Poetry of Jewish Identity and Insecurity in Medieval Spain

By Rachel Ledeboer

SELF-EXHORTATION TO MAKE THE JOURNEY TO ISRAEL by Yehuda Halevi, translated by David Goldstein

Are you, at fifty, pursuing your youth,
As your days are preparing to fly away?
Do you run from the worship of God,
And yearn to serve only men?
Do you seek the crowd’s company and leave 
The One whom all that will may seek?
Are you slow to prepare for your journey?
Will you sell your portion for a lentil stew?
Your desire continually conceives new pleasures,
But does not your soul say to you, ‘Enough!’?
Exchange your desire’s counsel for that of God.
Desist from pursuing your five senses.
Please your Creator in the days that remain
To you, the days which hasten by.
Do not prevaricate before his will.
Do not confront him with magic and sorcery.
Be strong like a leopard to do his command,
Swift as a gazelle, mighty as a lion.

Let your heart remain firm in the midst of the seas,
When you see the mountains heaving and bending 
And the sailors with their hands like rags,
The masters of spells tongue-tied.
They embarked on a straight course, full of joy.
But now they are forced back, overwhelmed.
The ocean is before you as your refuge!
Your only escape are the nets of the deep!
The sails tear loose and lash,
The timbers tremble and shudder,
The grip of the wind plays on the waves,
Like bearers of sheaves to the threshing.
First they are flattened to the floor of the granary,
Then are thrown high into the stacks.
When they rise up, they are as lions.
When they break, they are like serpents.
The first are pursued by the second—
Snakes whose bite is incurable.

The mighty ship falls like a speck before God.
The mast and its banner cannot withstand,
The boat and its decks are confused,
Lower, middle, and upper together.
The drawers of ropes are in torment.
Men and women are full of anguish.
The sailors’ spirits are deep in despair.
Bodies grow weary of their souls.
The masts’ strength is of no use,
The aged’s counsel does not benefit.
The masts of cedar are no more than stubble,
The fir-trees are turned to reeds,
Sand thrown into the sea is straw,
The sockets of iron are like chaff.

The people say, each to his holy one,
And you turn to the Holy of Holies.
You recall the miracles of Red Sea and Jordan.
Inscribed as they are on every heart.
You praise the One who calms the sea’s roaring,
When the waves throw up their slime.
You tell him: ‘Foul hearts are pure now!’
He will remind you of the merits of your holy forebears.
He will renew his wonders when you perform for him
Song and dance of Mahlim and Mushim.
He will return the souls to their bodies, 
And the dry bones will live again.

And soon the waves will be silent,
Like flocks scattered over the earth.
And when the sun enters the ascent of the stars,
And over them presides the moon, their captain,
The night will be lie a negress clothed in a gold tapestry,
Like a purple garment scattered with crystals.
And the stars will be bewildered in the heart of the sea,
Like exiles driven from their own homes.
And in their own image they will make light
In the midst of the sea like flaming fires.
The water and sky will be ornaments
Pure and shining upon the night.
The sea’s color will be as heaven’s,
Both—two seas bound together, 
And between them my heart, a third sea,
As the waves of my praise swell once again.

Yehuda Halevi was a Jewish poet who lived in medieval Spain during the period after its golden age under Muslim rule. Without the protections afforded to Jewish people during the golden age, many, including Halevi, were forced to flee north to Christian Spain for safety. There, Jews were met with hostility, discrimination, and persecution. While Halevi’s early poems were mostly love poems, after he fled to Christian Spain, he became more connected with his Jewish identity, and his poems turned more to this subject. Unlike the earlier Hebrew poetry of Medieval Spain, Halevi’s work was much less influenced by Arabic models, and instead pulled largely from the ancient poetry of the Hebrew Bible, such as the Song of Songs. These poems were infused with the same language he used in his early love poems, expressing a fervent longing regarding his religious identity, his relationship with G-d, and his desire to return to the Holy Land.

Halevi’s poem “Self-Exhortation to Make the Journey to Israel,” displays his internal struggle that has manifested as a result of his experience living in the Diaspora. His poem can be seen as a kind of mid-life crisis, where he admonishes himself for not leaving Spain and traveling to the Jewish homeland in Israel– wrestling with the decision to either remain in a familiar but hostile land, or to undergo the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to an unknown land, but one which his people hold ancient ties to. Despite being a poem written almost 1000 years ago, its message is one that can still resonate with modern audiences, as it draws from timeless biblical imagery, as well as highlights the individual struggles and uncertainties of a displaced person. Although he is speaking about his specific experience in medieval Spain, this longing to return to one’s homeland is a desire that many people in subsequent eras can understand and relate to, and Halevi himself provides a powerful example of early Zionism.

