A group of rabbinical commentators met to gloss the story of Abraham and Isaac in a cabana on the Gulf of Mexico. As they argued, sea-maids in seaweed crowns danced in a circle on the black-sand beach, and one philosopher in a business-suit shot another in the throat in a duel at twenty steps, and the wounded man, his legs buckling under him, fired into the sea.
Even a murder committed in the purest passion of love, wrote Rabbi Bahya Ibn Pakuda, may come one day to be regretted deeply, causing an irreversible change in the murderer. And who among us is innocent of the murder of one of our past selves, the destruction of one of our past worlds?
The rabbis wore black gabardines and starched white shirts from under which the white fringes of their prayer shawls were visible, tied into hundreds of tiny knots, and interwoven with the gold and silver teeth of the warriors they defeated, clubbing them in the mouths with Torah scrolls decked with hammered tin. Our restlessness drives us on, we read in the Jerusalem Talmud.
How could Abraham resolve to carry out God’s command? The rabbis contemplated. One rabbi, whose wife sold pistachios and oranges on the market square, began with a gloss: When Abraham was a child, he ran away from home, and found work as the assistant to a foreman overseeing the construction of a neon pyramid. The pyramid, the rabbi continued, would compose part of an unrivaled garden of amusements, including the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, where monkeys with long yellow and brown tails swung, tracing uncanny patterns through the trees, and fugitive terrorists and their families took refuge in the caves, obscured from the view of helicopters by overhanging canopies of vines.
In the spring, the rabbi continued, the flooded meadows of the Nile stalled construction on the pyramid indefinitely. Hundreds of dwellings were submerged, and dozens of underground conspirators and disenfranchised philosophers of revolt were forced to appear on the sidewalk in their black rags beneath the sun, whose warmth they had not felt in years. Abraham snuck across the border in the bed of a truck, covering himself with reeds. And it was there on the other side that he built his dwelling, on the very site where the giant Nimrod covered the flanks of his camel with gasoline and set it alight, charging into his last battle against the strafing jet fighters of the victors.
Years later, the rabbi concluded, Isaac remembered sitting in a sunbeam as the light of the fading afternoon poured through a window of the same house, and preparing for a music lesson to the swaying of a metronome in the shape of a pyramid, as Sarah watered the lilacs in the garden with a green hose, and Abraham spoke in a hushed voice to two angels about his worldly affairs.
Alexander Nemser’s poems have been published in The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Paris Review. He is working on his first book, from which the above selection is drawn. (1/2011)