This appeared in The Hebrew Catholic #64, pp. 24-25. All Rights Reserved.
Yedid Nefesh: Most Dealy Beloved – A Meditation
A Poor Clare (in formation) of Jerusalem
When I first became a Christian, and even more now as I begin my life as a Poor Clare nun, I have found that my life-long immersion in the world of Orthodox Judaism is a treasure trove of enrichment for my prayer life. I would like to share some of these riches with others, and so I am very pleased to have the opportunity of meditating some Jewish liturgical poetry (pi’utim)together with the readers of The Hebrew Catholic. I would like to thank David Moss, for suggesting that I write something, and my Mother Abbess for letting me take all the time I needed to write it.
I’ve chosen Yedid Nefesh for this meditation for a number of reasons, but primarily because I love it and have since childhood. More objectively, it is one of the most widely-known and versatile of Jewish liturgical poems. It can be used in the Morning Prayer (T’fillat HaShahar) or the Afternoon Service (Minha), and it is especially associated with the Sabbath. Written in the Middle Ages by Eliezer Azkari, its beautiful expression of passionate personal love of God and longing for the revelation of God’s glory on earth gives it special significance for Christian meditation, while enhancing our rootedness in Jewish tradition.
A couple of words about translation: I have not made a strictly literal translation, out of deference to Anglicized ears, but it is faithful; there is no significant deviation from the Hebrew text. The four stanzas begin respectively with the Hebrew letters (Yud), (Hei), (Vav), (Hei), forming one of the most mystic names of God ( ), which is never pronounced in Jewish tradition, but which is sometimes rendered “Yahweh” in English Bibles. (In Jewish prayer, the name “Adonai,”“Lord,” is substituted for it; in conversation, simply “HaShem,” “the Name”.)
Hebrew, like most of world’s languages, assigns gender to all nouns. Specifically, nefesh (soul) is feminine, while eved (slave) is masculine.
O Most Dearly Beloved! O Merciful Father!
Draw me, your slave, toward your will;
your slave will run like a gazelle to prostrate himself before your splendor.
Your companionship will be as pleasing to him as honey and nectar and every good savor.
O Most Splendid! O Light of the World!
My soul is ill from love of you.
Please, my God, please heal her by showing her the beauty of your light.
Then she will be strengthened, and she will be healed, and she will have eternal joy.
O Most Faithful! Arouse your mercy!
Have pity on your beloved child, for how much – how much! –
have I longed to gaze upon your mighty splendor.
This is my heart’s desire: have pity and do not disregard me.
Be revealed, my Beloved,
and spread the canopy of your peace over me.
Illumine the earth with your glory; we will rejoice and be glad in you.
Hurry, Beloved, for the time has come. Be gracious to us for eternity.
“… your slave will run like a gazelle to prostrate himself before your splendor…”
What slave is this who is enthusiastic, eager in his servitude? One aspect we could consider for a moment is etymological: the word eved, slave. Hebrew nouns are formed from verbal roots, and the verbal base of eved, in the infinitive, is la’avod, which means both “to work” and “to worship”. While this is not the place to expand this greatly, I think every disciple of the Lord will find plenty of material for meditation in this one Hebrew word: the hard work involved in true worship, the dignity of labor (see Col. 3:23-24) 1.
But more pertinent to this meditation are the Old Testament laws regarding Hebrew slaves (Ex. 21:1-112 and Deut. 15:12-183), which not only acknowledge the possibility of an eager slave, but give him a surprising amount of attention.
Under Old Testament law, a Hebrew could become a slave in a variety of circumstances. However, in all cases the period of his compulsory servitude could be for no more than six years. In the seventh year, the master was legally required, not only to emancipate the slave, but to equip him generously for free, independent life (Deut. 15:12-15). He is required to set his slave free, that is, unless “he tells you that he does not wish to leave you because he is devoted to you (in Hebrew, “he loves you”) and your household, since he fares well with you,” (Deut. 15:16 and also Ex. 21:5). In that case, his ear is to be pierced at the doorway to the master’s home (as a sign of submission and obedience) – and he remains a slave forever.
Here in Israel there are a number of Hebrew-speaking Messianic Jews composing hymns in that language, especially hymns based on Scripture. One such hymn, Transfixed Servant (Eved Nirtsah) by Amican Tabor develops our theme beautifully in a Christian context:
“Take my ear, O Lord, which has heard your Word, and pierce it through at the doorpost of your Tabernacle. For you loved me; how can I leave you? Let me remain a slave of your House forever, because I love you and the pleasantness of your yoke. How could I go “free” from the freedom of your slavery?”
