Verse > John Greenleaf Whittier > The Poetical Works in Four Volumes
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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        5
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,        10
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;        15
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        20
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,        25
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        30
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        35
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        40
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        45
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        50
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.        55
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,        60
“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.        65
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        70
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!        75
 
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        80
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!”

  1868.
 
 
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