, for
He has ravaged it without pity or respite; if a city
He builds, and a second, one should rise against the other
To demolish it, grind it to dust, until both lie waste.
Thus shall the right hand smite the left,
And the human passions he kindled shall be his ruination,
And he shall see the end of his toil-chaos and desolation.
On that day he will cry out!
‘If only a bit of the spirit of Abel were granted me,
To curb the claws of envy, murder and tyranny,
To crumble the swooping and destructive wings of passion –
But there will no longer be Abel . . .!’
To complete his conquest, Cain tries to make an ally of his
arch enemy’s daughter, Be’er, but she resists his advances. He then pleads for
her hand in marriage, telling her of his great love for her. To win her, he
astutely proposes that while he spurs his workers to greater productivity, she
can teach them to restrain their impulses and avoid attacking each other,
thereby promoting her father’s ideals. Be’er yields, but contrives to deceive
Cain. The latter scorningly reveals his own true intent, exclaiming
I have again defeated thee, Abel, I shall call your daughter
And she will be only as mortar between my bricks, friction
For my wheels to spur them on their path;
And my foe shall be my slave,
Dispassion – a disdained carrier of my eternal passions,
And the heart of Be’er – a nest of conspiracy;
May the path of Cain prosper, and I shall aid him,
Until he reaches his goal, and the whole earth
Will be trembling and obedient to our will,
Then only from my partner’s bosom I shall wrest his
And when ruling alone
I shall cleanse the whole world of its shame of existence;
And the dream of nothingness my father envisioned will come
And my revenge will be mightier than his enemy who shed his
But Cain’s tactics lead to his undoing. At the triumphal
celebration held on a constellation which was attended by the chief magnates of
the universe, Cain, in his toast, reviews the ascent of man from his beginnings
as a horrendous creature to his present status as the leader and conqueror of
the cosmos, having overcome the animals and forces of nature. He salutes the
Promethians, the Newtons, the Einsteins and Franklins who blazed the trail for
the sophisticated civilization that he, Cain, had constructed. He acclaims his
consort Be’er and those who inspired her: Moses, Lenin and Asoka (d. 232 BCE),
the great Indian emperor, a convert to Buddhism who had almost succeeded in
uniting his entire empire. The three, a very strange trio ideologically, are
credited in the poem with having established a discipline of law to control
human passions. Thus they would appear to be in Abel’s school, yet they are
described as advancing Cain’s cause by influencing Be’er to aid him in his
project; in fact, they are regarded by the poet as endeavoring to unite men and
nations to foster Cain’s work of building the civilizations he designed. Thus
there appears to be a confusion, if not a conflict of ideas. Moses the theist,
an affirmer of life and morality, is here associated philosophically with the
atheistic Lenin and the advocate of Nirvana, Asoka – rather strange bedfellows,
to say the least. These contradictions were the source of considerable and
justifiable criticism of the poem.
To resume the plot of this epic drama. As Cain sipped his
wine, his face suddenly became contorted, for he had been poisoned by Be’er, as
she had planned. She had carried out her scheme and now proceeded to purge the
world of its crime of existence. She extended her hand in the path of the sun,
extinguishing its light and enveloping the star on which she and her guests were
assembled in heavy smoke and darkness. Detached from its constellation the star
catapulted wildly and aimlessly through space. Then she turned to her guests,
to denounce the earth’s deceit and falsity:
The world’s peace is a lie,
A tension of opposing forces,
The caress of foes fighting!
* * * * * * *
From the oppression of creature
Your salvation is nothingness.
* * * * * * *
Transform your will to non-will
And your being to non-being.
But they did not procure their “freedom of nothingness.”
That hope was foiled by the escape of a particle of energy between the ninth and
tenth dimensions which became the seed of a fresh existence and the birth of
another generation with restored and independent passions – a new order.
Despite its limitations, “Cain and Abel” may be regarded as
a masterpiece and a tribute to Regelson’s vivid imagination and poetic gifts.
It is often breathtaking in its drama, its scenes and portrayals. Writeen in
1932, it anticipated the splitting of the atom a decade later. The poem points
to the dangers and risks of the nuclear age and its threat to mankind,
particularly since the gap between human ethics and technological advance has
grown so widely. Though posing the problem, however, the poet is silent about a
solution as to how to effect a balance between an advanced technocratic culture
and human welfare.
