Shir Ha-shirim - The Elegy of Jewish History
Shir Ha-shirim presents an audience with a dual challenge. On the one hand, it is a riveting story of two lovers, the woman known as the raya and the man known as the dod, passionately searching for each other's reciprocal affection. Indeed, it is a gripping account of lost opportunity and almost tragic results. As the story opens, the woman is bristling with infatuation and confronts her lover's more hesitant stance. Ultimately, as she begs to learn of his location, yearning to meet him even in the fields where he works, her lover is more demure (1:8): "Tz'i lach be-ikvei ha-tzon" – "Follow the path of the sheep." The unfolding story is so replete with passion, ardor, uncoordinated solicitations and deep visceral yearning that we sometimes fail to fully grasp the uncharted depth of this book.
The second dilemma facing Shir Ha-shirim is that it is read on the Shabbat of Pesach; it seems to be a bit of an anticlimax to the euphoria of the Seder and almost a prelude to the crescendo of Az Yashir, the Song of the Sea (Shemot 15), which is read on the seventh day. Unlike its sister-book, Kohelet, which is read on the Shabbat of Sukkot, a chag with obscure historical antecedents, Shir Ha-shirim is nestled in the middle of a historically saturated week and is therefore sometimes given short shrift.
Perhaps the more daunting task, though, is the struggle to appreciate the deeper layers of the text without entirely sacrificing the literal plane. Its first verse identifies Shir Ha-shirim as "The song of the songs," the consummate song, but Rabbi Akiva (Mishna Yadayim 3:5) adds the title of "Holy of Holies" (Kodesh Ha-kodashim), the most sacred book of Tanakh, precisely because its chronicles the epic relationship between God and his chosen bride, the Jewish people. Each gesture of the raya corresponds to the yearnings and spiritual hunger of the Jewish march through history; correspondingly, each reaction of the dod echoes God's varied responses and initiatives. Chazal did not merely see the overall work as a generalized metaphor, they saw in each phrase references to specific historical events – primarily those which occurred during the golden era of Jewish history- from the onset of Avraham's career to the destruction of the first Temple (Beit Ha-mikdash).
For example, "Le-susati be-richvei Faro" – "To a steed in Pharaoh's chariots" (1:9) clearly alludes to the confusion of Pharaoh's horse-driven chariots at Yam Suf (Reed Sea), while "Yishakeini mi-neshikot pihu" — "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth" (1:2), with its potent and graphic tones, attempts to capture the passion and intimacy of Mount Sinai, where we spoke directly with our lover, our God. "Medaleg al he-harim" — "Leaping upon the mountains" (2:8) portrays an impatient and anxious Redeemer leaping upon mountains of time to retrieve His loved one from the cesspool of Egypt, while the varied references to shelter and its furnishings, e.g., "Korot bateinu arazim" – "The beams of our house are cedars" (1:17), emerge as thinly-veiled references to the various palaces which we constructed for God during this remarkable period.
Yet King Shelomo drafts this historical account in highly lyrical and even provocative imagery, employing classic poetic tropes such as metaphor, personification, repetition, alliteration and many others, all framed around the explosive relationship between the lovers. The challenge becomes to notice the specific historical references and to appreciate their nuances through the rich tapestry of this incredibly deep work.
To understand the uniqueness of Shir Ha-shirim, we must first understand the concepts of "shir" and "shira," both meaning song, in Scripture. Most of these songs come from a distinctive voice. Typically, the lyrical voice in Tanakh belongs to an individual who has been redeemed or who seeks rescue from the pit of despair. The sheer fervor of Channa's song (I Shemu'el 2:1-10) and the unqualified devotion which it indicates are astounding and are capable of animating even a day as somber as Rosh Ha-shana, on which it is read as the Haftara. Much of Tehillim constitutes the emotional outpouring of King David, a song which both mourns personal failure and fancies redemption. Moshe's parting song (Devarim 32) reveals a heart gratified but a soul perturbed by the prospects of future challenges which his nation will be forced to negotiate in his absence. In many instances, the poetic voice is driven by the immediacy and power of a personal experience. In other instances an entire nation erupts in song, capturing, in these tones, the elusive passions which mere dialogue cannot convey. Who is unmoved by the innocent and primordial confidence which inspires Az Yashir, as an unripe nation witnesses the raw force of its Savior in history and nature? The gemara in Ketubot (7b) assures that at Yam Suf, even unborn fetuses echo their parents' song – an image which conveys the purity of this glorious moment; similarly, the gemara in Sota (30b) tells us that as the people see the Shekhina, the Divine Presence, children raise their heads and babies cease nursing and burst into song. Which religious soul has not tasted that innocence, only to see it defeated by the frustration of experience? Forty years later, a more sober poem (Bamidbar 21:17-20) is chanted by a new generation witnessing God's continued Providence, empowering them to conclude the journey to the Promised Land which their parents failed to complete. Indeed, Chazal (Shemot Rabba 23:5) view the verse in Shir Ha-shirim "Tashuri mei-rosh amana" (4:8) as a reference to the ultimate redemption, rendering it as: "You will sing from the summit of faith" (equating amana with emuna). As we say in our daily morning liturgy, "Shira chadasha shibbechu ge'ulim," — the redeemed sing a contemporary praise.
