Sunday, July 14, 2013

Stephen Mitchell: "The Baal Shem Tov"

All the old metaphors
are speechless, and the old truths
lie on exhibit in the morgue,
each with an oaktag label
on its big toe. Unless I am there,
Gautama is still questioning
under the Bodhi tree,
while in Bethlehem Mary’s womb stays
heavy, the ox and ass
looking on in mute compassion.

In the forest where you grew up
there was a small clearing
you liked to pray in. You would watch
the projects of the ants, or follow
a spider as it strung its web
in the crook of a maple-branch. Birdsong
unwound above you in lucid
confirmation. Whenever
you happened on the bloody remains
of a rabbit or squirrel, you buried them
gently, and recited
the Blessing upon meeting sorrow
face to Face. Prayer was
a quality of attention.
To make so much room
for the given
that it can appear as gift.

Years later they would come to you,
the doubters and the devout,
asking their pathless questions.
You wanted to get down on all fours.
You wanted to moo, or stand there
on tiptoe, flapping your wings.
What could you say, when the Good Name
was everywhere you were, uttered
by nightstorm and cloud and sunlight,
in fervor or grief. The few words
that you did find seemed
tinier than colored pebbles.
You had to pull them up quickly,
quickly, from far away.

"The Baal Shem Tov" by Stephen Mitchell, from Parables and Portraits. © HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.

Image credit: "The Baal Shem-Tov," painting by Saul Raskin (originally color).


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