Hello everyone! I would like to wish you all an almost-Shabbat Shalom and a Chag Sameach. Before I begin I would like to quickly introduce myself, though I am sure many of you know me already. My name is Matthew Scheff and I'm a sophomore majoring in Mechanical Engineering. I want to start off with a few questions. Raise your hand if you've ever loved or still do love somebody, a parent, a sibling, a wife, anyone. Raise your hand if you like mushy love songs. How about romantic movies? Awesome. I want to speak to you tonight about a very special part of Jewish tradition. It is one that we may not think the Rabbis dealt with on a daily basis, but is actually thought of as one of the highest ideals in Judaism. That ideal is love. This love is supposed to extend to almost everything. We read every day in the Shema, "v'ahavta et Hashem Eloketha," you shall love the Lord your God. In the book of Vayilaa, Leviticus, the Torah says, "v'ahavta l'reacha kamoeba,"love your neighbor as yourself. Also, in Dvarim, Deuteronomy, we read "v'ahavtem et hager" -you shall love the stranger. These all demonstrate that love is supposed to be present in basically every part of our lives. We are supposed to serve God out of love, not only fear. We are supposed to respect every person around us and help them out as much as possible. We know what it is like to be mistreated, so we are commanded to make sure that others are not. Even the way we eat reflects our love and respect for God's creations. But why talk about love now? I'll get into that a little bit later but first I want to give you some background information to introduce what I will be talking about.
A special Pesach tradition that you may not know about is that we read Shir Hashirim on the Shabbat of Chol Hamoed Pesach. In English, Shir Hashirim means Song of Songs, and it is also known as the Song of Solomon. There is some question as to whether it is written about King Solomon or by King Solomon or by someone else claiming to be King Solomon, but I'll leave that discussion to someone a little more scholarly than I am. Shir Hashirim is one of the Hamesh Megillot, the five "scrolls," along with Ruth ,Esther, Eicha (Lamentations), and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). Each of these is read on a different holiday, and each has a meaning specific to that holiday. As I was reading about Shir Hashirim, I came across a quote from Shir Hashirim Rabbah, a midrash or commentary on the Song of Songs. It says:
All of eternity in its entirety is not as worthy as the day when Shir Hasbirim was given. Why? Because all of the songs of the Bible are holy, but Shir Hashirim is the holy of holies, the most praised, wonderful, and exalted of all.
This plays off the idea that the Beit Hamikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem had two inner sections: the Holy and the Holy of Holies. Only priests were allowed to enter the Holy, and many of their daily duties were performed there, but the Holy of Holies was only entered by the High Priest on one day of the year, Yom Kippur. In the Holy of Holies was the Ark, Aron Hakodesh, and God was said to dwell there as well. In other words, Shir Hashirim is a big deal. The strange thing is that until this year, I had not paid much attention to Song of Songs. Ruth and Esther are both famous stories and I read from Eicha every year on Tisha B'Av, so those three had been the ones I had focused on most. Actually, the first time that I really took a close look at Shir Hashirim was when I began preparing for this sermon. Now that I have had a chance to really study this text in detail though, I have come to have a much greater appreciation for it and I hope that some of that rubs off on all of you while I answer some of the questions I have been raising.
SO, why is Shir Hashirim so holy? The answer has to do with what we were dealing with before:love. Shir Hashirim is a love poem. And it is not only a love poem, it is a very erotic love poem, at least as much as you can expect from biblical writing. In fact, there is an argument in the Mishna about whether it should even be included in the Tanakh, the Bible, because it is so racy! Obviously, it made it in, and it did so because of Rabbi Akiva. He pointed out that most books in the Bible are holy because of their narrative alone. Shir Hashirim however has TWO components which are holy: the story in the text and the metaphor it represents. As I already mentioned, the literal reading of the text is as a love song. There are several rabbinic interpretations of Song of Songs which can dictate how the actual text is read, so let me first explain the structure of Shir Hashirim as I understand it: A beautiful woman meets a man and they fall in love, but a king comes and takes her for his own. The woman does not forget her love though, so she flees and continually searches for him until finally she succeeds and they declare their mutual love for each other. However, when her lover returns to see her one night, she hesitates: Atanfem
I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them?
She is already sleeping, ready for bed so she does not immediately answer but she stirs when her lover persists, trying to reach her through the door! Finally, she gets herself up and runs to the door but when she gets there her lover has already gone! She sets out to find him but cannot. So she searches and searches until she finds her lover and they are reunited once again. They are happy but are forced to travel away from home in order to be together. Still they have finally found one another and hope to always be together. The end.
