On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah -- Passover II: Song of Songs

On Passover, it's traditional to read from Song of Songs, with themes of love and spring running throughout. This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs reminds us that the themes in this megillah (scroll) match the themes of Passover - of beauty, renewal, and rebirth are key to the season, but also remind us of the love that runs throughout our entire lives.

Three ways to listen:


[URJ Intro:] Welcome back to “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah,” a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the weekly Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs took a bit of a detour and talks about the Song of Songs, how the biblical book connects to Passover, and asks us to reflect on, well, love.

[Rabbi Rick:] This week, we focus our attention on the remaining days of Passover as we continue the holiday through this week. And it is traditional on the holiday of Pesach to read from one of the five m'gillot from the Song of Songs. And the connection for Passover and springtime and love and Song of Songs, it feels kind of obvious, hopefully, if you're looking outside. I just got back from the Twin Cities where, in order to prepare for Pesach, we had eight inches of snow. And I was thinking this is a very unusual way to get ready for the holiday of springtime. But it was great to be with those wonderful people.

So, you know that for the different festivals we have one of the megillot that we read on Sukkot. We read the book of Kohelet, of Ecclesiastes; on Purim, of course, Esther; Pesach, the Song of Songs; Shavout, we read the book of Ruth; Tishah B'Av, Lamentations. And these are often books that don't get as much weekly attention because we have, of course, the five books of Moses, the Torah divided into all the parashahs, and then we have haftarah from the prophets added to each of those. So, this is the way we get into that third section of the Hebrew Bible and to find some of that meaning.

Now, some people call the Song of Songs the Song of Solomon. Traditionally, King Solomon is reputed to be the author -- although, I have to say that most critical scholars do not see that as the source. But it does awaken for, I think, generations of Jewish commentators: what do they do with all this very, very erotic and very, very sensual love poetry? There was a debate, as there was with other books of the Bible, for the ancient rabbis, is this really a biblical book? Is it really the case that we're going to include all this love poetry in the sacred scriptures?

And then you have, in the critical debate from Mishneh Yadayim, you have Rabbi Akiva who said, “God forbid that anyone ever had doubts about the Song of Songs. For all the world is not equal to the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel. For all the writings are holy,” he said, “but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies.”

So, there is the debate won by Rabbi Akiva. But there were a lot of naysayers, because, after all, when you hear some of the poetry, you get a little bit kind of curious as to how the more somber and, frankly, the more commandment-laden texts would be put alongside the Song of Solomon. It also raises the question of, in terms of Western religion, where everything of the body was in a sense set aside. Christianity did not have a place for a lot of the sensuality of Jewish tradition.

For Judaism, God and holiness is found in every aspect of life. And for those who were remembering the first or second night seder, we have this beautiful passage from Song of Songs that's in most of our Reform and un-Orthodox haggadot. And it's usually around the time when we eat the karpas, the symbol of springtime, where it says in the book of Song of Songs, "For the long, wet months are passed. The rains have fed the earth and left it bright with blossoms. Bird's wing in the low sky, dove and songbirds singing in the open air above, earth nourishing tree and vine, green fig and tender grape, green and tender fragrance. Come with me, my love. Come away." So right away, you see this melding of spring, and love, and rebirth, and all things that symbolize hope and the regeneration of life.

I have a very close friend who's from Jamaica. And her mom was visiting her one winter here in New York. And they were driving along in the middle of January. And her mom said to her, “Why don't you cut down all of these dead trees? It's ridiculous. Everywhere I look, there are just dead trees.” And she said, “Mom, those trees aren't dead. But in winter they appear to be. Wait till the spring.”

And of course, my friend's mom, later in that spring, was overcome that all of these, quote, "dead trees" came back to life and the buds and the green. And in some ways, you know, in so many parts of our world, we long for what are those things in the natural world which signal that there is regeneration and there is a renewal. And those little buds of spring scream out eloquently that there is a hope.

And I also mostly love in this book-- and by the way, having been a rabbi for many, many years, there are lots of places where you're doing a wedding, and you know what, I've got to read this little section of the Song of Songs. Some people think that it actually began as a series of love poems to be used in wedding liturgies -- not so much contemporary scholarship.

But I think of the way in which some of these poems-- and by the way, I am overwhelmed at the beauty of Marcia Falk's translation, interpretation of the Song of Songs. She sees the entire book as 31 love poems. And she identifies the different voices in the poem. She finds -- and she actually demarcates them with different print -- the female voice always is the regular print; the male voice she has in italics; and then every so often there's a group voice which she has in caps. But she's able to find that there's a lot of love monologues in the book, and that what she sees also is that the woman's voice in this collection of love poetry is strong and clear in a literature dominated by the male voice. And it's very powerful.

So here, in what Marcia Falk calls the 28th of the 31 poems, a section that's very often read -- I love to read this at weddings. This is in the female voice: "Stamp me in your heart, upon your limbs. Scar my emblem deep into your skin. For love is strong as death, harsh as the grave. Its tongues are flames, a fierce and holy blaze. Endless seas and floods, torrents and rivers never put out love's infinite fires. Those who think that wealth can buy them love only play the fool and meet with scorn." So, you have this beautiful, eloquent language of love.

For many in the Jewish community, it's become accustomed to read Song of Songs also on erev Shabbat as a way to begin and to shift gears from the work day world. And I love that the language of Jewish spirituality is the language of love. And of course, Akiva and others would say that the language of love is really about God and the Jewish people. But it's clearly also a song about human lovers. And that is such a key dimension.

I also would say that for many of us we will recite the Yizkor this week at the end of the chag, as the holiday is leaving us. And I find that saying Yizkor at Pesach to be, in some ways, the most potent because that's when the buds and the symbols of springtime and regeneration, rebirth come to counter the feeling of loss and remembrance. The most beautiful expression of that to me is Walt Whitman's great poem, Song of Myself, where he capitalizes on the natural imagery to talk about the eternality of the people and the things that we love so dearly.

He says, "Tenderly will I use you, curling grass. It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men. It may be if I had known them, I would have loved them. It may be you are from old people or from offspring taken soon out of their mothers' laps. This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers. I wish I could translate the hints about the dead and young men and women. And what do you think has become of the women and children? They are alive and well somewhere. The smallest sprout shows there really is no death. And if ever there was, it led forward life and does not wait at the end to arrest it and cease the moment life appeared. And all goes onward and outward. Nothing collapses."

So, I love that sense of Pesach, that sense of the Song of Songs, that sense of Yizkor that life has its resilience. Hope is reborn. The natural world comes back to life and hopefully within all of our relationships, with those who have left this world but are still very much a part of us, those with whom we share the very close loving relationships of our lives. Song of Songs reminds us that's at the heart. It's at the heart of what it means to be a person, a person of faith. And it's what it means to be, I believe, a person who puts love at the center.

So, if you're remembering a loved one this week at Yizkor, maybe Song of Song is the place to find comfort. If you're thinking about what do I do all week when I'm eating matzah and feel like I'm missing pizza and all those other things, take a moment and read through some of the poetry in the Song of Songs. Sing "Dodi Li" or one of the beautiful settings that Debbie Friedman has set. Or even some of the great composers of more classical music have also set the Song of Songs to music. So, feel in that the beauty and the power and the rebirth, so much the themes of Pesach, so much the themes of this season. And let us regenerate and put back at the center, not just all of the things that worry us and concern us and the obligations that define us, but the love that undergirds it all.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah.” If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on Apple Podcasts, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah” is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week -- l'hitraot!