Tuesday, April 04, 2006
Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, is one of the five Megillos, or Sacred Scrolls, that are part of the Hebrew Bible. It was written by Shlomo HaMelech, King Solomon. It is a timeless allegory of the relationship between Hashem and the People of Israel, in terms of the love between a man and a woman. It is recited on Pesach, the holiday that celebrates the liberation of the Jewish People from slavery in Egypt.
On Shabbos Chol HaMoed, the Shabbat that occurs during the Intermediate Days of the Holiday, [or on the Seventh Day of that Holiday when Shabbat coincides with that day], the reading of the Megilla of Shir HaShirim is incorporated into the services in most synagogues in the Jewish world.
It is most appropriate that this Megilla be read on Pesach, because this is the holiday of Spring, the holiday of the return of life, of creativity, to the world. Its theme is love, the rebirth of which is also symbolized by Spring.
As mentioned above, this Megilla is an allegory for the relationship between G-d and Israel in terms of the love of a man for a woman. The mashal, or the metaphor, focuses on the man and the woman; the nimshal, or referent, is the relationship between Hashem and the People of Israel. According to the Rambam [Maimonides], a twelfth century Torah giant of the Jewish People, the highest form of relationship between a human being and Hashem is the relationship based on love, Ahavas Hashem, even higher than the relationship built on fear or reverence, Yiras Hashem. The Rambam continues, "Just as when a man loves a particular woman, he cannot remove her from his thoughts, with just such intensity should a person love Hashem."
And since Judaism regards the relationship between a man and a woman as potentially holy, Rabbi Akiva argued (Mishna Yadayim 3:5) for the inclusion of Shir HaShirim in the Sacred Canon when its inclusion was questioned because of the apparent earthiness of the mashal. He said that if all the other Books of the Bible are considered Kedoshim, Holy, then Shir HaShirim must be considered Kodesh Kadoshim, the Holiest of the Holy, because both its mashal and its nimshal are holy.
(Adapted from the OU’s “Introduction to Shir HaShirim”)
…from earliest times the Song of Songs has been interpreted, not as an expression of human romance, but as an allegorical conversation between G-d and Israel. The literal words of the book are simply King Solomon's way of casting deep meanings into poetic and beautiful language. He brilliantly chose the metaphor of love, with all its ramifications---including sexuality---to explain and explore the various aspects of G-d's complex relationship with His chosen people.
Rabbi Akiva himself argued strongly that the allegory was the only way to interpret the book; his famous words are "All the Writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies." And that's how it comes to be in the Bible.
Now we see the connection between Shir HaShirim and Pesach: Pesach is the holiday commemorating the awesome physical realization of the relationship between G-d and Israel: the creation of Israel as a people via the Exodus from Egypt, an unprecedented event carried out by G-d personally. So of course the appropriate book to read is the poetic exposition of that same relationship.
And finally, from Rabbi Yehuda Prero of Torah.org:
Pesach is a holiday on which we celebrate our freedom. We were freed from physical enslavement and from spiritual bondage as well. Perhaps it is because of the dual aspect of our freedom that we read Shir HaShirim on Pesach. Once G-d released the nation of Israel from Egypt, they were free to serve G-d with both body and soul. On Pesach, we focus on using our power of speech, which we said is the prime example of the convergence of physical and spiritual. Shir HaShirim contains many praises of the body, the physical. Why is the body praised? Is it because of the aesthetic value of the human form? No. It is because of the spiritual value of the human form, something very physical, something that we often remove from the realm of spiritual. To focus on the newfound freedom that Pesach celebrates, we read Shir HaShirim. This book, the holiest of all, contains the praise that comes when symbiosis exists within ourselves, when our physical body is used spiritually. The unity of physical and spiritual was only possible when we were free from bondage in both realms, a liberation which Pesach commemorates. Because we can now use our physical for the spiritual, we sing the praise of the physical (which is spiritual as well) on Pesach, as Shir HaShirim.