Song, whether collective or personal, is so intuitive a response to a deep emotional experience that the Talmud Yerushalmi in Pesachim (10:6) suggests that Ha-kadosh Barukh Hu solicits it: "'When He avenges Israel, when the nation devotes itself, praise God' (Shofetim 5:2) — when Ha-kadosh Barukh Hu performs miracles, voice shira." This form of emotive response is so natural and effortless that we are summoned towards it. As the gemara in Sanhedrin (92b) reports, the deceased whom Yechezkel resuscitates (Yechezkel 37) arise, sing praise and subsequently return to their graves. Perhaps this episode, more than any other, highlights the visceral energy and the unpremeditated nature of human song. It springs from the depths of a grateful heart and is delivered in the moment, without any calculation or even future expectation.
However, the human voice is not the only wellspring of biblical poetry. The Yerushalmi in Chagiga (2:1) describes a gathering of sages examining the foundations of theology and drawing a celestial audience to their lecture; the joy is so enormous that the trees themselves burst into praise. Midrash Tanchuma Teruma (9) describes the insertion of outsized wooden braces in the Mishkan – fashioned from trees which Ya'akov brought with him to Egypt. As these brackets are fitted, the trees (perhaps the dead planks; perhaps even the live trees of that type) emit praise to Ha-kadosh Barukh Hu. Similarly, Midrash Tanchuma Emor 27 infers from Tehillim 96:12, "Then all the trees of the forest will sing," that by praying with a lulav we evoke a sylvan harmony synchronizing our human voice with the lyric of the natural order. These sources reference specific moments - the riveting theological discourse of the Sages or the culmination of the building of the Mishkan - in which nature itself offers song. However, the daily machinery of this exquisite system, which at once veils and reveals the hand of its Master, is a daily song, one which we attempt to attune ourselves to through Pesukei De-zimra, the verses of praise in our daily prayers which precede the Shema. The beauty and symmetry of nature, its fury and vitality are Ha-kadosh Barukh Hu's song to His creatures, reminding them of His glory just as it highlights His moral concern for our welfare.
Of course God's greatest song, his most immeasurable work of art, is the boundless Torah, which reveals the full extent of His will, the wisdom of which permeates every recess of human experience and consciousness. All other songs target an external, an event which impacts us or the natural realm which hosts us. As these external objects stream through our emotions, they awaken unspoken sensations which cannot be expressed by written and regulated words. Grammar and syntax suffocate the human imagination, stifling the fresh burst of impulse under the weight of structure and coherence. Song provides an outlet for the unbridled rampant spirit; our hearts encounter the event or the system, and in the wake of this encounter they are stirred to song.
Torah is a vastly different experience and a vastly more powerful form of song. In our lifelong endeavor to mold our will to His, to apply the lens of Halakha to human experience, we build our being and identity upon the foundation of Torah. Recognizing its beauty alerts us to our own potential for dignity and redemption. The song of the Torah does not merely move us or inspire our souls. It pulsates within the human psyche and enriches it. At the very moment in which the Torah legislates the command for each Jew to author his own sefer Torah, in order to internalize his own system of Torah, the Torah is referred to as song: "Write for yourselves this shira" (Devarim 31:19). By incorporating Torah into one's identity, a Jew drafts his own Torah. As the Rambam in Hilkhot Talmud Torah (3:13) affirms: "The song of Torah is only at night." At night, as the human spirit retreats and is refashioned, Torah has the capacity to penetrate the deepest vaults of personality and reconstitute it with nobility and eternity.
By contrast, Shir Ha-shirim is a refrain of many songs, of many voices. The voices shift swiftly from man to woman, from Ha-kadosh Barukh Hu to His chosen bride. The song frames a dialogue of two covetous personalities whispering to each other, boldly stating their conviction and wistfully pleading their yearning.
The bilateralism of this poem communicates the partnership of Ha-kadosh Barukh Hu and His nation in the project of history. Since Ha-kadosh Barukh Hu authors history, we are its warriors. Since He selects us within history, we are its proud beneficiaries as well as its terrible victims. Our victimhood at various stages of history is the direct consequence of the heroism of our choice and the balance of the rewards of our selection. For all its pertinence to the human condition, Torah predates history (Pesachim 54a). Though it forms the cornerstone of human experience, it has relevance far beyond the human realm. The march of history is firmly in the realm of human affairs; though it is supervised by Ha-kadosh Barukh Hu, it is executed by His people. This glorious partnership began on Pesach night in Egypt, when we achieved coalescent nationhood around the communal sacrifice, the korban pesach. The passage which introduces this mitzva begins (Shemot 12:2): "This month is for you the head of the months" - a new calendar marking redemptive time was molded and delivered to the spearhead of history. If there are two voices to the lyric of history, it is because there are two partners. The great tragedy of Shir Ha-shirim and the great misfortune of history is the lack of synchronicity between these partners; when one is ready, the other is not. Coordinating these two partners is the ongoing challenge of the Jewish historical experience, and its lyric was viewed by Chazal as the Holy of Holies - Kodesh Ha-kodashim.
