New York: 1951
“The lamps are burning in the synagogue,
in the houses of study, in dark alleys. . . .”
This should be the place.
This is the way
the guide book describes it. Excuse me, sir,
can you tell me
where Eli lives, Eli the katzev—
slaughterer of cattle and poultry?
One of my ancestors.
Reb Haskel? Reb Shimin? My grandfathers.
This is the discipline that withstood the siege
of every Jew;
these are the prayer shawls that have proved
stronger than armor.
Let us begin then humbly. Not by asking:
Who is This you pray to? Name Him;
define Him. For the answer is:
We do not name Him.
Once out of a savage fear, perhaps;
now out of knowledge—of our ignorance.
Begin then humbly. Not by asking:
Shall I live forever?
Hear again the dear dead greeting me gladly
as they used to
when we were all among the living?
For the answer is:
If you think we differ from all His other creatures,
say only if you like with the Pharisees, our teachers,
those who do not believe in an eternal life
will not have it.
In the morning I arise and match again
my plans against my cash.
I wonder now if the long morning prayers
were an utter waste of an hour
weighing, as they do, hopes and anguish,
and sending the believer out into the street
with the sweet taste of the prayers on his lips.
Today this creditor is at your office;
tomorrow this one in your home;
until the final creditor of all
places his bony hands upon your breast
Dig your heels into the dust!
How good to stop
and look out upon eternity a while.
And daily—at Shahris, Minha, Maariv
in the morning, afternoon, and evening—
be at ease in Zion.
In Memoriam: S.R.
This I light for you
will last longer, perhaps,
than if it were on a wick
in a glassful of wax,
than if it were shining wires
and safe in a glass bulb
from any gust of wind.
And you are still here
shining like a star that has
crumbled out of heaven.
In Memoriam: L.R.W.
A shadow on the bright sidewalk:
death was beside us
showing his pistol.
So skillful have the undertakers become
that when they buried you
they led us straight away from the grave
and did not let us see how deep the coffin lies.
To the savage, perhaps, each bird has a message;
I know that they shriek only to themselves.
The stars in their courses did not fight for us.
I died last week, last year.
I know these streets so well, these skies,
yet look about me with a stranger’s eyes.
I bring a message from the wind and worms,
from darkness, dust, and stones;
I wear a shroud beneath this suit
but talk of trifles or am mute.
Many, many that I meet
greet me politely and I greet them, too;
but, once behind,
out of sight, out of mind.
I have no word of blame, no stick or stone,
because I died. The fault, the weakness,
was mine, of course. Mine alone.
As I was wandering with my unhappy thoughts,
I looked and saw
that I had come into a sunny place,
familiar and yet strange.
“Where am I?” I asked a stranger. “Paradise.”
“Can this be Paradise?” I asked surprised,
for there were motor cars and factories.
“It is,” he answered. “This is the sun that shone on Adam once;
the very wind that blew upon him, too.”
I have neither the time nor the weaving skill, perhaps,
for the intricate medallions the Persians know;
my rugs are the barbaric fire-worshipper’s:
how blue the waters flow,
how red the fiery sun,
how brilliant a green the grass is,
how blinding white the snow.
Not because of victories
but for the common sunshine,
the largess of the spring.
Not for victory
but for the day’s work done
as well as I was able;
not for a seat upon the dais
but at the common table.