Home > Divrei Torah > Pesah 5778

Pesah 5778

March 28, 2018

Shir haShirim and the Kodesh Kodashim: Two Holies of Holies
A D’var Torah for Pesah
by Rabbi Jill Hammer

I once had the privilege of being at a Torah service led by rabbi and chantress Shefa Gold.  At the service, she unrolled a scroll of the words of Shir haShirim, a scroll she had created to make the point that the Song of Songs is its own Torah.  Rabbi Akiva famously said that: “all the scriptures are holy, and the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies!” (Mishnah Yadayim 3:5).  One might say that just as we approach the Holy of Holies during the autumn new year via the story of the high priest’s entry into the sanctum during the Yom Kippur ritual, so we approach the Holy of Holies at the spring new year (Pesah) via the Song of Songs.  There is a long-standing practice to read the section of Leviticus describing the high priest’s entry into the sanctum at Yom Kippur, and also a practice to read the Song of Songs at Passover. I want to suggest that this custom creates a tension between autumn and spring: the Holy of Holies that is awe, and the Holy of Holies that is love.

These two Holies of Holies have a different feel to them.  The Holy of Holies at Yom Kippur has a forbidding nature to it.  Only the High Priest could go in to the kodesh kodashim, and only after intense ritual preparations that included ritual baths, changes of clothing, and offerings.  Anyone who entered the innermost sanctuary without proper authorization or preparation risked death.  A kabbalistic legend later claimed the high priest tied a golden rope around his ankle in case something happened to him, because no one could go in to pull him out (Zohar III, 67a, 102a).  Meditating on these practices, the Jewish worshipper is perhaps invited to feel a sense of foreboding at his/her/their own encounter with the divine—a need for intense reverence, preparation, and awe.

The Holy of Holies that is the Song of Songs has a more inviting feel.  “Draw me after you; let’s run!  The king has brought me to his chambers.  Let us be glad and rejoice in you! Let us recall your love…” (Song of Songs 1:4).  Or: “My dove in the cleft of the rocks, in the shelter of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice…” (Song of Songs 2:14) The innermost chamber these fragments of poetry describe is one to which we eagerly make our way– a place of love and desire.  The beloved awaits us with delight.  Reading this text on Passover, our encounter with the divine becomes loving, playful, and intimate.

One has the sense that these two experiences of encountering the Holy of Holies are quite different—opposite poles, as it were, of sacred experience.  One emphasizes yirah (fear/awe/reverence) and the other ahavah (love). Yet the two Holies, the two Shrines, have similarities as well.  There is a deep and private intimacy to them both.  Indeed, the Talmud tells a story in which the two cherubim in the Holy of Holies are entwined in love (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 54a). In this tale, the Holy of Holies in the Temple is a place of love as much as it is a place of fear. And, the Holy of Holies that is Passover is accompanied by a deep cleansing of our homes, as if, like Yom Kippur, the spring Holy of Holies requires cleansing and preparation: reverence as well as love.

A Yom Kippur piyyut (liturgical poem) of the Middle Ages reads: “Like the sight of the sunrise over the earth/was the appearance of the High Priest/like a lily of the garden among thorns/was the appearance of the High Priest/like Orion and the Pleiades/was the appearance of the High Priest.”  In this piyyut, the high priest emerges from the Holy of Holies transformed—and some of the imagery of the Song of Songs makes its way into the piyyut, as if the two holinesses are really one.

These two Holies of Holies have much to teach us about how to do sacred work.  On Yom Kippur, we entrain ourselves with the rhythms of awe, learning spiritual discipline and strength.  On Pesach, we entrain ourselves with the rhythms of love, learning spiritual openness and vulnerability.  Both of these movements are necessary in the individual soul, and both of them are necessary in the communal sphere as well.  When we fail to cultivate discipline, we lose the ability to strive.  When we fail to cultivate vulnerability, we lose the ability to feel.  I am particularly aware of the necessity for our communities to remember how to feel, how to experience deeply what the Holy of Holies invokes: a holy intimacy with the One.

Now it is springtime, and the season for opening.  At this Passover season, may we cultivate a sense of intimacy with the sacred.  In this way, we can be present to the holy of holies that awaits us within ourselves and within the world:

“Let us get up early and go out to the vineyards.

Let us see whether the vines have blossomed,

Whether the vine-flower has opened,

Whether the pomegranate trees have bloomed.

There I will give my love to you.”

Hag sameiach and Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education at AJR.  She is the author of several books, including The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, and The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, and the co-founder of the Kohenet Institute.