Oaths of Fathers and Sons
Israel, before blessing Josef’s sons says, “To see your face, I never hoped/prayed for [l’o pilalti] And now God shows me your children as well.” And Josef took them (Menashe and Ephraim) from between (Jacob’s) knees, and he (Jacob) fell prostrate to the ground (Gen. 48:11-12).
Does he fall in despair or in supplication?
This is Jacob’s private prayer, what he does not dare say aloud:
For seventeen years, I lived you fleetingly, loved you fiercely,
As one grasps the lamb born of the dying ewe.
You have her eyes, those long dark lashes, mouth in a perpetual pout,
The way she’d shrug her slender shoulders and turn away,
Letting the tunic slip askew.
I gave that tunic to you.
It was only right that you should have it, as part of her dowry.
Unfolding it from the acacia wood box, the crimson and indigo threads lept alive
In the figure of lion, lamb, cherub, and ox.
And you let the colors fade in the sun.
You rarely took it off.
Oh God, What did I do? Bloodied cloak empty in my arms.
No corpse even for which we might break a heifer’s neck.
Rent, rent apart.
I cannot get past that image, though you stand
Now in the flesh, almost sixty.
No present can restore me from that chasm, the absence of you,
Blank of twenty two years.
When my grey hairs went down to Sheol in mourning you.
And all I am left with is longing for what cannot be recovered.
Yet you’ve come back to me with uncanny symmetry, seventeen years into my hoary age old.
I have cataracts and a voice permanently hoarse from dry sobbing.
I have grown myopic, longing over distance.
Mon Dieu as D’yeux, “of eyes”,
“D” for desire — desire to see. Desire to be seen.*
That’s all I ever wanted, to see her, to see you again.
But what did longing bring me?
A misplaced garment, faded colors, rent and bloodied.
I fall on my face. Dare to long no longer!
For I never thought I’d see you again.
Joseph, swear to me, swear to me now.
Place your hand under my thigh. There on the mark.
Swear to me that you will lead the funeral train home.
Take my body to the Double Cave And bury me there, bundled up with the living.
Not here, the Land of the Dead, Sheol, where my grey hairs went down in mourning.
For you know, Joseph, of all my sons, what it means to long for home.
“And Joseph’s brothers saw that their father had died….” (Gen. 50:5). What did the brothers see? Did they not already know their father had died? The midrash comments, that upon the brothers return to Egypt from Canaan, they passed by the pit into which they had cast Joseph, and saw Joseph leaning over the edge, mumbling to himself. They were seized with fear, now that their father had died, that Joseph would take revenge for what they had done to him as a lad. But Joseph did not have one wistful thought of vengeance. Rather he was praying, praising God: Barukh sh’assani nes ba-maqom ha-zeh (Bless is He who made me a miracle in this place).
[Adapted from Pesikta Zutra (Leqah Tov) VaYehi 50 and Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer 7, p. 130].
I only have you, My God. That’s how it’s always been:
The grand plan, the cosmic scheme of things.
You hold me up like a ladder, a treble clef, a spinal chord,
Winged-notes scaling up and down the score.
You always had a plan even if I couldn’t understand.
That’s what I have come to know from the pit
Even more than my dreams intoned,
Even when the sun, moon, and stars did bow low.
That’s what I came to realize in the pit,
Green with terror, nearly asphyxiated.
Scorpions crawled the rough, granite walls,
I dared not touch to haul myself out.
Twenty feet below ground, dark as a bruise.
No eyes could see. Nor ear hear, though I screamed myself hoarse,
Bleating like a lamb caught in a rock crevice.
Hours, maybe days passed. No sunrise, no sunset to measure time,
In that Sheol grave pit prison.
I see my brothers now across the chasm of that pit.
They are pale, whispering, scared. As otiose as ever.
Nothing really to say. We could never talk over the silence of that pit,
Across the Lethe of forgetting, of eternal regret.
So here’s my last request, brothers. Perhaps it’s far fetched.
I will die before you. That I know.
I have divined the goblet, read the magic bowls.
Though we never could speak peaceably, hold whole in this lifetime,
Your children and children’s children might remember me, and raise my bones up from here,
Far from kith or kin, from the Cave of mummied Kings or from the River Nile,
And carry my coffin across sea and desert, homeward bound.
Swear to me, my brothers, swear to me now
That your descendants will take me out of Egypt
When God enacts the grand plan, and remembers us all,
And takes us out of the Land of the Dead, Sheol,
Into life again.
Draw me out of the pit this time, this pit.
Don’t leave me, don’t abandon me to oblivion again.
*Based on Edmond Jabès:
“Do you know that the final period of the book is an eye,” he said, “and without a lid?”
Dieu, “God,” he spelled D’yeux, “of eyes.” “The ‘D’ stands for desire,” he added. “Desire to see. Desire to be seen.”
(from Lavish Absence: Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabès, Rosemarie Waldrop (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press 2002), 13.