So Avraham Took the Ram

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September 1, 2011
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“So Avraham took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.” (Genesis 22:13)

Rachel Barenblat, Matthew Zapruder,

Kathryn Hellerstein, & Yerra Sugarman

In this collaborative poem, each poet uses the biblical verse from Genesis 22:13 as inspiration and bases his or her writing on the final line of the previous stanza.

I want to think Avraham had no intention

of sacrificing his son — he dawdled on the hike,

let his knife linger til the angel arrived

my firstborn plays in the corner of the sanctuary

hands smudged sticky from wedges of apple

dipped in wildflower Torah

he doesn’t yet know this story, though

if I had to I’d protect his wriggling body

with my own ribcage, my beating heart.

This morning my heart sounds to me

like the low voices of people

I heard arguing last night in my dream.

I was hovering above, like a cloud

or a being, waiting for something

to be decided. Someone must

be kept alive, or die, I can’t remember,

and I want to sleep again so I can wake

and know what I have to do.

I unbind the boy and hold him, trembling, close.

He blinks in the smoke that brings tears to my eyes.

I cannot see. What have I almost done?

Whatever in the world could bring my God

To ask such a thing of me? The child pulls free

From my arms and wriggles to the ground. He stands

There, facing the flames of sacrifice, then turns

Toward me, the favored father of the son

Who would have burned for my obedience,

Holding in his smudged hand the knife I dropped.

I cross the threshold and enter the house of Isaac’s mind.

But tell me, God, how does father know the ache of another?

And my lariat had already burned rope-marks there; my altar’s cypress

spears had pricked the soft tissue of his brain with their splinters and etched themselves

on the walls of his skull. Seal me with how he knows, God.

Hear the ram’s wavering bleat and something else trapped in the bushes

blue as the veins curling underneath the skin of a girl’s chin ⎯

something rainless closing in on itself like a long, brittle date palm’s leaf

that scars its own tree trunk. His wizened palm leaf grazes me now. This is how I know.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat was ordained by ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal in January 2011, on the same day when her first book-length poetry collection, 70 faces: Torah Poems, was released by Phoenicia Publishing. She is author of four poetry chapbooks and since 2003 has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and son.

Matthew Zapruder is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Come on All You Ghosts. The recipient of a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship, he lives in San Francisco where he is an editor at Wave Books. Zapruder is a member of the permanent faculty at the UCR Palm Desert Low Residency MFA program in creative writing in Riverside, Calif..

Kathryn Hellerstein is an associate professor of Yiddish at the University of Pennsylvania. Her books include a translation of Moyshe-Leyb Halpern’s poems, In New York: A Selection and Paper Bridges: Selected Poems of Kadya Molodowsky. Hellerstein also co-edited Jewish American Literature:

A Norton Anthology. She has published many poems, translations, and articles, in Bridges, Kerem, Nashim, and Prairie Schooner. Her new book and anthology are forthcoming from the Stanford University Press.

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Yerra Sugarman is the author of two collections of poems published by The Sheep Meadow Press: Forms of Gone and The Bag of Broken Glass. She is the recipient of a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, a Canada Council for Creative Writers Grant, the 2005 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for poetry, and a Discovery/The Nation Poetry Prize.

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