4.12. Shaul Tshernikhovski, poem ‘Did I come too soon or was the Rock late who created me?’ (1919)

Haʾim kidamti bo o eḥar ẓur be-raʾani? (“Did I come too soon or was the Rock late who created me?”) is the 8th and central sonnet of the Hebrew cycle La-shemesh (“To the Sun”) (1919) by Shaul Tshernikhovski (1875-1943). This cycle is a corona, a traditional, special kind of sonnet cycle, consisting of 15 sonnets, in which the last verse of each poem is identical to the first verse of the next poem, while the 15th sonnet consists of the first lines of the preceding 14 sonnets. *A corona is also a colored circle, seen around and close to the sun.

The cycle deals with a fictional sun worship; it encompasses a dizzying range of times, places, religions, and sciences, from Prehistory to World War I, from the Near East to China, from sun worship to the Jewish religion and from physics to medicine. Notwithstanding this, the cycle is very coherent in both form and content, because everything has a function in the worship of the sun as the bringer of light and life. In contrast to Tshaykov’s drawing Dawn, *Chapter 4.11 the sun is more than a mere metaphor. One of the specifically Jewish elements in the cycle is the shofar, which figures in the 8th sonnet, Did I come too soon or was the Rock late who created me? and is also incorporated in the sun worship.

Did I come too soon or was the Rock late who created me?

“Gods” are around me and fill all existence.

Stars are my gods, I pray to them bewitched
By their faces, light of day and pale moon.

[5] For beside you there is nothing, O sun that has warmed me!

Sun-children you are to me, the cocoons hanging high,

Sun-children—the elephant tree, the peel of each garlic,
Avatars of light and heat, the combustible coal.

And all existence becomes a voice of prayer, the prayer of all:

[10] To you the mother jackals call as they litter their welps,

To you the battle trumpet as light breaks in the camp,

The suns in the sphere above as the voice sweeps them up.

In the chorus of the infinite I’ll sing out and not be still:

In my heart the dew yet lodges that descends on Edom’s steppes.

*Reproduced by permission of Brandeis University Press. In this translation (Reading Hebrew Literature 68), Robert Alter gives a rendering of the content, sacrificing meter and rhyme. In his earlier translation (The Hebrew Poem Itself 50-1) the shofar-krav in v. 11 is a singing horn instead of a calling trumpet: “To You, the battle horn sings as light breaks in the camp[.]” Alter adds: “The diction and grammar of the poem are more elevated, more biblically poetic, than our version can indicate.” In this poem, everything is dependent on the sun: not only the large tree but also the tiny garlic peel owe their medicinal properties to the sun; the cocoons hanging high in the trees take their hidden life from the sun, as does the coal with its latent heat, hidden deep in the earth. Everything and everyone is oriented towards the sun and the persona worships it in both an extrovert and an introvert way, singing out in the chorus of infinity and cherishing in his heart the dew of Edom, the area that the Israelites passed through on their way to the Promised Land. Just as in the whole cycle, sonnet 8 combines elements from different religions. There is a creator, who is referred to as “the Rock;” this is a common name of God in the Jewish religion, mentioned for example in Moses’ song in Deut. 32:4: “The Rock!—His deeds are perfect” and to whom the Adon ʿOlam in the Siddur is directed: “He is the Rock on whom I rely.” *The Koren Siddur 300. This prayer is sung by prisoners in Scene 17 of Heucke’s opera The Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz. Chapter 4.66. Although “the Rock” is not abjured, he must share his power with the celestial bodies and Tshernikhovski denotes these superterrestrial entities with the ambiguous Hebrew word elohim, actually a plural, which can indicate either the one God of Israel or gods in general; therefore, it is put in quotation marks.

The shofar is an important element in the sun worship in this cycle, if only because of its place in the middle of the central, 8th poem of the corona. The Judaism scholar Sol Finesinger has raised the possibility that Pss. 47 and 98 contain elements of sun worship, with which the Israelites came in contact during the Babylonian exile. *Finesinger, “The Shofar” 195-6. In these two psalms, God is worshiped as king and Finesinger assumes that both v. 47:6: “God ascends midst acclamation; / the LORD, to the blasts of the horn” and v. 98:6: “With trumpets and the blast of the horn / raise a shout before the LORD, the King” are inspired by Babylonian ideas about the sunrise, threatened by opposing forces, that should be deterred by loud instruments like the shofarot. In the Bible and later in the Mishnah, sun worship encounters resistance. God as creator of heaven and earth is above the sun and the moon, and this becomes clear in a passage like Job 31:26-28: “If I ever saw the light shining, / The moon on its course in full glory, / 27 And I secretly succumbed, / And my hand touched my mouth in a kiss, / 28 That, too, would have been a criminal offense, / For I would have denied God above.” Ezek. 8:16-18 is a vision in which God leads the prophet to the Temple in Jerusalem to show him men worshiping the sun with their faces toward the east, where the sun rises, and turning their backs to the Temple. God announces that He will deal with these people and will have no pity. Because Ezekiel acted in Babylon, he may have thought about the sun worship practised there. *The Jewish Study Bible 1048, Note. The Mishnah tractate Sukkah refers to this passage. In the ritual of the Temple, the shofar is blown by two priests, who, upon reaching the eastern gate, turn to the west, saying: “Our fathers who were in this place turned with their backs toward the Temple of the Lord and their faces toward the east, and they worshipped the sun toward the east. . . . But as to us, our eyes are to the Lord.” *Mishnah Sukkah 5:4M-N. Ed. Neusner 289. Ezek. 8:16 is italicized. Moreover, this Mishnaic text prefaces the cycle To the Sun.

