The Shabbat during Passover is a time of renewal. The arduous preparations for Passover are behind us — we have finished the frantic days of cleaning and cooking. The seders are completed, and while we still abstain from chametz to remind us of the suffering of our ancestors in Egypt, and of those today who are still not free, we are drawn into the lighter atmosphere of this festival holiday. This is the festival of freedom, and the festival of spring.
Nothing helps us celebrate more than reading the "Song of Songs": the lyrical poem in the Tanach, traditionally read on the Shabbat during Passover. The poem is a conversation between lovers, who express their desire through the language of nature and metaphor.
The setting is often in nature, describing the moment just before spring comes. "Walking through the walnut orchard/Looking for the signs of spring/The pomegranates — have they flowered?/The grapevines — are they blossoming?"
We are all familiar with this longing for spring. Passover comes to Philadelphia when we are more than ready to put the dark, cold days of winter behind us, but when spring may still be tarrying. Anyone who has felt the thrill of spotting a first crocus or daffodil knows how strong this longing can be.
The "Song of Songs" is about other yearnings as well.
It is about the yearning of lovers for each other. This is true whether you read it literally as a man and woman speaking, or allegorically as a description of the love between the people of Israel and God. "I opened to my love/but he had slipped away./ How I wanted him when he spoke!/I sought him everywhere/but could not find him./I called his name/but he did not answer."
It is easy to lose oneself in the sensuous language of the passages, to get caught up in the lovers' search for each other. The "Song of Songs" draws our attention to our own longings — for spring, for connection with other humans, for God.
Longing for Freedom
The fact that we read it during Passover highlights another longing: our longing for freedom for all people, for a better world. The language of the "Song of Songs" churns with a powerful energy that taps deep into our desires, and the mandate of Passover is to take this energy, and direct some of it to justice and freedom.
On every Shabbat, we are reminded during Kiddush to remember the Exodus from Egypt, and on this Shabbat, we have just re-experienced the Exodus through our seders. We have just come out of Egypt into the expanse of freedom on the other side of the sea. How do we channel this energy, the new growth of spring, the longing and desire that the "Song of Songs" describes?
The themes of Passover suggest that this longing must ultimately be not only personal, but also communal. We must long for a better way of doing things, for a society where there is no slavery and oppression. It is not enough to clean one's own house. One must also direct this energy of the seder, of order, to reordering our society in a way that allows for everyone to be free.
The sages in Pirke Avot wrote: "It is not upon us to finish the work, but neither are we free to desist from it." The energy of longing can sustain us as we begin again to act for our vision of a better world.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. E-mail her at: [email protected]