On the Sea
A poem by Yehudah ha-Levi
translated by Nina Salaman
My God, break not the breakers of the sea,
Nor command to the deep, "Become dry".
Until I thank Your mercies, and I thank
The waves of the sea and the wind of the west;
Let them propel me to the place of the yoke of Your love,
And bear far from me the Arab yoke.
And how shall my desires not find fulfillment,
Seeing as I trust in You, and You are pledged to me?
Has the flood come again and made the world a waste
So that one cannot see the face of the dry land,
And no man is there and no beast and no bird?
Have they all come to an end and lain down in sorrow?
To see even a mountain or a marsh would be a rest for me,
And the desert itself would be sweet.
But I look on every side and there is nothing
But water and sky and ark,
And Leviathan causing the abyss to boil,
So that one considers the deep to be hoary,
And the heart of the sea conceals the ship
As though she were a stolen thing in the sea's hand.
As the sea rages, my soul is jubilant -
For my ship draws near to the sanctuary of her God.
To You my soul turns in trust or fear,
It is to you that she always gives thanks and worship;
In You I rejoice on the day I wander forth and flee,
And You I thank in every flight and wandering. -
Indeed, when the ship, to bear me over, spreads out wings like the wings of a stork,
And when the deep groans and roars beneath me,
As though it had learned from my own entrails,
And makes the abyss to boil like a pot,
Indeed, turns the sea into a pot of burning ointment;
And when the ship from Kittim comes to the sea of the Philistines
And the Hittites come down to the stronghold;
And when creatures press upon the ship
And sea-monsters watch for food,
And there is a time of trouble as of one that brings forth her first child,
When children have approached their birth
But there is no strength to bring them forth.
And though I should lack for food and drink,
I take the sweetness of Your name into my mouth for sustenance;
And I have no care for worldly goods,
Nor for treasures nor for any perishables -
Even so far that I can leave behind [in Spain] her that went forth of my loins,
Sister of my soul - and she my only daughter -
And I can forget her son, though it pierces my heart,
And I have nothing left but his memory for a symbol -
Fruit of my loins, child of my delight -
Ah! How should Yehudah forget [my grandson] Yehudah?
But this is a light thing compared to Your love,
Since I may enter Your gates with thanksgiving,
And sojourn there, and count my heart
A burnt offering bound upon Your altar;
And may make my grave in Your land,
So that it be there a witness for me.
This is your wind, O perfumed west,
With spikenard and apple in his wings!
You come forth of the treasures of the spice traders -
You are not of the treasures of the wind.
You propel me on swallow's wings, and proclaim liberty for me;
Like pure myrrh from the bundle of spices you have selected.
How men must long for you, which for your sake
Ride over the crest of the sea on the back of a plank!
Stay not your hand from the ship
Either when day abides or in the cool breath of the night;
But beat out the deep, and tear the heart of the seas
And touch the holy mountains, and there will you rest.
Reprimand the east wind which tosses the sea into tempest
Until he makes its heart like a seething pot.
What shall the captive do, in the hand of God,
One moment held back, and one moment sent forth free?
Truly the secret of my quest is in the hand of the Highest,
Who formed the mountain heights and created the wind.
My desire for the living God has constrained me
To seek the place of the throne of my annointed -
Even so that it has not suffered me to kiss
The children of my house, my friends, and my brethren;
And that I do not weep for the orchard which I planted and watered,
Nor for my green shoots that prospered;
And that I abandoned Yehudah and Azariel,
My two beautiful choice flowers;
And Yitzhak, whom I counted as my child,
Fruit of the sun, best of the growth of my moons;
And that I have all but forgotten the house of prayer
In whose place of learning was my rest,
And that I forget the delights of my Sabbaths,
The beauty of my festivals, the glory of my Passovers,
And have given my glory unto others,
And renounced my praise unto graven images.
I have exchanged my abode for a shadow of shrubs,
And for a hedge in the thicket my strong bars;
My soul is satisfied with the chief spices,
And the scent of the thornbush I use now for perfume;
And I have ceased to walk with my face bending to the ground [in forced servility to other men]
But have set my paths in the heart of the seas -
With the ultimate goal that I may find the footstool of my God,
And be able to pour out my soul with my thoughts,
And stand at the threshold of His holy mount and set open
Towards the doors of Heaven's gates, my doors,
And suffer my spikenard to flower by the waters of the Jordan,
And put forth my shoots by Siloah.
The Lord is with me, how shall I fear or dread,
Since the angel of His mercy bears my weapons?
I shall praise His name while I still am alive,
And thank Him for eternity.
I say in the heart of the seas to the quaking heart,
Fearing greatly because they lift up their waves;
If you believe in God who made the sea,
And whose Name stands for eternity,
The sea shall not frighten you when its waves rise up,
For with you is One who has set a bound to the sea.
I cry out to God with a melting heart and knees that strike against each other,
While anguish is in all loins,
On a day when the oarsmen are astounded at the deep,
When even the pilots find not their hands.
How shall I be otherwise, since I, on a ship's deck,
Suspended between the waters and the heavens,
Am dancing and tossed about?
But this is merely a light thing,
If I may eventually hold a joyous dance in the midst of you, O Jerusalem!
Call greeting unto daughters and relatives,
Peace to brothers and to sisters,
From the captive of hope who is possessed by the sea,
And has placed his spirit in the hand of the winds,
Thrust by the hand of the west into the hand of the east:
This one passes to lead on, and that one to thrust back.
Between him and death is but a step,
Yes, between them is merely the thickness of a plank;
Buried alive in a coffin of wood,
Upon no floor, with no four cubits of earth,
Nor even with less.
He sits - he cannot stand upon his feet,
He lies down - he cannot stretch them forth;
Sick and afraid because of the heathen
And because of the marauders and the winds.
The pilot and the mariner, and all their rabble -
They are the rulers and captains there.
Fame is not to the wise, nor yet favor to skilled men,
Save only to those that have skill to swim.
My face is troubled at this for a moment
(How should the innermost heart rejoice?),
Until I pour out my soul into the bosom of God,
Before the place of the Ark and the altars,
And bestow upon God, who bestows good things upon the unworthy,
The goodness of songs and praise.