Yedid Nefesh: Radiance of the Universe
What is God?
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That little town of Tzefat must have been one busy place 450 years ago. There was Yosef Karo putting the final touches on the Shulhan Aruch. There was Moshe Cordovero working out the intricate details of how Kabbalah explains reality. There was Yitzchak Luria arriving in 1570 and setting the already revolutionary world of Tzefat Kabbalah on heavenly fire with his amazing insights. It’s no wonder that four out of our five entries for the period of the Renaissance come from this backwater that nobody outside of Jewish circles ever heard of.
On top of all this there were poets floating around wandering the streets contemplating the oneness of God and the mysteries of creation. The most prolific was probably Israel Najara, the author of hundreds of piyutim (liturgical poems) on every imaginable Jewish theme. Joining him was Elazar Azkiri, a Kabbalist of note who wrote the work that defined the ethics of Kabbalistic Tzefat, Sefer Haredim. These final two poets are both considered strong candidates for the authorship of the mystical hymn, Yedid Nefesh (Beloved of the soul), which has come down from Tzefat as the classic song of boundless love for God.
Nobody actually knows who authored this poem, but Najara and Azkiri were certainly capable of doing it. Azkiri is generally given credit though he himself never claimed credit. Neither did Najara, but it does fit much better into Najara’s repertoire. It was first published in 1601 but there are rumors of it appearing in a 15th century manuscript. It really doesn’t matter all that much who wrote it. The author, whoever he (or she) was, likely wanted to remain anonymous since any personal glory would take away from the glory of Hashem, which was the unconcealed point of the poem. The words are nothing short of breathtaking:
Beloved of the soul, merciful Father, Pull Your servant to Your will,
So Your servant will run like a hart, to bow towards Your majesty;
Your friendship will be sweeter to him than the dripping of a honeycomb, or any taste.
Majestic, Beautiful, Radiance of the Universe, my soul aches for Your love;
Please, God, heal her now by showing her the pleasantness of Your radiance;
Then she will be strengthened and healed, and she will have eternal joy.
Distinguished One, let Your mercy be aroused and have pity on the son of Your beloved,
For I have yearned so strongly for so long to see soon the splendor of Your strength;
These are the desires of my heart, so have pity and do not conceal Yourself.
Please be revealed, my Beloved, and spread upon me the shelter of Your peace;
Illuminate the world with Your glory, and we will celebrate and rejoice with You;
Quickly bestow love, for the time has come, and show us grace like in days of old.
It certainly is beautiful and quite graphic. One can detect a little of the Song of Songs approach to God. It is impossible to say how much of this was written with a Kabbalistic influence and how much is just the traditional Jewish longing for God. But there are a few things that stand out that should be explored a little deeper. First is that initial expression Yedid Nefesh – Beloved of the soul. What does that mean? Then there are these other descriptions of God: Majestic, Beautiful, Radiance of the Universe, Distinguished. What image are they trying to project? Third, the soul seems to play a central role in this poem – aching for God’s love and having eternal joy. But this is not the traditional intellectual side of the soul. This is highly emotional. It seeks friendship, it needs healing and pity, it has yearnings and desires. Why is the emphasis on the emotional side of the soul and not the intellectual? To whom does this poem speak?
Beloved of the soul. The soul is more than just the intellect, assuming the intellect is part of the soul to begin with. It is also the seat of the deepest emotions, the emotions that touch on the spiritual. Love and joy are among these emotions, for they are the ways in which the soul finds its deepest yearnings fulfilled. This poem is about yearning and feeling and celebration. This poem is about love.
God is the Beloved of the soul. When unencumbered by all the glitz and the worries and the drives and the lethargy, the soul wants nothing other than God. But it doesn’t necessarily want the austere God of the philosophers who sits distant and unknown in the heaven of heavens. It may not want the En Sof - the mystical name for the God of the philosophers. It may not even long for the Sefirot or the Glory or the Master of the Universe. These images, as powerful and as unifying as they may be, do not induce the feeling of yearning and love. The soul is as personal as it gets, and when it gets personal the soul yearns for an intensely personal God.
The soul wants friendship from God, like the Psalmist sought from the Shepherd. That friendship will be sweeter than honey, since it is the most delightful thing in all of creation. God is the Beloved Friend, whom the soul longs to bow to and to serve, to whom the soul begs to be drawn towards. Doing the will of the Beloved Friend is all the soul wants, and all that it needs.
