A poem by Cavafy:
The Poseidonians forgot the Greek languageI most recently encountered this poem by way of the explanation offered by The Poseidonian for the name of his blog. He's lamenting the likelihood that America has reached its apogee and is now settling into its long decline, an estimate I think pretty likely to be right.
after so many centuries of mingling
with Tyrrhenians, Latins, and other foreigners.
The only thing surviving from their ancestors
was a Greek festival, with beautiful rites,
with lyres and flutes, contests and wreaths.
And it was their habit toward the festival's end
to tell each other about their ancient customs
and once again to speak Greek names
that only few of them still recognized.
And so their festival always had a melancholy ending
because they remembered that they too were Greeks,
they too once upon a time were citizens of Magna Graecia;
and how low they'd fallen now, what they'd become,
living and speaking like barbarians,
cut off so disastrously from the Greek way of life.
Now compare this to the story, frequently re-told, concerning the early generations of Hasidim:
When the Ba'al Shem Tov had to accomplish a difficult task, he retired to a certain spot in the forest. By mystical means he would light a fire, and he meditated in prayer; and what he set out to perform was done.This story is all too often mis-told as a fuzzy vignette intended to make us feel good about recounting myths, a comfort to us in the midst of resignation. I do not think this quite captures the meaning. Between these two parables there is an important and subtle difference in emphasis, and it has everything to do with what is at stake in the one and in the other.
After a generation, his disciple the Maggid of Mezeritz too faced a challenge. He went to the same place in the woods, and would say: "We can no longer light the fire, but we can still say the prayers," and what he wanted done became real.
Again, a generation later, Rabbi Moishe of Sassov had to perform a task. And he too went to the forest saying: "We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the prayer's secret meditations; but we do know the place in the woods to which it all belongs, and that must be sufficient." And so it was.
But when another generation had passed, and Rabbi Israel of Rishin was called upon to perform the task, he sat down on his chair in his room and said: "We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place. All we can do is to tell the story of how it was done." And the story that he told had the same effect as the deeds of the other three.