דלג על פקודות של רצועת הכלים
דלג לתוכן ראשי

Yedid Nefesh - In-Depth Look

Hana Ftaya

16/11/2015

תקציר המאמר

This piyut of longing and yearning for the closeness of God holds a highly respected place among the traditions of the communities of Israel. The piyut is sung by various ethnic groups in one of it many melodies whether during Kabalat Shabbat, Shabbat, Tikkun Hatzot, morning prayers, or before dawn, hour between darkness and light. Few Piyutim have been honored with the privilege of being sung at these hours of special meaning.

לתקציר המלא

This piyut of longing and yearning for the closeness of God holds a highly respected place among the traditions of the communities of Israel. The piyut is sung in various melodies, whether during Kabalat Shabbat, Shabbat, Tikkun Hatzot, morning prayers, or before dawn, hour between darkness and light. Few Piyutim have been honored with the privilege of being sung at these hours of special meaning.  

 

The Kabbalists view these hours of twilight as transitional – where this world and the next world overlap. Twilight, a time, which is neither day nor night, is essentially drawn from another place. During the week, the attribute of judgment rules, and when the day ends, it asks: what have you done today? Are you willing to have judgment passed on your actions? On Shabbat, it is the opposite. Shabbat is a time of Chesed; a time when the gates of prayer are open. In the words of R. Isaac Luria, the AR”I, in his poem “Bnei Heichala,” which is also sung during twilight: “rejoice now in this hour, in which there is acceptance and no rage.” It is believed that one carries the spiritual experience of his previous Shabbat throughout the week and into the following Shabbat, thus there is continuance of the Shabbat light at all times.

 

The author of this piyut is R. Elazar Azkari, of the 16th-century Tzfat kabbalists. And thus there is a thread of mystery and secret that runs throughout this Piyut in which a person appeals from the inner most depths of his soul to God.

 

The term 'Yedid Nefesh' refers to God, as well as to the individual and the people of Israel. This is exemplified when the prophet Jeremiah voices God's lament over the exile of His people and the destruction of the temple: "I will forsake My house, abandoned my inheritance, I will deliver the one I love (yedidut nafshi) into the hands of her enemies". (Jeremiah 12:8).

 

'Yedid Nefesh' - that is how the poet, whose soul is love sick, calls his beloved, God. In the first line of the poem, we find three references to God: Yedid, Av and Melech – lover, father, king (or master, as the poet calls himself a servant). As seen throughout the Bible, the people of Israel are both God’s children and His servants. The parent-child relationship represents the natural and unconditional love. For even children who go astray are still their father's children. And their father forgives them because of his love for them. The second relationship is one of complete surrender of the servant to his master. Only through this relationship, through complete surrender to the Master of the universe, is complete freedom achieved. This notion is also expressed in the words of R. Yehuda Halevi: “Servants of time are servants of servants. Only the servant of God is free.”

 

Many midrashic interpretations, and songs of supplication and forgiveness were written about this double aspect of a child and a servant. One example is the prayer that is read but once a year on Rosh Hashannah. After the shofar is blown, piercing the heavens, the people of Israel plead before God:

Today is the birthday of the world [or: is pregnant with possibility]. Today all creatures of the world stand in judgment, whether as children [of God] or as servants. If as children, be merciful with us as the mercy of a father for children. If as servants, our eyes [look towards and] depend upon you until you be gracious to us and release our verdict as light. Holiness.

In the background we can hear God's sorrow as he reprimands his child/servant Israel and asks: “If I am a father, where is my honor? If I am a master, where is my respect?” (Malachi 1:6).

 

R. Elazar Azkari turns to God as a son would to a merciful father, and as servant of God who wants to entirely devote himself to his creator. He turns to his king, the King of all Kings, and requests that He draw him, his servant, to do His will. Like the beloved in Song of Songs longs for her lover and says to him "Draw me, we will run after thee. The king hath brought me into his chambers" (Song of Songs 1:4). The poet also requests to enter the inner chamber of the King, the highest point, the divine will. Like King David, he requests to reach the source of life and vitality, the knowledge of God: “With you is the source of life, by Your light do we see light. Draw your kindness to those devoted to you, and your righteousness to the upright” (Psalms 36:10-11).  

 

The poet’s feet are light as a deer's as he runs towards God. He runs like that very deer whose soul yearns and reaches out to God: “Like a deer yearning for water channels, so my soul years for You God.” (Psalms 42:2). And when he merits this, then he kneels and bows, and lowers himself before the greatness and glory of God. The Love of God and His Torah are pleasing to him over all tastes: “…the judgments of God are true, righteous altogether. They are more desirable than gold, than much fine gold, sweeter than honey, than drippings of the comb” (Psalms 19:10-11).

 

The word “your love” [Yedidutach] which is repeated in this stanza reminds of King David the poet and his longings for God: “How lovely [Ma Yedidot] is Your dwelling-place, Lord of Hosts; I long, I yearn for the courts of the Lord; my body and soul shout for joy to the living God” (Psalms 84:2-3). These verses convey the depth of the yearning and longing for God’s dwelling place and courtyards, the divine grace. Man is in his essence thirsting for the closeness of God, and when attained, then not only do his heart and his inner world sing joyously to the living God, but so does his flesh – all the life-forces which seem external. That is the level of "Knesset Yisrael" (the community of Israel), where the flesh, as well as the heart, sings joyously to the living God who reveals himself in the world. In our poem as well the body and soul are intertwined. This is depicted through references to the senses, and the poet's choice of verbs: draw, run, kneel, taste – and it is interesting that R. Elazar Azkari, in his book, "Sefer Haredim", categorizes the commandments according to the limbs of the body which are obligated to fulfill them: eyes, heart, mouth, hands, legs, etc. We constantly feel the two aspects of desire: the desire for God’s physical dwelling place, the Temple, and the spiritual desire for the knowledge of God and closeness to Him.

