A Counterweight to the Drama / Shabbat Hol Hamo'ed Pesach

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Yakov Z. Meyer

The Song of Songs contains a breathtaking textual continuum of many diverse poems. In most of them, the two lovers appear, either separately or together; sometimes, a third character is included in the scene. The chronological connections between the poems are doubtful, but their editing into a single, continuous cycle creates both a certain theatrical unity and the interpretive motivation to discover harmony between the Song of Songs' various parts.

As a book or megillah (scroll), the Song of Songs presents a somewhat elusive narrative about attraction and rejection, courtship and refusal, desire and failure. In the text, the two lovers are given neither a single event that can mark the beginning of their relationship nor a final breaking point; instead, there is a long progression of moments of rapprochement and distancing that cannot be assigned an unequivocal, meaningful location on the Song of Songs' time axis.

In accordance with an ancient Ashkenazi custom, on each of the three festivals in the Hebrew calendar a different one of the Bible's megillot is read. On Shabbat Hol Hamo'ed (the name given to the Sabbath that falls during the intermediate days of a festival ) of Sukkot, Ecclesiastes is the scroll that is read. On Shavuot, it is the Book of Ruth, and on Shabbat Hol Hamo'ed of Passover, it is the Song of Songs.

Rabbi Abraham ben Haim Ha'Levi Gumbiner - whose commentary on the Shulhan Arukh, the codex of Jewish law, is entitled "Magen Avraham" - explains the reason for this custom. Ecclesiastes is read on Sukkot, a joyous holiday, and in this megillah, the author (traditionally considered to be King Solomon ) says, "[I said] of mirth: 'What doth it accomplish?'" (Ecclesiastes 2:2 ). On Shavuot, the Book of Ruth is read "to teach us that the Torah is given only through pain and suffering," while the Song of Songs is read on Passover "because the matter of the Exodus from Egypt is explicitly mentioned there" (from the Magen Avraham commentary on Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim, section 490, subsection 8 ).

The allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs is perhaps as old as the text itself. In this interpretation, the working assumption is that the dramatic events depicted in this megillah symbolize the relationship between God and the Jewish people. This perception has led to several kinds of allegorical-historical readings of the book: Some commentators explicate the Song of Songs' verses as a symbolic description of God's granting of the Torah to Israel on Mount Sinai. Others see the text as symbolizing the divine service conducted in the Portable Tabernacle during Israel's 40 years of wandering through the desert on the way to the Promised Land, the divine service in the Temple built by King Solomon in Jerusalem, or the Exodus from Egypt.

For instance, the verse "I am black, but comely" (Song of Songs 1:5 ) is interpreted by the sages as Israel's monologue in Egypt prior to the Exodus: On the one hand, the Jews confess their disobedience to God ("I am black" ), while at the same time, they recall the commandments they have observed, such as offering the Passover sacrifice and performing the commandment of circumcision ("but [I am also] comely" ). Thus, according to one of its allegorical readings, the book is a "stand-in" for the Exodus. At first glance, though, it is not entirely clear that the Exodus is explicitly referred to there.

To get to the essence of the matter, one must actually begin with the scrolls read on the other two festivals. The context of the verse in Ecclesiastes that the Magen Avraham cites in connection with Sukkot is, "I said in my heart: 'Come now, I will try thee with mirth, and enjoy pleasure'; and, behold, this also was vanity. I said of laughter: 'It is mad'; and of mirth: 'What doth it accomplish?'" (Eccl. 2:1-2 ). Though he seeks to fill the performance of Judaism's commandments with happiness, the narrator of Ecclesiastes discovers that even the happiness generated by performing a commandment is merely vanity. The reading of Ecclesiastes in the middle of Sukkot, the festival of happiness, is a counterbalance to the festival's essence.

Similarly, the Book of Ruth is a counterweight to the essence of the granting of the Torah. In the middle of the festival of Shavuot, when Jews stand as angels in order to receive the Torah (it is customary to stand when the Ten Commandments are read out loud in the synagogue on this holiday ), the Book of Ruth - which describes how Ruth the Moabite joins the Jewish people without all the sounds and lightning and without the thick cloud enveloping Mount Sinai - is read in the synagogue in order "to teach us that the Torah is given only through pain and suffering."

According to the Magen Avraham's explication, Ecclesiastes and the Book of Ruth serve as emotional counterweights that draw the reader in the opposite direction from the festival's emotional focus, thus creating a sort of equilibrium. These two texts serve as a reminder that happiness is actually little more then vanity and that the Torah can only be acquired through pain and suffering. On Passover, a similar function is fulfilled by the Song of Songs.

The Exodus from Egypt is a foundational story, a formative narrative that takes place once; subsequently, every event in the cycle of the Jewish calendar harks back to it. Every commandment and every holiday is a "memory [commemoration] of the Exodus from Egypt." In the Passover Haggadah, the Exodus is depicted as a unique historical opportunity that has been utilized effectively: "Had God not taken our ancestors out of Egypt, we and our children's children would be Pharaoh's slaves in Egypt." This orchestrated drama, depicted in detail in the Book of Exodus, is celebrated at the seder through observance of the commandment of telling the story of the Exodus. The linear narrative reinforces the myth and reconstructs it year after year, breathing new life into this one-time historical moment.

When the attempt is made, however, to decipher Song of Songs as a series of allegorical pictures of the Exodus, the poems are revealed to be a text that cannot describe a one-time, powerful, dramatic event in the same manner that this event is depicted in the Book of Exodus. The Song of Songs is too complex and too disconnected to be able to create a single coherent picture: As conveyed through its prism, the Exodus becomes a kaleidoscope of itself - a kaleidoscope containing attraction and rejection, courtship and refusal, desire and failure. It is a text that contains, on the one hand, a verse such as "Scarce had I passed from them, when I found him whom my soul loveth: I held him, and would not let him go" (Song of Songs 3:4 ) and, on the other hand, a verse such as "Make haste, my beloved, and be thou like to a gazelle or to a young hart upon the mountains of spices" (8:14 ).

The Song of Songs does not, however, contain a linear narrative about a one-time historical event. Indeed, it transforms Israel's redemption from such an event into an ongoing dance - from a declaration such as, "Had God not taken our ancestors out of Egypt, we and our children's children would be Pharaoh's slaves in Egypt" - into a circular, romantic story in which slavery and redemption are relocated time after time in a different pattern: Sometimes the slavery leads to redemption, while at other times, redemption leads to slavery.

Nonetheless, the slavery and the redemption never disintegrate, never vanish. The "matter of the Exodus from Egypt" that is "explicitly" referred to in the Song of Songs is an event that transcends time and that constitutes an emotional counterweight to the event's drama, as it is presented in both the Book of Exodus and the homilies of the sages.

"Song of Songs" by Gustave Moreau (1853).

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