The lyrics to Daniel Shalit's Cantata - click to enlarge
All of this is an introduction to my post, which was inspired by a wonderful concert I attended Monday afternoon-evening here in Yerushalayim. The truth be told, in addition to authentic Jewish Negina, I like and listen to a wide variety of music. Over the years, I have gained an appreciation for classical music, and enjoy listening to it, especially to a live performance. Here in Yerushalayim we are blessed with some wonderful opportunities for this – not the least of which is a weekly, free concert of chamber music performed in the Henry Crown Symphony Hall of the Jerusalem Theater, called “Etnachta”. These concerts are also broadcast live on Israel’s classical music radio station, Kol HaMusica [the Voice of Music]. The catch is that these concerts are on Monday afternoons between 5 and 7 pm, and one should really be at the theater by 4:30 in order to get a free ticket.
So, in order to treat my wife and myself to a brief musical respite to the heavy season of Pesach cleaning, this week’s concert really caught my eye: a performance of Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidrei,” Orit Wolf’s “Memories from the Synagogue,” Ernst Bloch’s “Niggun from the Baal Shem Suite,” and a Shostakovich Trio for piano, violin and cello. But the wondrous, beautiful surprise of the evening was a Premiere performance of Daniel Shalit’s Cantata for Tenor and Piano entitled, “HaShirim Asher L’Shlomo – the Songs of [King] Solomon.”
Shalit is an Israeli-born  composer, who also happens to be a philosophy professor and a baal teshuva, and was present in the audience at the concert. A sample of his music (Rondeau, 1972) can be found here. He introduced the Cantata with a brief explanation, and after its performance, came up to the stage to congratulate the performers – Yosef Aridan, the tenor soloist, and pianist Shlomi Shem Tov.
The Cantata begins with a Midrash from the Yalkut Shimoni, explaining how it is that Shlomo HaMelech wrote Shir HaShirim, Mishlei [Proverbs] and Koheles [Ecclesiastes]. “Rabbi Yochanan said, ‘Shlomo first wrote Shir HaShirim, then Mishlei, and then Koheles.’ Rabbi Yochanan’s reasoning is from the way of the world: when a man is young, he sings and writes poems and songs; when he matures, he speaks of wise parables; when he is aged, he speaks of ‘vanities’ ”. The Cantata then goes on to develop these themes, by citing verses from these works of Shlomo’s, all of which is sung or recited.
But then comes the finale – an exhortation to Shlomo HaMelech from an imaginary “chorus” to return the Song to us. Daniel Shalit explained that indeed, Shir HaShirim is the deepest of Shlomo HaMelech’s works – in the words of Rabbi Akiva, “the holiest of the holy.” Indeed, its depths are a pathway to the book of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, as the Zohar itself says: “Shir HaShirim – the Song of those Sarim [Ministers] Above; the Song that includes all aspects of Torah, wisdom, strength and power, of what was and what will be. The Song which the Ministers Above sing” [Zohar, Shemos 18b].
One can also say that Torah is an unending cycle – as soon as we finish the Torah with Parshas Zos HaBracha on Simchas Torah, we begin it anew with Breishis. The Gemara starts on Daf Beis, to indicate that you never really begin, nor do you end. And in Koheles [1:5] itself we find, “V’zarach hashemesh uva hashemesh – the sun rises and the sun sets,” about which the Gemara [Yoma 38b] says, “A tzaddik does not depart from this world until another tzaddik like him is created [born].”
So, Shalit’s Cantata ends with the chorus exhorting Shlomo HaMelech: “Give us, Shlomo! Give us, return to us, that which you took and divided and cut and investigated and criticized and surrounded and straightened out and tied! Give us back the song and the dew, return the secret of the Shulamis [the complete or peaceful one] to us, and [return] the lions’ dens, and the panthers’ mountains. Teach us the wisdom that is Niggun, teach us the reason for the advantage of Man’s striving! Sing us a Song, give us a Song, a final Song, Shir HaShirim! Give us the last Song, [you] the wisest of all Men – Shir HaShirim!”