The rabbis liken the woman in the story to Israel and the lover to God. There is first a stage of realization: Israel and God first meet when Hashem takes the Israelites out of Egypt and brings them to Mount Sinai. They quickly are taken captive by the sin of the golden calf, but eventually, after a phase of searching, God takes Israel back and Israel is faithful to Him. They live happily together,conquering the land of Israel and building the Holy Temple,but then Israel hesitates: Rashi, a famous commentator, says that when the woman says she has taken off her coat, she means
I have already taught myself alien ways idol worship; I can no longer return to you! God sends prophets to show Israel the error of her ways and slowly she stirs to repentance, but it is too late and Israel is forced into exile to search for God..They are eventually reunited and achieve stability through continued repentance and Torah study and good deeds, even though Israel is in exile. And in the last verse, Rashi explains to us that just as the woman asks her lover to protect her, Israel asks God:
Make haste my beloved from this diaspora, and redeem us from it! Make yourself like a gazelle to hasten the redemption and rest your divine presence upon the mountains of spices, Mt. Moriah and the Holy Temple. The end again.
I think this is a beautiful story and it is easy to see why the rabbis considered it so holy. It is basically Jewish history from the time of Passover until the Babylonian exile.From a religious standpoint, you can even extend it all the way until today because redemption has not yet come and we are still hoping that God will reestablish the Temple.From a social standpoint, I think we have even·more to learn.
I think it is easy to relate Shir Hashirim and the corresponding section of Jewish history to many of the events occurring around the world today. If you look at the various countries that have seen uprisings in recent months, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya to name an obvious few,there is a common structure to how the events unfold. First, like the woman who meets her lover but is taken away by the king, there is the realization that there is something better to be had than the current situation. In these countries,various factors have caused the population to say that they will no longer put up with the leadership's disregard for their human rights.This causes a search for that missing ideal of social justice, whether it takes the form of peaceful protests or armed uprisings, and maybe eventually that search comes to fruition.The problem is that once the goal of freedom or love or whatever it may be is achieved there is still a moment of hesitation, of hardship, to deal with.In a New York Times article on Wednesday, an Egyptian woman summed this up perfectly: ''Nobody is happy with what he (Mubarak) did, but we grew up with him there. He was there my entire life. It is difficult to just move on."The challenge is for these countries to overcome the challenges in their new relationships, their freedoms,and to move on, however difficult it may be.They may oust one dictator,but they must be ready to do the work necessary to maintain their progress and ensure that a just, humane government comes to power. Hopefully, like Israel during its exile as depicted in Song of Songs,these countries can make the best of the situations they've been given and learn to flourish and live peacefully.
Another way Shir Hashirim plays into our social awareness is in our smaller communities. Let's look at Cornell for a moment, again keeping in mind the structure of realization, search, hesitation, and stability. One of the major on-campus initiatives right now is the protest regarding the administrative restructuring of the Africana Studies and Research Center. There are those who feel like the administration's actions represent severe discrimination against the African American community, and many students are standing up because of their intense love and passion for this cause.We do not yet know whether the protests will succeed, but regardless of the outcome, the fact is that Cornell will need to think about how it will deal with the fallout of whatever decision is reached in the end. In Shir Hashirim, the woman is either too afraid or too lazy or too tired to take a risk and go open her door to her lover. In order to reach our full potential as a community, we must be prepared to put ourselves out there,to risk fail me in order to stand up for what we believe.As a member of the Student Assembly, I can tell you that we are currently working on a Student Bill of Rights which will definitely have an element ensuring the right to protest and speak freely on campus. Hopefully this step will help Make sure that there is a stable and fair environment for future Cornellians and ultimately strengthen the Cornell community.
This leads me to my next point regarding Shir Hashirim. I want to talk about each one of those Cornellians individually. Each of us is engaged in many personal relationships all at once, and each one of those relationships potentially follows the model of Song of Songs.As college students, we have a lot on our plates. We try and get along with our parents and our siblings back home, but sometimes we drift a little bit. Or maybe there's a roommate or friend who we need to get away from for a little while.Either way, we need to work hard in order to make sure that our relationships are strong. We cannot succumb to laziness or fear of commitment. We cannot just ignore those who we are close to because if we do then our relationships can be damaged or fail completely. Shir Hashirim tells us that even if we have taken off our coats and washed our feet we must be prepared to get out of bed to help out our friends when they need us or to be at the sides of those we love and care about.
Because again, really, love is what Judaism is all about. Shir Hashirim is meant to remind us that on Passover God demonstrated His love for us by taking us out of Egypt and giving us the Torah!Pesach is basically a yearly reliving of the Israelite's first date with God.And we haven't even begun to talk about Shabbat. The very first prayer that we will sing tonight after this is Yedid Nefesh, beloved of the soul.We use the same imagery of running deer and the sweetness of honey from Song of Songs to depict our love for God.
It is a beautiful thing to think that our religion wants us to allow love to permeate our lives. It might be difficult at times but let's try to love God, our fellow Jews, and the whole world. I hope that we can all take a little love away from our encounter with Shir Hashirim and use it to keep our relationships strong, remembering that there may be some hesitation or bumps in the road, but that ultimately we have the chance to find strength and stability in those relationships. We will soon be singing L'cha Dodi in our Kabbalat Shabbat, and I encourage all of you to keep Shir Hashirim in your minds as we greet our beloved Shabbat queen.