The imagery of this first stanza of Yedid Nefesh is particularly graphic. The slave, who has chosen servitude over freedom because he loves his Master, runs as swiftly as a gazelle to cast himself down, prostrate in worship of his Most Dearly Beloved, his Merciful Father. All he wants is to savor the “honey and nectar” of the Master’s loving presence.
For me, this is an irresistible allegory for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. In fact, I often begin my evening adoration, when the only light in our darkened chapel shines from the open Tabernacle, by silently praying this stanza.
But these words should also remind us that adoration of our God, at once magnificent in divine glory and as close to use as a loving parent, is another of those beautiful elements of Jewish faith and worship that is continued in the New Covenant by the Church. It is not – and should never be perceived as – alien to our Jewish roots.
“…My soul is ill for love of you…”
“…for how much – how much! – have I longed to gaze upon your mighty splendor…”
Before I became a Christian, the desperate longing of the second stanza was almost too painful to sing. The soul is ill, languishing for her unseen Beloved. A mere glimpse of the Beloved’s radiance will strengthen her, heal her, give her eternal joy. But will the Beloved reveal himself to her?
In the third stanza the slave continues the plea of his soul in heart-breaking, psalmic terms:
“Have pity, Lord, have pity! Do not disregard me. Grant me my heart’s desire. You are Faithful; have mercy on me, your beloved child.”
Rarely has the messianic longing of the Jewish people been more movingly expressed. Traditionally, these second and third stanzas are understood as expressing that messianic hope, while the fourth looks forward to the dreamed-of messianic fulfillment. Perhaps the greatest of the messianic prophets presents it like this:
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shown … For a child is born to us, a son is given us,” (Isaiah 9:1.5a).
Light as a messianic symbol comes to fullness in Jesus.
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life,” (John 8:12).
“Be revealed, my Beloved … Illumine the earth with your glory; we will rejoice and be glad in you …”
In the Revelation, we read of the New Jerusalem:
“The city had no need of sun or moon to shine in it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb,” (21:23)
“The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him … Night will be no more, nor will they need light from lamp or sun, for the Lord God shall give them light, and they shall reign for ever and ever.” (23:36.5)
During the days I was meditating and writing this article, the Church was preparing to celebrate Epiphany, “the manifestation of the Lord,” when the First Reading begins,
“Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord is upon you,” (Isaiah 60:1).
In Hebrew, the first part of the verse consists only of two imperatives: qumi, uri; that is, “Arise! Give light!” The commands are addressed to the redeemed Zion, but I think we can apply them to each of us. Our Sunday Visitor’s New Catholic Encyclopedia (1991) has this to say about light as a symbol of the Messiah: “When His light enters us, it transfuses us and transforms us into lights pointing to Christ.” We received this light at baptism and we can renew it at every Holy Communion, when Jesus comes into us as he came into the world at Bethlehem, and as he will return to the world when he comes in glory.
“Be revealed, my Beloved, and spread the canopy of your peace over me. Illumine the earth with your glory; we will rejoice and be glad in you. Hurry, Beloved, for the time has come. Be gracious to us for eternity.
Amen. Bo’a-na HaAdon Yeshua. (“Come, Lord Jesus,” Hebrew New Testament, Delitsh trans.)
Having touched only a very few of the most meaningful references, I hope I have succeeded in transmitting a bit of the richness I find in Yedid Nefesh. And if so, I hope you will be encouraged to acquire a siddur (Jewish prayer book) and begin to explore for yourself the riches of Christian meditation of Jewish prayers and liturgical poetry. I think you will find it well worth the effort!
Notes: 1. “Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men, 24knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you are serving the Lord Christ.”Colossians 3:23-24
2. “Now these are the ordinances which you shall set before them. When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him for life.
“When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt faithlessly with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.” Exodus 21:1-11
3. “If your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed; you shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your wine press; as the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today.” Deuteronomy 15:12-18
Scripture quotations: Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition, Ignatius Press
Ed. Our author was born to a strictly-observant Orthodox Jewish family and lived her first 35 years in that world. She was married and had three children when, shortly after she received her doctorate in philosophy, her husband and children died in a tragic auto accident. She then moved to Israel, where she became a Messianic Jew and later entered the Catholic Church. This year, she entered a Poor Clare Monastery in the Holy Land, and she asks for prayer for “the grace of perseverance and for her continual conversion.”