The Burning One

 

A man heard the voice of the Lord God
while standing in the ice and snow,
and this was the one thing that could save him

He stood in an open space in an armed camp
that had been hammered and spiked
into frozen tundra      He was a long-term prisoner
whose life had stopped with his arrest . . .
and he would not be going back

He was Gorelik, a pious Russian Jew
—Gorelik, the burning one—and it was true:
he burned to love God   to follow his Word
and so he prayed secretly and taught
in forbidden schools   under the nose of Stalin

Later, when Israel’s seed blossomed again
in the desert, Gorelik forged signatures on visas—
what else can one do who sees with fiery vision?
And so, a Traitor to the Motherland, he was taken
to Lubyanka and then sent north—and beyond north,
to a place where only sadism and misery prospered
and there, under the guards’ dark tutelage,
the flame in his heart faltered

And this was already late, for his death had been assured
even before his arrival   and, in due time, on a letter
sent by his wife   that was returned swiftly,
someone had scribbled, Died

And she would have little reason to disbelieve this:
she, more than they, knew how often he had offended
by teaching   by signing false names   by being Gorelik
and by keeping the blessed sacrament, to honor
the living God      Worn at the center of his forehead,
the Law had glowed in the dark prison of the age

                           •          •

For this and more, he rotted in his cage
and felt the last embers dying

If there had been only the violent cold
and the ferocious pain of his punishment
and the isolation from all he loved   and the power
of the spiritually lost over him . . . but God’s own distance
and the silence of His holy mouth—under this whip,
even a faithful Jew had to yield

And the flame inside him—the ner tamid
of his soul—guttered in the arctic wind

                           •          •

What saved him was the unneeded lie:
that, thinking him to be dead, his wife and child
had sickened   and were gone

The smallest spark inside him refused to believe this
and continued to glow, but even this last and final flame
was flickering

and so he staggered out of that pen into the snow
to speak with the Lord for, surely, if only the void
spoke to him, the voice of that deathly stillness   the ice-blue
rigor of eternal barrenness and pain   and the mute flarings
of the lamps of that farthestmost north, then he too would die
he would lie down in the blue-white crypt of the ice

                           •          •

And he asked God for a sign, for even the faithful
must be reminded

And he challenged God to speak, for this was Rosh Hashonah
this was the morning of the world   and the shofar
that marks God’s presence in history had not sounded   the light
of the Law had gone dark, and the only text in that place
was darkness   so that only darkness could be read

And what is a man, a Jew, who cannot sing the praises
of his Creator   who cannot smile on His creation
and chant?

And so he asked God to make a shofar of his empty heart
that had been hammered into the likeness of a horn
a ram’s horn in the hollow of his body

And he asked the Lord to tell him if his loved ones
were alive, if they had been written into the book of the spirit,
for if they were dead . . . then so be it,
but if they still breathed sunlight under the heavens,
then he, too, might live

And the death-silence that itself was a terrible music
was drowned out by a wild note in his blood
It was an animal’s cry of triumph that rose above his pain
it was the shofar of his joy in his beloveds

And he saw, as he swayed on the twin stumps
of his legs, that he, too, would live: he would teach again
and he would love

He was the burning one   and the flame of life
rose in him

 

© Charles Fishman

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