She is all beautiful and has no blemish
At different stations during the Passover holiday, either at home with the comfort of one's family or in the synagogue, the Song of Songs is read. This scroll was correctly called "the Song of Songs" as indeed it is difficult to exaggerate its beauty.
Never have I read other love poetry that even reached the beautiful ankles of this poetry. As Rabbi Akiva definitively stated (Mishnah Yada'eem 3:5): "The entire world is not equal to the day that the Song of Songs was given to Israel, as all of the writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies."
I recommend even to people who do not visit the synagogue to read the scroll at home some time during the holiday. Even if you won't understand all of the words, and you will certainly not understand them all, you can embrace it and enable it to embrace you and be aroused under the apple tree...
'Make haste, my beloved'
The Song of Songs is not a collection of falling in love songs. It does not offer romanticism to those who lack sentimentality. The Song of Songs tells in various fashions the story of a woman and a man who want to meld into one, but are equally terrified by this.
He provokes his love and attempts to seduce her, and for a moment it seems that his efforts are futile (4:12): "A garden shut up is my sister, my bride; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed." Whereas she, taking pleasure in his failures, coyly replies: "Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his precious fruits."
But no. Whenever he comes, or whenever she gathers up her courage and opens the gate, one of the two of them will panic from their fear union and flee. "Until the day breathes, and the shadows flee away, turn, my beloved, and be thou like a gazelle or a young hart upon the mountains of spices," (2:17) begs the beloved woman begs of her love, a moment after his left arm has gently supported her head and his right arm held her tight.
Again and again she gives in to his sexual advances. Again and again she declares amongst her friends to save her from falling for him (2:7 and other places): "I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem... that ye awaken not, nor stir up love, until it please."
Throughout the length of the entire scroll the couple knows no comfort, and the anxiety returns and ruins the possibility of their union. The beloved woman's final words that conclude the scroll are (8:14): "Make haste, my beloved, and be thou like to a gazelle or to a young hart upon the mountains of spices."
With the image of the woman encouraging her heart's true love to distance himself from her, the scroll concludes. Yes, the poems in the Song of Songs are not the ancient parallel to Israeli composer Naomi Shemer's song, "This Summer You Will Wear White."
And there are enchanting conversations too
When he says to her (1:9), "I have compared thee, O my love, to a steed in Pharaoh's chariots," I am not offended on her behalf, rather filled with shouts of joy. Suddenly it is beautiful and correct to be similar to a horse. (Is this parallel to men comparing women to high-performance, expensive and exotic sports cars today?)
And when he knocks again and again on the gate of her home and she offers embarrassing excuses like (5:3) "I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them?" I find myself in familiar territory, asking: "What has changed?"
And when he says to her (4:1-2), "Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thine eyes are as doves behind thy veil; thy hair is as a flock of goats, that trail down from mount Gilead. Thy teeth are like a flock of ewes all shaped alike, which are come up from the washing; whereof all are paired, and none faileth among them," I am jealous of her and think to myself if someone were to adopt offering a description so specific, soft, and unique, I would not behave as she does. Rather, I would eternally give in to his beautiful words.
I have no idea what the phrase (6:10) "Who is she that looketh forth as the dawn, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, terrible as an army with banners?" means. Mainly I don't understand the "banners", but I would not mind at all if someone would describe me that way.
I ask myself if these beautiful and exact words tend to be said only in a sweepingly enchanted, but unstable relationship. Does the day-to-day grind have to extinguish the love's poetic ability (5:11-12): "His head is as the most fine gold, his locks are curled, and black as a raven. His eyes are like doves beside the water-brooks; washed with milk." Perhaps because of this understanding the lovers became panicked from the steadiness of the relationships?
This is no simple love song. It is rooted in pain
The fear of giving yourself over to someone else can be partially explained with a picture of the complicated life of the woman lover. We are not talking about a woman grabbed out of the colorful wrapping paper in the fairy store. Before us is a flesh and blood woman who has paid a terrible and banal price in her body that women pay.
The woman lover does not want to deceive us, and already in the first date, in the opening lines, she testifies to an awful childhood and asks that we forgive her for what she has endured (1:6): "Look not upon me, that I am swarthy, that the sun hath tanned me; my mother's sons were incensed against me, they made me keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept." A terribly tragic story. Her dark skin is not the result of genetics but rather a life spent too long outdoors.
Her good-for-nothing brothers (half brothers, brothers from her mother's side) abuse her and abandon her. In their maliciousness they turned a defenseless girl into a guard (1:6): "They made me keeper of the vineyards..." But under these conditions a woman cannot work as a guard, and the first thing to be neglected is her body. From the very beginning (1:6), the woman confesses to her heart's love: "But my own vineyard have I not kept." Who said she is not brave?
