As I was writing this, the sunlight was streaming through my open window, bringing in the sounds, sights and smell of Spring. Our local park here in Leeds, Roundhay Park, looks resplendent in green and gold as does our own synagogue’s cherry tree in our beautifully-maintained garden It’s an idyllic and supremely romantic season. In short, ‘love is in the air’.
There’s always that wonderful feeling to energised freshness that comes with Spring. That delightful feeling of leaving the house without your coat on and feeling the sun on your skin. It’s a time for love, for appreciating the bounty of our good Earth and the beauty of life.
Of course, there is great darkness and difficulty in our world and we certainly shouldn’t close our eyes to that, but Pesach can be such a happy time. Judaism honours happy times and beautiful moments through ritual and liturgy; a structure that can prime our awareness when all is right with the world, even if only momentarily.
We had some tough parshiyot to contend with in the weeks leading up to Pesach where we explored the ‘dark and difficult’; the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the purity and sacrificial laws of Leviticus and the marginalization of vulnerable groups of people in parshiyot like Tazria and Metzorah. We’ve had to deal with ‘ickiness’ which makes it easy to forget all the beauty that in inscribed in our tradition.
That we are, in fact, part of an awe-inspiring ethical system, that our Jewish culture celebrates life and freedom and that we are covenanted to a God Who desires to be in relationship with us and desires our redemption (however you chose to define and interpret that).
All these themes come together in the traditional reading of Shir haShirim (Song of Songs) on the Shabbat Chol haMoed Pesach. Shir haShirim straddles the fine line between describing the emotionally-powerful and deeply sensual love between two equal partners (unusual in Antiquity) and hinting at what Rabbi Akiva would describe as the love relationship between God and the Jewish people (and I’m sure; all people of faith). These themes are echoed in one of the Torah readings traditionally read during the Pesach Week, from Devarim (Deuteronomy 10:12-19).
It is one of the most stunning passages of Torah and I am citing it in full:
“And now, O Israel, what does the Eternal your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Eternal your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the Eternal your God with all your heart and soul, keeping the Eternal’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good. Mark, the heavens to their uttermost reaches belong to the Eternal your God, the earth and all that is on it! Yet it was to your fathers that the Eternal was drawn in His love for them, so that He chose you, their lineal descendants, from among all peoples—as is now the case. Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen our necks no more. For the Eternal your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the might and the awesome God, who shows no favour and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing—you too must befriend the stranger, for your were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Interestingly, the verb ‘lehagid’ – to tell – that features here is the same that is used in Exodus to instruct us to ‘tell our children’ about our redemption from slavery, and is the root of the words ‘maggid’ and ‘Haggadah’. This is telling with a moral imperative!The opening phrase, ‘v’atah Yisrael, mah Adonai eloheicha sho’el me’imach’ – ‘and now, O Israel, what does the Eternal your God ask of you’ echoes another supreme quote from the Prophetic tradition; Micah 6:8 – ‘higid lach adam, mah tov, u’mah Adonai doresh mim’cha’ – ‘it has been told to you, O man, that what is good? What does the Eternal ask of you?’. This is the famous verse in which we are extolled to ‘do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God’.
It is impossible to unpack everything in this text from Devarim. I’d like to add, however, that when we read the ‘chosenness’ in light of the romance of Shir haShirim,
it becomes much more about the intimacy of an exclusive relationship that two partners can experience rather than the superiority of any particular ethnic group and their truth claims.
It’s the sort of Torah that makes my heart swell with joy to be Jewish, and a Progressive Jew at that—since this is a fine example of ‘ethical monotheism’.
The passage compels us to moral behavior. We cannot prove (or disprove) the existence of God. The litmus test for God’s presence in our lives is not empirical evidence but existential encounter and moral agency. The transformative power of the Divine lies not in the minutiae of ‘proving’ the ‘historical accuracy’ of Biblical texts or cosmic truth claims but in how we experience inner transformation and growth; in how we open our eyes to a world of wonder and beauty and are moved to shape that world with goodness. If that is ‘prove’ of God, then that should be enough.
Shir haShirim (8:6) tells us ‘simeini kechotam al libecha, kechotam al zero’echa, ki azah kamavet ahavah’ – ‘set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is stronger than death’. Is it intentional that this language hints at the ‘zeroa netuyah’, the ‘outstretched arm’ with which we were led out of Egypt?
Pesach doesn’t only compel us to look at oppression and injustice in very real ways but also invites us to contemplate love in equally real ways: God’s love for us and our love for God, even if that makes us Jews feel a tad bit uncomfortable! But also the love we hold for each other and for this precious world we inhabit. We continue to work for redemption but meanwhile, let’s allow ourselves to fall in love again with all that is good, beautiful and true; in Judaism, in our connection to the Divine and with each other.
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz