Friday, April 25, 2008

Love, Passover, Spring and the Song of Songs

On the Shabbat of Passover it is traditional to read the Song of Songs. There is no greater love poem in the entire bible. This recent interview in "Zeke," "Love and the Bible"with professor Ilan Stavans, author of “Love and Language,” lends some fascinating perspective on the subject:

“The Song of Songs continues to puzzle biblical exegetes and lay readers precisely because of the risqué tenor of its content and its celebration of eroticism when compared to other sections of the Bible. Also, it chants to individuality (physical and personal pleasure) in a way that disturbs the rest of the narrative. Had the manuscript of the Tanakh , unpublished, made it to the desk of a New York editor, it would surely have undergone dramatic changes and, I have no doubt in my mind, the Song of Songs would have been extricated, which is too bad because what makes the Bible endurable is its polyphony—its inconsistencies, if you wish. As I suggest in Love and Language , the Song of Songs is closer to the Kama Sutra than to the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, not to say any portion of the Five Books of Moses . Needless to say, it is one of my favorite portions of the narrative. Its views on love might be discordant, belonging to another age and sensibility, but they are ours…”

See also Rabbi Shefa Gold's commentary, "Commandments of Shir ha-Shirim". She writes:

“Rabbi Akiva said that "Had the Torah not been given, we could live our lives by the Song of Songs." For the last couple years I have immersed myself in this holy text - learning its language, receiving its passion, and entering into the reality it describes. I have lived with the question, "What would it mean to live my life by the Song of Songs?" Listening for its instruction for my life, opening to its wisdom, I feel in some sense commanded by its voice. The Song of Songs is about relationship. It is about the giving and receiving of Love. Though the Song of Songs describes a very human relationship, it is understood to illuminate all relationship, most importantly the relationship with God, that Mystery that shines forth from within and beyond this world. When Love flows freely between us and that Great Mystery, the whole world is watered and nourished.”

The challenge to us is to live our lives eternally open to this divine, loving flow. Gold posits her own “ten commandments” – a Decalogue born not at Sinai (that’s where we are headed, on Shavuot in six weeks), but instead born of the passage between the walls of water lining the Red Sea, the romance between God and Israel celebrated this week. The Song is about a single moment, that first spark of Spring when it is clear that nature has turned on the switch and love is flowing everywhere. The mayflies herald that moment here, sometimes in an annoying way to us humans, but in an unmistakable celebratory dance. We can feel it everywhere this week. My dogs suddenly are racing around the house, simply in order to run their fastest around the house – only to stop from time to time to sniff the new grass (which, regrettably, they start to graze on, with the natural consequences for their stomachs and our kitchen floor).

As Gold says in her 6th commandment:

6. Thou shalt be in conversation with Nature and through that conversation explore the Mystery of Love and Death.

God speaks to us through the wonders and beauty and mysteries of Nature, but we must learn how to listen. We are commanded to go out ...

" To see the new green by the brook,
To see if the vines had blossomed
And the pomegranates had bloomed,"

And not only must we listen and watch and wonder, but we must know our own wildness, experience all the passion of being a holy animal. We are commanded to...

"be like a gazelle, a wild stag
On the jagged mountains."

As we get to know the cycles and rhythms of the Natural world and begin living those rhythms of moon and tide, seed and harvest, the power and intimacy of Love can transform us. As our conversation with Nature deepens, we begin to notice that everything dies and in every death, the seeds of new birth are hidden. With the Lovers of Shir HaShirim we cry,

"For Love is as strong as Death
Its passion is as harsh as the grave,
Its sparks become a raging fire,
A Divine Flame."

So let’s go out into that magical, wondrous world of ours, global warming and all – our first outdoor service of the season is tonight!

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