Photo Credit: Jewish Press

The great French Renaissance writer Antoine De Rivarol wrote: “Reason is the historian, but passions are the actors.” Other writers have compared reason to a magnificent ship and passion to the wind that enables it to sail. The book of Shir Hashirim [the Song of Songs] is about the passion in the relationship between God and the people of Israel. Filled with poetically passionate shows of love and affection, the book is beautifully filled with expressions of young love and excitement between the two lovers — God and Israel. It is clear the reason we read the book on Passover is to invoke the passion with which the Jewish people followed God out of Egypt in the story of the Exodus. What is less discussed yet very much present in the book of Shir Hashirim is the violation of intimacy, a lesson also there for us to learn from. 

Among the beautiful expressions of love and romance found in the book of Song of Songs — Shir Hashirim — we find a third party: the spoilers. 

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“His left hand was under my head, and his right hand would embrace me. I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or by the hinds of the field, that you neither awaken nor arouse the love while it is desirous.” (chapter 2)

While there is a great sense of love and intimacy between the lover and the beloved, there are also outsiders with the potential to hurt the relationship; However, they do not seek to do so with intention; they still must be warned against doing so. As Rashi points out, the “daughters of Jerusalem” refer to the nations of the world. These nations are not seeking to harm the relationship between God and His people, the potential for harm is there. Like in any delicate and passionate romance, outside intervention violates the sanctity of intimacy and can sour the love developing between the parties. 

Illustration for the first verse, a minstrel playing before Solomon (15th century Rothschild Mahzor) public domain

Yet there is another kind of violation of the love and intimacy so central to the Song of Songs, a more direct one. 

“Seize for us the foxes, the little foxes, who destroy the vineyards, for our vineyards are with tiny grapes.” (2:15)

No longer is the warning to the “daughters of Jerusalem” to stay out of the intimate relationship at play; instead, there is the concern for the “little foxes,” those that seek to actively harm the relationship between the two lovers. Rashi, the great commentator, explains who these “little foxes” are. 

“When a Jewish woman gave birth to a male and hid him, the Egyptians entered their houses and searched for the males, but the baby was concealed, and he was a year or two old. So, they would bring a baby from an Egyptian home; the Egyptian baby would speak, and the Jewish baby would answer him from his hiding place, and they would seize him and cast him into the Nile. Now, why does he call them foxes? Just as the fox looks to turn around to flee, so did the Egyptians look behind them.” (Rashi, ibid) 

This harrowing and heartbreaking account reminds us of too many instances in Jewish history; nations that are willing to inflict direct pain and hurt on the Jewish people and then — like little foxes — turn around and run away when caught. While these attacks are often physical, they have a direct impact on the relationship between God and the Jewish people. Our ability to focus on what is important to us, to be healthy and well, establish communities, study Torah, and so much more are destroyed by pogroms, expulsions, and attacks. The ideal relationship of love, affection, and closeness cannot thrive in the presence of direct physical insecurity. 

Not always is love and intimacy disrupted by outsiders; more than anything, it is miscommunication and missed opportunities that might stand in the way of the growth of a loving relationship. Nowhere is this clearer and heartbreaking than in the Song of Songs:

“I arose to open for my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, and my fingers with flowing myrrh, upon the handles of the lock. I opened for my beloved, but my beloved had hidden and was gone; my soul went out when he spoke; I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he did not answer me.”

Rashi points out this heartbreaking exchange refers to the prophets sent by God before the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. Be it through Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, or the many other prophets God dispatches; there are attempts to heal the relationship between God and the Jewish people, which are not appreciated until it is too late. Once the Temple was destroyed and we were expelled to Babylon, God could not just put us back in square one. Like the pangs of regret and missed opportunity tutoring a young person about a missed love of theirs, the pangs of missed opportunity hit the Jewish people only once in exile. Yet unlike previous challenges to intimacy, here, all three kick in at the same time. 

Once it is clear that the loving relationship is challenged by physical distance, observes come and make it worse:

“The watchmen who patrol the city found me; they smote me and wounded me; the watchmen of the walls took my jewelry off me “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, what will you tell him? That I am lovesick.” “What is your beloved more than another beloved, O fairest of women? What is your beloved more than another beloved that you have so adjured us?”