The shofar call in v. 11 follows the call of the jackal, an animal which has a bad reputation in the Bible and can be associated with the enemy powers Babylon or Egypt. Isa. 13:19 and 13:22 prophesy that Babylon “shall become like Sodom and Gomorrah / Overturned by God. . . . And jackals shall abide in its castles[.]” The Israelites may also have known the Egyptian belief that the sun, after its journey through the sky, travels back through the night in a boat drawn by jackals, and after its resurrection is hailed by the whole of creation. Although the shofar is blown in an army camp, nothing in sonnet 8 points explicitly to warfare. War, however, rages in sonnet 7, where the persona is a modern army medical officer in the dusk of a bunker and notices something of the magic sunlight in the eye of a dying soldier and the fire of guns: “And yet in that spark in the guttering eye . . . And yet in that fire-flash burning and shrieking . . . It was you who were in them, this your glory that stunned me[.]” *Tshernikhovski could draw from his experiences as a Russian army medical officer in World War I.

This Present of World War I “sun worship” alters the Past of ancient sun worship in sonnet 8. This Past is both detailed and vague, both pagan and Jewish, both pre-biblical and biblical. In the Bible and the Jewish prayer books, the shofar is an instrument in a dialogue between God and man; a direct dialogue, as between God and Moses on Mount Sinai, announced by the great shofar, or one of the many indirect dialogues with God through prophets, kings or generals who act according to His will and declare their intentions by means of shofar blasts. In contrast, Tshernikhovski’s sun worship is essentially a monologue, in which all creatures, included the shofar blower in the camp, worship the bringer of life, without the sun entering into a dialogue. Therefore, the shofar blast in the camp is an internally persuasive discourse, in which the powerful voice of the sun and the battle cry of man are heard.

The same Hebrew verb ranan is used in v. 11 for the singing of the battle trumpet, in v. 13 for the singing of the persona in the chorus of the infinite, and according to the translator Robert Alter, *Alter, “To the Sun” 97 the same “high-poetic” term for singing, not accidentally, is used in the evocation of cosmogony in Job 38: “1 Then the LORD replied to Job out of the tempest and said: . . . 6 Who set its [the earth’s] cornerstone / 7 When the morning stars sang together / And all the divine beings shouted for joy?”

The persona of the poem sings out in the chorus of the infinite with a “jubilant trumpet blare,” *Alter, in The Modern Hebrew Poem Itself 51 sounding warmer and more passionate than in Sachs’ Someone Blew the Shofar: *Chapter 4.26 “The air tells of a light! / The earth circles and the constellations circle / In the Shofar[.]” On the other hand, shofar blowing in Sachs’ poem forms part of a divine plan for the salvation of the Jewish people, as is shown by the motto: “And the sinking occurs / For the sake of the rising.” In Tshernikhovski’s To the Sun, there is no covenant between the sun and the creatures, as between God and the people of Israel, and commandments as guidelines for life are absent. In the Jewish religion, the great shofar marks the beginning and end of history; the former in the revelation of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai in Exod. 19:19: “The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder” and the latter in the end of days in Isa. 27:13: “And in that day, a great ram’s horn shall be sounded[.]” In Tshernikhovski’s sonnets, which are not coincidentally a cycle and even a corona, there is no history with a God-given beginning and end but instead, an endlessly repeated cycle of sunrises and sunsets. Whereas the sun is the symbol of Christianity in Elgar’s oratorio The Apostles *Chapter 4.5 and the symbol of Revolution in Tshaykov’s drawing Dawn, *Chapter 4.11 the sun in Tshernikhovski’s cycle is not a symbol, but the object itself of worship. The shofar is not its herald, but one of the voices in the choir, worshipping the sun day after day “as light breaks in the camp.”


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