Moshe Ben Nahman: Before the World Ever Was

During the Middle Ages, Spain benefited from a particularly rich mixture of Muslim, Christian and Jewish poetry and mysticism. Moshe Ben Nahman (1194-1270) was born to a distinguished family in Gerona, and spent most of his life there and in Barcelona.  He has been called “the central personality of the ‘Catalan Renaissance’ of the early thirteenth century.”  He wrote extensively about mysticism, philosophy, biblical commentary, law and social commentary; of his excellent poems, only eighteen have come down to us.  The following verses, exploring the relationship between the Creator and the individual soul, are taken from a much longer poem.

I was formed from dust, though your breath in me burns.

Before the World Ever Was

My work, I say, is concerning a king.

From the beginning, before the world ever was,
I was held on high with his hidden treasures.
He brought me forth from nothing and in
the end I will be withdrawn by the King.

My being flowed from the spheres’ foundation,
which endowed it with form in evident fashion.
The craftsmen’s hands weighed its creation,
so I would be brought to the vaults of the King.

He appeared to reveal what once he concealed,
on the left and on the right as well.
He sent me down the stairway leading
from Siloam’s pool to the groves of the King.

I was formed from dust, though your breath in me burns.
You’ve known this stranger’s thoughts in these lands.
How long, my soul. until you return
and meet with approval before the King?

You set a lamp at my feet on the path
and searched to see if my spirit was willing.
As I set out before you, you warned me, repeating:
Fear, my child the Lord and King.

My heart was given balance and choice:
if it leads to goodness—in that I’ll rejoice.
but if it brings evil, derision will reign,
for this is not the will of the King.

Moshe Ben Nahman
Tr. by Peter Cole

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