Unlike the poetry of the Psalms, which are typically a dialogue between the speaker and G-d, Halevi’s poem is a conversation with himself and his own conflicting desires. He wishes to make the trip to Israel, but finds himself afraid of the journey and leaving behind what he knows. He conveys a sense of urgency to this decision, as he opens the poem with a reference to his age: “Are you, at fifty, pursuing your youth / As your days are preparing to fly away?” (Goldstein, 103). At this older stage of his life, he no longer has the luxury of just putting the decision off for another time; he must make a choice before it is too late. In Spain, he rebukes himself for “seek[ing] the crowd’s company,” and  “pursuing your five senses,” rather than spending time “pleas[ing] your Creator in the days that remain,” showing how his present circumstances distract him from properly focusing on G-d (Goldstein, 103). Perhaps it is for this reason that his poem is addressed to himself, rather than to G-d as the Psalms do— since his environment makes it difficult for him to prioritize his spiritual life, he finds himself unable to achieve a close relationship with G-d. The poets of the Psalms, on the other hand, writing in Israel across a 500 year period, were all still relatively close to the experience of ancient Jewish life. One of the characteristics of Halevi’s poem is his awareness of the distance, both temporal and spatial, between himself and the Jewish people of the biblical era— something which may also be a contributing factor to his feelings of distance from G-d.

Halevi highlights this distance is by using the Mediterranean Sea as the main setting and place of conflict for his crisis. It is this sea which separates him from his homeland, and its potential dangers show the fears and difficulties that he would face on the journey. In the first half of the poem, his internal conflict is made external through depictions of fierce winds and churning waves creating destructive storms, where “the mighty ship falls like a speck before G-d” (Goldstein, 104). He produces a violent image of ships being tossed about and destroyed, while the people onboard “are full of anguish. / The sailors’ spirits are deep in despair. / Bodies grow weary of their souls” (Goldstein, 104). All is hopeless, as the once powerful ship now “is of no use,” reduced from a strong singular unit to a mass of useless parts, and “the aged’s council does not benefit,” as no human is able to rescue them from their circumstances (Goldstein, 104). This section of the poem draws heavily from biblical imagery, particularly from Psalm 46, which depicts catastrophic events of nature— “when the earth breaks apart, / when mountains collapse in the heart of the seas, / its waters roar and roil, / mountains heave in its surge” (Alter, Psalm 46:3-4). However, the major theme running through this Psalm is that in the face of disaster, one must not despair, but instead place their trust in G-d. By invoking this poem, Halevi begins to convince himself that despite the dangers his journey presents, G-d will protect him and see him safely to his destination. 

After this detailed depiction of the dangers of the sea, Halevi strengthens the hopeful tone which was introduced by the invocation of Psalm 46, as he stops to “recall the miracles of Red Sea and Jordan” (Goldstein, 104). By reminding himself of the biblical stories in which G-d saves His people, he strengthens his convictions about G-d’s power and capacity for forgiveness. One of Halevi’s concerns is that since he has been somewhat removed from G-d’s presence while in Spain, he fears he will not receive G-d’s protection over him. However, he now proclaims, in the only line of the poem directly addressed to G-d, that “foul hearts are pure now,” expressing his renewed spiritual devotion (Goldstein, 104). He takes solace in the fact that G-d “will renew his wonders when you perform for him,” and therefore he will be able to be a recipient of miracles as well (Goldstein, 104). As his journey itself is spiritually motivated and rooted in a wish to “exchange your desire’s counsel for that of G-d,” he will receive protection from G-d, just as his ancestors did at the Red Sea and Jordan (Goldstein, 103). Both of these miracles feature the Jewish people safely crossing a body of water as they fled from an oppressive land, stories which Halevi was able to strongly identify with.

The last section of the poem is filled with beautiful and vivid imagery, as Halevi’s nightmarish storm fades, and instead he proclaims that “soon the waves will be silent” (Goldstein, 105). This part of the poem contains lush depictions which can be found in earlier Jewish poetry in Spain, back when it was still under a golden age of Muslim rule, where Jewish people had more freedom and were active participants in the flourishing multicultural environment. The poetry of this era is full of luxurious sensory engagement, as can be seen in the work of Dunash Ben Labrat— he elegantly describes a place “Where lilting singers hum / To the throbbing of the drum,” while “On every lofty tree / The fruit hangs gracefully,” and he proclaims that “we shall dine / On rams and calves and cows. / Scented with rich perfumes, / Amid thick incense plumes” (Scheindlin, 41-42). This poetry reflects a time of prosperity, as well as expresses a strong love of life and the many things it has to offer. Halevi cultivates this type of imagery at the end of his poem, despite the fact that he never got to live during this golden age himself. However, instead of focusing on luxury objects themselves, he compares these objects to the majesty of the untouchable natural landscape, that “The night will be lie a negress clothed in a gold tapestry, / Like a purple garment scattered with crystals,” praising G-d’s creations over man-made ones (Goldstein, 105). Rather than focusing on the present, or even wishing to go back to the past, he switches to the future tense, and imagines a new period of peace and beauty that will be given to him by G-d.

