Friday, April 09, 2010

Latter Days of Pesah (Aggadah)

Three Songs

The Song of the Sea. The latter days of Pesah may be seen under the sign of song—to be precise, of three songs. I will begin at the end, which is also the simplest and most straightforward: the Seventh and final Day of Pesah commemorates the Splitting of the Sea, and the joyful song this Israelites sang once they had crossed, seen God’s mighty hand, and knew that they were truly free of Egypt. This song , “the Song of the Sea,“ or Shirat ha-Yam is a song of gratitude to God for this great act of deliver; hence, it serves as the archetype for many other songs of praise. Thus, the Rabbis inferred many of the laws of the Hallel, recited on festive days, from it. Hasidic thought sees this as the first and greatest of all songs: a song of faith or, rather, of experiential knowledge, that God had delivered them: “Who is like unto you, O Lord, among the divinities; Who is like unto you, glorious in holiness, awesome in praise, performing wonders!” (Exod 15:11). The song goes on to describe the frightened and overwhelmed reaction of the neighboring peoples, and concludes with a vision of the future: “You shall bring them and plant them in the mountain of Your inheritance… the Temple, Lord, Your hands have established” followed by a paean of praise to the Almighty in the simplest words possible: “The Lord will reign as king for ever and ever” (vv. 17-18).

The Song of Songs. The second song associated with Pesah is Shir ha-Shirim, the Song of Songs. This scroll is read on the Shabbat within Pesah—depending on how the calendar falls on a given year, it may be read on the First Day, the Seventh Day, or on the “intermediate Shabbat,” as it is this year (some people also read it late at night, after the end of the Passover Seder). Shir ha-Shirim is a song of love and longing between two lovers, which may be interpreted in a simple, straightforward manner or as an allegory of the love between God and Israel. Alongside lyric descriptions of the physical beauty of each by the other, it is filled with longing and yearning, accounts of missed trysts and nocturnal wanderings through the city seeking her lover. While there are moments of meeting, of fulfillment (“the king brought me into his chambers”) and even one or two verses which may be read as hints of consummation, the dominant mood is one of yearning, of pangs of longing (“for I am lovesick”) for the other in his/her absence. Perhaps it is in this sense, as much as any other, that it may be seen as a metaphor for the history of the Jewish people.

A profound saying of Rabbi Akiva states that the Song of Songs is “the holiest of holies” (m. Yadaim 3.5). It may be read allegorically, thereby sidestepping the problematic of bringing the erotic into the synagogue, but I believe that this saying implies something else: the awareness that the love of man and woman, in the simple, literal sense, is potentially the holiest thing in our lives. There is Divine power in the erotic; indeed, it is perhaps the greatest force in the world—but alongside the potential for holiness, for tasting the Divine, it can also be a slippery slope, in which man sinks into carnality and lust for their own sake, in the lowest way.

Thus, there were many who preferred to read the book exclusively as allegory, shying away from the overtly erotic peshat, whether out of modesty or prudery, or from a feeling that these travails of romantic love were most aptly read as the drama of finite man and infinite God reaching out towards one another. Indeed, there are sayings of Hazal to that effect. But I must confess to being too thorough-going a modern person to accept this easily. As I see it, the allegorical, symbolic reading takes it power precisely from the level of peshat: that human love is the potentially deepest experience of intimacy any of us may know, so that the song of its songs may best be understood both in its own right, and as pointing towards something beyond.

The Rav’s Song of Torah. Finally, over the past sixteen years one of the days of Pesah has acquired another meaning, for myself and for many others, as a day on which to celebrate and reflect upon the life of our revered teacher, Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik. The Rav left this mortal coil on 17th Nissan, 5754 (1994), on that day known as either the Second Day of Hol ha-Mo’ed (in Israel) or the First Day. There are those who may find it strange for me to refer to the Rav’s life as a ”song.” He was, in many respects, a classical “Litvak,” for whom the sharp, penetrating, rational intellectual analysis of Torah—of Talmud and halakhah and everything else he studied—was the sine qua non of existence. He saw Torah in hard, objective terms, as a demanding intellectual discipline; he often compared the world of halakhah to that of science, with its observation, collection and analysis of data. Yet alongside this, his was a deeply poetic, almost feminine soul. He saw the act of Torah study, not only as an intellectual act, but as the very pinnacle of religious experience—even more so than prayer. Thus, he spoke of the fixed times set for studying Torah as a “rendezvous with the Shekhinah.” For him, the melody of the Jew was equated with the song of Torah. To quote the Psalmist, “Your laws were songs to me” (Ps 119:54).

A Thought on Song and Music. In recent years, there has been a veritable explosion of song and music in the synagogue; particularly of group singing, following the pattern of “Nusah Carlebach.” Everywhere, it seems, Jews wish to relive the enthusiasm and ecstasy felt in the concerts and public appearances of Reb Shomo. But music can involve two different aspects: it may be sung and listened to for human pleasure, for the enjoyment of melody, rhythm, harmony, and so forth—i.e., aesthetic or emotional pleasure; or it may be directed towards an Other. The songs of Pesah are not just sung for oneself, but are always addressed to someone. The Song of the Sea, like songs of praise generally, is addressed to God. The verses of Song of Songs, as the song of a pair of lovers (whomever they may be), are addressed to one another. Even the Song of Torah—what I have called the Song of the Rav—sung by the individual in the course of his learning, is not only for himself, but entails opening himself to words of Torah, to being addressed by the Jewish tradition, to hearing its hidden music. Three songs; three aspects of the redemption of Pesah. May our lives be evermore filled with song.


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