Updated: Sep 2, 2022
Today, on Nevo’s eleventh birthday, I thought it might be fitting to celebrate on Sapienism, by writing a bit about his name – and trying my hand at translating some poetry.
Eleven years ago, in an old Jerusalem hospital, I became a father. I remember holding him in my arms for the first time, and more so the moment our eyes first met. If I end up gradually losing my memory, I hope this one moment will remain until the very end. Six days later came the meeting of minds, mine and my wife’s – for reasons I can hardly retrace, I felt “Nevo” was right, and Shani felt it too, and so it was. Shakespeare’s Juliet is probably right: “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” But is this true of people too?
Today, on Nevo’s eleventh birthday, I thought it might be fitting to celebrate on Sapienism, by writing a bit about his name – and trying my hand at translating some poetry. I’ve often been asked about our choice of name: “Nevo.” Those who are not familiar with the name’s history and context wonder about its meaning, those who are familiar wonder why on earth we would bestow this heavy burden on a child. Fair enough…
Bible first: “Nevo” is the name of the mountain on which Moses stood as he saw, for the very first time, the Promised Land, and on which he died. This was an unexpected turn of events for Moses – an odd reward for leading the children of Israel out of slavery and, through the wasteland, for forty long years, awaiting entrance to the coveted homeland. But God has his priorities, which include not merely obedience but respect.
The children of Israel were thirsty, again blaming Moses for taking them out of the safe subjugation of Egypt to the perils of the desert. God to the rescue: speak to the rock, he told Moses, and it shall yield water, but instead “Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff.” Moses’s most modest of rebellions, struggling to retain freedom between a rock and a hard place – his people’s desire to obey, his God’s demand to be obeyed. “These are waters of dissention (Merivah),” God chides his servant, and will serve his revenge cold: waiting until the very last moment, just before entering the Promised Land, to turn his back on him: “Because ye trespassed against me among the children of Israel at the waters of dissention, in the wilderness of Zin; because ye sanctified me not in the midst of the children of Israel. Thou shalt see the land before thee; but thou shalt not go thither unto the land which I give the children of Israel” (Deuteronomy 32, 51-52).
God chides his servant, and will serve his revenge cold: waiting until the very last moment, just before entering the Promised Land, to turn his back on Moses.
It’s a haunting, devastating, specter—the specter of getting so near, yet remaining so far: to strive and dream, to labor and belief, to make steady progress towards the ultimate goal, and to finally behold it, almost grasp it by the hand, but watch it slip between your fingers into the desert’s sands. Such is, perhaps, the human condition.
Millennia later, Hebrew poetess Rachel Bluwstein Sela [רחל בְּלוּבְשְׁטֵיין סלע], will feel the same. Immigrating from Russia to Palestine in 1909, she joined the Zionist pioneers and found a home on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret). Four years later Rachel went to study agronomy and drawing in France, when WWI broke out. Unable to return to Palestine, she went back to Russia, where she became increasingly ill and lonely. After the War, Rachel retuned to Palestine, to kibbutz Degania, near the Kinneret, but diagnosed with tuberculosis, was ousted – and spent most of her final years in Tel Aviv, until her death on April 16, 1931, at the age of forty.
Two collections of poems were published during Rachel’s lifetime; the third, posthumous, is “Nevo” [נְבוֹ] a fitting title for reasons I hope to clarify. Concluding Rachel’s published poetry before her death is “Mineged,” which I’ll attempt to translate here.
There are a couple of translations out there, and I’ve turned to them for help, but I was a bit dismayed from the onset, considering the title they all give: “From Afar.” It misses the mark. “Mineged” [מִנֶּגֶד] is Hebrew for in opposition, in front, facing, confronting; God uses “mineged” to tell Moses where he shall see the Promised Land from – Mount Nevo. The whole idea is that it is not geographically afar from that coveted destination/destiny. It is perfectly positioned – in location and height – to grasp it whole, to satisfy the constant craving; it is achingly close; seen, but untouchable; intimate yet separate. A dream frustrated, transcendence arrested.
