Monday, May 14, 2018

An Alternate History Poem


The hosts of the Romans have surrounded Jerusalem
but they bide their time while in the holy city’s streets,
rival factions reach for each other’s throats. 
Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai watches,
powerless as Jeremiah,
as the bands of zealots bleed each other dry.
Once, by the waters of Babylon, an exiled people sang:
If I forget thee, Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its skill. 
If I forget thee, Jerusalem, let my tongue cling
to the roof of my mouth.
Now, sheltered within her gates,
they deface her.

The people are already hungry
when the factions set fire
to each other’s food stores.
Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai calls
his disciples together.
It is better to go to a house in mourning,
he tells his disciples, than to go to a house where they feast.
So they lay him in a coffin, lift it up on their shoulders,
carry it out past the rebels
who bar the way against escape.

And so it is
that Yohanan leaves the embrace of Zion’s hills
in a box as dark as the womb.
And as he leaves,
he prays for the holy city.

That it never again
see such strife.
That it never again
be used as a pawn
in some self-styled savior’s
That its gaze be turned away forever
from the vanity
and iniquity
and ignorance
of men.

His cry ascends
from the pit of a feigned death
and the last rabbi ever to teach on the temple’s steps
is granted a single
God bends the arc of time.
In the heat of the fire,
as the three walls of the temple burn,
the Lord forges a future where the fourth burns also.

Roman generals order the stones of each building
to be scattered, the earth sewn with salt.
No strangers settle there, no flocks lie down
to pasture: the ruins of Jerusalem are home only
to wild beasts: scavengers in a desert.
Pilgrims come only to tremble in fearful awe
at the valley of unmarked graves.
Muhammed’s night ride
is from a heap of ash.
Would-be Crusaders bash
each other’s heads in
at home, because
there is nothing
called Jerusalem
to conquer.

No Jerusalem to inspire.
No Jerusalem to divide.

In a quiet cemetery in Tiberias,
Yohanan ben Zakkai
in peace.

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