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John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892). The Poetical Works in Four Volumes. 1892.

Narrative and Legendary Poems

The Two Rabbins

THE RABBI NATHAN twoscore years and ten

Walked blameless through the evil world, and then,

Just as the almond blossomed in his hair,

Met a temptation all too strong to bear,

And miserably sinned. So, adding not

Falsehood to guilt, he left his seat, and taught

No more among the elders, but went out

From the great congregation girt about

With sackcloth, and with ashes on his head,

Making his gray locks grayer. Long he prayed,

Smiting his breast; then, as the Book he laid

Open before him for the Bath-Col’s choice,

Pausing to hear that Daughter of a Voice,

Behold the royal preacher’s words: “A friend

Loveth at all times, yea, unto the end;

And for the evil day thy brother lives.”

Marvelling, he said: “It is the Lord who gives

Counsel in need. At Ecbatana dwells

Rabbi Ben Isaac, who all men excels

In righteousness and wisdom, as the trees

Of Lebanon the small weeds that the bees

Bow with their weight. I will arise, and lay

My sins before him.”

And he went his way

Barefooted, fasting long, with many prayers;

But even as one who, followed unawares,

Suddenly in the darkness feels a hand

Thrill with its touch his own, and his cheek fanned

By odors subtly sweet, and whispers near

Of words he loathes, yet cannot choose but hear,

So, while the Rabbi journeyed, chanting low

The wail of David’s penitential woe,

Before him still the old temptation came,

And mocked him with the motion and the shame

Of such desires that, shuddering, he abhorred

Himself; and, crying mightily to the Lord

To free his soul and cast the demon out,

Smote with his staff the blankness round about.

At length, in the low light of a spent day,

The towers of Ecbatana far away

Rose on the desert’s rim; and Nathan, faint

And footsore, pausing where for some dead saint

The faith of Islam reared a domëd tomb,

Saw some one kneeling in the shadow, whom

He greeted kindly: “May the Holy One

Answer thy prayers, O stranger!” Whereupon

The shape stood up with a loud cry, and then,

Clasped in each other’s arms, the two gray men

Wept, praising Him whose gracious providence

Made their paths one. But straightway, as the sense

Of his transgression smote him, Nathan tore

Himself away: “O friend beloved, no more

Worthy am I to touch thee, for I came,

Foul from my sins, to tell thee all my shame.

Haply thy prayers, since naught availeth mine,

May purge my soul, and make it white like thine.

Pity me, O Ben Isaac, I have sinned!”

Awestruck Ben Isaac stood. The desert wind

Blew his long mantle backward, laying bare

The mournful secret of his shirt of hair.

“I too, O friend, if not in act,” he said,

“In thought have verily sinned. Hast thou not read,

‘Better the eye should see than that desire

Should wander?’ Burning with a hidden fire

That tears and prayers quench not, I come to thee

For pity and for help, as thou to me.

Pray for me, O my friend!” But Nathan cried,

“Pray thou for me, Ben Isaac!”

Side by side

In the low sunshine by the turban stone

They knelt; each made his brother’s woe his own,

Forgetting, in the agony and stress

Of pitying love, his claim of selfishness;

Peace, for his friend besought, his own became;

His prayers were answered in another’s name;

And, when at last they rose up to embrace,

Each saw God’s pardon in his brother’s face!

Long after, when his headstone gathered moss,

Traced on the targum-marge of Onkelos

In Rabbi Nathan’s hand these words were read:

“Hope not the cure of sin till Self is dead;

Forget it in love’s service, and the debt

Thou canst not pay the angels shall forget;

Heaven’s gate is shut to him who comes alone;

Save thou a soul, and it shall save thy own!”