Shabbat Chol Ha-Mo’ed Pesach 2013

As we move through our morass of matzo, matzo meal, matzo ball soup, and other Paysadik (Kosher for Pesach) goodies—whose allure may be starting to pall, just a trifle—we find ourselves, this Intermediate Shabbat, reading Shir HaShirim Ashare L’Shlomo—the “Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s,” attributed to King Solomon, son of David, regarded as the wisest of men. The only problem is: he didn’t write it, in the opinion of most modern Bible scholars (I depend here upon a stalwart, James Kugel, in his How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now [NY: Free Press, 2007], who is both erudite and facile in his style.) How do they know? Its Hebrew dates later than Solomon’s time (c. 970-931 BCE), featuring Persian and Greek borrowed words. It also displays strong parallels with both Egyptian and Babylonian love-poems, although these are far more erotically descriptive of the female anatomy than our Song.

The peshat, or simple meaning, of the Song is that it is a catalog of love-poems between a young man and a young woman who are discovering, perhaps for the first time, what it means to be, not only in love with one another, but in love with Love—in all of its romantic, delirious, erotic, embarrassing, messy, and glorious aspects. The girl is from the country: her skin is tanned; she makes no claims to city sophistication. The boy is smitten: he takes great pains to describe every particle, every inch of his beloved’s body in romantic similes, many of which have come down to us through the ages—teeth white as ewes, lips red as crimson thread, neck like David’s tower, and her etcetera like two fawns grazing in the lilies….

Indeed, no less a Biblical scholar than the great Rabbi Akiva (40-137 CE), whose wife, Rachel, forsook wealth and luxury to marry him, then a poor, illiterate shepherd (on the condition that he better himself by attending yeshiva to become a rabbinic scholar) proclaimed: “All of Scripture is holy, but the Song is the Holy of Holies.”

Yes and no. Long after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, the Song’s meaning underwent a sea change. No longer was it—dare we say merely?—a love-poem, or a catalogue of love-poetry worthy of a Biblical Shakespeare or Sir Thomas Wyatt. No: it became metaphorized into the long romance between God and His people, between Adonai and Israel. God became the lover, Israel the beloved, and their struggles to find one another amid the world’s turmoil and tumult, both in and out of history, was anthropomorphized into the verses of the Song: “Upon my couch at night I sought the One I love—I sought, but found Him not. I must rise and roam the town, through the streets and through the squares; I must seek the One I love….” (Song 3:1-2). What could this imply, reasoned the rabbis, but Israel’s quest for the Lord God? This is the power of Scripture, that a simple love poem, the erotic yearning of two souls, can be magnified into the longing of a people for its God. And so will it continue, forever, and for all time.

David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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