 

The poet’ soul is lovesick and reaches out to his lover who is his soul, “Knesset Yisrael”,  who yearns for her lover, knows that only He can heal her, and so she cries for healing in the words of Moses short prayer for Miriam his sister when she was struck with leprosy: “Moses cried out to God: ‘God please heal her!’” (Numbers 12:13). Moses, who often prays and supplicates on behalf of Israel, when he prays for his beloved sister, cries out from the depths of his heart with a prayer that is surprisingly short and simple. Each word seems to be a prayer in and of itself, in the essence, and in that lies the secret of its strength. In this piyut the poet adds but one word to the prayer of Moses – “Please!” This word intensifies the supplication and plea. The poet knows that cure for the sick and longing soul is the revelation of the divine radiance, as it is said in psalm 90:16-17, which the kabbalists established should be said before prayer or the fulfillment of a mitzvah: “May the will of the Lord, our God, be upon us, let the work of our hands prosper, O prosper the work of our hands!” (Psalms 90:17). Note what the verse that precedes this one requests: “Let Your deeds be seen by Your servants, Your glory on Your children.” Therefore, when God’s glory is revealed, the soul will cling to its creator, and be a maidservant forever.

 

The poet continues and requests of God to have mercy on His nation, the son of His beloved (Abraham is called God’s beloved). The words echo Jeremiah the prophet in his well-known prophecy of comfort, which opens with the words: “Thus says the Lord: ‘A voice is heard on the heights, wailing, bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children who are gone...” And continues: “Truly, Ephraim is a dear son to Me, a child that is playful. Whenever I have turned against him, my thoughts would still dwell on him. That is why my heart yearns for him, I will receive him back in love – says the Lord” (Jeremiah 31: 15, 20). Once again we see the parent-child relationship between God and His nation. The child is entirely consumed with longing for God’s magnificent might - which can be interpreted as the physical sanctuary or as the revelation of God to His people.

 

Like Jacob, who is identified with the sefirah of Tiferet (beauty/magnificence), who was entirely consumed with longing for his father’s house (see Genesis 31:30), so our poet longs and yearns for the magnificence, for the house of his father, whether it be the celestial or earthly. It is interesting that in Ezekiel prophecy, which closes his prophecies of rebuke, we find a description of the ruined Temple and the exile in words that are echoed in our poem: “You, O mortal, take note: On the day that I take their stronghold from them, their pride and glory [tiferet], the delight of their eyes and the longing of their souls…” (Ezekiel 24:25).

 

The poet is asking for the rebuilding of this temple and the redemption of these exiled. He asks of God to speed the redemption and not to ignore and hide His face from His people. Only then will there be a canopy of peace spread over the people of Israel, as is stated in the prayer which proceeds the Amidah on Friday night: “Spread over us and Jerusalem your city a canopy of mercy and peace.” The kabbalists established that in saying these words, one should focus on receiving the additional Shabbat soul (on Shabbat a person receives an additional nefesh, ruach and nesham: the three levels of the soul).

 

Thus, when an individual rises to the level of the additional soul that is in him, and the people of Israel dwell under the wings of the Shekhinah (female presence of God), then the land will be illuminated with the glory of God, like the words of Ezekiel in his prophecy of the Third Temple: “and there, coming from the east with a roar like the roar of mighty waters, was the Presence of the God of Israel, and the earth was illuminated by His presence…I fell on my face” (Ezekiel 43:2-4). Just like Ezekiel who could not contain the intensity of the revelation, so the poet kneels before the glory of God revealed to him. The God who creates light, wrapped in a cloak of light, blesses his nation with the blessing of the priests: “Let God shine His face upon you and show you grace” (Numbers 6:25). This is the same light of which much is spoken by the prophets, midrash, and the mystic texts, a light which is neither day nor night, the time of redemption.

 

 

The poet concludes his poem, his prayer, with the words of King David, and of Malachi, the prophet who sealed the era of prophecy of the people of Israel.

 

King David, who asks God not to hide His face from him, requests:

 

A prayer to the lowly man when he is faint and pours forth his plea before the Lord

O Lord, hear my prayer let my cry come before you

Do not hide Your face from me in my time of trouble; lend me your ear, when I cry, answer me speedily…

You will arise and take pity on Zion, for it is time to be gracious to her

For your servants have taken delight in her stones, and cherished her dust

 (Psalms 102:1-3; 14-15)

 

And Malachi says: “Then the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem shall be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of yore, and the years of old” (Malachi 3:4).

 

And so, when the time of grace and redemption will come, God will delight in the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem as in the time of the Temple. Here we are brought back to the beginning of the piyut where God's love (yedidut) is more pleasing than all savor, that same yedidut which, as we have seen, can be interpreted both as representing the temple and the nation of Israel.