By Rabbi Susan Laemmle
A Loving Relationship
Dodi li va-ani lo, ha-roeh ba-shoshanim: “My beloved is mine and I am my beloved’s, who browses among the lilies.” Many of us have walked down the wedding aisle and danced the hora to a musical setting of these words from the Song of Songs. Our ketubot may include this and attendant verses, and sometimes the kallah puts a ring on her chatan’s finger with ani l’dodi v’dodi li. This mining of Shir ha-Shirim to convey human love is natural, for it clearly is one of the world’s great love songs. Its way of combining tenderness, and erotic nuance makes this book within the Jewish canon appealing to non-Jews as well.
Moving beyond the personal, we encounter Song of Songs as the scroll stipulated for the intermediate Shabbat of Pesach. The prophets rendered the theme of covenantal love between God and Israel in marriage metaphors, and the early rabbis built upon these metaphors to present the history of Israel as love dialogues between Am Yisrael and Adonai. Their exegesis enabled the Song to enter the biblical canon & rabbinic literature as the religious lyric par excellence.
I still remember my first encounter years ago with an allegoricized Song of Songs — specifically the passage in Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah where the beloved’s breasts are identified with Moses and Aaron. Not yet having much sense of the tradition within which this identification fits, I was amazed — and amused. Since then, I’ve grown accustomed to experiencing the Song on multiple levels. And recently I acquired the wonderful new JPS Bible Commentary by Michael Fishbane, which opens up text and tradition like a ripe pomegranate. This gorgeous opening-up comes just in time for Shavout.
As a two (rather than eight) day holiday, a holiday with few home rituals and one that comes at the cusp of summer, Shavout is as not as easily meaningful as the other two pilgrimage festivals, Succot and Pesach. Also, its overlap with Simchat Torah can further diminish and confuse things. Counting the Omer from Pesach on does help to concretize the link between the freedom of Egyptian exodus and the responsibility of Sinai. Participating in a Tikkun layl Shavout that recreates our forebears’ anticipation of revelation can make a difference. Preparing and eating delicious blitzes and cheesecake, as well as picnicking in La Cienega Park with others from Beth Am, grounds the holiday in our bodies. Building on these important practices, the association of Shavout with the rabbinically expanded, allegorized and spiritualized Song of Songs has this year enabled me to take the holy day to my heart. Hopefully my words will have a similar effect on some of you.
My heart has opened to the idea — even more to the feeling — that Sinai was an intimate, loving, reciprocal encounter between Am Yisrael and Adonai; between our particular people and the God of all the Universe. To some of you, that will have long ago been obvious. Others will be wondering how this portrayal fits with alternative images — like God holding the mountain over our heads in a threatening mode. Clearly our texts contain multiple images, not all easily reconciled. Within halacha, there typically must be a clear decision; but with midrash, alternative interpretations can co-exist, expanding the range of possibilities. So it is that Adonai could have given the Torah to the Jews only after other nations refused to subscribe to its demands, hardly the act of personal, passionate love. And at the same time, the giving of the Torah was like a nuptial ceremony, where bride and groom pledge themselves to the one person among all others whom they treasure.
Bringing the mutuality of committed romantic love and marriage into the Sinai encounter between God and Israel seems to me a daring thing to do. Let’s leave aside the reality that love and marriage relationships have been and sometimes still are asymmetrical, not mutual; patriarchal, not egalitarian; destructive, not enriching. Beyond all this, the covenantal relationship also gets paralleled in other ways: sovereign and subject, master and servant, parent and child, shepherd and flock, vineyard and vintner. We know and love the litany sung forth joyfully on Yom Kippur in Ki Anu Amecha. For me, there is something dazzlingly special about including human lovers within that litany: ki anu rayatecha and atah dodaynu: translated in Machzor Lev Shalem as “we are your spouse and you are our beloved.”
Of course, all these parallels present God in anthropomorphic terms. Envisioning God as a larger-than-life human being doesn’t seem right, but conceiving of God as an abstraction or a diffused process presents other problems. This is not the time for an extended theological discourse; however, it has been my experience that opening mind and heart to a mutually loving Song-of-Songs-like relationship with God can be transforming.
Let me hastened to add a crucial qualification: It is as part of the Jewish People that we stand in such a relationship to Adonai. Of course, individual human beings throughout the world — Jewish or other, identified with a religious community or not — can experience themselves, and indeed stand, in relationship with divinity. We Jews do not have exclusive purchase on existential connectedness, and likewise individual unaffiliated Jews persist in identifying themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” But for those Jews who, like us, take their places within a Jewish religious community, there is the complex, profound, compelling possibility of feeling intimacy and solidarity, mutuality and protectedness at the same time. Essentially this is another way of playing out the particularism-universalism pairing that, to my mind, makes Judaism unique, difficult, and deeply rewarding.
The passage within today’s Torah reading that first stirred me to consider the theme of this drashah comes in Exodus 19:5, specifically where Adonai says that if Bnai Yisrael listen to God’s voice and observe God’s covenant, then heh-yee-tem li segolah mi kol ha-amim: “You will be a treasure to me out of all the peoples.” It turns out that the root samech-gimmel-lamed carries a meaning of property possessed. But it is the quality of endearment, of being treasured, that gets connected to the prophetic and then rabbinic notion of a loving, intimate, delight-suffused relationship. To me there is no more poignant expression of this relationship than the verse from Isaiah that John and I placed on our wedding invitation: ooh-m-sos chatan al kallah, yasis alayich elohayich: “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride so will your God rejoice over you.” Poignant, because it is the loving human dyad that becomes the measure and model for God’s relating to the Jewish People.
To conceive of the Israel-Adonai relationship as mutual requires some stretching. It is here that the giving and receiving of Torah concretizes the Covenant’s mutuality — more pointedly, God’s giving Torah and Israel’s committing itself to fulfilling the Torah’s commandments even before hearing them with Naaseh v’nishmah.
Included among the Torah commandments is the self-referential, cycle-creating mitzvah to continually study Torah; not just Chumash or Tanakh, of course, but the rabbinic tradition that developed from these, and beyond. Michael Fishbane connects the phrase “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” (1:2) with Judaism’s culture of study.
So then, let’s take a deep breath and bring together within ourselves a number of Shavout experiences: (1) hearing the Torah portion from Sefer Sh’mot withAseret Ha-Dibrot at its center, chanted aloud; (2) moving into the midrashic world of Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah and Michael Fishbane’s commentary, (3) remembering back to having lit candles and recited the festival Kiddush last night; to having prepared and eaten dairy dishes sweet as milk and honey; to having studied (or had spiritual dreams) throughout the night. Taken together, these Shavout actions and feelings reciprocate to Adonai — our loving covenantal partner — in a way that, despite the clear differences between us, mutualized, dignifies, and individuates our relationship.
And so we come to the Sinai moment — which the midrash takes to be “the day of his espousals when Israel were like bridegrooms” — and also when God says “Come with me from Lebanon, my bride.” Whoever is the groom and who, the bride — however gender gets allocated and stretched — the main thing is the loving intimacy; the bringing of God down to earth without compromising God’s unity or universality. Quite an achievement — and quite an inheritance.