FOR MANY OF US, turning 50 is an occasion for panic, dread, soul searching or some odd and unsettling shift of perspective. Before I reached that threshhold a few months ago, I was determined not to fall into this state and to let it pass as if it were any other birthday.
But I guess I'm no different than most. I surprised myself and spent a bit more time and energy than I expected thinking about turning 50. To be honest, I wasn't sure whether to consider it a time for a fresh start or for holding fast to the grooves I'd worn for myself, either by design or by the simple act of living (as John Lennon once said, "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans.").
It turns out that someone who lived nearly a thousand years ago offered some profound perspective on this passage, which just goes to show that we moderns didn't invent introspection or the midlife crisis.
I'm speaking of Yehuda Halevi,a Jewish poet, philosopher and physician who lived in Spain from about 1070 or 1075 to 1141. Overlapping, and in some cases interacting with some of the other masters of Spain's Jewish literary tradition, Halevi was one of the leading lights in what many consider to be a Golden Age of Hebrew poetry. "Never again did it mean as much for an entire society as it had meant in Andalusia," writes Hillel Halkin, who has just produced a wonderful biography of Halevi published this year by Nextbook. "And never again until the twentieth century did it shine as it had shone there." Indeed, some of Halevi's work and that of contemporaries such as Shmuel ha-Nagid, Shlomo ibn Gabirol, Moshe ibn Ezra and Avraham ibn Ezra have long been part of the Jewish liturgical canon. Jews still recite some of their poetry as part of formal prayer.
The poetry speaks for itself, feeling as fresh and as immediate to a reader in 2010 as it may have in the 11th or 12th century (though people like me have the disadvantage of reading Halevi in translation, which, even at its best, loses the word play and rythms that gives verse its glimmer). Reading it, I have the same sensation I get looking at, say, a Vermeer painting, whose colors still leap off the canvas, even some four and a half centuries since the artist put them there, and whose subjects still draw you in.
During Halevi's lifetime, Muslims and Christians continously fought for and periodically swapped control of various regions of Spain. This prompted the poet and many other Jews of his time to migrate from one city where they suddenly faced persecution to another where they could live in relative, albeit temporary, peace.
But, even though he lived comfortably (such was the station of a physician, particularly one who treated rulers) and was revered inside and outside his Jewish community as a literary force, Halevi apparently never felt fully at home there. Nor, the record suggests, did he have any particular yearning for practicing medicine (unlike another major Jewish philosopher, Moshe ben Maimon, or Maimonides, who was born in Spain near the end of Halevi's life and who was as prolific a medical thinker as he was a religious one). He was, at heart, a poet.
He was also a Jew, whose writings spoke restively about life at the whim of Christian or Muslim leaders and romantically of Zion, the Holy Land, notably in a series of poems that later became known as shirey tsiyon or Songs of Zion. As he wrote in one of the most famous of these poems,
My heart is in the East -- and I am at the edge of the West.
How can I possibly taste what I eat? How could it please me?
How can I keep my promise or ever fulfill my vow,
When Zion is held by Edom and I am bound by Arabia's chains?
I'd gladly leave behind me all the pleasures of Spain --
If only I might see the dust and ruins of your Shrine.
[This translation by Peter Cole from "The Dream Of the Poem" (2007)]
Edom, in this case, referred to the First Crusaders, who in 1099 had conquered Jerusalem, slaughtering masses of Muslims and Jews and barring their remnant communities from resettling there. The small community of Jews that remained in Palestine was weak and scattered, and Jewish pilgrimmage to Jerusalem, which was now difficult and dangerous, came nearly to a halt. “Besides having to put up with the hostility or mockery of its Christian inhabitants,” Halkin writes, “a Jewish pilgrim to the city would have found no Jewish home to stay in, no synaogue, and no kosher food.”
Still Halevi clung to his passion for Zion; indeed, today we consider him a proto-Zionist from whom others, centuries later, would draw inspiration to form the modern Zionist movement.
Halevi’s passion seemed only to intensify as he grew older and closer to death, as in this love poem for Jerusalem suggests, speaking of a queen banished from her home:
O fair of view! World's joy! Great monarch's home!
For you, from earth's far end, my spirit yearns.
Compassion stirs in me when my mind turns
To your lost cloister and its spendors' doom.
Would that on an eagle's wings I flew to mix the water of my tears with your parched clay!
Always I think of you -- and though your king's away,
And snakes and scorpions scuttle where once grew
Your balm of Gilead, your stones and earth
Would taste, when kissed, like honey in my mouth.