Unlike the “little foxes” mentioned before who strike at the Jewish people and then run away, the city watchmen hit, beat, and plunder with no fear or shame. Sadly, this is all too familiar from our history. There are always anti-Semites who will spray swastikas in cemeteries, push over the elderly, bully a Jewish child, or place an anonymous call to threaten Jews — those are the “little foxes.” They disrupt the relationship between the two loving parties and unsettle the consistency of the relationship. Yet then there are the violent watchmen, those who violently attack those seeking the tenderness of love. Tragically, the Jewish people have seen too many of these “watchmen.” These are the attackers who attack schools, synagogues, young and old, and do not seek to hide their vile character. Not only do they hurt and attack, but they take pride in their contemptible actions. While we are all aware of the devastating impact these physical attacks have on the Jewish people, there is also a spiritual dimension to it. 

I am reminded of the days I learned in Yeshiva Sha’ar HaTorah in Queens, New York, located right across the street from a senior citizen’s home. There was a fellow named Herschel who would always come to the yeshiva for prayers and even try and study with one of the students at the yeshiva. Herschel would come in with his cane and casket hat — cashketille as they call it in Yiddish — and sit down to learn. Herschel’s love for learning came from his days as a child in a Hassidic home before the Holocaust, when he would go to cheder and study Torah all day. It goes without saying that Herschel’s Jewish education and spiritual greenhouse were devastated at a young age by the Holocaust.   

Among the many tragedies of the Holocaust, destruction, and displacement of Jews throughout the centuries with the destruction of spirituality and identity. The placement of violence among the rosy pages of Song of Songs is very much due to the impact violence, and displacement has had on the spirituality and identity of the Jewish people. 

 

The trifecta of outside challenges the Jewish people face during times of pain of persecution would be incomplete without mentioning the bystanders — those who may not mean harm but end up causing it, those who say:” What is your beloved more than another beloved, O fairest of women? What is your beloved more than another beloved, that you have so adjured us?” If being Jewish means so much pain, suffering, loss, and isolation, why are you fighting so much for it? What is your beloved more than another beloved?” If being Jewish is so difficult, perhaps it is time to go and find another religion?

These questions often go on to become taunts and get worse as the separation between us and our beloved gets longer.

“Where has your beloved gone, O fairest of women? Where has your beloved turned, that we may seek him with you?” (6:1)

The inquirer not only asks but also offers help. Rashi, in his commentary on this verse, provides a stunning interpretation of the bystanders offers to help:

“The nations taunt and provoke Israel, “Where has your Beloved gone?” Why has He left you abandoned like a widow?”

While we have seen many sympathize with the Jewish people following tragedies and destruction, sometimes the help and sympathy come in the form of offering to abandon our Judaism, to convince us that God has left us. 

Rashi (ibid) continues and explains:

“When He [God] returned and caused His spirit to rest on Cyrus, and sanctioned the rebuilding of the Temple, and they commenced to build, they came and said to them, “Where has your Beloved turned?” If He is returning to you, we will seek Him with you, as is stated (Ezra 4: 1f): “Now the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the people of the exile were building a Temple, etc. And they approached Zerubbabel, etc.: Let us build with you, for like you, we seek your God.”

How many times in our history, in the name of love and solidarity, have we been offered to abandon who we are? How many times did people urge us to drop our own identity and embrace another one so that we spare ourselves the persecution that comes from our commitment to an intimate and unique relationship with God? And so, the Song of Songs offers an emotional reference to how heartbreaking such attempts are. While a romantic relationship has its moments of beauty, bliss, commitment, and joy, they also have their lows — times of friction, challenge, and even doubt; having outsiders heckling the lovers in a time of challenge can be maddeningly burdensome. 

Surrounded by so many adversaries, it is hard to know what will be of the passionate young lady and her relationship, how will she transcend the challenges of the relationship itself — as well as the challengers to the relationship. The book concludes with some of the most famous verses, which provide the answer to all challenges a relationship may know:

“Place me like a seal on your heart, like a seal on your arm, for love is as strong as death, zeal is as strong as the grave; its coals are coals of fire of a great flame! Many waters cannot quench the love, nor can rivers flood it; should a man give all the property of his house for love, they would despise him.” (chapter 8)

 When love is challenged, the only cure is love. As Rabbi A.Y. Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, points out, you can only replace love with love:

“If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love — ahavat chinam. (Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 324)

Passion is the wind in the sails of any ship; without it, even the greatest ship could not set sail. Song of Songs portrays not only the beauty of romance and passion but also the outside challenges it might face. Be it from spiteful nations, outright hostile nations, or just bystanders, the loving relationship between God and His people will be challenged. The only response to such attacks is greater devotion and more love. The greater the love, the greater the jealousy of others, yet that means nothing to the couple in love. May the reading of Song of Songs remind us of the value of passion and love in our spirituality and the vital role it plays in us keeping a proud Jewish identity.  

 

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Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He lives with his wife in New York City.
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