Solomon ibn Gabirol (1021-1070) was a great liturgical poet.
His spiritual poetry is elegant, ordered, philosophical.
But his inner life was not.
He was often in pain. Both physical and emotional. He could be bitter, angry, or jealous. Thus, he had few friends.
So, how did he express both parts of himself? Did he find comfort in God beyond time and change because he found humans fickle? Or did he keep two parts of himself separate? Did his writing split along two tracks? One for a perfect God, and then one for flawed humanity?
Could I find a poem that spoke of both at the same time?
So, I took a second look at ibn Gabirol’s famous Hebrew poem Shakhar Avakeshkha (At Dawn I Seek You).
It appears in many Jewish prayerbooks. Not, however, as a formal part of the morning service. But as a poetic kavannah, a spiritual reflection, before the service.
First, I read the poem in Hebrew.
שַׁחַר אֲבַקֶשְׁךָ צוּרִי וּמִשְׂגַּבִּי
אֶעְרֹך לְפָנֶיךְ שַׁחְרִי וְגַם עַרְבִּי
לִפְנֵי גְדֻלָּתְךָ אֶעְמֹד וְאֶבָּהֵל
כִּי עֵינְךָ תִרְאֶה כָּל מַחְשְׁבוֹת לִבִּי
מַה זֶה אֲשֶׁר יוּכַל הַלֵּב וְהַלָּשׁוֹן
לַעְשׂוֹת וּמַה כֹּחַ רוּחִי בְּתוֹךְ קִרְבִּי
הִנֵּה לְךָ תִיטַב זִמְרַת אֱנוֹשׁ עַל כֵּן
אוֹדְךָ בְּעוֹד תִּהְיֶה נִשְׁמַת אֱלוֹהַּ בִּי
Next, I read different English translations. Then, I re-read the poem.
And, finally, I translated it myself.
But no one translation could hold the poem’s full meaning. Why? Because the Hebrew language has few word roots. So, many words have to do double-duty, and mean two things. Also, Hebrew is quite an old language. Thus, words carry millennia of associations. So, Hebrew is filled with metaphors.
Finally, I settled on two translations. Both are literal. (As literal as you can be, that is, in poetic Hebrew).
The first translation is pious. It’s the kind you might find in your prayerbook.
At dawn I seek you, my rock, my refuge
With morning and evening orders of prayer.
Faced with your grandeur, I stand astonished
For your eyes see all the thoughts in my heart.
What can thought or language even do?
What gives strength to my innermost soul?
Your love for human poetry, of course
Thank you; it is your divine spark in me.
But the second translation is psychological. It’s a raw, realistic account of personal prayer. An expression of pain, bitterness, anger, and cynicism.
At dawn I seek you, my spark my joy
Where light meets dark, I judge myself
And panic; you fill me with potential
But my thought and speech cannot do much
My inner spirit has no strength
Better for you I write a poem
And thank God I still can breathe.
And thus, as I translated, I understood! How did Ibn Gabirol express both parts of himself? He wrote his frustration. Then, he read and re-read his words. Gradually, their meaning shifted. Through them, he found a safer place. A quiet, orderly, grand place. A place of Spirit.
No wonder he wrote so many poems. He needed them. And so do we. They help us name our own turmoil. And then, through naming, to see differently. Bit by bit.
Listen to a musical expression of the dimensions of Shachar Avakeskha.
I’m the reader. Brett Tancer is the pianist. We performed this musical reading at the 2019 meeting of OHALAH: Association of Rabbis and Cantors for Jewish Renewal.