Majestic, Beautiful, Radiance of the Universe – what are these images? The first is traditional, almost humdrum by this point. But the second, ‘Beautiful’, is unusual. Is God beautiful? To the yearning soul the answer is obvious. There is nothing more beautiful than God, the Radiance of the universe. What an amazing expression – Ziv Ha’olam in Hebrew. This is not merely the Master who makes everything happen or the Guide who steers it on its proper path. This is the Radiance, the Brilliance, the Gleam - the dazzling heart-stopping wonder of being. To express the God as radiant is to recognize that there is wonder in everything that one experiences. There is wonder in a breath of air, in the sheer vastness of empty space, in the moment of death. Life is radiance but so is non-life. God is the Radiance that permeates everything and makes it shine through the darkest and dreariest of places.
The soul aches for that Radiance. It aches for God’s love for it. It begs God to transform those aches into healing. How does this happen? It happens through God showing it ‘the pleasantness of Your radiance’. Is radiance really pleasant? There is nothing quite like the feeling of wonder. There really isn’t even a way to describe it without using the word wonder. Perhaps the word ‘amazement’ does it justice. But to the one who truly experiences it, among the many feelings that come about is the feeling of pleasantness. ‘This is nice’; ‘this is great’; 'this is wonderful’. It is the feeling that everything is somehow right in the world, even though everything might not be very right. That is what happens when the soul is touched by the Radiance of the Universe.
Be revealed, my Beloved and spread peace over me. My sense of fulfillment is contingent upon knowing that You are there. Not only do I need You, but the entire world does also. True joy is not found in the passing pleasures of the flesh or in satisfying the desires of the ego. They come, they go, and we are still unfulfilled. It is only when You illuminate the world with Your glory that we sense anything resembling the joy that we were meant to experience.
As far as images are concerned, we have plenty to choose from. The most constant image is that of the Beloved Friend. The soul needs a Friend. It needs Someone who it can speak to on its own spiritual terms, Someone who can understand its moods, whether down in the dumps of up in the clouds. Yedid Nefesh allows us the opportunity to develop a genuine relationship with God.
There is a second important image that is found in this poem. Radiance of the Universe is just too bizarre of a phrase to go imageless. The universe has plenty of drab and uninteresting things in it. But it also has plenty of the opposite. The Radiance of the Universe is everything about reality that makes us realize that reality is amazing. It is that inexpressible ‘something’ that permeates everything and somehow makes its very being seem like a miracle. This may not be the most common of experiences, but it certainly isn’t one that we would want to live without. The experience of wonder is the spice that forces us to stand back and be amazed. Identifying that experience with God is this image.
Perceiving the Image
These two images combine in this poem to become one. The Beloved Friend is the Radiance of the Universe. The Radiance of the Universe is the Beloved Friend. As impossible as it may seem, we can take that feeling of wonder and develop a relationship with it. It can become as familiar to us as a personal friend. It can become a source of love and longing, something that we find we cannot live without. It is all a matter of being able to cultivate the feeling of wonder by using the will and the imagination to bring it into our souls.
We have all experienced the feeling of wonder, but it usually comes upon us unannounced and unexpected. It happens and then it is gone. We had nothing to do with it coming, and are powerless to sustain it. It is unfortunate that such a powerful and essential feeling is almost always beyond our control. Why does it have to be this way? Why can’t we make it happen at will and keep it going as long as we choose? It turns out that we can.
Let your imagination take you on a journey. Let it roam out beyond your humdrum life of everyday things and enter the dimension of the wondrous. It is everywhere around you, and everywhere within you. It can be found anywhere at any time, but some situations are more conducive to finding it than others. It may work best with a naturally wonderful thing like a beautiful flower. Just staring at it and taking its beauty in can be a riveting experience. Allowing its beauty to enter the soul is the step that requires the will. It means making the beauty of that flower a part of you. There is no limit to where you can go with this feeling, but it is all under the control of the will. The flower can be infinite in its beauty, and can produce a feeling of rapture in the soul that is nothing less than indescribable. This is the soul getting in touch with the Radiance of the Universe.
This poem speaks for all those who seek spiritual radiance in life and are not satisfied with the mundane. It speaks to those seekers and tells them how they are to go about seeking, how they must ask God to draw them close and grant them grace. It speaks for those who search for wonder at all times and understand that life is too precious to waste on the non-wondrous. The Beloved Friend is their companion in this search, always there when they truly reach out to grasp, and granting their yearning a form of peace.
This poem does seem a little foreign for Judaism. Did the Jewish emphasis on the intellectual side of the soul deaden the emotional side to the point that it seemed foreign and non-Jewish? Is it possible to bring this side back from dormancy?
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