BY: FERN SIDMAN
Every Jewish holiday is an opportunity for growth and self-discovery. Passover is the time to experience the freedom which comes from being in a relationship with G-d. On Seder night, "every Jew must feel that he himself has gone out of Egypt." Freedom is not acquired once. It needs to be continually learned and reacquired.
The essence of slavery is self-concern. Preoccupation with ourselves, our success or failure, our comfort, and others' opinion of us rob us of our essential freedom. We become a slave to anxiety, fear, compulsion, and insecurity. We have become slaves to masters of flesh and blood.
G-d enjoins us to worship Him and Him alone. The concept is outlined for us in Parshas Mishpatim from Sefer Shmos.
Parshas Mishpatim focuses on the issues of halochos pertaining to a Hebrew slave. A Hebrew slave was someone who may have committed theft and was unable to make financial restitution. He was therefore obligated to pay off his debt by working for the person of whom he had stolen. The master is obligated to support the slave and his family and not to degrade or humiliate him. The slave is not in servitude forever. As a matter of fact, his master must encourage him to leave his master.
If the slave refuses to leave his servitude behind, he must be persistently encouraged to do so. If this is to no avail, and the slave insists on staying on as a slave, then his ear must be pierced. He is now considered to be someone who has chosen to serve a man rather than Hashem. His ear is pierced because this is the ear in which he heard at Sinai, the 10 commandments and the Torah and agreed to abide by these laws and remain committed to them for perpetuity. The slave now acknowledges by his adamant refusal to leave his master, that he has thrown off the yoke of Heaven and wishes to be enslaved to a man.
What can we learn from this? In today’s world we are are slaves to our taivas and inclinations. At times we are slaves to our yetzer hara. We make our hobbies and interests our new god. We become enslaved to people and worship them and fear them, more than we do the Almighty. Perhaps these people or interests are meeting our immediate needs and we are afraid to part with them. We forget that our needs are being met by the Almighty and the people in our lives who supply us with material and emotional comforts are sent from Heaven.
Ultimately, it is Hashem who provides for us. Once we place man ahead of G-d, once we fear man and his vacillating will above that of the Almighty, we have voluntarily thrown off the yoke of Heaven and have reneged on our committment to observe Hashem’s laws. This can only lead to depression and self destruction. We degrade and humiliate ourselves as we obsequiously grovel before human masters. The master has no respect for the people pleasing slave and even displays contempt toward him that can manifest itself in severe emotional and sometimes physical abuse.
We also bring upon ourselves the wrath of the Almighty, who will punish us for serving humans rather than Him. Every day we say in the Shma Yisroel, “Beware, lest your heart be deceived and you turn and serve other gods, and worship them, for then Hashem’s wrath will blaze against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no produce, and you will quickly perish from the good land which Hashem gave you.” This can also mean that Hashem will not reveal himself to us in our personal lives and everything that we attempt to do will be frustrated.
Once we come to the realization that it is only Hashem who we must fear, and once we have the courage and faith to take that leap will we truly free ourselves. How liberating it is, to break the shackles of human bondage and serve the One true creator, Hashem Yisborach. His kindness endures forever. His ways are the ways of pleasantness and His paths are the paths of peace.
It has been reported that in World War II, the rich suffered most in the concentration camps because they were devastated by the sudden loss of social position and respect. Their precarious sense of self could not withstand the loss of other people's esteem.
How can we achieve inner freedom? The Haggadah recounts G-d's redemption of the Jews from Egypt. The Haggadah repeatedly declares: "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but God brought us out of there with a strong hand and an out-stretched arm." The first ingredient of true freedom is the recognition of G-d's action in our lives.
