Another mother poem: a sweet year
Welcome, new readers!

The Akedah Cycle: a sermon in poetry for the second day of Rosh Hashanah

In years past, our visiting cantorial soloist has offered a "sermon in song" on the second morning of Rosh Hashanah. This year, I'm doing something along the same lines, but in my own home genre: I'm offering a "sermon in poetry."

My sermon -- a set of ten linked poems -- centers around the Torah reading for today: the story of the akedah, the binding of Isaac. It's a powerful story, and a difficult one. I hope that these poems may offer you some new ways of thinking about this story at this moment in the year.

At some later juncture I may post about how I wrote these, and about the references and allusions in them, but for now I want to just place them before you. Read, and let me know what you think. Shanah tovah.

Edited to add: these poems can now be found in my collection of Torah poems, 70 faces, published by Phoenicia Publishing in 2001. (Click on the link to read more and/or to purchase a copy.)

The Akedah Cycle

1. Acharei ha-dvarim ha-eileh / After these things

—the hidden ache of infertility,
their marriage straining at the seams
beneath everything unspoken—

Sarai's desperate play for control,
claiming she wouldn't mind
if Avram slept with the maid

—then watching Hagar's belly swell,
how she carried unborn Ishmael
as though she were dancing—

after jealousy arose between them
like brackish water, after Hagar
spoke with the Almighty

—after Avram changed their names
and circumcised his heart,
after the angels came—

after Avraham argued with God
and Lot offered his own daughters
to a mob of angry men

—after Avraham and Sarah moved
to Abimelech's lands, desperate
to escape their own story—

after they returned home
and Sarah became pregnant
and they named their son Laughter

—after Sarah had laughed
to think of milk flowing
from her withered breasts—

after Sarah saw the boys at play
and fury overwhelmed her
and she sent Hagar away

—after Avraham, distraught,
accused Abimelech of stealing
his source of inspiration—

after the men made a treaty
and planted a tamarisk
and they stayed there a while

—after Avraham had forgotten
Sarah’s exhausted radiance
when she first held their son—

after these things
the sweet and the bitter
God tested Avraham

2. Acharei ha-dvarim ha-eileh / After these words

The adversary stood before God
like a prosecutor before a judge
and said, My Lord, with all due respect
this guy you’ve chosen isn’t worthy
if you demanded a real sacrifice
he would balk like a frightened mule.

No, that’s not right:
it was Yitzchak and Ishmael arguing
as brothers do, and one said
my circumcision is better than yours
I was thirteen, and you were eight days old
and the other said, so what, I’d do anything for God.

Actually the conversation was between God
and Avraham: God said take your son.
Avraham asked, which one? God tried your only son
but Avraham said one is Sarah’s, one is Hagar’s.
Whom you love, God said, and Avraham said
so help me, I love them both.

When it was all over God said
I never meant for you to kill him.
I only wanted you to raise him up.
But Avraham had forgotten
how to hear God’s voice
and he never replied.

3. Meanwhile, back at the ranch

Their dwelling is quiet.
Sarah wakes early,
has to remind herself
that no one needs her.

After Hagar left
(after Sarah sent her:
not her finest moment,
she blames depression)

Sarah never sought
another handmaid
preferring to wrangle
her son alone.

For months Avraham slept
in his own tent, or
under the spread of stars
while Sarah woke

and nursed, woke and nursed.
She crooned Yitzchak
back to sleep
five times a night.

When he learned to walk
their camp was his.
He waddled from one tent
to the next, from goats

to firepit, even
to the well his father
covered hastily
with a woven net.

But always Yitzchak returned
to his mother, peeking
around her loom.
Now his absence echoes.

On the third night
Sarah dreams a visitor
who tells her
Avraham wields a knife,

their son is bound
and she wakes screaming
as though the blade
pierced her own chest.

4.  God and I

We’d always had a good relationship,
God and I,
Avraham says, leaning back
and puffing on his pipe

from the moment I could talk
I knew I was different
knew my father’s idols
had nothing to say to me

I wanted to know
the Maker of heaven and earth
and it paid off:
God was right there

whispering in my ear
as near to me as the thrumming
of blood in my veins,
as the hopes in my heart

God promised me children
as numerous as the stars
if I would walk in God’s ways
and I tried

we opened our tent
to all comers, greeted everyone
as a face of the Holy One
fixed feasts for angels

we reminded each other
who we wanted to be, God
and I: when God threatened
destruction I urged compassion

and God liked that, God
was proud that I argued
but then
God commanded this

I loaded my son with wood
we wound our way uphill
and God help me
I raised my knife

I’d like to say
it was a leap of faith
a lesson against child sacrifice
I knew God’s plan all along

