BETWEEN TIMES OF DISTRESS AND PLACES OF FREEDOM: A SONG
Dr Annette M. Boeckler
Recently at Leo Baeck College we held a multicultural reading of the Megillah at Purim, a day of chaos and disorder much different from Pesach and its structures. But Pesach has a megillah, too, because Purim provided the model to add further megillah readings at other occasions, even though these “new” megillot don’t need to be read from scrolls (megillot), but from books. A megillah reading in a service bestows upon it aspects of Purim. Pesach, as we will see, has more similarities with Purim than we might think.
The oldest “new” megillah was Eikha (Lamentations), as it was seen as not appropriate to study Torah on Tisha beAv, but one could study Eikha privately (Ta’an 30a). Tracate Soferim 14:3 mentions the public liturgical readings of Shir haShirim, Ruth, Eikha, and Esther. A megillah reading now became a marker to indicate an occasion in which, after a time of distress, we find ourselves surprisingly in a place of freedom.
Pesach is the time for the reading of Megillat Shir haShirim (Song of Songs). The reason for this choice is Songs 1:9 where “pharaoh’s chariots” are mentioned. This sounds logical, but if you open your Tanakh to read verse 9 you may be surprised: “I have likened you, my darling, to a mare in Pharaoh’s chariots: your cheeks are comely with plaited wreaths, your neck with strings of jewels …”. Shir haShirim is nothing but an ancient, oriental love song, full of rich erotic imagery and pictorial sexual allusions. The mere term “Pharaoh” seems to be the only link to Pesach.
Often one can read that Pesach falls at spring-time and that the Exodus out of Egypt is all about renewal of live, so it would be most appropriate to sing a love song at Pesach. But this is a secondary interpretation that tries to create some more logical sounding link between Pesach and this text, but it is not valid for the whole southern hemisphere of this world and why shouldn’t winter be a good time for love, too? The spring connection is medieval and results from a mystical approach to the three festivals, according to which Pesach is the time of betrothal between God and His girlfriend Israel, Shavuot the marriage between the two with the Torah as ketubbah and Sukkot the building of a home: the temple.
The original link between Pesach and Shir haShirim and verse 1:9 becomes clear, when reading Shir haShirim not in Hebrew but in its Aramaic explanatory translation. The Targum to Shir haShirim stems from the 8th century, that is just before the time in which this megillah is first mentioned to be read at Pesach (Soferim, 9th cent.). The Aramaic “translation” of Shir haShirim is an allegorical history of the people of Israel, simplified to three basic, recurring Jewish key events: times of exile, exodus, and return. The Targum finds in Shir haShirim three such phases of Jewish history described one after the other. The exiles all happened as consequences for failures in Israel’s relationship with God, and the three exoduses are God’s loving, compassionate reaction.
The singer/songwriter of Shir haShirim according to the Targum is God Himself. The word “Shelomo” is understood as she shalom shelo “of him to whom peace belongs”, i.e., God. Shulamit, the girl in this song (7:1), whose name echoes the word Yerushalayim, is us, the Jewish people. Liturgically Shir haShirim is God’s love song about us.
The first phase in the history of the relationship between God and us describes the time in Egypt, the Exodus out of Egypt, the wandering in the wilderness, Sinai, the conquest of the land and the glories of the time of Solomon (Targum to Songs 1:3 – 5:1). To give you a taste of how this sounds:
Songs 1:3 “As to smell, Your ointments were good; like ointment your name was poured forth; therefore the maidens (עלמות) loved you” sounds in the Aramaic “translation” like this: “At the news of Your miracles and mighty acts which You performed for Your people, the house of Israel, all the peoples trembled, when they heard the report of Your mighty acts and good signs [the plagues and the Exodus]. And Your holy name, which is more choice than the anointing oil poured on the heads of kings and high priests, was heard in all the world. Therefore the righteous loved to walk in the way of Your goodness, so that they might inherit this world and the world to come.”
Songs 1:4: “Draw me after you, we will run; may the king bring us into his chambers; we will be glad and rejoice in You (בך), we will recall our love for you more than for wine(יין)! Rightly do they love you.” Targum translation: “When the people of the house of Israel went out from Egypt, the Shekhinah of the Master of the World travelled before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The righteous of that generation said before the Lord of the World: ‘Draw us after You, and we will run in the way of Your goodness. Bring us near to the foot of Mount Sinai and give us Your Torah from out of Your heavenly treasury, and we will be glad and rejoice in the twenty-two letters [בך = 22] in which it is written. We will remember them and love Your divinity and shun the idols of the nations. And all the righteous who do what is right before You will fear You and love Your commandments.”
The “translation” is not as free as it may appear. It strictly follows an allegoric lexicon and rules for deriving meaning. Some words for example are vocalized differently: Hebrew alamot (“maidens”) is read as olamot “nations”, immo (“his mother”) is read as ammo “his people”, shoshanim (“roses”) is read as she-shonim “those who learn”, koper (“henna”) is read as “kippur” atonement, and so on. Meaning can be derived from the sum of the letters of a word (yayin makes 70, therefore it means the 70 nations of the world). Other meanings are derived from the etymology of words, myrrh (hebr.: mor) for example means the place of the temple (moriah). And so on. Please believe me – this is all deeply logical!
The first phase of our relationship with God is – due to the idolatry in the land – succeeded by the time of the Babylonian Exile, the exodus out of Babylonia under Ezra and the period back in the land under the Maccabees and Hasmoneans, described in Songs 5:2 – 7:11 according to the Targum. The third phase of Israel’s relationship with God is the presence, that is the time of the targumist himself, the medieval exile. It is about the hope that the present time of Exile, too, may lead to a new gathering of the exiles, a return to the land and the restoration of the Solomonic kingship under the Messiah (Targ. to Songs 7:12-8:12). Thus Shir haShirim according to the Targum is a great song of hope based on God’s redeeming love for Israel, which became manifest repeatedly in the course of the history and repeated transitions from times of distress to places of freedom and therefore the basis for our hope that we, too, will experience a new time of freedom.
Song of Songs, according to the Targum, is the supreme song that can be chanted in this world. Therefore, it is called the “song of songs” shir haShirim, the highest, ultimate song. “10 songs were recited in this world, but this song is the most excellent of them all” (Targ. to Song of Songs opening.) The 10 songs of redemption are: Psalm 92 (Mizmor Shir le Yom haShabbat, according to the liturgical understanding Adam’s song that he sang in a duet with queen Shabbat on the 6th day in Gan Eden after eating the fruit); Exodus 15 (shirat haYam: the Song after the exodus out of Egypt); Numbers 21:17, Deuteronomy 32 (Ha’azinu), Joshua 10:12, Judges 5, 1 Samuel 2, 2 Samuel 22. The 9th song, the last in the existing world, will be Shir haShirim, sung by God himself. The 10th song will be recited by the children of Israel in the messianic time (Isa 30:29).
All these songs mark transitions from times of distress to places of freedom and renewed life. It is interesting, that between these times there is always a song. Music and prayer (these “songs” are prayers) is both a therapeutic, hope-giving reminder in distressful times and an expression of gratefulness in times of freedom. Shir haShirim, the ultimate song in the world about the final transition from distress to freedom is about relationships. Whatever you may think about the allegorical translation of Targum Shir haShrim, we owe to it that we got Shir haShirim as our Pesach Song, that we can sing on Pesach about love and relationship and that we have something to do between times of distress and places of freedom.
Dr Annette Boeckler
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.