As Exodus comes to a close, this poem seems appropriate:
“Exodus” by Charles Reznikoff
…But there came a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph
and set us building treasuries and cities,
set us making brick for him and building cities:
we who had been masters of our days and daylight,
free to wander, free to stay.
King and servants, priests and laymen;
soldiers and overseers, and slaves:
this was Egypt’s peace and order,
and in this order we were slaves:
Israel like a bird that a creeping weasel has wounded in the head
or a man knocked against a wall;
the cattle have trampled it — but still it flutters.
But there came a shepherd from the desert,
speaking in the ancient tongue
all but our eldest had forgotten;
and we saw an old man — withered hands and haunches;
and he said to us, stuttering as he spoke:
I bring a message from the God of your fathers
and, in place of these burdens,
I bring you — the yoke of His law.
How pleasant it is, distinguished from the beasts,
to feed upon His law
tasting each syllable
the radiance of our Lord!
If there is bone enough to make the tooth of a key
and ink enough to write two letters of the alphabet —
then fear not the rush of tramping shoes nor the sound of the shouting
and hurry out of this land!
— found in Chapters into Verse
Reznikoff includes notes indicating that the italicized lines at the end of these two stanzas (of a four-stanza poem) “are from the Mishnah (Hullin 3:3 and other places, Danby’s translation).” The ink and bone references can be found in Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 78b.
You can read the entire poem at Google Books. See Source Materials for Chapters into Verse details. The poem is also found in The Poems of Charles Reznikoff
The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.
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