Implicit in this recognition is the acknowledgment of God's immediate care and involvement with us. The Haggadah states: "The Lord brought us out of Mitzraim-not by an angel, nor by a Seraf, nor by a messenger, but the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself." G-d is directly involved in our lives, an expression of His love and caring.
Recognition of this yields the courage we need to risk freedom. When the Jews stood at the sea with the Egyptians at their backs, many of them thought the end had come. G-d told Moses to instruct the people to go forward and that He would split the sea for them. One man, Nachshon ben Aminadav, had the courage to jump into the sea. Only when the water reached Nachshon's nose, did the sea split.
From where did Nachshon get the courage to jump into the sea? The miracles of the plagues and the Exodus had convinced Nachshon that G-d intervenes for their welfare. It was not a theological point for him, but an immediate experience, which he could trust and rely on. His faith in G-d's love for him gave Nachshon the daring to take the plunge.
A significant and often skipped part of the Haggadah is the recitation of Hallel. Hallel is a series of psalms praising and thanking God. Hallel, which begins before the meal and continues afterward, is preceded by the statement: "Therefore, it is our duty to thank, to praise, to glorify, to exalt . . . the One who did all these miracles for our fathers and for us."
A relationship must be two-sided. Once we have experienced the flush and thrill of all G-d did/does for us, we must respond with acknowledgment, appreciation, joy, and love.
The introduction to Hallel ends: "We will sing before Him a new song." G-d is not interested in old songs, rehearsals of the last generation's sentiments, recitations of last year's thanks. Hallel is meant to be an outpouring of our own fresh enthusiasm once we have re-experienced God's love and intervention in our lives:
As Hallel proclaims: "How can I repay G-d for all His benefits toward me?"
The effect the Seder should produce is encapsulated in one phrase of Hallel: "Because His lovingkindness has overwhelmed us." The Seder should leave us with the feeling of being overwhelmed by G-d's love and salvation:
"If our mouths were as full of song as the sea and our tongues could sing joyously like the endless waves . . . we still would not be able to give You sufficient thanks, O G-d, . . . for even one of the thousand thousands and myriad myriads of favors which You have done for our Fathers and for us."
From the confidence of G-d's love, we gain the courage to be free.
G-d's love was also manifested in His commandment to sanctify His name and to remember the vengeance that He brought upon our enemies. We must remember His strength, glory and omnipotence by declaring these words from the Haggada, as we let Eliyahu HaNavi in our homes:
"Pour forth Your wrath upon the nations that do not recognize You and upon the kingdoms that do not invoke Your name. For they have devoured Jacob and destroyed his habitation. Pour forth Your fury upon them and let Your burning wrath overtake them. Pursue them with anger and destroy them from beneath the heavens of the L-rd."
Make no mistake about it. Passover is the ultimate demonstration of G-d's love for his people and it a holiday to remember that this vengeance is from G-d. "The L-rd is a G-d of vengeance; O G-d of vengeance, arise!" (Psalms 94). And the rabbis say: "Yes, when vengeance is needed, it is a great thing" (Berachot, 3a). Or "let the high praises of G-d be in their throat and a two edged sword in their hand - to execute vengeance upon the nations..." (Psalms 58).
Passover is a holiday that was created to commemorate the sanctity of vengeance; the punishment and the destruction of Pharoah and Egypt that mocked and humiliated G-d by crying: "Who is the L-rd? I know not the L-rd..." Vengeance so that the world shall know the L-rd and cry, "Verily, there is a G-d that judgeth in the earth..." and: "The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth vengeance, he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked" (Psalms 58). And why? For it is only vengeance that proves that there is indeed a G-d in the world, that there is good and evil and punishment for that evil.
Let us remember and speak of these holy concepts. Let us teach them to our children and our children's children. In this merit, may G-d continue to have mercy upon us and may we have the strength and faith to hasten the Final Redemption.
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