Songs of the Plagues of Egypt

I cannot enter into Sefer Shmot without being swept up by the inexorable rhythms of Natan Alterman’s Shirei Makot Mitzrayim (Songs of the Plagues of Egypt). This extended poem cycle was first introduced to me three years ago by Hillel the Younger, who gave me the precious gift of a first-edition copy with an inscription (in Hebrew) that haunts me to this day:

Ilana! Although the language of our communication is English, it would not be appropriate to dedicate a book by Alterman in a foreign tongue. Remember always that beneath every cry of freedom on Pesach lurks an Egyptian cry that does not find its place. May your reading be pleasant and fearsome—
H.M. (Jerusalem, the Holy City, Shvat 5767)

Since then, I have picked up this book each year on the eve of Parshat Shmot and tried to wrap my mind around its complex imagery, its tense dialogue, its drive to inevitable destruction. The poem vividly and terrifyingly depicts the Egyptian experience of the ten plagues in Egypt. As Professor Ariel Hirshfeld has explained, Alterman, who wrote and published this poem during the Shoah (1944), turns the plagues into a parable of destruction. In the opening poem, we are introduced to the Egyptian city of No-Amon, which is soon to be convulsed by a series of plagues that unfold with constant regularity, climaxing in the plague of the firstborn. This introduction is followed by a sequence of ten highly regular poems, each with six stanzas of four lines, corresponding to each of the ten plagues. In Alterman’s poems, the plagues are not just physical disasters, but also a gradual erosion of the mental state of Egyptian society. Blood, notes Hirshfeld, is not necessarily water that has turned to blood, but rather the color red which floods No-Amon with conflagration and carnage.

Throughout the poems, we hear the direct dialogue between an Egyptian father and his firstborn son, who bear witness to the terror around them. Their dialogue, as I noticed for the first time this year, is strikingly reminiscent of the language and tone of Goethe’s ballad Der Erlkönig, about a boy assailed by a supernatural being as his father carries him home on horseback, most famously set to music by Schubert:
(Has anyone else noticed this parallel between Alterman and Goethe, I wonder?? And lo and behold, I just discovered – it was Alterman who first translated this ballad into Hebrew!)
As in Goethe’s ballad, the poems are shaped by the increasingly fearful cries of the son to his father, and the father’s faltering responses. “My father, my father,” cries the son in Goethe’s ballad, “the Erlkönig is grabbing me now! He will do me harm!” Likewise, in Alterman’s tenth poem in the cycle, the firstborn son, his face suddenly pale, calls out: “My father, where is my father? My bed is darkness.” The boy’s father answers him with a testament to the enduring strength of man: “My firstborn, my firstborn son! Darkness will not divide us, because father and son are linked by the tangles of darkness.” The concluding poem that follows the cycle of ten, “Ayelet,” ends with this glimmer of hope. The poem invokes Ayelet HaShachar, the last star seen before dawn, and appeals to the human ability to maintain hope in the face of pain and destruction.

After reading a brilliant d’var Torah by Rabbi Benny Lau dramatizing the Egyptian experience of the Israelites in their midst, I was inspired by my annual re-reading of Alterman to translate two sections into Hebrew: a part of the introductory poem, and the blood poem. May your reading be pleasant and fearsome!

En Route to No-Amon

No-Amon, with your axes of iron
Your gates, uprooted by night
They will come, plagues of Egypt, upon you
To mete out to you justice by night.

No-Amon, then it rose to the moon
The first cry, with no one to hear,
And the strong man who ran to the gateway
Collapsed, while still running, from fear.

Shrouded in cries, the king’s city
Tossed forth in a wondrous hurl.
From chambers of grandeur to salt grains
From crown down to rags cast aswirl.

Among oft-told traditional stories,
Your cast-aside story burns fierce
Like a far-afield great conflagration
Past the thick clouds of time that you pierce.

Like the memories of sin, retribution,
Like a shirt steeped in red-blood libation
You rose-crept, with no mold encrustation
To the first of the paths of the nations.

1. Blood

Your night revealed, Amon, the stranger’s star above
And shown in light of fire, the face of wells and shores.
Entranced Amon you rose, a blood-red diamond stone
From tresses of a maid to pennies of the poor.

The poor man’s coin is gleaming, and drowning in red ink.
A damsel drawing water, her lips in fear assailed.
Her arm outstretched, extended: Come mighty Lord, come save!
The pail flies down, descending; and as it drops it wails.

As scarlet strikes the faces of those who sleep and wake
The maiden’s braids fly downward, like twine that ties the well
The lashes of all flesh flash flames. Through burning lips,
My Father, cries the son. Firstborn! he sounds, a knell.

I’m dizzy, Father, dizzy, and not from dancing rounds.
My breath, my Father, wheezing, my nostrils stuffed with sand.
Hold me close, support me, and clasp me till I fall,
Hold me as I, Father, draw water to my hand.

My Son, my Firstborn Son, the water’s turned so red
Pure blood poured out like water, and water poured like blood.
The well has depths of darkness, the beast – red eyes that flash.
For silent is the city, convulsed not in the flood.

My Father, is there no end to parched lips and to thirst?
The stranger’s star, Firstborn, shines forth above the land.
The waters, Father, rise, like fire in our jugs,
Our blood is redder, Son, and we are in their hands.

2 thoughts on “Songs of the Plagues of Egypt

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