Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Tale of Two Loves: 3-day Yom Tov, and Shir haShirim (Song of Songs)

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here!]

I’ll admit it – I enjoy the 3-day Yom Tov.

No, not enough to want to remain in galut outside Israel, and I could do without going three days minus a hot shower, but enough that I find the phenomenon a pleasurable experience.

Weekdays – Get up anywhere between 4:45 and 5:45 AM.
Yom Tov – Get up when the kids get up, between 6:30 and 7 AM.

Weekdays – Spend the bulk of the day in the office or on the run; drink breakfast and grab lunch when you can, see the kids for as much time as you can get around dinner.
Yom Tov – Spend the bulk of the day with my kids in shul, or at home eating, or napping.

Weekdays – Spend a good chunk of time on the computer, answering emails or preparing classes.
Yom Tov – Computer is off, nothing to prepare.

And so on. What’s not to love?

And Shir haShirim (Song of Songs), which I have long loved, brought me a new insight this year.

I know a good number of people who get caught up in righteous indignation at Artscroll’s bowdlerized translation. I understand their angst, and on some level I feel it as well. But it seems to me that in their outraged obsession with the physical they miss the point of the book, and this year I was able to clarify why.

A general theme runs through Shir haShirim, the Torah reading, and the Haftorah of Shabbat Chol haMoed Pesach: The human being’s deep longing for a relationship with Gd.

The frustrated davener, the suffering individual, the seeking soul, anyone who has ever looked heavenward and demanded, ‘Why can’t I connect,” should be able to find resonance in that triad of readings.

Shir haShirim features the on-again, off-again relationship with Gd, a hot love and a cool pull-back, a game of hide-and-seek, an intense fire which warms but also burns.

The Torah reading, although selected for Yom Tov simply because of its mention of the holidays, carries the same theme. Moshe demands that Gd draw close to the Jewish people. Gd complies, but only partially. Moshe requests a closer personal relationship with Gd. Gd again complies, but only partially. The seeker, the lover, is simultaneously satisfied and frustrated.

And then the Haftorah, in which Yechezkel sees the famous dry bones brought to life, a vision of the consummation of the relationship, in which Gd and nation are finally united, Shir haShirim and Moshe’s game of hide-and-seek brought to its fruitful conclusion.

Shir haShirim, certainly, is a graphic love letter, a sensual description of an intense love. But to read it with an eye toward that sexual element is to miss the deeper layers of longing for oneness with Gd – it would be like reading a love letter and seeing only, “He wants to go to bed with her.” Perhaps some relationships are like that, but ours is not.

There are many layers to our bond with Gd, to our search for Gd, as illustrated by Moshe and Yechezkel. We long for Gd to travel with us, we long for Gd to be manifest upon us, we long to see and understand Gd, to be rejuvenated by Gd.

So, yes, recognize that Shir haShirim depicts love in the most physical of terms – but also understand that to read it only on that level is to truly miss the point of this holiest of holies.


  1. And isn't that indeed exactly the circle that Artscroll was trying to square with their translation? They're not telling anyone to ignore the surface meaning - it's right there at the bottom of the page, phrase by phrase; but they're putting the deeper meaning up front and center, as it should be.

  2. I think that may be what Artscroll wishes to accomplish, but I don't think they get there. My feeling is that by breaking it down phrase by phrase, both the deeper meaning and the superficial read are lost.