The Two Rabbins
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THE Rabbi Nathan two-score 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 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, 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; 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 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, 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 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 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 And footsore, pausing where for some dead saint The faith of Islam reared a domed tomb, Saw some one kneeling in the shadow, whom He greeted kindly: "May the Holy One Answer thy prayers, O stranger!" Whereupon 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 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. 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, "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. 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 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! 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 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!"