Toledote by David Hartley Mark

Scene: The inner tent of Isaac, husband of Rebekah, father of “twins” Esau and Jacob, only son of Abraham and Sarah, the late founders of Judaism. The Second Patriarch of the Faith lies on a cushioned mat in a richly caparisoned corner of his tent, with a food dish containing raisins and almonds within easy reach, as well as a wooden beaker containing fruit juice mixt with well water. He is blind with cataracts, but is able to feel his way over the bedclothes to shake hands with you, the visitor, having an instinct sure as sight. You ask him about his health, and then, out of curiosity, about his Family History. He smiles and responds, in a quiet, gentle voice, appropriate to his retiring nature:

I really don’t mind all the time that I spend in bed, nowadays. Rebekah is my Rock; she learned the Cattle Business, almost from the day she arrived here in Canaan, and I was able to rest easy. Sharp girl, she was, sizing me up from the time I was wandering in the fields, awaiting the arrival of the “beauteous virgin maiden” that Papa had promised me, his Chief Servant Eliezer would be bringing me soon, from Aram-Naharaim, his old home village.

Mama Sarah, God rest her soul, was already gone—I missed her very much— and Papa, after an odd twilight romance with that wild-eyed concubine, Keturah, would also be gathered unto his ancestors.

And now? My eyesight is going, and my hearing has never been very good, but it is cool and pleasant here in the tent, and I get whatever I wish to eat—my Beka’s an excellent cook!— so Life is easy for me. I just lie here, and sometimes, I can hear their voices: Papa Abraham and Mama Sarah, calling to me, from the Other World… I suppose I will join them there, soon; very soon (yawns, stretches)

My childhood? You ask me about it? Well, I never realized my parents were different from those of other children until I got a little older, went out into the World, and made friends—some of those Hittite and Canaanite boys, and then, of course, there was my half-brother, Ishmael—at least, until my mother Sarah went all apopleptic about his mother Hagar’s special relationship with Papa Abraham, and Mama felt it best if “That Egyptish Wench and her half-breed brat” were sent off packing, with just a tiny leatherskin of water to keep them alive in the desert heat.

Luckily, the Lord God, Papa’s God, kept an eye out, and sent an angel to rescue them. Angels? Do I believe in them? Well, why not?….

But all was fine, growing up, though it was more like having grandparents for parents, do you understand me? They gave me all I wanted, spoiled me even; it was a fine thing, being the Ben Z’kunim, the Son of Their Old Age—all, all except for Papa’s Moodiness, his “Spells”….

That was what Mama called it, when Papa would take Long Walks Alone in the Desert, late in the Afternoon, when the sun was off to the side of the horizon, not overhead, so the air was not quite so baking hot—

“So I can be alone with my thoughts, and His,” he used to smile at me as he parted the tent-flap with his walking-stick, and I would smile back;

What was the harm, after all? He was an Old Man; he needed to stretch his limbs and walk, from time to time….

But that One Time, when Papa came back from Two Days and a Night Alone with His God, with that strange, Musty Misty Mystical Light in his eyes, all desert-dirty and travel-smelling, as though there were a Fire Burning Back-of-His-Brain, and he seized me by the arm almost an afterthought while bustling about, snatching up wood and fire and tinder and reins for the donkey, shouting orders to Mama and the servants, calling to Ishmael to chop wood and load it on the beast—all the necessities for a Burnt-Offering, just as I’d seen him do a thousand thousand times, out there in the Hinterlands, far from our Home Tent; nothing odd about that, save the One Little Missing Absent Thing:

No Lamb for the Offering; no lambsheepgoatcow—Nothing. And, once we left the Donkey and Ish-my-Brother at the Mountain’s Foot, that tall, Dark, Cloud-Covered, Forbidding Mountain—the Name? I forget—

We climbed together, in Silence, I but a Young Boy, playing, hopping from Rock to Branch to Boulder, happy to be with My Papa, delighted with Any Adventure; Papa, Poor Fellow, full of his Dark Thoughts, clutching the Big Knife in his hand like a talisman—until my Curiosity got the better of me, and I queried him:

“Papa,” I said.

“Yes, my Son?” he asked, and his Voice sounded strange: that rough, throaty rasp, beneath his fatherly tones; different, somehow, from how I’d ever heard him speak, Before….

“Here they are,” I said, sweeping my arm, to include the Sun & Mountain & Sky & Clouds, the Knife in his Great Right Hand & the Flint & Steel & Wood & Donkey & Rope; lots of Rope…

(Rope Why So Much Rope?)

”But where is the Lamb, Papa, the Lamb for the Burnt-Offering?”

He stopt walking, rubbed his eyes, squinted into the late-setting Sun, as though reading it; lookt about, into the Clouds, felt for the Wind (there was none); pulled at his beard, all Tangled and Grey, and said, looking away from me, in a half-sobbing-voice—

What was it, what could it be, in Heaven and Earth, to make my Father so Sad, so Grieving?

“God—the Lord God—will provide Himself the Lamb for the Offering, my Son, my Son….”

–and blindly, he stuck out, reached out, his hand to mine—

And the two of us, walkt on, Together….

And so, is it any Surprise, that Now, (here, he suddenly grows serious, cold, leaning forward, squinting those clouded-over, misty-blue, sightless Eyes in the direction of his Visitor) I should favor Esau, that Hunter, that Tramper-through-the-Woods, that Master of Nature, that Big-Bellied, Strong-Chested, Muscle-Armed, Red-Headed, Fear-Nothing, Can-Do-It-All Son-of-Mine, rather than Jacob?

I favor Esau, because, because—Jacob, Jacob is weak! That Dweller-in-Tents, that Heel-Clutcher, Trickster, Smooth-skinned and Smooth-tongued, Live-by-your-wits-Jacob—No; if you please, I favor Esau, because—I favor his strength, his daring, his courage; besides—

Jacob reminds Me of Me.

And I—I do not like myself—

Something of Me died, and was burnt, upon that Mountain….

David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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