Thursday, September 18, 2014 Elul 23, 5774

'The Song of Songs,' 'The Holy of Holies'

April 1, 2010 By:
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Jewish Exponent Feature
Posted In 
Comment0

During Passover, we are all young again. We gather around the seder table and delight at how our positions have changed. Those who eagerly -- or reluctantly -- asked the Four Questions now lead others in prayer and song. As we remember our rich journey from slavery to freedom, we look forward in hope. And we are all young again.

"When we are young, we sing songs of love," teaches Rabbi Jonathan in Shir haShirim Rabbah 1.1, and for centuries, we Jews have read our greatest love song, "The Song of Songs," the Song of Solomon, during Passover. Some begin to read "The Song of Songs" on the first night of Passover at the conclusion of the seder. In some communities, the song is read before the reading of the Torah during the intermediate days of Passover, and on the Shabbat that falls during the festival.

The song is a wonderful complement to the Passover Haggadah, for the Haggadah recalls our collective narrative, and the song focuses on the intimate conversations between a lover and a beloved. The Haggadah recounts how the Holy One brought us out of Egypt with an outstretched arm, overwhelming armies equipped with horses and chariots.

"The Song of Song" focuses not on power-over but on the liberating and transformative power of love between equals. The messianic vision of the Haggadah might be summed up by Psalm 136, with its powerful refrain, "For God's mercy is forever"; the song declares, "For love is strong as death ... Endless seas and floods ... never put out love's infinite fires" (translation by Marcia Falk).

These complementary images reflect the richness of our people's journey, and remind us of the importance of renewing loving relationships, as well as relationships with our people as the world bursts into bloom. For those who add the song to their seder celebration, the cherished repetition of our counting songs opens the way to the rich lyrics and voluptuous descriptions of bodies that welcome the lover's gaze and the lover's touch just as reawakened nature invites our gratitude.

For centuries, our sages have discussed whether the verses of "The Song of Songs" depict heavenly or earthly love, the love between God and Israel, or between two human beings. Rabbi Akiva's teaching: "All the writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies" can be read as his dismissal of this debate.

The contemporary poet Alicia Ostriker writes: "If elsewhere we must divide the 'sacred' from the 'secular,' that division is annihilated in the Song. Here for once, it becomes meaningless ... Experiencing the Song as an image of possible human relationship leads us ... to a new image of our relationship with God" (For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book).

Ostriker's words remind us that this week, we Jews began to count our days anew, numbering the days of the Omer, the barley harvest, counting the days between liberation and revelation, between Seder and Sinai. Every year on Pesach, we begin a journey of love that culminates on Shavuot in a cosmic wedding between God and the Jewish people, where the Torah serves as our ketubah.

As we conclude Pesach 5770, let us reclaim the joy of reading lyrics of love that that liberate body and spirit, a sacred text that lifts up a vision of passionate connections beyond authority and control. May our counting of the Omer be a time of expanding our understanding of love, both human and divine, so that we may be ready, seven weeks from now, to stand again at Sinai.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as the worship specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism. E-mail her at: slelwell@urg.org.

Comments on this Article

Advertisement