“Cain and Abel” is composed in metered, succinct and compact
lines, conveying a strained and tempestuous mood. But Regelson is also capable
of writing in a lighter vein, as he proves by his rhymed lyric, “To the Child
Raim ben Abraham,” who is none other than his own son Ephraim. It is the self
mockery of an American Hebrew poet.
If the moon you crave, my son
As a gift from heaven,
I shall seize it and give it thee
With my own hands.
And if, for the stars of night, my son,
A longing grips thee,
Fistfuls I shall gather
For thee as toys.
Your father is a mighty poet,
Is there aught beyond his power?
He can command the sunset to deliver him
A pailful of golden light.
But do not ask for bread, my son,
Nor plead for butter
For then your father will nod his head
And ‘nay, nay’ he will say.
Your father is a mighty poet,
Who great power in heaven exerts;
From the Milky Way he will give thee drink
And nourish thee with lightning gleams.
As may well be expected, Regelson was considerably
influenced by his American cultural environment in which both English, as well
as American literature are prominent factors. He mentions in his Notes appended
to his poetic volume that he had acquired the mystic elements in his verse from
English literature, while his interest in the primitive, in nature and the
world, he derived from American writers, among them Melville, Emerson, Whitman,
Bryant. The English authors who influenced him include Milton, Blake, Shelley,
Keats, Tennyson, Swinburne and Wordsworth. As if to repay his debt to them, he
rendered into Hebrew a number of poems from these and other poets, which he
compiled in a special section in his collection of verse called Ivrurim,
or “Hebraizations.” This division contains translations from Milton, Herrick,
Blake, Wordsworth, Bryant, Emerson, Whitman, Swinburne, Tennyson, Thompson,
Aiken, Hausman and Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees,” the last poem having become very
popular after World War I. It also takes in Hebrew renditions of several of
Abraham Sutzkever’s Yiddish poems.
Regelson’s American orientation is evident in many titles of
his own poetry, such as “Concord Hymn,” “Songs of Maine,” “Mist on Martha’s
Vineyard,” “The American Flag in the Subway,” and others. He is a uniquely
original and individualistic poet, true to his basic thoughts and feeling. What
he borrowed from others he absorbed and filtered through his own personality, so
that he made it very much his own. Though reflecting a highly aesthetic
quality, his verse could hardly be characterized as art for art’s sake, for it
is fraught with a social message. True to the Hebrew classical tradition, he
seeks God in the world in the unity and brotherhood of man.
Regelson couches his ideas in sparkling verse, expressed in
majestic language, embellished with rich metaphors, but occasionally clouded by
obscure and artificial idioms. At times he lapses into lyrical out-pourings; at
others he soars to dizzying heights of thought and fancy. He skillfully employs
alliteration as an ornamental device. His outlook on life is in the main
affirmative, and accordingly Jewish. Regelson has earned and received a number
of literary awards, among them the much coveted Louis Lamed Prize, the Brenner
Prize of the City of Tel Aviv and the Bialik Award. More recently, he visited
New York to accept the Irving and Bertha Neuman Hebrew Literary Award, given by
New York University. It is heartening to know that all his works are now being
assembled, to be published in five volumes. This is a fitting climax to his
life-long literary attainments. It is hoped too that much of his verse will be
translated into English and perhaps also into other languages, so as to make
them accessible to a broader audience.
1. From sama, Aramaic, “blind.”
2. As a result of his own introspection and that of others,
Schopenhauer concludes that the concept of Dinge an sich connotes the
Will to live or exist. Consciousness, he observes, is merely on the surface of
our minds; not in its inner layers, only in the crust. This vital nonrational
Will to live is a force buried underneath the consciousness, which like the
compass needle, tends in a given direction. It is analogous to the branches of
the tree which reach out towards the sun and light. In the animal kingdom,
predatory beasts develop teeth, claws and muscle, in response to this Will to
live, the primary principle of life. This Will governs intelligence in man,
rather than the reverse.
3. The name ‘Cain’ is thought here to be derived from the
root kanoh, connoting a craftsman or artificer (Gen. 14:22), the energetic maker
4. The Hebrew hevel is assumed here to mean vanity (Ecc.
1:2) an indication of the purposelessness and fruitlessness of the kind of
exertion in which Cain is engaged, in order to achieve power and accumulate