The poem’s ending presents a much different journey from the one Halevi initially envisions, as he works his way from fearfully imagining the worst case scenario, to finally arriving at a state of tranquility. Whereas the first half of the poem is fast-paced, full of self-depreciation and violent motion, the latter half slows down, and focuses on the praise of G-d and appreciating the stillness of the night. Earlier, when describing the people aboard the sinking ship, Halevi never mentions a captain to help guide them, but later in the poem, he describes “the ascent of the stars, / And over them presides the moon, their captain” (Goldstein, 105). He then links the stars themselves to the Jewish people, that “the stars will be bewildered in the heart of the sea, / Like exiles driven from their own homes” (Goldstein, 105). Just as the moon acts as captain of the stars, G-d will act as captain of the Jewish people, guiding them safely as they undergo the long and dangerous journey back to their homeland.

In the poem’s final lines, Halevi continues to focus on the power of G-d, as well as returns to a state of self-reflection. In his final description of the water, representative of everything the journey to Israel would entail, he states that “The sea’s color will be as heaven’s, / Both— two seas bound together,” recalling the beginning of Genesis where G-d divided the sea from the heavens (Goldstein, 105). In doing so, he reinforces his conviction that G-d is the one who created the world, and who still presides over it. By binding the sky and the sea to one another, he reunites these elements which G-d had separated, reverting to the earliest time of creation; he closes the distance between heaven and earth itself, mirroring his own efforts to bridge the spiritual gap he feels between himself and G-d. He proclaims that in addition to the physical distance he would have to overcome in order to reach Israel, “between them [is] my heart, a third sea,” showing how he also has to find a way to overcome his own personal misgivings in order to be able to go on this journey and truly devote himself to G-d, rather than remain in the more secular world he currently inhabits (Goldstein, 105). However, there is hope that he will accomplish this, as the last line of the poem portrays these seas in a more positive light, “as the waves of my praise swell once again” (Goldstein, 105). Rather than waves being a dangerous obstacle, they now are a means by which to convey his love for G-d, and a way to propel him forward on his journey, rather than deter him.

Yehuda Halevi’s poem “Self-Exhortation to Make the Journey to Israel” resembles a kind of pep-talk, or perhaps a stern talking-to that a parent would give to their child, as he tries to convince himself to put aside his fears and leave Spain in order to travel to the Jewish homeland. Although his life in Spain is not an easy one, it is still a familiar one, and he is able to meet his worldly needs. However, his life in Spain is spiritually unfulfilling, as he is in the midst of a hostile living environment, one which is not conducive tomaintaining a close relationship with G-d— something he is especially concerned with as he enters the later stage of his life. His poem is full of biblical references, and it is these biblical stories he has been steeped in, irrevocably tied to the land in which they take place, which have helped to develop his vision of Israel— a paradoxical place which is both unknown yet familiar at the same time— the birthplace of his culture and the home of his ancestors.

Jewish people in the Diaspora across the ages have had differing experiences and relationships with the land they were born in and with the land of Israel. Some, like the Jewish people in Spain during its golden age under Muslim rule, were able to thrive, and created their own unique cultural identity out of a mixture of their specific regional backgrounds and their ancient Jewish traditions. Other Jewish people, such as Yehuda Halevi, lived more precarious lives, where they were threatened by the often violent prejudices of those around them. When living in unstable circumstances, being exiled and displaced from every place they flee to, many Jewish people have developed a longing to return to their homeland, where they hoped to live more stable lives, embodying early convictions of Zionism. Halevi’s poem not only features a display of this early Zionism alongside familiar biblical references, it also reveals his own personal insecurities regarding his age, his lax spiritual behavior, his fears of the unknown, and his deep desire to be able to fully trust in the power and protection of G-d. The beautiful language of his poetry and his display of deep insecurities still holds the capacity to resonate with audiences today, and Halevi provides a powerful example of what it’s like to undergo the heartbreaking experience of reflecting upon the whole of your life, and finding that it does not match up to your expectations. However, he also provides hope that it is perhaps not too late to change your life, and he exemplifies the struggle to abide by one of the most influential teachings from Rabbi Hillel in the Talmud— “If not now, when?” (Davis, Pirkei Avos 1:14).

Works Cited

Alter, Robert, translator. The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary. 1st ed., W.W. Norton, 2007.

Davis, Menachem, et al., editors. Pirkei Avos: פרקי אבות = Ethics of the Fathers: With an Interlinear Translation. 1st ed., Mesorah Publications, 2002.

Goldstein, David, translator. Hebrew Poems from Spain. Routledge & K. Paul, 1965.

Scheindlin, Raymond P., translator. Wine, Women, & Death: Medieval Hebrew Poems on the Good Life. 1st ed., Jewish Publication Society, 1986.

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