“Like Tefillin Straps, Roads”

Va'et-hannan By :  Yitzhak Lewis Adjunct Assistant Professor of Hebrew Language Posted On Aug 4, 2017 / 5777 | דבר אחר | A Different Perspective | Israel

Dress me, kosher mother [. . .]
And with Shaharit, lead me to labor.

My land is wrapped in light as a tallit
Houses stand like phylacteries
And like tefillin straps, roads ride on that hands have paved. [. . .]

And among the builders, your son Abraham
A poet-paver of Israel.

הַלְבִּישִׁינִי אִמָּא כְּשֵׁרָה […]
וְעִם שַׁחֲרִית הוֹבִילִינִי אֱלֵי עָמָל.

עוֹטְפָה אַרְצִי אוֹר כַּטַּלִּית
בָּתִּים נִצְבוּ כַּטּוֹטָפוֹת.
וְכִרְצוּעוֹת-תְּפִלִּין גּוֹלְשִׁים כְּבִישִׁים סָלְלוּ כַפַּיִם. […]

וּבַבּוֹרְאִים—בְּנֵךְ אַבְרָהָם,
פַּיְטָן סוֹלֵל בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל.

—From “Labor,” (1927) by Avraham Shlonsky, trans. Y. Lewis

This week’s haftarah is heavy on the themes of consolation and redemption. A fitting tone for the Shabbat after Tishah Be’av, the fortieth chapter of Isaiah opens with the call “be comforted, be comforted, my people.” Given its implications for Jewish national redemption, it is not surprising that this chapter has had extensive allusive presence in modern Hebrew literature. H. N. Bialik’s famous pronouncement of disillusionment with the political stamina of his folk, “indeed the people are as hay,” is taken from verse 7. The title of one of S. Y. Agnon’s most prominent works, “And the Crooked Shall Become Straight,” is from verse 4.

The image of rolling out redemption as an infrastructure project—paving highways through the desert, flattening mountains and raising landfills—is invoked in verses 3–4 of our haftarah as divine fiat.

A voice rings out:
“Clear in the desert
A road for the Lord!
Level in the wilderness
A highway for our God!

Let every valley be raised,
Every hill and mount made low.
Let the rugged ground become level
And the ridges become a plain.”

In the poem quoted above, essayist and poet Avraham Shlonsky (1900–1973) draws upon this image of infrastructure as redemption. Displacing divine fiat with human labor, he alludes to the divine redemption of Isaiah 40 through the actions of a day laborer in 1920s Palestine. In the poem, the manual labor of paving roads and building houses takes on a theological significance of sanctifying the Land, while the religious symbols of tallit and tefillin become metaphors for infrastructure.