Absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power.
What came later
was the real trial. Because God knew
Isaac would not die
while Abraham climbed the mountain believing
he would. With conviction
tempered in the fires of his faith,
he walked up, through the shaded valley,
his son, resolute, ahead on the trail; behind them, Sarah--
Isaac’s mother, Abraham’s wife—a small darkness
in the distance, growing forever
smaller. He bound his beloved son: pulled back
his legs, wrenched back his arms, knotted his ankles to his wrists,
and laid him on that altar like a child falling
through the sky. He held the knife knowing
from every animal he’d ever sacrificed how his son
would jerk and shudder when the blade
opened his throat, the familiar smoke
of offered flesh.
What came later, even with Isaac alive
in the fields, inside
Abraham was the knowledge
of what he’d been willing to do. When they passed
in the tent, Isaac rubbed a remembered ache
in his shoulder and never again held
his father’s eye. Sarah, smelling the imagined
ashes on her husband’s fingers, the blood
in the crease of his throat, turned from him
in the night. And on every path Abraham walked
from that day forward, his son as he had been:
a small back barely the span of his hand
slung with the kindling
meant for his burning.
Seconds from the slaughter
of the one meant to carry his line, of the son
he’d wanted all his life, who’s to say
the voice in his head
was God? Judaism is not a faith
but a tradition, doubt
the crux of its conscience. Yet what came
later, on a Sabbath morning,
centuries on, was a congregation
in Pittsburgh, reading this story
of Isaac’s Binding, of Abraham’s
terrible bind, when a man burning
with unquestioning belief
entered with a gun and, with no better angel
to stay his hand, opened fire, believing
the death of Jews would keep our country
safe, believing this massacre--
bleeding out on the floor--
was God’s work.
Who would call such actions
holy? And how many more times
will each of us come down
from the mountain, conviction knocking
like a knife in our belt loop, stained
with all we would have done?
My daily gods
are minor ones: of pride, of lust,
impatience and complacency.
Yet how many have I harmed
on the way to what I thought
with hindsight, on the way
to what I wanted?
What if we turn
from certainty and arm ourselves
instead with questions? Obey, obey, obey is everywhere
in translation. The real word is shema: listen.
• • •
TO READ MORE POETRY, PICK UP A COPY OF VOL 56 No. 3
JESSICA JACOBS is the author of unalone, poems in conversation with the Book of Genesis (Four Way Books, forthcoming March 2024); Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going (Four Way Books, 2019), one of Library Journal’s Best Poetry Books of the Year and winner of the Devil’s Kitchen and Goldie awards; and Pelvis with Distance (White Pine Press, 2015), winner of the New Mexico Book Award in Poetry and a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. With Nickole Brown, she co-authored Write It! 100 Poetry Prompts to Inspire (Spruce Books/Penguin Random House, 2020). Jessica is the founder and executive director of Yetzirah: A Hearth for Jewish Poetry.