Thursday, 25 Apr 2024

Written by Eleanor Davis, LBC rabbinical student

After the death of his son Adir on 7 October 2023, Alon Mesika sat shiva with his family, but after shloshim, returning to work as a jeweller wasn’t enough to distract Alon from his grief.  Then one day a video clip of a wedding taking place at an IDF base planted the seed of an idea: Alon posted a message on Facebook, offering a diamond ring to the next soldier wanting to propose marriage.  The first response came just six minutes later, but as the responses kept coming, Alon decided to keep providing rings and as of early April, he had given away over eighty rings.  He explains his decision as a deliberate choice to do the opposite of the terrorists’ desire to end lives and destroy families: in response to a shattering act of hate, Alon has chosen to encourage love to flourish.  Adir will never start his own family, but in his memory Alon is enabling many other people to start new family units.

Love stories and Pesach go hand-in-hand, not least thanks to the megillah read during the festival: the Song of Songs describes young lovers in a luxuriant natural landscape, which itself provides many metaphors for their relationship.  The garden in which the lovers find themselves is an idyllic place of beauty, especially in contrast with the beloved’s troubling experiences in the streets and squares of the town.  The garden imagery of the Song of Songs also evokes echoes of the very first garden: Eden, the place where the very first couple were at ease, unashamedly naked and unburdened with knowledge.

Adam and Eve do not stay long in this paradise, a verdant garden of trees and rivers.  After they eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, God fears them compounding their step towards godliness by eating from the Tree of Life and living forever.  God therefore expels them from this arcadia into a world where they will obtain food from the ground only by hard work.  Some read this eviction into a larger world as an aetiology of the challenging aspects of human life: a story that explains how we came to live in a difficult world.

If we imagine the alternative, however, perhaps it is not necessary to read humans’ departure from Eden as a punishment.  Not eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil would have left humans as perpetual innocents, somewhere between children and angels.  The consequences of eating the fruit include the maturity that lets them become most fully human: if one of the costs of that maturity is the need to work to provide for our needs, it also comes with the possibility of valuing our ability to transform a sometimes hostile world through our own efforts.

In the midrash Exodus Rabbah 20:5, drawing directly on verses from the Song of Songs and their imagery, Rabbi Levi brings an analogy of a person who had a field in which there was a pile of pebbles.  He arose and sold it to someone else, who in turn arose and began the work of transformation: he removed the pile of pebbles and revealed a spring of water, which he used to cultivate grapevines, spices and pomegranate trees, watched over by a guard he placed in a newly-erected tower.  Everyone who passed by praised this lush field, except the person who sold it, for whom the field’s new beauty aroused regret that he sold the land rather than take on the work required for its transformation.

The midrash explicitly likens the field to the people Israel in Egypt, who were then like a pile of pebbles: God took on the work of freeing the people, who came to fit (metaphorically) the description of the field full of fruits and spices.  The rewards for our own efforts at cultivation are not always this obvious, but the creation of productive land from apparent piles of stones may be a good image for our task after leaving Eden.  Although toil may be required of us, once we leave the childhood stage of having our needs met through little or no effort of our own, it also brings possibility.  When we transform our world into a more beautiful state than we found it, we may gain an adult sense of satisfaction in the results of our efforts.

At the very end of the Song of Songs, the lover calls to his beloved who still dwells in the garden.  In the final verse, she responds with a call to her lover to “hurry… swift as a gazelle or a young stag, to the hills of spices” (Song of Songs 8:14): not an (explicit, at least) invitation to join her in the garden, but rather a shifting of attention to the world beyond it.  To remain in the garden forever would be to leave love unfulfilled, never to know the satisfaction of tackling life’s challenges hand-in-hand.  Just as Adam and Eve only have children after they leave Eden, so too the relationship of the lovers in the Song of Songs can only mature to a fully adult relationship when they leave their paradise: while the attempt to build a life together may take work, it will also bring fulfilment.

Our goal may not be so much to seek a return to any idyllic garden as to take on the challenge of venturing out into a world in which we reap the rewards of our work.  True freedom means taking on responsibility for transforming our world, whether that means cultivating fruits on rocky ground or nurturing love in the aftermath of hatred.  We cannot go back to being carefree children, but we can find adult satisfaction in the difference our toil can make.  May the potential unleashed by our contributions encourage each of us to keep working, so that fruits and flowers may grow in the ever-widening landscapes of our lives.

Eleanor Davis, LBC rabbinical student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.