And if that were not enough, the woman lover's independence, and her choice to carry on without a patron, costs her a terrible price. While she is still running around at night searching for her heart's love, she is assaulted and raped by the city guards (5:7): "The watchmen that go about the city found me, they smote me, they wounded me; the keepers of the walls took away my mantle from me."
Both times the young woman reveals how deceptive is the word "shmira" (guarding), and yet she continues on her way – independent, daring to love, and endangering herself with her lack of conforming to established institutions. Who said she wasn't brave?
This summer we won’t make choices
The sages of the Talmud chose to read the Song of Songs as a parable for the complicated relationship between Israel and their God. Many have criticized the Talmudic choice to silence and cause to be forgotten the human love song. But I do not think that the rabbinic sages demanded that we choose one, right interpretation to the Song of Songs.
Pursuing one, exclusively correct interpretation is not their general mode of practice. It is difficult to assume that the people who held as a guiding principle the belief that there are 70 faces to the Torah suggest that we abandon one interpretation and adapt a different one. I assume that they proposed for us to hold fast to both understandings.
His ridicule over me is love
One of my favorite midrashim on the Song of Songs deals with the verse that describes the dramatic moment in the couple's life, a moment when it seems that intimacy will be possible (2:4): "He hath brought me to the banqueting-house, and his banner over me is love." And truthfully, immediately thereafter, short and beautiful intimacy (2:6): "Let his left hand be under my head, and his right hand embrace me" (and after it, as usual, escape).
The male lover takes his love to the wine house and there, perhaps drunk from the overwhelming sensations, she sees and also dares to be happy and become excited that his love is over her like a banner.
This joyous and erotic declaration is translated by the rabbinic sages into a bold midrash about the intimacy between the people of Israel and their God (Song of Songs Rabbah, Parashat Bet): "'And his banner ('degel-o') over me is love.' A parable for the common, ignorant masses that read instead of 'love' ('ahava') 'loathing' ('ay'va'), like instead of 'you shall love' - ('ve'ahavta'), 'you shall loathe' - ('ve'ay'avta'). The Holy One, Blessed be He said: 'and his banner ('degel-o') over me is love.' Rabbi Yissachar said: '(It is like) a baby who instead of crying out 'Mosheh' cries out 'Mashah', instead of 'Aharon' - 'Aharan', and instead of 'Ephron' - 'Ephran'. The Holy One, Blessed be He said: 'His ridicule ('ligool'oog-o') over me is love.'
"Rabbi Choniyah said: 'When a person points with his finger (and touches) the image of the word written on the parchment and it is damaged and rests his hand several times on the Tetragrammaton, (God's holy four letter name) on the parchment, even without damaging it. The Holy One, Blessed be He did no other than to say, 'his thumb ('agoodal-o') on me is love.'"
The sages are playing with God's love via proposing alternative plays on the word "his banner": "Repetitive stuttering" (Diloog), "ridicule" (ligloog), and "thumb" (agoodal).
In the act of love it is permitted to play and permitted to be silly. (Amongst ourselves, the sages are saying that everything we do or say will be foolishness from God's perspective).
So the sages are saying in God's name, that even if a person in saying the Kriyat Shma says "loathe thy God" instead of "love thy God," this awful mistake is received with love.
Also if a baby mispronounces the words of the Torah, his incorrect and stuttered reading is received by God with love.
And if a person, afraid to err in his reading, points with his finger on the written words, even on the Tetragrammaton, God's holy four letter name, this is also love. When fingers touch the name of God written on the parchment, they diminish their value and may even erase the letters. Yet despite this, even this erasing is love.
And in beit midrash of talkbacks
While Seder night has already passed, I am still including below a good and important recommendation that was posted by Lior Tal on the Facebook group "I too don't go to events that exclude women." Cut and save it for your next Seder:
"A proposal for your Seder: When you reach the song "Echad Mi Yodea," ("Who Knows One?") ask a riddle: Where is there a mistake in the song? Perhaps this year we can make an important correction when we reveal to everyone that we have six matriarchs and not four, and that over the years Bilhah and Zilpah have been removed as matriarchs. Bilhah and Zilpah are symbols of the erasure of weakened women from history, and now the time has come to bring them back."
And I also want to share a link I received of a unique rendition (Arabic-Hebrew) by the Shirana chorus of the song "Chad Gadya" ("One Little Goat").
Translated by Uzi Bar-Pinchas
Click here to read this article in Hebrew