– Draw me, we will run after you…My beloved spoke, and said to me, “Rise up my love, my fair one and come away…”
I sought him but did not find him…Let my beloved come into his garden and eat his precious fruits…
– I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride; I have gathered my myrrh with my spice…
– I am sleep but my heart is awake; Hark, my beloved is knocking:
– Open to me my sister, my love…
– I have taken off my cloak, how shall I put it [back] on, I have washed my feet, how shall I sully them?…
I rose to open to my beloved, but my beloved had turned away and was gone…I sought him but did not find him…I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, what should you tell him? That I am love-sick…I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine…many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it…make haste, my beloved and be like a gazelle or a young hart upon the mountain of spices… (Shir Hashirim)
The fragrance of apple bloom
wafts through the window;
the voice of the turtle dove
coos from the sill.
Enfolded in slumber,
I wander through dreams.
My Lover knocks urgently,
calling me tenderly
for winter is past
and glory awaits.
Though my heart is aroused
at the sound of His voice,
unmoving, I lie,
reluctant to answer.
At last I rise up
to find He has gone;
I set forth to seek Him
in shadowy loneliness,
until I encounter
His waiting embrace.
Shir HaShirim, “the Song of Songs”, recounts the trials of a beautiful shepherdess who is employed by her mother and brothers to tend their flock of goats. She has fallen in love with a shepherd from the same village but her brothers disapprove of the union. They transfer her from the pasture to the vineyards in an effort to circumvent her meetings with her lover. One day, while tending the vines, she is spotted by the servants of King Solomon who also are impressed by her beauty and try to persuade her to accompany them. She refuses and is led away as a captive to the king’s chambers. He too falls hopelessly in love with her and attempts to persuade her to abandon her shepherd for the love and wealth he can shower upon her. The ladies of the court also try to convince her to leave her humble lover, but she steadfastly refuses: her heart belongs to him.
While in the palace, she pines for her lover and is taunted by the ladies of the court that he has rejected her. In the emotional turmoil, she addresses him as though he were with her and dreams that he has come to rescue her but she delays and he leaves without her. Awakening from her dream, she rushes out of the palace into the streets to seek her beloved and the watchmen treat her roughly as they misjudge her character. She begs the ladies of the court to help her find him, too tell her that she is love-sick.
Finally the king is convinced of her unfailing devotion to the shepherd and allows her to return home. She is joined by her beloved and they approach Shunem where a warm welcome awaits. She recounts the hardships she has just endured: her love was not extinguished by the temptation of wealth and luxury – she remained loyal to her lover. (Based on the synopsis in the Soncino edition).
The commentators from earliest times held this book, with its sensual depiction of two lovers, to be an allegory of the spiritual marriage between God (the Lover) and His bride (Israel). This allegory is notably found in Hosea, as well as in Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
The common theme running through Shir HaShirim which is read on Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach*, as well as the Torah reading (Shemot 33:12 – 34:26) and the Haftarah of the same Shabbat (Ezekiel 37:1-14) is the human yearning for a relationship with God.
Shir HaShirim recounts a form of hide-and-seek as the shepherdess dreams about her Beloved, but when He comes for her, she holds back, so He departs and she then searches for Him.
The Torah reading repeats the same theme. Moses requests that God will draw close to the Jewish people. God hears Moses’ plea but does not entirely answer it. Moses also pleads to come closer himself to God and again, his request is only partially answered.
In the Haftarah, in which the dry bones are brought to life, we behold a vision of the fulfillment of the dream, in which God and the people are finally united.
In an article on Shir HaShirim from 2012, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/12/perfect-harmony, Rabbi Shalom Carmy cites the teaching by Rabbi Akiva, that all the Bible’s songs are holy, and Song of Songs is the holy of holies. Rabbi Carmy says, “I have always understood this to mean that Song of Songs corresponds to the inner sanctum of the Temple in Jerusalem, where only the high priest entered on the Day of Atonement. Holiness is synonymous with intimacy; that is what Song of Songs tells us, in a way unique among the books of Jewish Scripture.” He notes that as well as being read on Pesach, the season of Israel’s birth, it is also read just before the Friday evening liturgy. “Prior to assembling at the synagogue for the prayers that usher in the Sabbath, Jews are invited to prepare by reciting it quietly, in their inner sanctum.”
