The Deed

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Yehoshua November



Sunlight pours through the library window.
           An hour’s snowy drive from my family,
I grade expository essays on the overlap 
between Buddhism and psychology
to pay for my children’s Cheder tuition,
so they can learn texts in the holy tongue
           which offer a different approach
                                            to happiness.

Raised in a home
where the Marx Brothers played anarchistic pranks
as background to family dinners, 
            Roy Orbison’s falsetto floating up
from my father’s Danish speakers,
                      I tried to become a Chassid.
           And which texts and whose voice
do I carry 
as I shuttle between yeshiva
            and classes at the university?

Between driving, grading papers, the children
            waking us each night, 
            so little time for thinking, for learning, for love.             


Action, the Rebbe taught, is the most essential thing. The deed
            prescribed by the Infinite One
                                      the only highway
beyond the finite.

The heart of a man meditating in front of a lake 
soars upwards 
but only as high 
as the human heart can climb.
             No higher.

Yet, because it is 
             a Divine command,
when he hears the shofar 
after the others have roused him, a worshiper
             who’d fallen asleep in the middle of services
climbs the ladder, 
                         embraces the One Without End.


Perhaps this is why 
there are so few pious Jews in poetry– 

that profession of rowing 
through the rivers of the heart 
with oars made of memory

and sadness. 


The walls of the Rebbe’s office 
absorbed sadder stories
than any other room in the world.
His heart was so full
of affection, he cried in a synagogue
full of bearded men in Brooklyn
whenever he spoke of God’s hiddenness.

On my drive home tonight, 
snow circles under street lights
as the sedan ahead of me inches forward. 
My wife calls to say two of the children
have done something she cannot repeat 
over the phone. 

When she hangs up, a staticky recording of a discourse 
the Rebbe delivered decades ago resumes:
The worshiper must serve the Divine
even if he feels or understands nothing.

Yehoshua November is the author of God’s Optimism (a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize), Two Worlds Exist (a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award and the Paterson Poetry Prize), and The Concealment of Endless Light (Orison Books, fall 2024). His work has been featured in The New York Times Magazine, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The Sun, VQR, and on National Public Radio and Poetry Unbound. November teaches writing at Rutgers University and Touro University.