At a certain point later in his life, Halevi made it known to his family and friends that he wanted to make that difficult pilgrimmage to Jerusalem. But for many years he put off the journey, yielding to the many responsibilities and security of his life in Spain, and perhaps the appeals of his friends and family who tried strongly to dissuade him from going.
But his impatience grew, and “sometime in his fifties... he wrote a poem about this,” Halkin writes. Even though, in his fifties, Halevi was far beyond midlife, he was going through what we could call a midlife crisis, and, Halkin writes, “he takes himself to task for clinging to material pleasures and social enjoyments in disregard of the duty to set out.” The poem describes his internal struggle -- do I stay or do I go? -- in the form of a tempestuous ocean journey, not unlike the actual one he would have to take to get to the Eastern Mediterranean.
A man in your fifties -- and you still would be young?
Soon your life will have flown like a bird from a branch!
Yet you shirk the service of God, and crave the service of men,
And run after the many, and shun the One
From whom the multitudes of all things come,
And laze about instead of setting out
On your true way, and for a mess of pottage
Sell your immortal part. Has not your soul had enough?
...Be as bold as a panther, swift as a deer!
Fear not the open sea, though mountains of waves crest and crash,
And hands shake like rags in a gale,
And speechless ships’ carpenters quail,
and crews leap to the task and in dismay stagger back,
Trapped in an ocean with nowhere to flee
While the sails flap and crack, and the deck creaks and groans,
And the wind whips the water into haystack-high bales.
...[After a tumultuous trek] the waves subside; like flocks of sheep they graze upon the sea.
The sun has set, departing by the stairs
Up which ascends the night watch let by its silver-sworded captian.
The heavens are an African spangled with gold, blue-black
Within a frame of milky crystal. Stars roam the water,
Flare and flicker there, outcasts far from home.
The seaward-dipping sky, the night-clasped se, both polished bright,
Are indistinguishable, two oceans cupled alike,
Between which, surging with thanksgiving, lies a third, my heart.
As the poem suggests -- and as he spells out in even greater detail in his monumental philosophical work, The Kuzari -- Halevi overcame the fear and inertia keeping him from his true passion, though he had no illusion that the path ahead would be easy.
And, eventually, in 1140, somewhere between his early and mid-sixties, Halevi left Spain and set out for Palestine. Upon leaving, he wrote:
Driven by longing
for the living God
to hasten to where his annointed ones dwelt,
I had no time to kiss my firends or family
a last farewell;
no time to weep for the garden I grew,
the trees watered and watched as they branched and did well;
no time to think of the blossoms they bore.
...Forgotten are my synagogue
the peace that was its study hall,
my Sabbaths and their sweet delights,
the splendor of my festivals
I’ve left them all.
Let others have the idol’s honors and be hailed.
I’ve swapped my bedroom for dry brush,
its safety for rough chaparral,
the scents and subtle fragrances that cloyed my soul
for thistles’ smells,
and put away the mincing gait of landlubbers
to hoist my sail and cross the sea
until I reach the land that is
the Lord’s foostool.
The postcript is that Judah Halevi stopped for eight or nine months in Egypt, where he was treated by the Jewish community there as a literary celebrity. They, too, tried to talk him out of going to Palestine, and the comforts with which they showered him could easily have dissuaded Halevi from continuing.
But in the spring of 1141, he set sail for the Holy Land. The record of what happened to him then went blank, though there is virtual certainty that Halevi died within only a few months. No one knows whether he made it to Jerusalem and fulfilled his ultimate dream of gazing upon its glory.
For most of us at midlife, Halevi’s example is a bit extreme -- giving it all up to chase a passion, knowing full well that hardship of that journey, especially for someone in the late hours of life. Most of us can’t, won’t or don’t need to make that sort of sacrifice. And, to some extent, for our own peace of mind, we need to put away dreams that are simply unattainable at a certain advanced age, if they ever were realistic. (In my case, for instance, I think it’s time to accept that I’ll never play in the NBA, as I once thought possible -- at least until I stopped growing at age 13 or so and never learned to go to my left.)
Yet it is Halevi’s passion itself that is instructive and inspiring, even for those of us who are not ready to alter our lives so radically. It is easy at midlife for one to think the tank is half empty. Halevi’s message is that it’s never too late to find your Zion -- your passion -- and to set out on a tough and scary passage to find it.
The question for us, then, at this point -- and I suppose any point -- of life is, what's your Zion? And what will it take for you to taste even a morsel of it?
Except where noted, all translations above are by Hillel Halkin from his 2010 biography of Halevi.