Rabbi Carmy describes the two models for interpreting Shir HaShirim. He says that the first, more familiar one ( according to the commentaries of Rashi and Ibn Ezra) understands the poem as an allegorical description of the journey of the Jewish people from Exodus through Exile, in which the male Lover is God, and the female beloved is Israel. However, the second less accepted model, as proposed by medieval and early modern philosophical and mystical writers, perceives an allegory not for the people so much as for the individual on a spiritual journey.
Rabbi Carmy notes that one unique aspect of Shir HaShirim, is that whereas elsewhere in the Tanach, the dominant voice is God’s, commanding and judging (albeit sometimes through His prophets), here “the experience is articulated primarily through the agency of the human partner. Because the book begins and ends with her voice, even the voice of the Beloved is heard as she quotes it.”
He adds, “The history of God’s relationship with Israel and, by the same token, His relationship with the individual human soul, is a love story. Inevitably, such a story is not free of suffering, failure, misunderstanding, and unhappiness…
“The prophetic literature, partly because it concentrates on God’s action and partly because it is a literature of commands and demands, tends to speak in terms of binary oppositions: obedience and disobedience, faithfulness and betrayal. The Jew who recites Shir haShirim late on Friday afternoon knows that such an account leaves out something essential about Israel’s relationship to God, just as it fails to comprehend fully the individual’s struggle before God. Without Song of Songs in the Bible, without Song of Songs in life, this gap would remain unfilled.”
Rabbi Carmy mentions the book by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, And from There You Shall Seek, which addresses the human quest for God and God’s revelation to man. “He [Rav Soloveitchik] retells the story of an enigmatic Lover and his beloved revealing and concealing themselves from each other in the Friday twilight and arousing the astonishment of the “daughters of Jerusalem” who serve as a kind of chorus. Only at the end of the overture does he stand back from the story and frame it as an enactment of the Sabbath-eve recitation of the story of Creator and creation. Will they indeed come together?…”
Rabbi Carmy notes that Rav Soloveitchik’s essay considers the different ways humans seek God, and how we perceive God revealing Himself to us. We try to contain Him but cannot comprehend His otherness. He says that “reason” is the term religious philosophy gives to the human quest for God, while “faith” describes the experience of His otherness. Rabbi Soloveitchik, he suggests, “transforms this hoary dichotomy by personalizing it. Reason in all its multiple forms is the human being’s seeking; revelation is God’s confronting. The drama of Song of Songs, of the lovers who seek each other passionately and nevertheless elude each other again and again, reminds us that life with God embraces both contradictory impulses. The imagery provides a model or analogy of religious experience rather than an allegory of it.
“The ability to come to grips with the flaws and lapses in a personal relationship marks the difference between regarding the relationship from the outside and sharing in its inner quality. The unique intimacy of Song of Songs is bound up with its expression of the human side in the divine human dialogue. To bring philosophy closer to religious reality entails making room for the moments of failure, sin, and misunderstanding between creature and Creator.”
Rabbi Carmy concludes, “Because He is both the commanding Other and the intimate Partner, He conceals Himself from us even as He seeks our fellowship. Underlying the Jewish ability to respond to God is the awareness of our own enigmatic destiny as individuals and as members of His people, at once creative and submissive, questing for Him and yet all too frequently failing to respond to His initiative.
“All Scripture rehearses that intimate, holy story of revelation. Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.”
* This year, 5775, the first day of Pesach falls on Shabbat so although we read Shir HaShirim on that first (and only) Shabbat of Pesach (in Israel), the Torah reading and Haftarah will actually not be as above, but will be those read on first day Pesach (Shemot 12:21 – 51) and Joshua 3:5-7, 5:2-6:1, 6:27)