The Lamps Are Burning

“The lamps are burning in the synagogue,
in the houses of study, in dark alleys. . . .”
This should be the place.
 
This is the way
the guide book describes it. Excuse me, sir
can you tell me
where Eli lives, Eli the katzev—
slaughterer of cattle and poultry?
One of my ancestors.
Reb Haskel? Reb Shimin? My grandfathers.
 
This is the discipline that withstood the siege
of every Jew;
these are the prayer shawls that have proved
stronger than armor.
 
Let us begin humbly. Not by asking:
Who is This you pray to? Name Him;
define Him. For the answer is:
We do not name Him.
Once out of a savage fear, perhaps;
now out of knowledge—of our ignorance.
 
Begin then humbly. Not by asking:
Shall I live forever?
Hear again the dear dead greeting me gladly
as they used to
when we were all among the living?
For the answer is:
If you think we differ from all His other creatures,
say only if you like with the Pharisees, our teachers,
those who do not believe in an eternal life
will not have it.
 
In the morning I arise and match again
my plans against my cash.
I wonder now if the long morning prayers
were an utter waste of an hour
weighing, as they do, hopes and anguish,
and sending the believer out into the street
with the sweet taste of the prayers on his lips.
 
Today this creditor is at your office;
tomorrow this one in your home;
until the final creditor of all
places his bony hands upon your breast.
Faster!
Dig your heels into the dust!
 
How good to stop
and look out upon eternity a while.
And daily—at Shahris, Minha, Maariv,
in the morning, afternoon, and evening—
be at ease in Zion.

Charles Reznikoff, “The Lamps are Burning” from The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff, 1918-1975. Edited by Seamus Cooney. Copyright © 2005 by the Estate of Charles Reznikoff. Reprinted by permission of Black Sparrow Books, an imprint of David R. Godine, Publishers, Inc.
Source: The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff 1918-1975 (Black Sparrow Press, 2005)
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