I’d like to say
I knew what I was doing
I knew Yitzchak would never
meet my eyes again

5. Excursion

Yitzchak and his father go camping
with two older boys, the sons
of Avraham’s laborers, playmates
who once carried Yitzchak on their shoulders
to make him laugh and kick

on the first day they walk further
than Yitzchak has ever traveled,
their encampment vanishing in the distance
and when they stop for the night
Avraham tells stories

on the second day
Yitzchak’s legs grow tired
he rides on the back of the donkey
resting his feet on the firewood
bundled on each side of the saddle

on the third day Avraham lifts his eyes
up to the mountains
and he tells the other boys to wait,
that he and Yitzchak will worship,
and they ascend alone

Yitzchak feels so grown-up
climbing the hill with his father
and maybe someday
he will go camping with his own son
they will be the best of friends

but something is missing
where is the lamb
and why does his father’s voice
sound so strained
when he says God will provide?

6. The angels say

Avraham failed the test.
For Sodom and Gomorrah he argued
but when it came to his son
no protest crossed his lips.

God was mute with horror.
Avraham, smasher of idols
and digger of wells
was meant to talk back.

Sarah would have been wiser
but Avraham avoided her tent,
didn't lay his head in her lap
to unburden his secret heart.

In stricken silence God watched
as Avraham saddled his ass
and took Yitzchak on their last hike
to the place God would show him.

The angel had to call him twice.
Avraham's eyes were red, his voice hoarse
he wept like a man pardoned
but God never spoke to him again.

7. Possibilities

Maybe Avraham was testing God,
walking slowly, stalling for time.

Maybe God wanted obedience
and Yitzchak yearned to submit.

Yitzchak might have been
old enough to understand

maybe he was sixteen, maybe thirty-seven
in the moment when God saw him.

Avraham might have been crazy.
He might have misunderstood.

Maybe the angel who said
Now I know that you fear God

was a literalist, unable to imagine
how this story sticks in our throats.

Maybe the angel’s speech
wasn't originally part of the story.

Maybe Sarah got wind of the plan
and her soul departed, or

maybe she was ready with a feast
when Yitzchak came home.

Maybe Avraham’s tears
made Yitzchak go blind.

Maybe Yitzchak was killed, then spent
three years in Eden before returning.

Maybe we need to accept
we too are bound.

Prepare ourselves every day to die,
to offer God what we most prize.

Maybe there’s always a ram
waiting just outside the frame.

8. Together

The two of them walked together
Yitzchak and Ishmael
they never spoke again
after their mothers quarreled

Yitzchak and Ishmael
beneath the cloudless sky
after their mothers quarreled
exchanged one last embrace

beneath the cloudless sky
Sarah and her son
exchanged one last embrace
before the three-day journey

Sarah and her son
drew water from the well
before the three-day journey
barefoot in the dust

drawing water from the well
Avraham plumbed the depths
barefoot in the dust
asking God for insight

Avraham plumbed the depths
he looked up to the mountain
asking God for insight
his heart afire with fear

he looked up to the mountain
they never spoke again
his heart afire with fear
the two of them walked together

9. D’var acher / another version

Imagine a different story,
Avraham and Sarah
setting forth together.
Sarah wears the baby
strapped to her ample chest.
Yitzchak turns his head
from side to side
tugging at his mama's hair
and reaching out to grasp
the distant mountains.

At the top of the hill
Avraham builds a fire
while Yitzchak looks on.
Sarah unpacks green olives
bright with curls of lemon,
shreds of lamb baked
into flatbread.
They sit on the ground
and the baby nurses
as his parents eat.

That night in their tent
Sarah's hair smells like smoke.
Avraham sings a lullaby.
Yitzchak plays with a toy
and watches their hands
linger and intertwine.
The coals of their fire glow
and above them, stars
as numerous as the sands
as bright as Yitzchak's eyes.

10.  And here we are

But what about us    listening to this tale
again, wishing        for the hundredth time
that our ancestors    weren't so familiar

sometimes petty    and sometimes kind
walking awestruck    through a world
where God's presence        is always manifest

In this season of turning        and returning
we long for heroes    we want to be able to say
I take after my parents        with uncomplicated pride

But that’s not how it goes    our forebears had
marriages and children    relationships and arguments
sometimes they missed    even the widest of marks

All we can do        is tell their stories
around our campfire        around our festival table
with the polished kiddush cup    and challah round as the moon

all we can do is pray          for a year as sweet
as mother’s milk, a year    when we don’t make
the same mistakes    for the millionth time

or, when we do,    resolve not to wait
until next Rosh Hashanah    to seek forgiveness
All we can do        is remember