A POEM FOR PASSOVER THAT IS NOT ABOUT PASSOVER

Long before I read Mercea Eliade’s assertion that Yohanan ben Zakkai (and not Jesus Christ) was the most important religious figure in the first century of the common era, Zakkai was one of my heroes because he managed to escape from Jerusalem under siege by the Romans through a clever ruse. He was my favorite Jewish personage when I was in Hebrew school as a youth. When I read Catch-22 in my early twenties, I compared Zakkai to Orr, the real hero of Joseph Heller’s masterpiece by virtue of managing to escape to Sweden and live out the war in peace. 

 

According to legend, Zakkai escaped Jerusalem inside a coffin that was carried outside the city walls for burial. He made his way to Yavne, about seventy miles west of Jerusalem, where he founded a center of Jewish learning that replaced Jerusalem as the focal point of Judaism after Jerusalem was overrun and the temple destroyed. Zakkai’s great advance, according to Eliade in his masterful A History of Religious Ideas, was to replace animal and grain sacrifice with prayer in Jewish rituals. 

 

Most Jews don’t think of Zakkai at Passover, but I do because he represents the brand of Judaism that I like: dedicated to freedom, humanistic, willing and able to change to meet new conditions. A few years back, I wrote a poem published in Jewish Currents that imagines Zakkai’s thoughts as he lay in the coffin and pretended to be dead. His memories propose that the enjoyment of sensual experience is a form of holiness. 

 

Enjoy, and Happy Pesach to my family and all my friends and followers.

 

BEN ZAKKAI IN THE COFFIN 

 

– During the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai escaped the city by hiding in a coffin, then founded the great Talmudic school in Yavne.

 

The seeing of the eye

Near the walls of the city

I begin my descent

 

The hearing of the ear

My students calling me to prayer

my wife calling me

 

The discernment of the heart

In the hills above the city

I saw her with child

 

The passions of the moment

The wind among the olive trees

the gleanings of the field

her hand at my cheek

 

The delight in forming syntax,

the delight in making phrases

Waters separating

mountains skipping

former rain, latter rain

a sign upon the door

you shall have no other

 

The repetition of names

Preserving, unfailing, forgiving

compassionate, infinite, wise

 

The weave of permutation

To love her in the flesh 

to love her through the law

to love the law in her

to love the flesh in law

 

The transient conversations with the sacred

Gates shattered, bars broken

 surrounded by night

 the pages on fire in my hand

 

The praise of sleep

and the praise of awakening….

How will I remember it all?

 

Marc Jampole

Published in Jewish Currents Vol. 60 #4

(July-August 2006)

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