“Mineged” is Hebrew for in opposition, in front, facing, confronting; God uses “mineged” to tell Moses where he shall see the Promised Land from – Mount Nevo. The whole idea is that it is not geographically afar from that coveted destination/destiny.
The best translation I could come up with to this sensation requires an amalgam: “in front, apart.” So here goes:
In Front, Apart [מנגד] [Hebrew original]
Heart attentive, Ear alert: Please come, will you? Each craving contains Nevo sadness.
Face to face – the two shores of one brook. Rock of fate: Forever apart.
Spread palms. See in front, apart There – none comes, To each his own Nevo in a land of plenty.
A deep abyss stretches between Moses’ unknown grave on Mount Nevo to the Kinneret Cemetery, where Rachel asked to be buried, her gravestone bearing the poem’s final stanza.
And yet, if Nevo is the human condition, it reveals not only its saddest, but also its bravest, and its best. God may have shattered Moses’ personal dream, of setting foot in the Promised Land, but he could not, at that point, detract from his heroic feat – helping his people set theirs. I imagine Moses standing old and frail on Mount Nevo, hurting, but remaining as hopeful as the heavens he looks upon. I imagine him (almost) at peace, and with a sense of purpose (almost) complete, realizing that his existence mattered, that the journey was not in vain; that losing the little “h” hope, the personal frustration, is a heavy but worthy price to pay for holding on to the big “H” Hope: Doing to best you can to help others become the best they can.
And Rachel, though ill and lonely, in front apart from her beloved land and loving men, could still find solace in letters with soulmates, and still held fast to her poetry – to comfort, confront, and inspire more people than one can ever meet, in her too-short life, and after death. Indeed, Rachel herself, in an untitled poem, suggested as much – showing the brightest side of Nevo, a place of immense frustration to be sure, but also of immeasurable creativity, something life in the Promised Land may never offer.
Rachel also showed the brightest side of Nevo, a place of immense frustration to be sure, but also of immeasurable creativity
Untitled [Hebrew original]
I don’t complain! In a narrow room The need for space becomes so sweet; On melancholy days, in autumn’s chill There’s scarlet and gold to see.
I don’t complain! A poem wells up From a wounded heart, a heart in love, And desert’s sand is like a greening field From atop the peak, from Mount Nevo. * unlike the other poems on this page, this translation is not mine, but Haim Watzman’s.
In another, most wonderful, poem “Locked Garden,” Rachel returns to “the sin,” the dissension that led Moses to Mount Nevo.
Locked Garden [גן נעול] [Hebrew original]
Who are you? Why hand extended, does not meet a sister hand?
And eyes linger just a moment and are already lowered, abashed.
A locked garden, no path, nor way into it A locked garden – human. Shall I leave? or strike the rock till bleeding?
Remarkably, Rachel saw that Nevo can become a human choice, not a plight forced, enforced, from above and beyond. Unlike Moses, she could not rely on God to perform miracles for her, and for the people she cared for; she had to perform them herself. Rachel chose to extend her hand, to reach out through deeds and words, to offer a key, instead of adding a lock: to strike the rock even if it sometimes means bleeding, from within and without.
Finally, in her last days, Rachel realized that Nevo need not be the summit only a mountain can summon; our lives also invite gazing into the depths of seas: “My balcony, overlooking the sea,” she wrote in Tel Aviv just before her death, “there is my Mount Nevo.”
Rachel chose to extend her hand, to reach out through deeds and words, to offer a key, instead of adding a lock, even if it meant bleeding, from within and without.
I didn’t know of Rachel’s agonizing fascination with Nevo, when I thought of this name for my son, but I did know that my mother had Rachel in mind when she named me Uriel (Uri) (I doubt if she would have named me so had she read Emerson’s Uriel instead…).
Barren (Uri) [עקרה (אורי)] [Hebrew original]
If only I had a son, a little boy, Curly dark hair and bright, To hold his hand, and gently stroll The garden paths A son, A little one.
Uri I’d call him, my Uri! Tender and clear the brief name. A shard of brightness. My dark-haired boy “Uri” my light I’d call.
I still languish, as Mother Rachel, I still prey as Hannah at Shiloh I still wait For him