Rabbi David Walk
How do you learn Song of Songs? We read this love poem every Pesach, and in many ways it remains a closed book to most of us. Anyone who thinks that they can understand this enigmatic work from just listening to the public reading in synagogue is either a lot smarter than me or is fooling themselves very badly. So, it behooves us to look at this beautiful work before the holiday. But this brings us to a more fundamental question. What are my tools for unlocking this love song? This presents us with a thorny problem, because the traditional approaches to deciphering Biblical material like Rashi and the Midrash tend to focus on details rather than the big picture. Especially in poetry this method gives a sense of missing the forest for the trees. So, we need many tools to accomplish this task of walking away from one of the greatest examples of world literature with a cogent message. It's for this reason that many of us believe that studying literature and composition helps us in our endeavor to unlock the beauty in our own sacred texts. Bearing that in mind I'm going to follow the efforts of Rav Moshe Lichtenstein to develop an analytical reading of one of the most remarkable works to ever flow from the pen of humanity.
Rabbi Lichtenstein unlike our Sages looks at the poem in its entirety and notices how the two protagonists view the world differently. The Raya or female member of the loving couple relates to this world solely through nature. All of her declarations include imagery of roaming beasts and wild vegetation in unbridled natural scenery. The Dod or male mate, however sees a much more complex world with nature and humans and arts and building. These different viewpoints set the scene for the love story. The Raya passionately yearns for her Dod. She tells him that she will seek him out, but he's coy about how to find him, because the world is very complicated. On the other hand, the Dod comes to court the Raya and she can't get her act together to greet him. This pattern of inability to actually rendezvous is repeated throughout the poem. This kind of comedy of errors is common in love stories from Shakespeare to sitcoms. However, after noticing this model of behavior, the religious reader is confronted with a problem. We believe that the Raya is a metaphor for the Jewish nation and the Dod represents God. The fickle nature of the Jews is sadly well documented throughout our Bible, but God behaving in a less than unswerving manner is very troubling. Why does God buy into this coy behavior? We have a legitimate expectation of steadfastness on the part of God.
At this point Rabbi Lichtenstein makes an observation which has forever changed my understanding of the poem. At the outset of the poem the lovesick Raya wants to meet her beloved, the Dod, and asks: Tell me, you, the one I love: Where do you pasture your sheep? Where do you let them rest at noon (Song of Songs 1:7)? But the beloved doesn't give a straight answer: If you do not know, most beautiful of women, follow the tracks of the sheep and graze your young goats by the tents of the shepherds (verse 8). The passionate Raya is impulsive and wants to meet the Dod anytime and anyplace, but the Dod is reticent. Why? The Dod explains: Promise me, O women of
This beautifully explains the difficulty of the Raya and Dod to get together. The Raya wants to meet when the spirit moves her; the Dod has work to do and must keep his meetings to when it is appropriate. We must control our emotions to the extent that we display them when the moment is right. This also describes the problem of the Jewish nation in its relationship with God. We want to commune with God when the spirit moves us or when it's convenient. God demands that we worship at the proper times which are dictated by Jewish Law and the symbolism these practices embody. The stages of the day and the seasons of the year are tied to Jewish customs designed to guide us in our approach to God. Although we can and must add our own emotions to these mitzvoth, they must be performed in their proper context. Torah law is a system not a series of chaotic bursts of ecstasy.
This message is especially potent at Pesach time. This is the first of our Moadim or time oriented observances. It ties in with the fact that before the Jews left
In our prayers, the paragraph before our declaration of commitment to God, Shema, sometimes begins with the words with great love and other times with the expression eternal love. We require both great bursts of passion but also the constant flow of controlled affection. We live by both the heart and the clock. Pesach represents this duality of a passion which is connected to the calendar and the seasons of the year. In the great poem the Dod is neither fickle nor coy, he is teaching the Raya that they rendezvous when it is proper. By means of this passion and control, the love affair can weather the years and last forever. May our Pesach be filled with joy and the fulfillment of our customs, as we say: Have a Chag Kasher V'Sameach.
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