Beyond the interactive tone of Shir Ha-shirim, there appears to be an additional reason it is a multi-layered poem. Shelomo scripts this book as a form of nostalgia for an innocent and wholesome period – one akin to his own era — but a wholesomeness which he fears will be short-lived and will yield to a more troubled period of exile. He skillfully illuminates images of Mount Sinai and Yam Suf - of unbounded love and unending loyalty – to buoy a nation which will be tossed on the high seas of exile.
Still, there are some references which do not seem very glowing, e.g. "Shechora ani ve-nava, benot Yerushalayim" – "I am black but attractive, daughters of Jerusalem" (1:5). Chazal (Shir Ha-shirim Rabba, ibid.) take this as an allusion to unappealing if temporary episodes of rebellion - whether the insubordination at Yam Suf (Tehillim 106:7), the indolence at Refidim (Shemot 17:8; see Mekhilta ibid.), the betrayal of the Meraggelim (Bamidbar 13-14), or the guilt of King Achav (I Melakhim 21:27). The succeeding verse (1:6) is also quite negative: "Look not upon me, that I am blackened, that the sun has tanned me; my mother's sons were incensed against me, they made me keeper of the vineyards; but my own vineyard I have not kept." Surprisingly, this book - an ode to our romance with God - makes blatant reference to breakdowns in this relationship.
Indeed, Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda engage in a fascinating exegetical and ideological debate which epitomizes this paradox of Shir Ha-shirim. It focuses on the verse "Ad she-hamelekh bi-msibo nirdi natan reicho" — "As the king was still in his celebration, my spikenard gave its odor" (1:12). Rabbi Meir (Shir Ha-shirim Rabba, ibid.) views this as an obvious reference to the humiliating catastrophe of the Egel Ha-zahav, the Golden Calf, and the fatal pronouncement on it, "Eileh elohekha, Yisra'el" – "This is your god, Israel" (Shemot 32:4). This came only weeks after the passionate declaration of allegiance to God, "Na'aseh ve-nishma" – "We will do and we will listen" (Shemot 24:7), as Moshe was still finalizing the Giving of the Torah. As the wedding was still culminating, our betrayal ruined the scent of romance. Rabbi Yehuda responds: "Enough, Meir, for Shir Ha-shirim may not be interpreted as derogatory, but only favorably!" Instead, according to Rabbi Yehuda, this verse refers to the quick response of "Na'aseh ve-nishma," which the Jews offered even as the King was still in heaven formulating His proposal. At first glance, Rabbi Yehuda's rebuff seems compelling; why would Shelomo insert embarrassing moments into this nostalgic review of our golden moments of Jewish history? How then can we justify Rabbi Meir's reading?
Ultimately, though, Rabbi Meir's position possesses intriguing and invaluable merit. In our own romantic relationships, do we deal with our personal insecurities and failures by concealing them? Do we hide our flaws, seeking to vainly project a model of perfection? Any solid and sustainable relationship is predicated upon acknowledging imperfection and admitting it into the personal discourse of our relationship, confident that our relationship will not suffer. Ideally, the relationship will only grow, as a spouse accepts the personal limitations of the other and redoubles the pledge of love and personal commitment.
Shelomo confidently lists the various failures of the Jewish people, and reminds us that if anything God's love grows through atonement, recovery and unwavering loyalty. A true and lasting relationship is formed by moments of elation and intimacy, but only as it outlasts disagreement and strife. By surviving temporary discord, a relationship gathers greater strength and more indomitable potency. This realistic view of our relationship with Ha-kadosh Barukh Hu, though less lustrous, seems more realistic; it is more vital in preparing for the historical journey then the delusion of perfection.
This duality creates a multi-layered song. The song does not merely shift between dod and raya; its very tone shifts between the gaiety of bliss and the despondency of infidelity. It leaps seamlessly from the ecstasy of Pesach night to the crisis of faith six days later on the banks of the Reed Sea. It skips from the unparalleled faith of "Na'aseh ve-nishma" to the unthinkable debasement of "Eileh elohekha Yisra'el." The rapid shifts in this gyrating relationship presage the unpredictable waves of Jewish history. Shelomo prepares us for the glory just as he prepares us for the grief. The differing tones of this song - strident tones of despair and triumphant notes of glory — seem irresolvable. Their merging mirrors the reconciliation of Jewish history between God and his people.